Baby SUV is more practical than a 1 Series and cheaper than a 3 Series

What is it?

It's a test of how small an SUV can be while being considered premium. It's called the BMW X1 and BMW plays on the 1-series lineage – what with the '1', and the fact that engines are the same. It's even built on the same production line as the 1-series coupe and convertible in a relatively new plant in Leipzig.

The 1-series link is, however, a bit of a misnomer. The 3-series saloon also rolls down this line and it's the 3-series, rather than the 1-series, with which the X1 shares more in common.

To call the X1 a jacked-up 3-series would be mean; this car has been three years in development at a cost of millions. But the floor is the same, so the wheelbase is identical, and as with 3-series, the X1 can be had not just with four-wheel drive (the 3-series doesn't get this in the UK but it's a popular option abroad), but also with rear-wheel drive. It's the first of BMW's X models (X5, X3 and X6 being the others) to be offered with an option that powers only its rear wheels.

At present it's a bit short on rivals. The X1 is meant to offer a more premium feel than Honda or Toyota's soft-roaders - something the Range Rover LRX and Audi Q3 will both do from 2011. Until then the VW Tiguan is its closest rival.

What's it like?

A lot like you'd expect. The versatility of new car platforms and architecture means that carried-over components endow cars with a company's DNA without them having to work too hard at retaining it.

So the cabin layout will look familiar to anyone who has spent a deal of time in another small BMW. Fit and finish is pretty good and the materials choice just about justifies the 'premium' tag.

There are soft-feel surfaces everywhere you touch regularly, with a couple of hard plastics thrown in too on the lower centre console. There are plenty of storage cubbies, though only one front cupholder unless you erect, in the style of the 6-series, a snap-in additional one on the passenger side, which feels rather cheap.

Ergonomically it's sound and the driving position is fine; you tend to sit somewhere between the height of a normal saloon and a conventional SUV. The X1 seems relatively low, even for a soft-roader.

Space in the back is surprisingly good. Don't come expecting 1-series levels of space here because leg room, naturally enough, seems to mirror the 3-series, while there's plenty of head room. The rear seat backrests are adjustable and split and fold 40/20/40. With a shorter overall length than a 3-series, though, the boot is a little smaller.

Our test car was an X1 xDrive20d manual, a ridiculously contrived moniker to indicate that it's an X1 with four-wheel drive (rear-drive cars are sDrive) and the 2.0-litre diesel engine making 174bhp. As with most BMWs, it gets a range of Efficient Dynamics ancillaries and returns 51.4mpg on the combined cycle, with a CO2 output of 153g/km.

We'd only go for four-wheel drive if you 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 2WD X1, which returns 53.3mpg and 139g/km.

So what's it like to drive? Think tall 3-series with a bit more roll and you won't be far off.

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At town speeds the ride could be cleverer. The X1 rides on run-flat tyres (optional 40-profile 18-inchers on the test car), so it's knobbly over low-speed sharp inputs – expansion joints, drain covers and the like. It's not particularly compliant. Up the speed, though, and it improves somewhat, plus the chassis control is fairly tight for a taller car, so the X1 turns with sufficient enthusiasm and a fair degree of poise.

Its steering, hydraulically assisted, is accurate and well weighted. Optional, as on the X6, is Performance Control, which brakes an inside wheel to cut understeer, a bit like an electronic limited-slip differential.

The engine is pretty smooth and has a broad powerband but is grumblier at idle than we'd like. Otherwise, there's a little wind noise around the A-pillars, but overall refinement is good.

Should I buy one?

This is the key question, I suppose. The cynic might ask why you'd have a taller, heavier and less efficient car than one BMW already produces.

Yet the X1 positions itself quite neatly to counter this argument. It's more expensive than a 1-series (and vastly more practical), yet it's not as expensive as a 3-series Touring.

It doesn't feel quite as complete as a 3-series, but for those who need the versatility of its tallness it's worth a punt.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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moe360 29 September 2009

Re: BMW X1 xDrive 20d

Merc Man wrote:

My local Lexus customer service was pretty rotten, went to the dealership looking for a test drive of an RX that was on their forecourt but was fobbed off. All car dealerships I've been to recently have been pretty poor on customer service, which surprises me considering the state of the car market!

Merc Man I agree, most car dealerships I have visited are displaying very poor levels of service. One of the worst experiences I have is from VOLVO, will never even think about buying a VOLVO again.

Got to say my friend bought a new yaris 3 weeks ago and I went with her, the toyota sales man was very good, he still had a smile on his face after so many annoying questions

moe360 29 September 2009

Re: BMW X1 xDrive 20d

Lee23404 wrote:

moe360 wrote:

Regarding customer service in big dealerships I would like to point out that my latest experiences with VW were the worse I ever had, they are so cocky and rude. Once they get you as a sale they cant be asked to provide any decent customer service

That's one of the reasons I haven't bought a VW in 10 years. I guess they haven't changed much.

Veedubya is very helpfull, I wonder which dealership he works for?

You are right Veedubya is very helpful and seems like he knows his stuff, not seen any posts from Veedubya for a while. Must be busy selling those Golfs :)

Sam_C 29 September 2009

Re: BMW X1 xDrive 20d

Quattro369 wrote:
Same as Audi then :-(

I know someone who was buying an RS4 from Audi and they were totally disinterested; he couldn't beleive it. As eh said, to me, he was spending a fair whack of money, the least you'd expect is for the sales chap to take an interest. He slated them in the feedback form and put down that his next car would be an RS6 / R8 to see if they'd make any effort to find out what went wrong etc - nothing.

Range Rover were awesome he said when he bought that (RS4 replaced this). As said before, I think that too many of the sales reps are so used to not having to do anything that they no longer care.

BMW were useless last year when I bought mine - awesome up to the point I signed the paperwork After that, not interested. Ironically, I always found MINI to be incredible, especially on the warranty side of things (My Cooper S was a nightmare, but the aftersales made it bearable (ish)).