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Day in X1 utility turns loathing into delight

Published November 28, 2009


Munich—The reasons were piling up almost as high as the nearby Alps to loathe the X1, BMW's newest compact utility vehicle.

First, BMW already has a pair of small five-doors on sale.

There's the fine-driving 3-series Touring sports wagon. Its taut handling, silky straight-six engine, grippy all-wheel-drive and modicum of utility make it one of the most multi-talented premium cars you can buy.

Then there's BMW's first crack at the compact utility segment, the slightly larger X3 that debuted in 2004. With its hobby-horse ride and cheap-feeling interior, it was a rare strikeout from an automaker used to hitting homeruns.

But I mean, really. How many small utility vehicles does the German automaker need in its showrooms?

Ah, but then I spent a day piloting a European-market, five-passenger X1 xDrive28i, in and around BMW's hometown of Munich. The loathing stopped. And what won me over was the X1's "just rightness" for our times.

It goes, steers, handles and rides almost as well as the 3-series wagon, feels premium on the inside, has a great driving position, and is the ideal size for urban errand running or the school run.

Just as the new BMW 5-series Gran Turismo hatchback wedges itself just above a 5-series wagon and just below an X5 SUV, the new X1 splits the wafer-thin dimensional differences between the 3 wagon and bigger X3.

Despite its nomenclature, the X1's mechanicals are heavily based on the current 3 wagon chassis. While its interior dash and centre console are 1-series related.

While the interiors of those first '04 X3s appeared to be assembled by chimpanzees better skilled at putting round pegs into square holes, the X1's cockpit is nicely tailored using quality materials and felt solid in feel.

Compared to a 3 wagon, the X1 xDrive28i's elevated seating position and taller ceiling give front occupants a better view of the road and a feeling of overall more room.

There are three seatbelts in the rear, but two passengers will be happier. The 40/20/20 split backrests are adjustable for angle and fold down to increase cargo room from 420 litres to a maximum of 1,350 litres, a little less than the 3 wagon.

New parents struggling to get their kids in and out of baby car seats in the back seat of the X1 will appreciate not having to bend down as low as you would in a 3-series Touring.

Right now, all BMW Canada can confirm is the X1's model year: 2011. Drivetrain choices, specs, and pricing have yet to be decided.

In Europe, the X1 is available with a variety of drivetrain flavours that would put Baskin Robbins to shame.

For example, with more torque than our top-line xDrive28i's six-cylinder gas mill, an sDrive18d with rear-wheel drive averages 5.2 litres/100 km (54 mpg) on the EU circuit. But our diesel-hating friends in the U.S. won't like it.

Instead, North American X1's will probably get the 258 hp, 3.0-litre gas six, hooked up to six-speed automatic transmission as per our X1 xDrive28i European testers.

BMW has confirmed that a four-cylinder gas engine is slated for the next-generation 3-series, due in 2012. Don't be surprised if a less expensive X1 gets that four-banger eventually.

At least the X1 xDrive28i's naturally-aspirated 3.0 is a gem: smooth and sweet revving, as we've come to expect from BMW inline-sixes.

The xDrive28i accelerates from 0- to-100 km/h in 6.8 seconds, tops out at 230 km/h (although we were limited to 210 km/h because of winter tires fitted) and gets 9.4 litres/100 km (30 mpg).

Where the X1 shines brightest against segment rivals like the Audi Q5, Infiniti EX35 or Volvo XC60, is how natural and engaging it feels from the driver's seat going down a twisty Bavarian back road.

To stop the original X3 from rolling over in sharp corners, BMW engineers made its suspension out of wood and fitted tires that were thinner from the side than a supermodel on a diet.

With the X1 xDrive28i, though, the balance between ride and handling is much improved.

It turns in sharply with little body roll, steering is linear and robust in feel. And the ride is far more compliant than earlier X3's. It's still not as good as 3 wagon, but it's close.

And if BMW Canada does the logical thing and price it less than the $45,600 328i xDrive Touring, it would instantly become one of the better values in the lineup.

The above-mentioned conditional tense is the X1's biggest problem. Right now, the X1 is hitting a particularly sweet spot in the new car market in Europe.

Small, practical and premium is in. And a whole generation of North American customers used to the driving height of minivans and SUVs — but don't want the driving compromises or plebeian image — are migrating to multiple-personality small vehicles like the X1.

For example, Audi can't keep its Q5 in stock because of demand here and around the world.

The X1 went on sale in Europe last month. As it stands now, though, the X1 won't go on sale here for almost a year and a half.

By then, the BMW will not only have to compete with the likes of Range Rover LRX and Audi Q3, but also against a new (but larger) X3 and a production version of the five-door Mini Crossover concept.

And instead of hating the X1, I ended up quite liking its combination of driving and utility. Potentially a roomier 3-series wagon for less money, it would be my choice for a small, premium utility vehicle.

So much so, I think BMW Canada's missing a huge opportunity here by waiting to introduce the X1 to Canadians.

Travel was provided to freelancer John LeBlanc by the automaker.