Think tall 3-series with more body roll
Ride improves notably with speed
xDrive models are four-wheel drive, sDrive models 2WD
Engine has broad powerband, but is grumbly at idle
Refinement is good, with just a little wind noise around the A-pillars
Only get 4WD if you'll use it as fuel economy suffers
BMW DNA is evident from the moment you climb aboard
Soft-touch plastics abound in areas you touch most
There are some harder plastics on the lower areas of the centre console
You sit somewhere between the height of a normal saloon and a conventional SUV
Space in the back is surprisingly good
X1 seems relatively low, even for a soft-roader
X1 has all the familiar hallmarks of a BMW
For now, the VW Tiguan is the X1's closest rival
BMW X1 has been developed for three years
Manual and automatic options
Chassis control is tight for such a tall car
X1's styling has drawn an - at best - mixed reaction
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.
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.