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Road Test: BMW X1 xDrive 23d SE 5dr Step Auto

£31,175 when new
Published: 01 Dec 2009


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At the forefront of many a mind at this precise moment will be the word ‘why?' Possibly prefaced by ‘Dear' and ‘God'. The X1 is the latest in an increasingly long line of confused and confusing BMW products. Much like the 5-Series GT, it demands a double take, just to work out exactly what you're looking at. Do you need glasses? Or does someone at BMW need medicating?

The whole soft-roader/crossover idea is hard to get your head around. Neither as good at being a car as a car, nor anywhere near as capable of SUV-ness as a proper SUV. It's a lifestyle statement, and that's a dubious concept whatever you're buying into: a novelty ringtone, a ‘wacky' hair cut. If something doesn't exist because it needs to, chances are it makes you look like a bit of tool. And the existence of a compact pseudo-SUV is a tough case to make.

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But here's how to make it: the existing X-range, 3, 5 and 6, account for one fifth of all BMW's global sales, so from a purely fiscal point of view, that inevitable ‘why' is seen off with ‘well why wouldn't you?' The X1 should sell in droves.

Then there's the drive. The X1 feels as large as it looks. Which is to say, not massive, but it's no 1-Series. An elevated driving position probably has something to do with this, but so does a kerbweight of 1,670kg. That's a hell of a lot for what is, nominally at least, a small car. But with the flagship 123d that BMW is launching first, you get 201bhp and 295 lb ft of torque, delivered with typically Teutonic gusto through a seamless six-speed auto. So it may feel a little leaden at manoeuvring speeds, but once you're out and about it's genuinely brisk. And although in-gear acceleration is a far better measure of useful day-to-day performance, the standard stats are none too shabby either: 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds and a top speed of 127mph.

What's more, despite the increase in weight and height over a normal 1- or 3-Series, the expectation of dynamic competence that hangs over any BMW is essentially well met. The steering is a bit vague, but this lends itself to cruising comfort over driving involvement, and sensibly so. And regardless of this, the X1 feels superbly planted and relatively roll-free. If BMW can make an X5 handle, they can certainly see to this. But the compromise is a ride that is slightly too firm, transmitting more vibration through the cabin than you would expect from a car with what is otherwise such a high level of refinement.

Road noise is also a tad generous, all things considered, and that's on 17-inch alloys which, if we're honest, could do with being a lot larger from an aesthetic point of view. Spec one of these up properly and it threatens to be a right bone shaker.

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There are other issues that warrant a mention too. Rear visibility is lousy and, despite plenty of headroom, there's nowhere for lanky legs in the back. Fine for younger kids admittedly, but in a car with these proportions you'd expect to be able to get adults in there.

There is a huge boot though, with 420 litres expanding to over three times that with the rear seats folded flat. And the raised ride height makes this all very easy to access.

So with that in mind, along with the similarly high cabin, modest dimensions (on Planet SUV) and economical diesel, the X1 starts to sound like a watertight proposition for young families.

And as the car goes on stream this case will only be strengthened, for BMW is planning to offer the car with smaller diesels (no petrol options are even coming to the UK) and a more affordable and frugal rear-wheel-drive option, dispensing with both weight and complexity. These lesser-spotted X1s will manage up to 54.3mpg without giving away too much in terms of performance.

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There is a catch though. Priced from £22,660 for the basic 140bhp rear-wheel-drive 18d to £29,055 for the all-wheel-drive 23d we've got here, no X1 is going to be cheap. BMW is eager to stress that this is the first ‘premium' car in its market, although they seem to have forgotten the arrival of the Infiniti EX. But new cars aside, if you choose to include, say, the Volkswagen Tiguan as a point of comparison, as BMW itself does in its comparative data, then you ought to include the Land Rover Freelander too, which was fairly premium last time we looked. (Not that a Tiguan is much like slumming it either...)

Whatever, there is no shortage of competition when it comes to small SUVs. It was always a sticking point for BMW that it made the X3 quite so expensive, and now that it's managed to redress that, Beemer's marketeers might well take some market share from the likes of Land Rover and VW, particularly from the groundswell of people unwilling to be seen driving something that is readily labelled as a ‘4x4'.

But there is risk inherent in this. It's very hard to label the X1 as anything, except ‘odd', and not everyone will like that. After all, what's wrong with a 3-Series Touring for the same kind of money? Clue: absolutely nothing. And if you want a sort-of-SUV, chances are you secretly want a proper SUV. Which brings you back to your Freelanders, Tiguans and Volvo XC60s.

Make no mistake, the BMW X1 is a good product. But is it one that anyone will actually want?

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