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BMW X1 2015 review: first drive

EXPERT RATING
6
Ash Westerman road tests and reviews the BMW X1 with specs, fuel consumption and verdict at its Australian launch.

Second-generation X1 SUV moves to a front-wheel drive platform, bringing great gains in space and practicality, but at what cost?

For decades, senior BMW executives were adamant the company would never build a front-wheel-drive car. Rear-drive was central to the "Ultimate Driving Machine" philosophy, they insisted. Back in 2006, the company cemented this position (while taking shots at its German rivals) with an ad campaign for the 1 Series which portrayed a rabbit with big, clumsy front paws and tiny hind legs. The tag line read: "That's why we don't have front-wheel drives."

Well, clearly "never" in the automotive business equates to "at least not before late 2014", which was when the front-drive 2 Series Active Tourer hit the market. The wall of the dyke had cracked. The floodgates were primed to open.

So in comes the second generation of the all-important X1, an SUV of such sales clout for BMW it says it claimed 10 percent of the company's global volume at its peak in 2011. The new model is built on the Active Tourer's front-drive platform. Consider it the second car BMW was never going to build.

Okay, technically you can order the new X1 as an all-wheel-drive (X-Drive, in BMW speak) but the fact remains that this new model is fundamentally a front-drive SUV which mounts its range of four-cylinder engines transversely to drive the front-wheels. A power take-off unit directs up to 50 percent of drive to the rear wheels only in the X-Drive models.

It may come as an antithesis for anyone raised on BMW's core values, but the simple fact is this: the new X1 is a vastly more practical, better packaged car than the original it replaces, and the new front-drive layout is fundamental to those improvements. As for dynamics? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves...

Dimensions and packaging

As a simple snapshot, the new car is marginally shorter, applicably wider, and significantly taller than the original. It also rolls on a wheelbase a sizeable 90mm shorter, as a result of the way the engine and transmission is packaged in the new body. What all this means is, firstly, a more elevated seating position for the driver (and front passenger), delivering that all-important 'command' position demanded by SUV buyers. The new layout also liberates more space in the back, and clever rear-seating adjustments allows owners to make the most of it. The rear bench and backrest is divided into a 60/10/30 split, and the 60 percent section can be slid forward to expand the cargo area if your load is large and your passengers short. Speaking of the cargo compartment, it's another winner in the X1's new found space race, with seat-up capacity jumping by around 20 percent. Fold the seats (via remote releases in the cargo compartment) and there's a whopping 1550 litres of load space, up 200 litres on the outgoing model.

Occupants will immediately be seduced by the big lift in interior design and material quality, with an elegant, sweeping instrument panel clearly influenced by big brother, the X5. The standard front seats, though, are flat, unsupportive and mean-spirited; much better are optional sports seats ($750) with extendible under-thigh support and much deeper backrests.   

Prices and specification

If you have no real need for all-wheel-drive – and added weight and complexity it brings (and most drivers don't) – then an S-Drive model will be all the X1 you require. S-Drive is BMW-speak for just two driven wheels; in this case, of course, the fronts. The entry-level S-Drive118d, powered by a 110kW/330Nm diesel claiming combined consumption of just 4.3L/100km, and shifting via the default eight-speed automatic transmission, can be had for just under $50,000. This model surely represents most starkly the "repositioning" BMW has done with X1, which basically means loading a car with more equipment while charging a similar amount to the old model. In this case, the company claims the extra comfort/convenience/safety equipment would have added $8000 to the outgoing car.

The petrol-powered equivalent, called the S-Drive 20i (141kW/280Nm) costs just under $2000 more (rrp$51,600) drinks 5.9L/100km, and slashes 1.5 seconds from the base diesel's 0-100km/h time (to a respectable 7.7sec.) If you're chasing more performance in a petrol model, you'll need to step up to the X-Drive 25i, which boosts outputs to a healthy 170kW/350Nm, is a bit thirstier (6.6L/100km) and drives all four wheels, thanks to that power-take-off unit sending up to 50 percent of the engine's torque rearward. Cleverly, the rear differential has its own hydraulic clutch, meaning drive to rear wheels can be cut on a coasting throttle to reduce drag and lower consumption.

The high output diesel, the X-Drive20d, makes 140kW/400Nm, gets to 100km/h in 7.6 seconds, and costs $56,500.

Naturally there are options galore for all four models; get busy ticking lots of boxes and prepare for a driveaway price starting with a '7'.   

On the road

So it's looking winner in terms of showroom appeal, interior space and ample equipment – what about on the road? Let's go with the good bits first. Both drivetrains we tested – the high-output 2.0 litre turbo petrol and the high-output 2.0-litre turbo diesel, both mated to that eight-speed automatic transmission, naturally – deliver smooth, solid performance, albeit in predictably different ways. The petrol makes more power, revs harder, and is more engaging for the keen driver. The trip computer claimed we used just under 10.0L/100km in our heavy-footed stint.

The diesel out-torques the top petrol (400Nm plays 350Nm) but runs out of puff at 5200rpm, and is a slightly more gruff and less free-spinning. It's commendably clatter free, though, and usefully more frugal; we saw around 8.0L/100km on test, again in spirited driving, not freeway cursing. 

Here comes the 'but': the story is not so strong when lumpy Australian backroads and lots of corners are woven in. The steering is not an X1 strong suit, feeling slightly vague either side of centre, and never imparting a natural sense of connection. There are two racks available – the standard job on the base petrol and diesel, needing three turns lock to lock, and the Variable Sport steering on the top-spec petrol, quickening that to 2.6 – but neither is a benchmark for feel or feedback. Likewise the body control when driving briskly. The X1 is prone to heaving over undulations, often requiring multiple strokes of damper travel to settle, and can suffer crash-through on really choppy surfaces. Encounter mid-corner ruts and there's rack-rattle and kickback through the steering. We've encountered similar damping issues with early versions of the current-generation 3 Series on the standard suspension set-up, most of which have been cured with the optional adaptive ("dynamic" in BMW speak) dampers. They are a $690 option on X1, but none of the cars available at the Australian launch were fitted with them. Until we can drive a car thus equipped, the jury is out, but in standard chassis trim the X1 is underwhelming on Aussie roads, and well short of its rear-drive predecessor for connection and cohesion.

Verdict

The new X1 makes its greatest gains in terms of interior presentation, standard equipment, and the way it accommodates people and luggage. It's also better value compared to the old model, given that prices have only been raised slightly, but it's much better equipped. Its unsettled and often jarring ride lets it down, and tyre road on coarse chip surfaces is intrusive. Dynamically, well, if you're an enthusiast seeking the "Ultimate Driving Machine" we'd urge you to at least test-drive a car fitted with the dynamic dampers before making a decision. For everyone else, the X1's new-found virtues will be all that matter.

Pricing Guides

$31,888
Based on 51 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$25,990
Highest Price
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Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
sDrive 18d 2.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO $29,999 – 34,800 2015 BMW X1 2015 sDrive 18d Pricing and Specs
sDrive 18d Sportline 2.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO $25,990 – 26,993 2015 BMW X1 2015 sDrive 18d Sportline Pricing and Specs
sDrive 18d xLine 2.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO $26,180 – 32,340 2015 BMW X1 2015 sDrive 18d xLine Pricing and Specs
sDrive 20i 2.0L, PULP, 8 SP AUTO $26,180 – 32,340 2015 BMW X1 2015 sDrive 20i Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
6