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Compact SUV enters third generation with petrol, diesel, hybrid and electric power

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The BMW X1 has come a long way since its beginnings as a confused pioneer of the compact premium crossover segment. The first X1 came out in 2009, which isn’t so long ago, but it was clear that BMW and the car industry in general were still figuring out what customers actually wanted from these vehicles.

It was based on the BMW 3 Series, complete with rear-wheel drive for the base models, and longitudinal straight sixes and four-wheel drive for the more expensive versions. For the US, BMW even stuffed in the 300bhp 3.0-litre turbo engine. That its cabin was cramped and not up to BMW’s usual standard of fit and finish seemed by the by, so long as it still provided classic BMW driving dynamics, which it duly did.

The X1 uses the latest development of BMW’s front-wheel-drive FAAR architecture. It can also accommodate an EV battery pack, which acts as a structural component in the iX1. The PHEV models carry their batteries in the underbody and have four-wheel drive thanks to a rear motor. In our 4WD mild-hybrid test car, the weight distribution was 59% front, 41% rear.

BMW saw sense with the second generation, switching it to the front-drive Mini platform, which gave it a useful boost in interior space. The outraged purists were proven wrong and the move certainly proved successful for BMW, because the X1 has been a very strong seller, even if it can’t quite match the Volvo XC40.

And now there is a third generation, codenamed U11. It isn’t especially radical but instead builds on the success of its predecessor, offering a range of petrol and diesel engines. This time round, company car drivers won’t have to wait too long to get a tax-busting plug-in hybrid version either. The biggest news is that there will be a pure-electric version called the BMW iX1. The first cars off the boat were very traditional 2.0-litre petrols, so that’s what we’re testing here.

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Range at a glance

It’s rare to see a line-up include petrol, diesel, hybrid and electric versions, but the X1 does. The 20i and 18d are front-wheel drive and have a three-cylinder engine; the 23 models have a four-cylinder and four-wheel drive. Meanwhile, the hybrids use a three-cylinder engine with an electric motor on the rear axle for four-wheel drive. Other markets get an 18i model as well.

There are three trim levels: Sport, xLine and M Sport, and the more potent powertrains are available on xLine and M Sport only.

VersionPower
BMW X1 sDrive20i168bhp
BMW X1 sDrive18d148bhp
BMW X1 xDrive23i215bhp
BMW X1 xDrive23d208bhp
BMW X1 xDrive25e241bhp
BMW X1 xDrive30e322bhp
BMW iX1 xDrive30308bhp


Transmissions
7-spd dual-clutch automatic
6-spd dual-clutch automatic (PHEVs)
1-spd reduction gear (iX1)

DESIGN & STYLING

02 BMW X1 23i RT 2023 front corner

The look of the latest X1 fits in perfectly with BMW’s new design ethos. That means a bluffer front end with bigger grilles and smaller lights at the front, as well as flush door handles and slimmer rear LED lights. Base models have more chrome highlights, plastic wheel arches and smaller wheels, but our M Sport with the M Sport Pro pack (enough M Sport for you?) blacks out the grille and door trim, and adds even more aggressive bumpers and 20in wheels. The current BMW X2 is more tall hatchback than SUV, but in time the X2 will be reborn as an X1 with a sloping roofline.

Mechanically, the new X1 uses an evolution of the same platform as the old car. It’s shared across all transverse-engined BMWs and Minis, but the latest version has been engineered to take a fully electric powertrain, as well as petrol and diesel engines. Even so, the battery-powered BMW iX1 makes do with a fairly modest 64.7kWh battery, for a WLTP range of 272 miles. With peak rapid charging of 130kW, it’s also a bit behind on that front.

X1 is the latest BMW to get a huge grille. It’s finished in chrome on most versions, but blacked out if you select the M Sport Pro pack. The centre section hides the sensors for the assisted driving.

The combustion-engine line-up is fairly familiar, though. While many manufacturers are scaling down their powertrain ranges to simplify production, BMW seems to be doing no such thing. Instead, there is the full gamut of three- and four-cylinder engines, as well as petrol and diesel power.

The more powerful 23i and 23d models additionally get standard four-wheel drive and 48V mild-hybrid assistance. In the X1, the 19bhp, 41lb ft electric motor is integrated into the gearbox, which allows it to boost the engine under acceleration. It can’t drive the car by itself, but it’s a lot less mild than most systems, which serve only to smooth out the start/stop system and run the ancillaries while the engine is off.

Whichever engine you choose, it comes mated to a dual-clutch gearbox with seven speeds for the regular petrols and diesels, or six in the case of the hybrids.

The hybrids both use the same concept of a 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine up front, an electric motor on the rear axle and a battery pack under the floor with 14.2kWh of usable capacity. The difference is the 25e’s engine and motor make 107bhp and 134bhp respectively, while the 30e’s are uprated to 174bhp and 148bhp.

INTERIOR

10a BMW X1 23i RT 2023 dashboard

It is possible that many prospective buyers will be won over by the new X1 simply by taking a seat in it. Step out of something like a Volvo XC40 or Alfa Romeo Tonale and into our high-spec test car and you’re likely to be blown away by not only the materials but also the space and practicality on offer.

The roominess won’t be a surprise if you’re trading up from the outgoing X1, but for anyone else, yes, here’s a BMW you might buy for its class-leading boot space and rear leg room, as well as useful touches such as the rear bench that slides in two sections (a £300 option), various hooks and cubbies in the boot and a floating centre console with lots of storage space.

In the front, it’s all very modern and starship flight deck thanks to solid-feeling aluminium structures everywhere, mechanical-feeling door pulls, soft materials where you want them, and finely machined metal speaker grilles.

VW’s climate controls come in for a fair bit of criticism, but at least you can tap it with two fingers to turn on the heated seats. In the X1, that requires a trawl through the touchscreen.

However, start driving and things fall apart. Not literally, of course: build quality is very solid. BMWs used to be a model of usability, but the user interface on this latest generation has taken a leap backwards. BMW seems to be walking into the same traps that Volkswagen is now vowing to climb out of.

All of the climate controls have migrated to the screen, which needn’t be a problem if it wasn’t so messily implemented. As an example, to set the heated seat to maximum and then go back to the navigation screen, you need to tap on the climate icon, tap the + button five times, then tap the NAV button to go back. As a bonus, if the heated seats are on a low setting, the display won’t show that they’re on.

The gauge cluster, which is digital on all versions, is another victim of style over substance. It has whizzy graphics and the resolution is very sharp, but none of the displays are particularly clear and they leave a lot of the screen real estate unused. Want to display the map and the average fuel consumption at the same time? There’s space, but BMW won’t let you.

Infotainment

14 Bmw x1 23i rt 2023 infotainment 2 0

It is almost a cliché to compare other car makers’ infotainment systems with BMW’s iDrive, because it’s so complete and easy to use. Or rather, it was, because the latest software revamp has only made the menus more confusing. Cheaper models such as the X1 also lose the signature rotary controller.

BMW’s new graphics are crisp and modern, the screen is responsive, the Harman Kardon audio system sounds good and the nav is often better than Google Maps at avoiding traffic.

However, the software change means you need to take your eyes off the road for far too long as you search through menu after menu, and swipe through an endless list of ‘apps’. For instance, there are three different ‘settings’ apps, and the settings we needed were never quite where we expected them to be. BMW would tell you to use voice control, but that often failed to interpret navigation destinations, and if you ask it to change one of the hard-to-find settings, it simply responds with: “I can’t do that.”

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

19 BMW X1 23i RT 2023 alt track

For its latest generation of cars, BMW has brought back the 23i badge. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t denote a straight-six engine. Instead, the most powerful pure-petrol option in the X1 is a 2.0-litre mild-hybrid turbo four. With 215bhp and 266lb ft and driving through a standard-fit seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and clutch-based four-wheel drive, it all sounds more than adequate on paper. For a smallish family SUV, it might even be considered excessive.

And on the test track, it does do the numbers: 6.4sec to 60mph, 17.2sec to 100mph and 9.2sec to cover 30-70mph in fourth are more than quick enough for a car of this type. But it just doesn’t feel it subjectively. The first culprit is the engine itself. It’s fairly light on mid-range torque, so it needs to be revved to deliver the goods.

It’s more than quick enough for a car of this type but it doesn’t feel it.

A revvy engine is fun in a Porsche 911 GT3, less so in a family crossover. It’s not an especially musical engine either, emitting a fairly generic strained-four-pot din. Turning on the ‘IconicSounds’ synthetic sound helps take the harshness out, but makes it louder.

Worse than the engine, though, is the gearbox. It’s unlikely anyone will mourn the loss of a manual option on a car like this. However, BMW has ditched the smooth eight-speed torque converter from the previous generation for a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. A mistake, in our experience.

It’s hesitant and jerky when manoeuvring and requires you to come to a complete stop before changing direction. You’re never quite sure when the clutch is going to engage, making tight parking more nerve-racking than necessary, especially on hills.

On the move, it’s dim-witted and determined to either lug the engine or send it to the redline, but never quite in the way you expect. There is no ‘park’ setting, just a button that will also apply the parking brake whether you want it or not. It’s also impossible to put the gearbox in neutral or release the handbrake with the engine off, which could prove frustrating if you ever suffer a flat battery. The gearbox responds well enough to the shift paddles in manual mode, but we can’t imagine many people using those.

We have not yet tried a plug-in hybrid X1 but have found in the mechanically related 2 Series Active Tourer that the strong electric assistance helps cover up some of the gearbox’s failings. The 25e and 30e versions will be available soon after the petrol models and will be the ones to go for if you want the reassurance of a fuel tank. First impressions of the electric iX1 were good when we drove a pre-production car in Germany, so there’s a strong chance that will be the pick of the X1 range.

The brakes are fine. There’s good pedal progression from the by-wire system and the X1 stopped from 70mph in 61.0m in damp conditions – not far off what the more sporting but heavier Skoda Kodiaq vRS needed in similar conditions.

RIDE & HANDLING

20 BMW X1 23i RT 2023 front corner

If BMW being able to engineer a good engine and gearbox is no longer a certainty that you can count on, you might hope that the chassis engineers haven’t forgotten their craft. The X1 may not be natively rear-wheel drive, but that needn’t be a barrier to a fine-handling car.

Our test car was an M Sport model, like most BMWs in the UK, which brings bigger wheels and lowered suspension. It also had the adaptive M Sport dampers and the huge, 20in wheels. Although firm, the suspension deals with bigger lumps and bumps without being deflected, while also keeping the body level.

Even though the latest evolution of the Continental EcoContact tyres provides decent grip, at everyday speeds the steering’s initial response suggests otherwise. Push through with more steering angle and commitment, and the car will turn in fine. The steering will even weight up very subtly to tell you what’s going on.

The X1 has 17in alloys as standard, M Sport models get 19s but our test car rides on massive 20in wheels. At least the tyres aren’t run-flats, so the ride remains bearable. It’s curious to see both the star (BMW) and MO (Mercedes) markings on the same tyre.

Get on the power hard out of a bend and you can feel enough power being sent to the rear to cancel out any understeer. Equally, a mid-corner lift of the throttle will neatly tuck in the nose. That’s all very well, but it’s odd for a family crossover that you have to drive it quite hard to get any sense of fun or engagement out of it. It ought to deliver more tactility through the controls at ordinary speeds.

That culminated in how well the X1 took to the Millbrook Hill Route. The stability control is generally smooth and unintrusive, and with the system in one of the sport modes (it won’t ever turn fully off), the X1 will even show a playful side. The steering comes alive, too.

Overall, though, you have to drive the X1 quite hard to get any sense of fun or engagement out of it, which doesn’t seem quite right for a family crossover.

Comfort and isolation

21 Bmw x1 23i rt 2023 rear corner 0

You might fear the worst for an M Sport BMW on 20in wheels, but thanks to adaptive dampers and non-run-flat tyres, the X1’s ride is not too bad. It’s still very much on the busy side of acceptable, and it’s a safe bet that a car with standard suspension and small wheels would be more pleasant in day-to-day use. Even in Comfort mode, the damping is fairly firm, but not as crashy as you might expect with those wheels. Even so, there is only so much that good dampers can do.

All UK X1s have the sport seats that are optional in other countries, and they’re very supportive with plenty of adjustment. However, BMW tends to make lumbar support an optional extra, and on the X1 it’s fairly pricey, at £225 or as part of the £1050 Comfort pack.

For the class, the X1 is a pretty quiet motorway cruiser, too. We measured 67dBA at 70mph, which is 1dBA quieter than the Volvo XC40 and the DS 7 Crossback, though both of those have since been facelifted.

Assisted driving notes

22 Bmw x1 23i rt 2023 assisted driving

In keeping with its reputation for making driver’s cars, BMW’s assisted driving features always used to be far less meddlesome than most. BMWs also used to have a button in the middle of the dashboard to turn the lot off, but that’s now gone.

Most grating is the absence of a button to change the adaptive cruise control’s following distance. Instead, the option is hidden several menus deep in the touchscreen. There is an adaptive mode, but it doesn’t always get it right. In particular, it kept following quite closely during a downpour.

On the plus side, the automatic emergency braking never gave any trouble and the automatic lane following and adaptive cruise control are fairly astute. The lane keeping assistance is quite intrusive but isn’t too much of a chore to turn off, but it still requires you to dive into the screen.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 BMW X1 23i RT 2023 lead driving

The cheapest UK X1 is an sDrive (so front-wheel-drive) 20i in Sport trim, which starts at £33,775. To get the xDrive23i, the four-cylinder with four-wheel drive, you need to upgrade to xLine and set aside at least £38,720. Choose the M Sport and the price jumps to £41,470. Our test car had pretty much every option on it, adding almost £10,000.

Base prices for the X1 look quite attractive compared with rivals but, as our test car illustrates, options can get quite expensive. Direct comparisons with rivals are tricky, because most don’t offer a powertrain to rival the 23i. Taking a highly optioned 20i at £46,820 as a benchmark, it’s pricier than a comparable Mercedes GLA 200 or Audi Q3 35 TFSI, around the same as a Volvo XC40 B3 and cheaper than an Alfa Romeo Tonale. It’s a similar story on finance, although thanks to a relatively favourable APR, the BMW closes the gap slightly.

Mild-hybrid X1s won’t let you disable the start/stop system. Pure-petrol models have the option buried in the infotainment screen. The system works fine, but there are still occasions when you would like to turn it off. Having that bit of control taken away feels so unnecessary too.

We averaged 36.2mpg, which is good for a petrol SUV with four-wheel drive and this level of performance. BMW offers an enlarged fuel tank on all X1s except the plug-in hybrids. It takes the capacity from 45 to 54 litres, and at £50 it’s a no-brainer. With our test average MPG, it bumps the range from an almost EV-like 316 miles to a far more useful 430 miles.

As is typical for premium car makers, BMW offers only three years of warranty, but there is no mileage limit.

VERDICT

23 BMW X1 23i RT 2023 static

The requirements for a driver’s car and a utility vehicle are often mutually exclusive. Even so, BMW has often managed to unite them in one car. In the new X1, it has not.

As a practical vehicle, the BMW X1 is surprisingly successful. It has class-leading boot space and rear leg room, and plenty of oddment storage, while the interior design and materials are far more pleasing than they strictly need to be for a family bus. But apart from some minor wins such as comfy seats and a good navigation system, it’s quite an average car in most other areas.

The ride is generally unsettled and, in most circumstances, the chassis doesn’t give much back either. The gearbox is clunky and tries its hardest to dull the engine’s performance, and the in-car tech – both infotainment and driver assistance – is frustrating.

There are plenty of buyers who will be satisfied with a spacious and plush crossover that’s quite middle-of-the-road in most other areas, but BMW should ask itself whether that’s the kind of car maker it wants to be.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.