Like so many car companies, Bavarian Motor Works took a twisty route to become one of the world’s most renowned makers of sport sedans and roadsters.
It began in 1916 as an aircraft-engine manufacturer, but Germany’s defeat in the First World War saw the fledgling company barred from producing war implements, so BMW turned to motorcycles.
Its first motorbike, the R32, utilized a boxer-twin engine displacing half a litre and producing 8.5 horsepower. An enduring design, its two cylinders jutted out from the bike frame, one on each side for even cooling, and spun a driveshaft instead of a chain.
BMW began assembling Austin 7 automobiles under licence from the British firm in 1928, and launched its own car in 1932, the 3/20, powered by a four-cylinder engine. The 303, debuting soon after, featured BMW’s first straight-six-cylinder engine.
They represented the humble origins of a long line of competent, often brilliant, performance automobiles that benefited from BMW’s engineering prowess and passion for competition.
Fast forward six decades and BMW’s penchant for British brands compelled it to purchase the Rover Group in 1994, which it sold off just six years later – but not before learning from Land Rover how to build a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that would have cost billions to develop otherwise.
To the chagrin of its fans, BMW got into the SUV business in 1999 with its excellent X5, the off-roader that put the sport in sport-utility. Today BMW sells no less than eight SUV models and numerous sub-models to wring enormous profit from an inexhaustible market segment.
One of its newest is the subcompact X2, which arrived in 2018 to fill the slender gap between the X1 and X3. The X2 is mostly a reskinning of the X1, which itself had undergone a transformation when it adopted BMW’s new UKL front-drive architecture shared with its Mini division. The platform – which optimizes space by using three- or four-cylinder engines mounted sideways – makes the X1 and X2 true car-based crossovers.
In contrast to the X1’s boxy SUV profile, a reduction in height and length, along with pinched windows, makes the X2 resemble a tall wagon. The lower roofline constrains headroom somewhat, especially with the optional panoramic sunroof. Occupants under 6 feet tall won’t have an issue, though.
The rear seats can fit two adults or three children adequately. There’s just 21.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity, while the upright X1 holds 27 cubes. At least there’s a 40/20/40-split folding rear seat for added carrying flexibility.
The cabin offers BMW’s usual solid ergonomics, but the styling exacts a toll as the interior feels a little claustrophobic. Visibility is subpar, thanks to the smallish greenhouse (glass area). BMW’s iDrive interface is standard, of course, and although the X2 doesn’t get the newest version, the system is still quick and easy to use. Pedestrian warning, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning are all standard. But a key safety feature is absent.
“Needs blind spot monitoring!” one owner underscored online, a critical deficiency given the X2’s restricted outward visibility. Another listed some other deficits: “It has most of the modern features, but missing important things like iPhone map on screen, front and back sensors, folding mirrors, and garage door opener.”
The X2 is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder making 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, tied to a conventional 8-speed automatic transmission supplied by Japan’s Aisin. The driver can select Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport driving modes, which affect the steering weight, powertrain response and, if the optional adaptive dampers have been fitted, suspension firmness. All X2s in Canada get standard xDrive, BMW’s slick all-wheel-drive system (Americans can buy a front-wheel-drive base model).
For 2019 BMW couldn’t resist offering the M35i high-performance variant that features a reworked version of the 2.0-litre turbo four, good for 301 hp and 331 lb-ft of torque, along with an M Sport suspension, bolstered seating, and body-colored fender flares and rocker panels. Its modified automatic transmission features launch control and shorter gears from 1 through 5.
All 2020 models received the formerly optional 8.8-inch display screen, and navigation became standard across the X2 lineup. The X2 is a Top Safety Pick designated by the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety with good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests.
DRIVING THE X2
True to its marque, the X2 is a fairly speedy wagon. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in 6.4 seconds, which is decent performance for such a small crossover – although the Mercedes-Benz GLA can do the deed in 5.8 seconds. Impatient types should check out the M35i. It can achieve highway velocity in 4.6 seconds.
The standard turbo engine is torquey and smooth, and there’s lots of midrange torque on tap to merge or pass. The brakes work brilliantly to scrub off highway speeds, but around town the brakes are overly sensitive and grabby in slow-moving traffic, the only source of irritation.
With its Germanic breeding intact, the X2 provides a high level of agility on twisty roads; it feels stable and nimble without being darty. It’s fun to pitch into fast corners and rewards the driver with its predictable nature. Unfortunately, occupants will feel most every imperfection over rough stretches of road, especially with the optional sport suspension. The crossover’s run-flat tires are especially unforgiving given their stiff sidewalls.
“Suspension is jarring at times in any mode; you feel the bumps assertively with the M package,” reported one X2 owner. Another praised the crossover’s inherent goodness: “I used to own an Audi S4 before, so performance-wise the X2 isn’t the fastest; however, I love the steering feel and response.” Fuel economy is good at 32 mpg in mixed driving (8.8 L/100 km), but remember BMW’s turbos demand the priciest grade of fuel.
No question, the X2 impresses with its well-sorted chassis and drivetrains, tailored interior finishes and athletic driving characteristics. For a subcompact crossover, this little BMW doesn’t require you to compromise on almost anything. Except space. There’s markedly less rear headroom and cargo capacity than in the X1, the ride quality is overly stiff for a luxury brand, and outward visibility is limited by the thick pillars and small glass area.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
In terms of mechanical issues, the X2 has drawn little ire from owners who’ve paid a premium to park a German-made car in their driveway. While the running joke is that BMW stands for “Bring My Wallet,” the latest generation of Bimmers seemingly has been easy to live with.
Despite the lack of online complaints, there’s a few issues used-vehicle shoppers should keep in mind. BMWs typically come with run-flat tires that are roundly despised for wearing out quickly, riding roughly and being costly to replace. Not to mention they can’t be repaired when punctured.
“In 24 months and with only 29,000 kilometres, my X2 needs new brakes (front and back, rotors and pads), an alignment and new run-flats,” one disappointed owner wrote online, digesting a bill of well over $2,000. It’s a reminder that maintaining a BMW – even a subcompact – can result in outsized bills.
Other owner gripes, in small numbers, include usability issues with the infotainment system and navigation, some minor electrical issues, and a quirk with the rear hatch that allows it to randomly open without apparent activation of the key fob. Safety recalls include a steering tie rod that may have been assembled incorrectly, which could result in excessive wear and breakage, and a faulty crankshaft sensor that may cause spontaneous stalling.
Overall, the X2 is a somewhat unique crossover experiment that dispenses with practicality in the name of pure driving fun. For those who can live within its confined means – empty-nesters come to mind – it rewards the driver with quick acceleration and sharp moves. For those of you looking for something handier in the same tidy package, BMW’s X1 may fit the bill.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.