BMW could sell ice to an Inuk. Everything the manufacturer churns out appears to become a success. Even oddities like the 3 and 5-Series GT hold a certain appeal. There is a strange novelty in a BMW that does not take itself too seriously, I suppose. Looking back, there are a number of models from the marque that were hit with ugly sticks, yet managed to find homes in the hearts and driveways of the masses. That includes the Z3 M Coupé, 3-Series Compact — and pretty much every model spawned in the era of legendary designer Chris Bangle.
The X1, often described as the ugly duckling of the company’s SUV range, enjoyed a similar path to success. Despite the motoring press bemoaning its awful aesthetics, cramped interior and bargain materials, the vehicle went on to sell in excess of 730 000 worldwide. Dwell on that for a second. More than half a million people loved the peculiar charms of this aesthetically challenged urban warrior. But if the outgoing X1 was an ugly duckling, the new model has morphed into a swan. On the styling front, it is still bound to divide opinion, sure. But it certainly looks less awkward, with more substantial proportions and cues lifted from its more contemporary SUV siblings.
But the stuff underneath the skin is what impresses the most, especially since its predecessor was a car desperately lacking substance. The new model is underpinned by the brand’s modular architecture, dubbed UKL, which also underpins the Mini Hatch; BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, and the soon-to-be-launched Mini Countryman. Yes, this is another front-wheel drive BMW — but all-wheel drive derivatives are on offer. We should acknowledge the fact that front-wheel drive and BMW is a mix you will be seeing plenty of in coming years. And this concept is no longer as blasphemous as it once was. Because, as the 2- Series Active Tourer proved, this new breed of Beemers dishes up some pretty accomplished road skills, although to say that it moves like a traditional BMW would be pushing it.
When we sampled it earlier this year, we likened the experience to driving a somewhat larger Volkswagen Golf. Not a bad thing. And a similar description could apply here. The biggest advantage of front-wheel drive — apart from cost-effectiveness in terms of manufacturing — is the benefit of additional space, omitting the mechanics that would have been required to send power to the rear wheels. Now you can actually sit in the back of the X1 without having to take a course in contortionism.
There is more space on all fronts; legroom, headroom and cargo capacity. At the launch in George in the Western Cape last week, we tested the xDrive versions in 20d (140kW and 400Nm) and 25i guises (170kW and 350Nm). The regular front-wheel drive models are not yet available; they are set to arrive early next year. While the diesel offering serves up acceptable levels of punch under normal conditions, it seems to run out of puff when you demand a little more fizz for actions like a brisk overtaking manoeuvre. The flexibility of the 25i is more appealing. There is ample kick from this unit and it even comes with those aural trinkets driving enthusiasts love so much — belching politely on upshifts. And what a delight it is progressing through that eight-speed automatic transmission, which faithfully executes its duties without hiccups.
Overall, being at the helm of the new X1 makes for a pretty harmonious experience. We had ample opportunity to test its dynamic abilities. If we chucked the all-wheel drive BMW into corners expecting understeer, the car impressed by tracking tidily and drama-free to safety on the other side. For the most part, the steering seems assuredly connected and did a good job of masking the intrusion of torque-steer. The suspension does a stellar job of handling weight transfer too. It never felt unnerved by abrupt changes in direction. As a tool for covering ground rapidly and without fuss, the X1 is supreme. However, there are a number of criticisms to be levelled at the model.
For starters, some of the efforts made in keeping costs down are clear to see. Like the driver’s seat fore and aft adjustment, for example. It is a solid metal bar below the squab — and not the paw-like plastic lever you get in other BMW models. Sneakily, there were scratchy materials in the lower parts of the cabin and the lining of the interior pillars were plastic — not fabric. We also noticed an excessive amount of tyre roar and wind noise penetrating the cabin, which may imply that insulation materials were skimped on. These niggles are not something you would expect from a BMW.
But the price is. Expect to pay R435 000 for the sDrive18i (100kW and 220Nm); while the sDrive220i (141kW and 280Nm) goes for R492 000. The sDrive20d costs R479 500 and the 25i, only available in all-wheel drive, will set you back R602 500. Specifying the xDrive system on the 20i and 20d costs on average R45 000 more. Bear in mind that these are prices for the standard model. Buyers can take their pick from three styling packages: Sport Line, X Line and M Sport.