The enthusiast's car
is becoming something of a rare bird these days, even from automakers long known for injecting passion just about everything.
Even BMW, purveyor of the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” isn't immune. The automaker's mainstream models aren't lighting car guys and gals' fires quite like they used to, but as we learned during an extended test of the new-for-America 2013 X1, that flame hasn't been entirely extinguished.
And, if you, the buying public, show enough interest in sporty cars like the X1, the breed might not die out.
What is it?
Looking like a plumped up version of the 1-Series hatchback offered to European buyers, the X1 is actually a rather old model that is just now showing up in North America. On sale in Europe since late 2009, it arrived in Canada for 2012 and in the United States a year later.
In some ways, the X1 replaces the 3-Series wagon in the U.S., a nifty model that sold like, well, the opposite of hotcakes. Coldcakes? The similarities are more than skin deep since the X1 rides on the now-dead 2006-2012 3-Series wagon's architecture, although its suspension and roof sit up a bit higher, which raises the passenger compartment to not-quite crossover heights. If there is a space between wagon and crossover, the X1 fills it.
Two engines and two automatic transmissions are on offer here – a 2.0-liter turbo four/eight-speed automatic and a 3.0-liter turbo six/six-speed automatic – and either rear (sDrive) or all-wheel-drive (xDrive), the latter of which is standard with the six. Our tester was the snow state-friendly xDrive28i. Despite the 28i nameplate, it actually uses the 2.0-liter. Interestingly, the xDrive models feature hydraulic power steering, while the sDrive uses electric power steering. BMW says this is because the electric setup simply wouldn't fit with the all-wheel-drive components. Between the parts bin transmissions and power steering setups, the X1's spec sheet has a cobbled-together Frankenstein feel.
Pick wisely and you'll end up with the ideal setup of the eight-speed, four-cylinder and hydraulic steering.
From there, buyers can select between four trims – base, stylish X Line ($1,900), zippy Sport Line ($1,900) and zippier M Sport Line ($3,000). Our tester's Sport Line trim added 18-inch alloy wheels, more bolstered sports seats, a few interior and exterior styling touches but not
a stiffer sports suspension.
At over $45,000, our car was loaded up with nearly every option available, although the X1 undercuts the 1-Series coupe by a few bucks to be the cheapest new BMW on the market.
What's it up against?
In this market, no direct rivals exist aside from the larger but similarly quirky Infiniti EX37. Overseas, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are all hard at work on pint size crossovers.
What's it look like?
Given the X1's relative age, it's not a surprise that it lacks some of the fresher looks we've seen on more recent BMW debuts like the current 3-Series sedan and the 6-Series Gran Coupe.
With its pointy snout and large kidney grilles, protruding ahead of a taller-than-average greenhouse area, the X1's side profile proportions are a bit off to our eyes. Still, we like its bold front fascia and its elegant rump – we just wish the sum of the parts was a little more cohesive.
Detailing, long a BMW strong point, remains attractive on this cheapest of Bimmers. Though the company's distinctive Hofmeister kink is hard to spot in its D-pillar, the classy wheels and tastefully minimized unpainted fender lip trim look suitably upscale for an entry-level model.
From a functional standpoint, however, the slightly taller ride height combined with extra large rocker panels to make ingress and egress a pant-dirtying affair. If you're in a wintry climate, beware.
And on the inside?
Feeling delightfully like BMW of yore, the X1's inner trappings are, for the most part, a very nice place to whittle away the miles.
The narrow cabin feels “just right” for a pair of average-sized adults up front and the standard BMW switchgear is generally easy to operate. Even BMW's knob-controlled iDrive system, which is actually optional in the X1 (included with navigation), has become more manageable over time. A sextet of preset buttons – that can be programmed to anything from radio stations to Bluetooth-linked phone numbers – simplifies matters. We wish other automakers would get with the times and reinstate a few traditional preset buttons, too.
The thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel is arguably the best in the business, something we can't say about the fiddly transmission lever that answers a quandary nobody, uh, quandered
. Belying the X1's European heritage, its cupholders positively suck. The one located between the front seats in the center console is acceptable, but a second arm protruding from the center stack cuts into the passenger's leg room.
Speaking of passenger space, the rear seat is best for those of a smaller build, though we were pleased with the way the rear bench folded to expand the cargo area.
Materials are a bit of a mixed bag with hard plastics coexisting alongside the kind of trim we've come to expect from BMWs. We liked our Sport Line tester's red stitching. By contrast, its silver aluminum trim is a bit cold for our tastes.
But does it go?
That ghost of BMW's past haunts the X1 – and that's a great
thing since we've spent more time than we would like criticizing the way BMW's latest 3-Series has softened up.
That praise is due in part to the presence of BMW's Servotronic hydraulic power steering rather than the gimmicky (but fuel and cost-saving!) feel seen in the automaker's latest models with electric power steering. Crisp and precise, the tiller supplies a solid stream of feel to the driver through the excellent thick-rimmed steering wheel.
The accolades only build further thanks to the tossable and nimble chassis and the grippy all-wheel-drive system, which delivered a thoroughly neutral feel when pushed hard. We've also sampled X1s with rear-wheel-drive and they'll tend toward controllable oversteer when pushed. Their steering is more fidgety and less predictable, although we do contend that they use one of the best electric setups on the market.
Around town, our tester's optional Servotronic steering lightened things up for low-speed manuevers.
Ride quality from the 18-inch Pirelli Cinturato run flats on our tester felt a bit firm, something the short wheelbase probably exacerbates. A softer non-run flat tire would help things, but then you'd really want to make sure your AAA membership is current since no spare is aboard.
The X1 is the only BMW buyers can experience with its torquey 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder and hydraulic power steering, two items that enjoy an unexpected marital bliss. Aside from some occasional lack of linearity in the throttle pedal, the 2.0 delivers smooth and solid power with effortless high-speed passing a mere tap of the throttle away.
On the downside, the standard start/stop system is a real drag, stirring the cabin every time the brake pedal is released and the engine fires back up. The good news is that BMW dealers can now program the system to default to “off,” but our tester required a press of a dashboard button every time we hopped in the car.
Braking, meanwhile, is of the regenerative variety, which feeds some otherwise lost power back into the electrical system to save a few ounces of fuel. While that's no doubt a good thing, the pedal is a bit more wooden than we like to see in a German sports car. The upside is fuel economy. Measured during our test, the X1 matched the EPA-suggested 22/33 mpg (26 mpg combined) running on premium dino juice.
Leftlane's bottom line
A parts bin Frankenstein, the X1 is even better than the sum of its parts might suggest. Our xDrive tester's once-in-a-lifetime combination of hydraulic power steering and BMW's torquey 2.0-liter four-cylinder is worth the price of admission alone.
Though the X1 is a delight to drive, we're saddened by the fact that it's something of a one-off rarity in BMW's increasingly mainstream lineup. Buyers, do all of us enthusiasts a favor and snap up as many X1 xDrive28is as you can – maybe BMW will decide that these goodies aren't destined for the scrap heap on their own.
2013 BMW X1 xDrive28i
base price, $32,350. As tested, $45,595.
Sport Line, $1,900; Cold Weather Package, $700; Aluminum interior trim, $500; HID headlamps, $1,200; Ultimate Package, $6,650; Servotronic steering, $250; SiriusXM satellite radio, $350; BMW Apps, $250; Metallic Paint, $550; Destination, $895.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.