It's a curious paradox that as the average American continues to get bigger, their automobile is shrinking around them. When the BMW X1 was originally unveiled in 2009, it was deemed unsuitable for the U.S. market. BMW's product planners saw little appeal in a crossover that was no bigger than a 3 Series sedan but cost north of $30K.
Times have changed considerably since then. The success of premium compact SUVs such as the Audi Q5 and Range Rover Evoque has convinced BMW that soccer moms are ready for a crossover with a smaller cross. That thinking suddenly made the X1 look like a good fit in the U.S., so to coincide with the vehicle's midlife face-lift, BMW is introducing the refreshed X1 to the States to see just how small Americans are willing to go.
Smaller, yet You Might Not Notice
At 176.5 inches long and 70.8 inches wide, the 2013 BMW X1 is 6.6 inches shorter and 3.4 inches narrower than the BMW X3. The wheelbase is also 1.9 inches shorter as well so the accommodations inside are predictably less generous. There's still enough room for four adults, however, and kids won't think twice about sitting in the backseats. Its cargo capacity of 14.8 cubic feet is similar to an average sedan in this category, and it can expand to 47.7 cubic feet with the seats folded.
BMW has come to appreciate that the X1 is not so much a stepping stone to the X3 as a credible alternative. Modest yet effective revisions to the exterior are joined by an interior makeover that takes the X1 upmarket. It still can't match the designer chic of the Evoque, but it no longer feels like a cast-off by comparison. The X1 has found its role in life.
The dashboard is typical BMW, logically arranged and angled subtly toward the driver. Opt for satellite navigation and it's enlivened by an iDrive control system. Storage space is adequate, but the clip-on cupholder still looks like a panicky afterthought, as do the USB input ports, which are bolted on to the fascia. You never escape the feeling that this car is a generation behind the new 3 Series.
In common with the new 3 Series, BMW is offering a series of "Lines" to help customers distinguish their new chariot (and part with more cash). The xLine seeks to bolster the X1's "activity" credentials with undertray guards, matte silver slats for the kidney grille and side skirt covers. The alternative is the Sport Line, which boasts alternative alloys, sport seats and black gloss detailing.
BMW is anxious to emphasize that these "Lines" should not be confused with the M Sport "Package," which boasts suspension and tire upgrades. In other words, Lines are for those who want to look the part, while packages are for buyers who want a little more substance.
Speaking of Substance
The entry-level model will be the rear-wheel-drive sDrive28i that uses BMW's new 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine (an all-wheel-drive xDrive28i will be available as well). This engine is also used to fine effect in the new 3 Series and boasts 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque from 1,250-4,800 rpm. ZF's ubiquitous eight-speed auto is standard, and BMW claims the sDrive28i is good for zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds (the xDrive28i is 0.1 second slower).
To make the X1 a little more interesting, BMW also decided to offer the crossover with its 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder. Available with all-wheel drive only, the xDrive35i is a U.S.-specific product that caters to our penchant for small cars with powerful engines. It's only available with a six-speed ZF auto and delivers 300 hp at 5,800 rpm and 300 lb-ft from 1,200-1,500 rpm. BMW says it's enough for a 0-60-mph time of just 5.3 seconds.
We've always been huge admirers of the inline-6, but for once, it's not the best choice. The 2.0-liter turbo feels a natural foil for the X1's character. In the real world it does feel a little slower and although the four isn't quite as smooth or melodious as the six, it could never be described as harsh. The extra gears of the eight-speed transmission make a positive difference, too, and this model also benefits from Eco Pro efficiency modes and automatic start-stop technology, which are not offered in the xDrive35i.
BMW's own EPA estimates suggest the sDrive28i should achieve 28 mpg combined (25 mpg for the all-wheel-drive model) compared with 21 mpg for the xDrive35i. Throw in the purchase price differential of $8,000 and it becomes hard to make a case for the larger motor.
Feels Like a Proper BMW
BMW is keen to present the X1 as a vehicle that combines the dynamic attributes of its sedans with the style of a crossover. The driving position is more SUV than sedan. You sit high and peer down the sculptured hood. The wheel is chunky and elegant dials are instantly familiar.
There are some subtle differences between each model. The 28i's gearstick, for example, is the latest techno-knob from the new 3 Series, while the 35i soldiers on with a more basic setup. It's a not-so-subtle reminder that its technology is a generation behind.
The sDrive has BMW's EPS electrically assisted steering while, for packaging reasons, the xDrive pair offer hydraulically assisted steering. BMW's engineers are adamant that EPS offers greater scope for dynamic tuning as well as improving efficiency. This may well be true, but there can also be no denying that for now at least, the X1's hydraulic system remains the more consistent and engaging companion. At low speeds in particular, the EPS feels somewhat artificial.
Even without the optional M Sport suspension, the X1 is a decent steer. It's not overtly sporting but there's a fine balance of low-speed ride comfort and high-speed stability. Body roll is well suppressed and you can press on with a confidence and security worthy of the propeller badge. With its smaller dimensions and lower center of gravity, the X1 feels significantly more agile and responsive than the X3. It never quite replicates the sedan experience — partly because the new 3 Series is so sublime — but for a crossover, it's undeniably impressive. In this respect, its most obvious rival is the Land Rover Evoque, which is significantly more expensive.
Another Reason To Stay Small
Whether you choose rear- or all-wheel drive will depend on where you live and how versatile you want your crossover to be. In normal conditions, the sDrive should have little trouble handling the power of the 2.0-liter turbo. The army of stability and traction control systems also does a fine job of managing matters in extremes. An sDrive28i on standard suspension would be our choice unless you really need all-wheel drive.
The xDrive system uses an electronic multiplate clutch linked to sensors from the stability control system to apportion torque to all four wheels, working to counter the onset of under- or oversteer. A hill descent system is standard, which automatically controls the vehicle speed down steep inclines.
Opt for the M Sport package and you also get what BMW calls Performance Control. This delivers a 20-to-80 front-to-rear torque split in standard conditions in an attempt to replicate the feel of rear-wheel drive. It helps a bit, but again, the xDrive35i is a little on the overpowered side so it never feels quite like a true rear-driver.
In Europe, with prices starting at almost $10,000 less than an X3, the X1 has a role to play. In terms of size and features, its most obvious rival is the Evoque and while it lacks the Range Rover's panache, it's appreciably cheaper.
The face-lift has also done a fine job of righting the wrongs of the original car. It looks more purposeful on the outside and of higher quality on the inside. It also has the right engine lineup for the U.S., as the smaller engine delivers great mileage while the larger option has the necessary power to make this a seriously quick crossover.
Is there really room for a crossover like the X1 in America? A seemingly never-ending penchant for anything that sits higher than a sedan would indicate yes. Throw in a price point that opens the door for a larger chunk of the buying public compared to the 3 Series and the X1 should do just fine, even if it's a little small for a crossover.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report