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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 first generation BMW 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 BMW 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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

Nearly new buying guide: BMW X1

BMW X1 2009-2015 review

New BMW X1 shows off final look ahead of 2022 launch

INTERIOR

Inside the cabin of the BMW X1

BMW’s reward for turning the X1’s engine through 90deg is readily apparent inside the new car. The mechanical change was part of a process that has transformed the X1 from being one of the least practical crossovers of its size into one of the most.

Although you sit 30mm higher in the front than in the old car, and higher still in the rear, there’s abundant head room and generous leg room in the front row.

It’s pleasing to find a cabin that takes on a fresh character as the sun sets and the X1 looks classy after dark

Further back, our test car’s optional sliding rear seats made for good passenger space, so in both rows the X1 offers more room than our class-leading crossover, the popular Nissan Qashqai. Both of the BMW’s premium-brand rivals, the Mercedes-Benz GLA and Audi Q3, are less spacious.

The X1’s boot is big, too. It isn’t desperately wide, but it’s long and deep and bordered by back seats that fold 40/20/40 and lie completely flat for the utmost load-carrying flexibility.

A folding front passenger seatback is also available as an option. So, at the second time of asking, it seems that the X1 actually delivers the enhanced practicality its crossover status implies.

The cabin also does justice to a premium-brand badge with its pleasing material quality, which, again, is something you’d never have said of its predecessor. From shoulder level right down to the door bin and transmission tunnel mouldings, and from the column stalks to the bonnet release, the X1’s cabin plastics look and feel solid, smooth and well finished.

The soft-touch surfaces up top, juxtaposed skilfully with textured aluminium and satin chrome inlays, conjure an expensive ambience, the oyster and black leathers of our test car playing an equal part in that effect. The leather-upholstered bar bracketing the centre console and gear selector in favour of the driver, meanwhile, is at once typical of a BMW and very easy on the eye, and the red ambient lighting of the cockpit adds an even more upmarket note after dark.

There’s a generous amount of storage in both rows, with good-sized cubbies at the foot of the centre stack and under the centre armrest, and bottle holders in the door cubbies big enough for one-litre bottles.

Assuming that BMW’s characteristic sense of reserve in the styling of its interiors is to your taste, the X1’s cabin is a difficult one to find fault with. We’d prefer that second-row passengers had more than one 12V socket as a means to charge their various electronic devices and also dare say that some parents might miss a third set of Isofix child seat anchorages for the rear row’s middle seat. But neither concern is sufficient to stop the X1 getting a perfect score here.

BMW is only just about as generous with the X1’s entry-level specification as it needs to be in order to justify the car’s pricing. SE trim has iDrive and a 6.5in multimedia system with navigation, DAB radio, CD player, USB connectivity and Bluetooth media streaming — so nothing earth-shattering, then.

Besides the flawless iDrive system the SE trim get auto wipers and lights, 17in alloys, automatic tailgate and rear parking sensors, while the Sport trim gets you bigger alloys, sporty bodykit and sport seats.

The mid-level xLine trim is fitted with leather seats, heated front seats, and LED headlights, and the range-topping M-Sport shods your X1 with M-Sport designated interior, bodykit, alloys, suspension and Alcantara seats.

As with every BMW on sale, there is an extensive options list that can don the car with more luxuries and convenience, such as our test car’s larger 10in control display, online services, remote control functionality and head-up display, which is part of the Navigation Plus package and will set you back £1490.

Put simply, it’s worth spending the money. All of the infotainment functions are more navigable and accessible via the widescreen set-up, and the navigation map is detailed, clear and expansive. BMW’s RTTI live traffic information is also quick to update your route and seems more reliable than rival systems in helping you to avoid jams.

Our test car also had BMW’s Harman Kardon premium hi-fi, which possessed impressive audio system quality and power.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The 2.0-litre bi-turbo diesel engine in our BMW X1

As juvenile as this may seem, job one for any new BMW worth its salt – even a diesel crossover – is to outstrip its competition on outright accelerative pace. Buyers expect nothing less.

But while the X1 performs well, it falls marginally short of that mark.

The X1’s gearlever is shared with the Mini, but you can't help missing the one-touch wands the other X cars get

Our performance data archive has a like-for-like Audi Q3 at a narrow, solitary 0.1sec disadvantage to the X1 from standstill to 60mph, and a similar one both through the gears and locked in fourth gear from 30mph to 70mph.

But the Mercedes-Benz GLA 220 CDI 4Matic that we performance tested last year matched the X1’s 0-60mph sprint of 8.2sec and was slightly faster than the BMW to 100mph and in other respects.

If the X1 had gone as fast as BMW claims (7.6sec to 62mph), the familiar selling point would be beyond doubt, but it couldn’t be made to do so. Missing that mark by more than half a second, in a run-in car and in dry conditions, merits a black mark.

However, the X1 certainly feels swift, muscular and relatively free-revving from the driver’s seat. The eight-speed gearbox chooses its ratios well, shifts smartly and locks up without slipping at low revs, allowing the engine’s low-end torque to shrug off the car’s mass when climbing gradients, even in higher gears.

At the other end of the rev range, the 2.0-litre diesel keeps spinning long after rivals have thrown in the towel, revving to well beyond 5000rpm without undue complaint. Given that most similarly sized crossovers take a couple of seconds longer to hit 60mph from rest and aren’t nearly as flexible or free-revving, driving performance could probably still be a selling point for the X1.

It’s a pity that refinement doesn’t do more for the car. A mix of road roar and the usual undertone of coarseness that you tend to get from BMW four-cylinder diesels sent our decibel meter soaring to relatively high levels. The X1 was four decibels louder at a 70mph cruise than the Qashqai we tested last year. That kind of difference is more than big enough to be noticed.

Braking performance for the car is competitive but not outstanding, although the pedal feels carefully tuned and is easy to modulate accurately.

RIDE & HANDLING

The BMW X1 has good body control...

Crossover buyers are a demanding bunch, because they can afford to be. The best examples of the crossover breed don’t feel like big cars but instead cover their extra bulk and higher roll axis with the body control, agility and balanced ride of a normal family hatchback.

As a result, their drivers don’t even have to recognise any inherent compromise, on ride or handling, for choosing a bigger, heavier car, much less accept one. Those buyers will, by and large, find the X1 capable of the same trick. Flat-handling, grippy, directionally responsive and fairly comfortable, the BMW feels almost as dynamically sophisticated as any of its rivals.

The X1 has good body control but the firm ride gives a hollow feeling over the transmission bumps

You wouldn’t call it the class’s best-handling act, though – not quite – and neither would you say that it does anything special. On both counts, that probably makes it a lukewarm success by BMW’s high standards.

Even without BMW’s lowered and stiffened M Sport suspension set-up and with its Dynamic Damper Control, the X1 feels quite firmly sprung: a little over-damped, fidgety, and sensitive to coarse surfaces in all but Comfort mode on the Driving Experience Control switch. For a BMW, perhaps that’s as it should be, particularly given that upright, alert handling is the trade-off.

Even without Variable Sports Steering, the car turns in smartly and resists understeer well as lateral loads build. It remains stable at all times, which in a relatively high-sided car is more important than mixing greater body roll with greater off-throttle handling balance and flirting with unwelcome oversteer.

On track the X1 generates plenty of mechanical grip, keeps its body in check at all times and makes it known when its adhesion levels are on the wane by slipping from the front end first, just as it should.

Attack a tight corner hard, reapplying power earlier than perhaps you should on the way out, and you can feel BMW’s torque vectoring system diverting power away from the unloaded wheels and its four-wheel drive system shuffling power rearwards. It’s a reactive rather than a proactive process, though, mitigating understeer as it builds rather than preventing it altogether.

The stability control is quite subtle, intervening gently to begin with. Turn it off and it’s possible to hustle the X1 through a corner more quickly, but considerably less tidily, albeit without encountering any underlying handling instability.

But that also means the X1 doesn’t feel quite as dynamically poised as BMW’s rear-driven saloons and estates and can’t be balanced or turned on the accelerator in the same way. Much as it might promise otherwise, BMW’s four-wheel drive system doesn’t make a telling difference in that respect.

BMW could also have done a better job of filtering feedback into the X1’s steering, which, although nicely weighted and consistent, doesn’t tell you much about how hard the front wheels are working.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

The second generation BMW X1

The X1’s pricing makes it pretty clear that BMW expects it to be in demand. Looking at the car’s closest rivals, the £32k asking price for a mid-spec xDrive20d Sport is fairly competitive.But when you look slightly further afield – at the step up from volume-brand alternatives or the closeness to a like-for-like BMW X3 – you may start to feel a bit short-changed by the X1.

We would mitigate the high costs by opting for the SE or Sport specs, and selecting the Navigation pack (£1490), the Technology pack (£990) and Electronic Damper Control (£390)

The X1’s LED lights provide good clarity and range but could be brighter

On a contract hire basis, the jump up to the X3 should be narrower still, with residual value experts CAP predicting slightly poorer residual performance from the smaller car.

Priced at more than £36k, the range-topping X1 xDrive25d costs as much as a well-equipped Land Rover Discovery Sport.

The car’s equipment level is reasonable but not a selling point on its own, and its fuel economy and CO2 emissions, although competitive, are not outstanding, either. Our True MPG testers produced an overall average of 42.7mpg from the xDrive20d.

VERDICT

The much improved and now 4 star BMW X1

Owners of the previous-generation BMW X1 simply won’t recognise the spacious, flexible, classy customer they’ve taken delivery of here – and refugees from other crossover models will have plenty to say in praise of the car’s practicality, quality and handsomeness.

But those with a broader experience of the BMW model range may not be quite so bowled over by this car and neither, quite, are we.

Much improved, but not the dominant act that its price implies

Although its performance is strong, it’s not outstandingly so and the same is true of its real-world fuel economy. The X1’s handling is spry but it isn’t a desperately slick or engaging car to drive. And, for a premium-brand car, it still leaves a fair amount to be desired on refinement.

In reflection of all of that, and of the high price asked for the car, our rank for the X1 places it outside of the top two.

It’s a broad and challenging class, sure, but also one in which BMW could expect to do better if it offered better value for money. As result the BMW X1 still falls behind the class topping Nissan Qashqai, and the agile and engaging Ford Kuga in our top five crossovers listings.

BMW X1 2015-2021 First drives