The BMW X1 is fine to drive, but buyers looking for premium feel may be better served by rivals' offerings

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When the BMW X1 was introduced in October 2009, the manufacturer wanted us to believe that it was taking the bold step of pioneering a new segment, that of the baby SUV crossover. In fact, what it provided us with was a baby BMW SUV that was in essence a premature replacement for the first-generation BMW X3.

Then, when the bigger, second-gen BMW BMW X3 came on stream in 2010, the X1 stood alone as the Munich manufacturer’s entry-level model in this area of the market. 

The X1 is a test of how small an SUV can be while being considered premium

In many ways the X1 is a test of how small an SUV can be while being considered premium. The brand plays on the BMW 1 Series lineage – what with the ‘1’, and the fact that it’s even built on the same production line as the 1 Series coupé and convertible in BMW’s plant in Leipzig.

The 1 Series link is, however, a bit of a misnomer. The previous-generation BMW 3-Series saloon also rolled down this production line and it’s the 3 Series, rather than the 1 Series, with which the X1 shares more in common.

This car had three years in development at a cost of millions. Since the X1 was launched, the soft-roader market has grown, so although it is meant to offer a more premium feel than Honda or Toyota’s soft-roaders, it is also in competition with the Volkswagen Tiguan, Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque.



BMW X1 headlight

Looks are of course subjective, but there is no denying that any player in this category faces up to the looming presence of the Range Rover Evoque, which has stolen the hearts of many buyers and stopped them looking any further at potential buys.

The BMW X1, in contrast, has attracted its fair share of criticism for being too derivative of other members of the BMW family, and looking ungainly. That criticism is a little surprising, given the car’s heritage.

This car looks more hatch-like than either the BMW X3 or X5

There’s little point in trying to deny the X1’s origins: to the millimetre it shares the same wheelbase as a previous-generation 3 Series Touring, after all. But it is more than 80mm shorter overall, almost 20mm narrower and 127mm taller.

It also comes up 15kg lighter on BMW’s scales, a telling figure that will come back to haunt it later.

The design brief – of a premium small crossover that can tempt 3 Series Touring buyers who want a more elevated driving position – has produced a car with slightly ungainly proportions, albeit one that looks more hatch-like than either BMW X3 or X5. It’s helped in that respect by deep flanks; a sharp crease around the door handles disguises this.

The suspension is via double-jointed axles at the front (in effect, BMW’s modified take on a MacPherson strut) and five-link suspension at the rear. The rack and pinion steering is hydraulically assisted. Interestingly, BMW UK sells the two and four-wheel-drive 18d and 20d SE models with regular tyres; other versions get run-flats.


BMW X1 interior

Anyone who approaches the X1 expecting 3 Series Touring levels of materials quality is in for an unpleasant surprise. Because while BMW has tried hard to make the X1’s cabin feel like that of its donor car, it has only partially succeeded.

The basics are sound enough. The steering wheel offers reach and rake adjustment, so few will struggle to find a comfortable driving position. Once you’re in situ, the X1 offers you a vantage point between that of a regular saloon and a full-size SUV’s; the shallow rear window doesn’t help with reversing, but you do feel more elevated than you would in a 3 Series. Despite its long bonnet, the raised seating position provides a good view of the road out front.

Driving position is higher than a regular saloon but doesn't match a full-size SUV

Rear accommodation is adequate as long as you’re under six feet tall; any lankier than that and you’ll find your knees rubbing against the front seats. But there’s lots of head room and the flat rear seat could just about cope with three people for short journeys. Entry is tight through small door apertures.

At 420 litres, boot space is beyond that of a regular Nissan Qashqai. The rear seat backrests are adjustable and split and fold 40/20/40. With the reclining back rest of the rear seat pushed all the way forward boot space extends to 480 litres. The slightly higher lip may be fine for everyday use, but lifting more bulky items to the required level could prove troublesome.

It’s in materials and finish where the X1’s cabin is less than convincing. BMW has tried hard to provide smoke and mirrors by coating regularly touched surfaces in soft-feel materials. But move away from the driver’s direct line of sight and you’ll find brittle plastics, particularly low down in the centre console.

The standard kit list ticks all of the right boxes, without offering a single extravagance. And the options aren’t cheap.



The X1 does have a unique selling point among BMW SUVs: some models are offered with rear-wheel drive, under the sDrive variant.

The rear-drive offerings are the sDrive 18d and 20d, which both come with BMW’s 2.0-litre turbodiesel in 141bhp and 161bhp states of tune respectively, and 182bhp in Sport and M Sport guise.

Choose a 2wd sDrive model and you should add about 5mpg to your economy

In the 182bhp, 258lb ft guise found in the sDrive 20d SE, BMW’s 2.0 oilburner has enough shove to make the X1 feel spritely. It’s tractable from low revs, with only a little lag, and there’s ample mid-range shove for overtaking.

This is helped further by a six-speed gearbox that’s slick, provided you’re positive enough with it. However, in this model the X1 lacks engine refinement and is considerably noisier than in any of its 3 Series applications; indeed, we’ve never heard this particular unit being so vocal, even in the 1 Series.

It does settle down when warmed up and cruising – decently subdued road and wind noise play their part there, too – but the engine is simply too audible too much of the time. This leads us to conclude that the slightly cheaper cabin materials and shorter bodyshell are not the only reasons for the car’s weight advantage over a 3 Series Touring; a portion of sound deadening has clearly been removed from BMW’s bottom line, too, and you notice.

Both 18d and 20d are also available as four-wheel-drive xDrive variants. The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual unit. A mild refresh of the BMW X1 in 2012 ushered in a new option of an eight-speed transmission whose rangey upper ratios meant useful economy gains across much of the line-up. The eight-speeder is available all X1s save for the sDrive18 and 20d Efficient Dynamics.

The UK range is topped by the 2.0-litre, 215bhp twin-turbodiesel xDrive 25d, which is available only with four driven wheels and an automatic transmission. In this variant, the gutsy engine really grabs your attention.

Although the 2.0-litre diesel unit is relatively small in outright capacity, the combination of twin turbocharging and the latest in common rail technology helps provide it with the sort of shove to shame many larger engines.

We’d only go for a four-wheel drive X1 if you really need it, though; the drag of the permanent four-wheel drive system via a central clutch, which can apportion power entirely to the front or rear, makes the xDrive's economy, while good for the class, worse than a two-wheel drive X1. For example, the sDrive 20d has a claimed combined fuel economy of 53.3mpg compared to the equivalent xDrive version’s 48.7mpg.

All five cars are available in SE or M Sport trim, while the sDrive 20d is also offered as a frugal EfficientDynamics version.

The X1’s global range-topper is the xDrive28i, equipped with a mildly detuned version of the firm’s six-cylinder petrol engine, but that’s not available in Britain.


BMW X1 cornering

If you’re expecting the X1 to offer handling somewhere between a small saloon and an SUV, then you’re right. But just as the car is closer to a 3 Series than an BMW X3 in concept, so its driving experience is much closer to that of a regular four-door BMW saloon.

Yes, there is a smidgen more roll in corners than in a 3 Series, but the X1 does a good job of keeping its extremities under control. It turns in keenly and settles rapidly, making it easy to enjoy on a flowing B-road.

Steering has plenty of feel, but it is surprisingly heavy

Were this entertainment value achieved at the expense of ride quality, it would be harder to praise, but the X1 is very compliant, particularly on versions equipped with normal tyres instead of run-flats.

The compliance could be down to the slightly increased suspension travel over the 3-series, but there is a more forgiving nature to the set-up. We’d even call it comfortable, and it deals with urban speed bumps well.

It’s not perfect, mind; there is an element of the rebound damping that can occasionally be caught out by sharp bumps on motorways (bridge joins are the main culprit). The car feels just a little too keen to settle, resulting in a sharpish jolt, but it’s a price worth paying for the X1’s composure through corners.

If we do have a worry, it’s the steering. Although it provides the sort of feel that you expect from a hydraulically assisted BMW system, it is surprisingly heavy, and while drivers of the 1 Series and 3 Series won’t be put off by this, it may bother buyers in the market for an urban runabout.

The steering and suspension systems vary depending on whether the car is specified as an sDrive or xDrive model. The two-wheel drive sDrive cars use electric power steering and a double-joint tie bar axle arrangement for the front suspension. The xDrive variants feature a double-joint thrust bar front suspension with hydraulic assistance for the steering. All X1s have a multi-link rear suspension set-up.

Braking is via 312mm (front) and 300m (rear) ventilated discs, and the system seems entirely comfortable with bringing the X1 to a halt. Optional, as on the X6, is Performance Control, which brakes an inside wheel to cut understeer, a bit like an electronic limited-slip differential.



BMW's diesel engines are renowned for low CO2 and decent economy, and the BMW X1 sDrive 20d Efficient Dynamics model is the most intelligent purchase on offer if frugality is your priority.

Included among this vehicle’s standard equipment is brake energy regeneration, start-stop, gear shift indicator, electric power steering, a disengaging air-conditioning compressor and tyres with reduced roll resistance.

If frugality is your priority, it is hard to look past the sDrive 20d Efficient Dynamics

It also has a longer rear axle ratio and special light alloy rims in a streamlined design. All that means it returns a claimed 62.8mpg and 119g/km of CO2. This makes it an appealing proposition in terms of vehicle excise duty and benefit-in-kind tax for business drivers.

Even in conventional SE trim rather than Efficient Dynamics, the 2.0-litre lump in the sDrive 20d doesn’t let the side down. In our hands, this X1 model managed just over 40mpg, and without more enthusiastic use the claimed figure of 53.2mpg should be more than a pipedream. CO2 emissions of 139g/km are admirable, too, but stick to rear-drive models if you want to achieve this; the xDrive20d emits 14g/km more.

The range starts with the SE trim and moves through Sport, xLine and the pinnacle, M Sport, which gets a more aerodynamically efficient body styling package. Options include cruise control and Xenon headlamps, but tick those boxes with care lest it add a significant sum to the price. For example, specifiying a factory-fit satnav can add a four-figure sum, making an aftermarket system much easier on the wallet. 

In depreciation terms, the X1 is forecast to retain 43 percent of its value after three years, a respectable enough figure in this category.


4 star BMW X1

The BMW X1 was designed with several purposes in mind: to replace the first-generation X3, retain 3 Series Touring owners and steal a march on the Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque.

Overall, it is an odd SUV that offers a good drive but poor cabin finishings, and is best as a rear-drive rather than four-wheel drive. That’s a combination of merits and shortcomings that add up to a car with attributes that stand out in some areas, but not enough to fight with the very best in class.

Overall, the BMW X1 offers a good drive but poor cabin finishings

The X1 is rewarding to drive, and for that we must score it highly. The ride and handling is impressively composed, while it is a lovely (and economical) car to cruise along in.

But is it has also clearly been built to keep costs down, and the premium badge makes the grumbly engine and some iffy cabin materials harder to forgive, especially when the key rivals manage to deliver in all these areas. There are parts of the X1 where it’s hard to not wonder whether the company accountants won the battle rather than the engineers, and that’s not becoming of a company with the reputation and heritage of BMW.

Those who choose an X1 hoping to enjoy a BMW driving experience will be satisfied – just. Buyers looking for premium feel may be better served by better-value offerings from supposedly lesser brands or one of the newer premium alternatives from the Munich firm’s rivals.

BMW X1 2009-2015 First drives