Driving BMW's baby X
The story of the X1 naturally starts with the X3. They are, after all, built on the same 3 Series underpinnings.
It therefore followed that BMW would one day shrink the X3 to give rise to “the first premium Sports Activity Vehicle in the compact segment”, as Munich puts it.
So, shrink it they did. BMW’s new baby-SAV rounds off to 4.45 m compared to the X3’s 4.57 m.
If less is more, it amounts to a gain of 74 mm for the X1 – half the distance between thumb and pinky tips for an averagely-sized adult hand, spread open. Width also decreased by 55 mm.
It’s not a lot, either way. Yet it makes for better manoeuvrability and easier parking.
And that’s important, as the fourth model in BMW’s ever-expanding X-family combines tighter dimensions with better packaging – like lower seat squabs – to create an X1 cabin that is, in terms of spatial perception, on a par with the X3’s.
Open your eyes only after you’ve been ushered into the new vehicle, and you’ll easily believe it was the latest X3.
In the evolutionary game then, a noticeably smaller X3 virtually matched yesteryear’s bigger X5 in terms of floor space. Now it’s time for the smaller X1 to usurp the X3.
And hallelujah! For the differences that really count – like height and weight – all score heavily in X1’s favour.
Height and weight
Depending on model and equipment, X1’s xDrive variants – all lugging heavy all-wheel drive gear – weigh in at 35 kg either side of 1650 kg.
The two sDrive models, driving through the rear wheels only, cut mass to less than 1550 kg.
Those are substantial gains vis-à-vis the 1800-plus kg of the X3.
The latter, of course, fight extra bulk with more muscle. This, in turn, leads to heavier consumption and pollution, whereas the lightest and least power-hungry X1 officially sips a miserly 5.2 l/100 km of diesel whilst poisoning the atmosphere with a paltry 136 g/km of CO2.
The X3 also stands a lot taller and higher off the ground (1.85 m and 201 mm), compared to the X1’s flattened out posture (1.67 m and 194 mm).
Let’s be honest, however: who needs the X3’s extra 8 mm of tummy lift? SUVs and SAVs might be popular for posturing and posing plus the odd pop on a plaaspad, but they’ve really been developed for quick black top jaunts in captain’s chair comfort, with a ride underpinned by saloon chassis agility.
A lower centre of gravity – like the X1’s – can therefore only enhance this agility, not to speak of vehicle stability.
Besides, the first X5 only mustered 180 mm of daylight between its undercarriage and mother earth. So, 194 mm is more than enough for what the X1 would ever be tasked for.
BMW’s new X-baby thus rides high enough for mild off-road jinks, yet it sits low enough for easy ingress and egress. No more dirty pants when you get in and out.
A flatter shape simultaneously improves aero performance, and with it consumption and therefore emissions; X1 cuts the air with a Cd of just 0.32.
Add it all up and the platform on which the X1 rides is not so much 3 Series sedan, as it is EfficientDynamics.
That means stop/start technology and brake energy regeneration as well.
Less appealing, perhaps, is the car’s styling.
Front: For a puppy dog BMW X, the face is quite aggressive.
It’s also bluff, bulbous and blunt – no doubt to pass strict European pedestrian protection laws.
But was it really necessary to pull the upper and outer corners of the eyes so outlandishly high and wide, like a surgeon stitching up ageing skin on an ex-Hollywood siren?
Side-on: This view is even more botched. The strike line has a late start, giving rise to a dramatic wedge which ploughs through the rear door handle, the latter serving as tie-in for a bouquet of lines and angles whilst being straddled by the inverted V of a split C-pillar.
The visual hodge-podge is further polluted by the shoulder line’s rumbustious upward kink leaving space for a lot of flame-surfaced metal over the rear axle, before BMW’s trademark Hofmeister kick swings the D-pillar around into a rakish forward lean completely at odds with the vehicle’s bluff, upright nose.
The concoction also produces oddly-shaped rearmost side-windows tumbling forward, head first, into the rest of the side-glass.
The real problem is perhaps that the car now seems to be joined together as two disparate halves – a high and flat front end with an overly long engine bay, with a squashed-up rear wedged to it.
All of this, on really interesting 17-inch alloys which unfortunately seem to fall out of their oversized squared-off wheel arches, the latter black-trimmed with curiously narrow protection strips.
Rear: All the more the pity as the tail (with a full hatch, but no separately opening glass) is strikingly composed with clean lines and good proportions, highlighted by an excellent re-interpretation of BMW’s usual clumsy-looking L-shaped tail lights.
On the X1, though, the light cluster uprights book-end the horizontal inner elements quite solidly, like the claws of a crab. Those elements, by the way, sweep outwards with the same red-ribbed grandeur as 7 Series lights.
Quite neat, balanced and beautiful it is then, the X1 dérriere, particularly in three-quarter rear views and especially when combined with the upswept aluminium underbody cladding of an optional design package called Cool Elegance.
The interior continues the theme of a premium car finding it hard to major on looks alone.
It’s familiar BMW fare, which means a driver-oriented cockpit with simple, yet not overly-elegant instruments, a busy handful of horizontal dash lines with slanted ventilation cut-outs, a much-improved iDrive system plus upper-dash plastics sporting a slightly robust look.
It’s a slow evolution of old-style 1 and 3 Series stuff, only hinting at the fresh modern look of X5, X6 and 5-series GT interiors, but not quite getting there.
The 5 Series GT, by the way, will go down as the nicest surprise of the year. Don’t judge it until you’ve seen it in the metal – and certainly not before you’ve had a ride, this time not behind the wheel, but in the back.
Ride and drive
Which is also true of the X1 driving experience, except that firm Mobea dampers working in tandem with sturdy Sachs springs don’t hold much promise for fast deteriorating sections of our black top, especially not on run-flat tyres.
The upside of such settings is better body control, of course.
Coupled to permanent rear-wheel biased 4X4 thrust, a low centre of gravity and good car balance resulting from classic BMW weight distribution, the X1 handles superbly, accurate road placement undoubtedly facilitated by the rack-and-pinion’s hydraulic – instead of electric – assistance (operating via a fairly fast 16.1:1 ratio versus the X3’s far more leisurely 18.9:1).
It remains a strange – yet pleasant – fact that Munich has endowed the X1 with hydraulic assistance, whilst the Z4 struggles with somewhat vague and artificial electric power steering.
During international X1 launch drives in Germany only one model – the xDrive20d – was available with a choice of manual or automatic transmission. We stuck with the sweet six-speed manual, trying to extract as much joy as possible out of a high-revving, but slightly coarse and surprisingly noisy, single-turbo 2.0-litre common-rail diesel boasting injection pressure of 1800 bar.
Performance was brisk and handling sharp, Munich again confirming their mastery of the dynamic equation.
This time, though, the ride was also punctuated with stop/start engine cut-outs to really underline the authenticity of EfficientDynamics.
It will take the flagship straight-six xDrive28i petrol, however, or the twin-turboed xDrive23d (with fourth-generation common-rail piezo injection at 2000 bar) to extract real X1 adrenaline.
We nevertheless enjoyed the xDrive20d’s engaging ride and were mightily impressed with the car’s rock solid premium feel, even though massive new Euro-spec side mirrors whip up a bit of wind rustle.
Add easy and versatile cabin space with handy storage nooks plus enough head, shoulder and leg room all around for four adults plus one, and this car could easily have been the new X3.
Mean to say, that juice capacity – at 61 liter – is only six shy of the current X3’s 67 liter tank, begging the question: why the X1? It’s not as innovative as BMW’s interesting new 5-series GT. It’s not fresh in terms of concept. Nor does it advance technology.
The sausage has just been cut a bit shorter.
And it tastes a bit sweeter, oh yeah.
The X1 is therefore not so much the creator of a new market segment, as it is the creator of a new price segment for SAV acolytes – especially those with a predilection for BMW machinery.
Why buy the old X3 then, if the downsized version is virtually as big, plus lighter, lower, nippier, more frugal, cleaner and cheaper?
Or is the name of this game simply EfficientDynamics?
SA won’t get the xDrive28i petrol model, but the xDrive20d (single turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder; 130 kW, 350 Nm) and xDrive23d (twin-turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 150 kW, 400 Nm) debut here in the second quarter of 2010.
The sDrive18d (single turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 105 kW, 320 Nm) and sDrive20d (single turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 130 kW, 350 Nm) will follow a couple of months later. Prices should range from R350 000 to R450 000.