BMW doesn't believe that crossover need mean compromise, and the BMW X1 is the "premium compact" it intends to prove that with. Headed to the US for the first time this month, the smallest of BMW's X-model SUVs has already carved itself a niche in Europe. Can BMW light a fire underneath the crossover segment, and deliver a small SUV that delivers both an elevated driving position and the sort of driving dynamics the German marque is known for?
BMW has based the X1 on the chassis of its 1- and 3-series cars, and the design pulls details from both sedan ranges too, albeit somewhat inflated to suit the SUV silhouette. Up front, BMW's traditional kidney grille has followed the range trend and grown into a pair of snorting nostrils, flanked by angry headlamps - with LED highlights if you opt for the Xenon package - and new chrome accent strips. The hood is long and broken up with sharp crease-lines, BMW having pushed back the cabin space for a profile that's sporty from the front three-quarters but can look ungainly when viewed fully side-on.
The profile works better the further toward the rear you get, a strong waistline rising steeply to pinch off the back glass. It's meant that BMW could keep the roofline higher than is often the case in crossovers, preserving rear seat headroom, without losing the sporting stance.
There's less black plastic than on earlier, European versions of the X1, pushed down to discretely protect the side-skirts, rear apron and front bumper edge. Slices of matte-finish silver plastic also lighten the effect, meaning the X1 doesn't feel bottom heavy. Steeply angled rear window glass looks good, compared to the slab-sided finish some rival crossovers suffer, though does eat into interior room.
Engines and Performance
BMW will offer two engine options in the US, in addition to a choice of rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. Entry-level is the 2.0-liter four cylinder, putting out 245 HP and paired with an 8-speed auto gearbox; it will be available as the rear-wheel drive sDrive28i or the all-wheel drive xDrive28i, each offering Auto Stop-Start, Brake Energy Regeneration, and Electric Power Steering. BMW says to expect a 6.2s 0-60mph dash, or 6.3s if you opt for 4X4.
More powerful is the 3.0-liter six cylinder, producing 306 HP through a six-speed auto gearbox and found in the xDrive35i. That has all-wheel drive as standard and all the electronic gizmos of the 28i models, bar the Auto Stop-Start. BMW's 4X4 system can shuttle power between the front and rear wheels, depending on road conditions and how fast you take the corners. The 3.0-liter manages a 5.3s 0-60mph run.
BMW put us behind the wheel of the X1 xDrive28i, and it cuts a good line between sure-footed and swift. High-speed cruising in eighth gear is as comfortable as you'd hope for from a luxury marque, but the X1 isn't afraid of sportier driving either. The eight-speed 'box is eager to step through its selection of gears, dropping down rapidly when you plant your right foot, while the car's sedan underpinnings held true. There's little in the way of body roll, and we never found ourselves forced to back off out of a shortage of grip. Happily the brakes are well matched too, dragging the X1 to a stop with the minimum of fuss.
Despite the potential for action, the X1 is also able to post some respectable economy figures. With a steady foot we came within a digit or two of the official 26mpg combined figure (BMW quotes 22mpg for city and 33mpg for highway driving) in the 2.8-liter AWD; expect 2mpg more in combined and city driving for the rear-wheel drive version with the same engine. Unsurprisingly, the 3.0-liter is a thirstier beast, posting 21mpg combined (18mpg city and 27mpg highway).
Inside, BMW has all the soft-touch plastics and pleasing details you'd expect for a $31k+ crossover. The center console, angled slightly toward the driver, is topped by a large LCD, with the HVAC, entertainment and other controls arranged into straightforward sections stacked underneath. The three-spoke wheel has a number of easily-reached buttons for controlling music, phone, and other features.
Leather seats - available in multiple colors, ranging from sober blacks to eye-catching red - are a $1,450 option, and are paired with a leather-wrapped wheel in BMW's Sport Line trim. The stubby silver-finished gearstick can be tapped side-to-side to force gear-changes, if you're unhappy with the X1's selection, and sits in front of BMW's now-traditional iDrive control wheel. One option that particularly grew on us is BMW ConnectedDrive, which includes the company's take on augmented reality, projecting speed and other information up onto the dashboard.
As for interior space, that high roofline means rear headroom is fine for adults, and the rear seats fold 40:20:40 for maximum flexibility in loading. That's important, as we couldn't fit a full set of golf clubs into the trunk of the X1 without dropping at least one rear seat down. If your cargo is a smaller than that, then there are plenty of hidden cubbies under the rear floor.
The crossover SUV market is increasingly crowded, and there are plenty of sub-$30k options for those wanting a loftier driving position. In contrast, the X1 range starts at $31,545 for the entry-level sDrive 28i, rising to $33,245 for the xDrive 28i; if you want the Sport Line package it's an extra $1,900, or $3,000 for the M Sport Line package.
The X1 xDrive 35i, meanwhile, starts at $39,345, with Sport Line priced at the same $1,900 but the M Sport Line package slightly cheaper at $3,500. That M Sport Line package, incidentally, throws in a lower chassis and tauter suspension, as well as modifying the electronics to suit sharper driving.
Demand for BMW's smallest SUV in Europe has obviously been sufficient to convince the Germans that there's a market for it in North America. The current fashion for crossovers would certainly seem to prove that, and the persistent badge status of BMW vehicles means those with the X1 on their SUV shortlist are unlikely to find the $31k+ price tag too off-putting.
Your money gets you a distinctive and well-built vehicle, but arguably most importantly it's a car that drives more like a BMW sedan than an SUV. No wallow, no sluggishness around the corners; just taut handling and - particularly with the 8-speed gearbox in the 2.8-liter models - the sort of spirited performance we'd expect from a 3 series not a crossover.
That more advanced gearbox, along with the economy advantages of the smaller engine, make the 28i models our pick of the X1 line-up. The xDrive 28i is the most sure-footed of that pair, but the sDrive 28i is a capable and persuasive option for those wanting some sporting luxury with their premiere driving position.