x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

BMW X1 is a rough, ready utility vehicle that drives like a sports car

Road Test The 2012 X1 is a good combination of functional and sprightly energy, though its legroom leaves something to be desired in the front and rear seats.

The X1's four-cylinder engine sounds rough but packs a punch. Courtesy of BMW
The X1's four-cylinder engine sounds rough but packs a punch. Courtesy of BMW

You required no crystal ball to see this one coming. BMW has been steadily expanding its line-up; what was once just threes, fives and sevens now includes ones and sixes. And following each initial foray into a new segment with a more traditional coupé (the 6 Series) or saloon (the diminutive 1 Series), there quickly follows an equivalently sized X Sport Activity Vehicle (as BMW calls its crossovers). The 6 Series, then, begat the X6 and we knew that an X1 would eventually join the model line-up now that the X3, X5 and X6 have proven so successful.

The reason for that inevitability is the raging success of the X models. Purists may gripe about the debasing of BMW's sports car brand, but the reality is that the company's SAVs - X3, X5 and X6 - now account for about a third of BMW sales in North America.

And the traits that have made BMW saloons so appealing shine through here as well. Like all BMWs - SAVs included - the X1 feels more "in contact" with the road than other crossovers. Thanks to a much lower ride height than the X5 and X6, the X1's steering - always BMW's forte - remains as direct and as communicative as ever.

And, surprisingly, BMW's managed to make the X1 handle without resorting to the super-stiff suspension of the X5 and X6. BMW's bigger sport brutes need those firmer springs to minimise the extra roll their higher centre of gravity would engender. But since the X1 is so hunkered down, the suspension remains relatively compliant. The steering also feels less darty thanks to that lower ride height. Compared with its immediate competition - Audi Q5 on the luxury side and Toyota RAV4 in the mainstream market - the X1 rides a little stiffer but handles immeasurably better. Along with that lower weight distribution, credit suspension and steering lifted from various iterations of the 1 and 3 Series.

Totally unique - at least for the time being - is the X1's powertrain. The first use of BMW's new N20 2L TwinPower turbocharged four banger - rumoured to eventually replace BMW's iconic, naturally aspirated 3.0L inline six - the 2.0L produces 241hp and 350Nm of torque. Not only that, it weighs 30kg less than the inline six it's supplanting, a significant amount in these days when manufacturers are switching suspension components to more expensive aluminium to save but 10kg. Not only that, its 10.2L/6.5L/100km city/motorway fuel economy is roughly 16 per cent better than the same car would have were it powered by six cylinders. And the X1's frugality is attainable. My 8.9L/100km average consumption compares favourably with BMW's rating of 8.5.

The little four is also fairly sprightly. Certainly, there's no lack of acceleration, as the 6.7 second zero-to-100 acceleration is more than comparable with the competition. Passing acceleration is also excellent but, more importantly, the turbocharger is quick to spool up so that there's a bare minimum of turbo lag.

The one downside to the new powertrain, however, is the aural feedback. It sounds a little rough and ready in comparison with the outgoing six, especially when the throttle is matted and the revs head towards the 7,000 redline. Stephen McDonnell, BMW Canada's national sales director, claims that won't be much of an issue since he sees most of the X1's customers taken from the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, all of which are powered by four-bangers.

That intended clientele may sound surprising until you find out that the X1 will start at a base price of Dh155,000.

One does, however, notice a few consequences of that relatively low price. The interior's plastic, for instance, is very stiff and hard to the touch. BMW's leather can't quite match Mercedes' MB Tex for its emulation of real cowhide. The major faux pas to the X1's interior, however, is a lack of legroom, especially in the rear.

On the other hand, the dashboard is immediately recognisable as a BMW. And though they are optional, the goodies available through the latest iDrive are almost worth the complication. My favourite is the Google Maps feature that lets you e-mail your map from your computer to your car's navigation system. And, of course, there's iPhone and BlackBerry connectivity.

Though it is definitely smaller, its amenities lesser and engine no longer the iconic six, the X1 looks like a rough-and-ready sport utility, but it drives like a sports car.