What’s next, the BMW X.5? The folks in Munich clearly are getting carried away with cloning the X5, which since its introduction in 1999 has grown steadily (the 2014 is slated to finally feature third-row seating) in order to stand out from its recently beefed up X3 sibling. And now comes baby, the 2013 BMW X1, more puffed-up wagon than sport-ute and a curious new model aimed at a demographic segment best defined as married with small kids but not that much luggage.
Two aftershocks accompanied the arrival of a Le Mans Blue Metallic over sand beige Nevada leather X1 xDrive 28i. The first was the vehicle itself, which far from being a trash-compacted X3 struck a pose as an elegant and spacious machine with presence. That's courtesy a taut design and minimal wheel-well gaps that make the X1 look less like a toaster on wheels and more like a blue bullet aimed at the heart of the Subaru Impreza/Audi Q5/Honda CR-V market.
The second surprise was the wallet-decimating window sticker: $45,245 after the base car — priced at a more expected $32,350 — was gussied up with a Xenon lighting package ($1,200), the Ultimate Package ($6,650, including features such as auto-dimming mirrors, panoramic moonroof and power front seats) and the M Sport Line package ($3,000 for not only more aggressive body panels but also Performance Control, which sends 80 percent of this all-wheel-drive car’s torque to the rear wheels during cornering while feathering the inside brakes to boot).
That’s an impressive amount of high-tech weaponry at your disposal. But it’s also still 45 large (amazingly, not including heated seats), which causes one to shoot the X1 a look that says, “Impress me.” In many respects this driver-focused crossover does just that, but in others it underwhelms. Let’s start with the latter.
Keeping in mind the gi-normo price tag, the X1 could feel a little more upscale inside. The Nevada leather feels reassuringly thick and nick-resistant, but those durable traits come at the expense of sheer luxury. Then there are the two front seat cup-holders. Why is this so hard, people? One is mounted in the center console, but it’s not accessible if you choose to slide the armrest forward, which you will unless you like your elbow banging around between the e-brake handle and the iDrive knob. And the other floats in space not far from your passenger’s left knee. German automakers still may not think cup-holders are a priority, but BMW could take a page here from Porsche’s book and come up with a system that hides them altogether unless needed.
Other pet peeves noticed over a week of life with the X1 include an Auto Start Stop feature that restarts the car in such a clunky manner that it’s best left turned off. Also, the gear selector stalk will only engage the transmission if you simultaneously press a button with your right thumb as you flick the lever up or down. What’s more, Park isn’t selected by moving the lever all the way to high noon - that’s actually reverse - but by pressing a button labeled “P.” That all may sound like nitpicking, but when automotive actions that should be afterthoughts are made more complicated by a system, the result is not the ultimate but rather a spoiled driving experience.
The last beef is, well, less a beef than a warning. As tempting as it always is to park a car with that storied Roundel badge in your garage, think hard about your human/animal/cargo carrying needs before choosing this particular Bimmer variant. While the X1 actually feels fairly big and noticeably similar in size to the X3, it’s actually nearly 7 inches shorter and three inches narrower. That translates to having to make some choices. Three people in the back seat? Sure, but try and make sure the poor person in the middle isn’t out of high school. Planning to head on vacation for a while? No problem if it’s you and your honey and maybe Fido; but that’s a big no-go if you’ve got four people plus their luggage, as the 25 cubic-feet of rear cargo room disappears quickly.
To put the X1 to the test, a family-of-four trip was ginned up over a recent weekend. Destination: Lake Tahoe and its snow-blanketed mountains. The good news was that with the rear seats’ middle section flipped down skis fit just perfectly without requiring a pricey rack. The trunk managed to swallow up a few bags plus ski boots, though additional luggage had to travel with friends in their minivan.
On the drive west into the Sierras, the X1’s significant provenance made itself readily apparent. Anyone who’s been following both the press and popular sentiment surrounding BMW’s new 1 Series knows that this is a giant-killer of a platform. In 1M Coupe guise, the result is so good that it’s driven many an enthusiast to dump their potent if heavy M3 for this nimble machine, which conjures up the flickable glory days of the old BMW 2002.
At the heart of the drive is the X1’s laudable 241-hp TwinPower turbocharged inline four cylinder, which is utterly without fault. It is capable of humming along at gas-sipping highway speeds (a laudable 22/33 miles per gallon city/highway), but is a gas-pedal stomping paddle-shift away from rocketing past neighboring cars (0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds). Mix in a thick leather steering wheel, all-wheel-drive, the M Sport Line’s beefed up suspension, and — a growing rarity these days — an old-school hydraulic steering system in lieu of electronics, and the result is a vehicle that inspires utter confidence after negligible seat time.
That was especially true once the X1 hit the mountains, where a light dusting of snow made for a few wannabe rally-driving runs through the neighborhoods around the Alpine Meadows ski resort. The X1 slid where expected, with just a touch of opposite lock and a dance between gas and brake pedals required to keep the car on course. The only time the X1 panicked was, predictably, on ice, when the ABS kicked in with a vengeance as the summer-focused tires screamed bloody murder.
Ultimately, that overwhelming sense of connectedness between driver and machine are what make the X1 a real player in its segment despite that breathtaking price tag. Other small ute/crossover wagon competitors may offer more room or more features or a less scary window sticker, but you get what you pay for. And in the X1, you’re getting a practical, city-friendly driver’s scalpel that has learned a few tricks from the 1M all-star in the family. So who cares if the folks in the back are a bit cramped? You’re the one driving.