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New crossover is quite different from its forebear, but is this updated X1 better - and does it have the premium edge over Audi, Mercedes and Land Rover?

The conundrum of the BMW X1: as outstanding as some of its saloons, estates and SUVs have been over the decades, there’s no greater proof of the enduring power of the BMW brand than the success of the previous X1 crossover hatchback.

Over a lifecycle of almost exactly six years, built in factories in India, China and Russia as well as in Germany, the X1 clocked up 730,000 worldwide sales. And yet the X1 was awkward-looking, cumbersome-handling, badly packaged, plainly finished and equally plainly rough and unrefined. Munich’s blue-and-white propeller may never have been risked on such a poor car.

BMW’s new compact UKL model platform sees the X1 fitted with a transversely mounted engine for the first time

What, you can’t help but wonder, would happen if BMW made a good one? It certainly needs to. In the six years since the launch of the original X1, the crossover market has mushroomed to the point where it has become more important than most of the more traditional segments in which BMW can draw on established experience and strength. Building a good X1 is probably more vital than leading the market with any of the firm’s luxury or sporting models.

To achieve that aim, there’s a new platform, new engines and all kinds of new on-board and all-round systems technology at play here – all going towards repeating the sort of European sales domination that BMW has produced with some of its executive saloons.

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The transversely engined, predominantly front-drive UKL platform underpins its third series-production model for the BMW Group after the Mini hatchback and BMW 2 Series Active Tourer MPV, and atop sits a body widely rethought for more recognisable SUV looks and significantly better practicality. The Chinese market benefits from a long-wheelbase version of the X1, with the UK unlikely to ever see an X1 L.

Among those new engines are the latest three and four-cylinder turbocharged petrols, diesels and plug-in hybrids, many of them providing the obvious performance superiority we’ve come to expect from BMW. But will BMW’s other motive trademark be in evidence here, in the shape of truly distinguishing handling appeal to go with that obvious get-up-and-go?

BMW X1 design & styling

The most apparent change with this new X1 is a proportional one. The jacked-up estate car looks of the original car have been replaced by a much more conventional crossover bodystyle, with a higher roofline, beltline and seating position.

The visual awkwardness has gone, too, and the X1 now looks more like a downsized BMW X3 or BMW X5 and, perhaps even more important, much more like a premium-brand alternative to a Nissan Qashqai, rather than a curious sort of BMW 1 Series ‘allroad’.

That the car looks slightly shorter of snout is down to the fundamental shift through which all compact BMWs will go over the next couple of years: from a longways engine and rear-wheel drive to a transverse engine and, for the most part, front-wheel drive. You wouldn’t say that the X1 looks any less like a true BMW as a result of the shorter bonnet, although it remains to be seen if we’ll be able to say the same of the next 1 Series.

The X1’s UKL platform brings with it a steel monocoque underbody that, BMW claims, is significantly stiffer than that of the previous car and also allows for a near-perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. If true, such a weight balance would be unusual for a transversely engined car.

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Most of the car’s panels are steel, with aluminium used for the bonnet and in places throughout the suspension. MacPherson struts feature at the front and a multi-link axle at the rear, both combined with fixed ride-height coil springs. Adaptive dampers are offered as an option, as is BMW’s speed-dependent active-ratio Variable Sport Steering system.

The engine range consists of a range of twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines, including three different tunes of diesel engine - the 148bhp sDrive (front-wheel drive) and xDrive18d, the 187bhp xDrive20d and the 228bhp xDrive25d. Meanwhile those craving a petrol can opt for the 188bhp xDrive20i X1.

Higher-end variants of the X1 get an Aisin eight-speed automatic transmission as standard, and a choice of either front-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive, which is delivered via an electro-hydraulic clutch situated on the rear axle.

Our test car was a mid-range 187bhp 20d diesel auto with four driven wheels and adaptive dampers.

BMW X1 engine line-up and trim levels

There are a total of three powertrains to choose from, with two petrols (a three-cylinder sDrive18i as well as a two-litre, the latter of which is available in either two or four-wheel drive), two diesels (the 18d and 20d) and latterly a plug-in hybrid with four-wheel drive as standard. If you really must have a manual, then the only engine options are either the smaller petrol or diesel lumps, otherwise it's a dual-clutch or auto.

There are four trim levels available: SE, Sport, xLine and M Sport, although the plug-in hybrid is only available in Sport or above. M Sport gets more aggressive styling tweaks, and obviously additional levels of equipment, but even the base doesn't look too impoverished. 

MORE ON THE BMW X1

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BMW X1 First drives