THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Crisp handler, spirited turbo engines, steep depreciation a plus
- What’s Worst: Small cargo space, obtrusive stop-start system, fast wearing run-flats
- Typical Used Prices: 2012 - $15,000; 2015 - $24,000
What’s the precise moment when the doughy bread slices inside your Smeg turn into warm, crispy toast?
It’s a riddle for the ages. Auto buffs are perplexed by an enigma of their own: At what point is a station wagon considered a sport utility vehicle? How much black plastic cladding does it take? How many millimetres of ground clearance complete the transformation? The mind reels.
It’s a conundrum product planners wrestle with, because if they get it wrong they’re stuck with hectares of slow-selling wagons few want, rather than SUVs that fly off of dealers’ lots at premium prices. Subaru wrote the book with its Outback and Volvo learned the alchemy, too, while others haven’t always been successful.
BMW created a lucrative line of SUVs, starting with its groundbreaking X5 in 1999, that nobody mistook for wagons outfitted with powerful engines and fat tires. The introduction of the small X1, however, ushered in a model that teetered on the knife edge between wagon and sport utility.
With the proliferation of entry-level luxury sport utes like the Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque poised to drop into the North America market, BMW pressed into service the X1, a small ute it shipped from Germany – where it had been marketed since 2009 – to fill the sudden gap in its product lineup.
BMW differentiated itself by having the only vehicle in the class based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, being closely related to the old E91-generation 3 Series wagon with the same all-wheel-drive mechanicals. Lacking differential locks, BMW signaled that the X1 is not an off-road bruiser, but instead a performance-oriented “activity” vehicle like the other X series models.
The X1 was considered a subcompact, being some 12 cm shorter than most compact SUVs and no taller than a Suzuki SX4 – not a bad thing, since users can lash their skis and bikes to the roof without the aid of a stepladder. Canadian sales began in the summer of 2011, predating the U.S. introduction by more than a year.
With a starting price of $38,500 the 2012 X1 represented an uncommon bargain for a Bimmer as it was almost $10,000 cheaper than the 328i wagon, yet came with the same xDrive all-wheel-drive system, a new eight-speed automatic transmission and additional ground clearance. The AWD system normally sends 60 per cent of the engine torque to the rear axle – most crossovers favour the front wheels – although the multidisc clutch pack can flexibly apportion torque to whichever axle needs the traction.
Surprisingly, the X1 retained hydraulic, not electric, steering. Buyers liked the X1’s (slightly) higher stance and seating position that, combined with its tall greenhouse and large mirrors, created good sightlines save to the rear.
Inside, the familiar BMW dashboard was intact and the cabin was swathed in good materials, textures and colours, although the standard vinyl upholstery has its detractors. The front seats are supportive and comfortable; the back bench is a little flat (so it can fold down easily) and not nearly as roomy as those of some competitors. A few buyers were annoyed by the lack of storage cubbies.
“BMW still can’t figure out cup holder and interior storage concepts,” one owner complained online. “If you like to drink coffee this is not the car for you.” The cargo hold is barely adequate; even small families may need to budget for a rooftop carrier.
The 2.0-L turbocharged four-cylinder engine plucked from the new-generation 3 Series cars was the only available engine in 2012, wedded to an eight-speed automatic transmission supplied by ZF. Its 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque made the weighty X1 actually feel spritely.
The xDrive35i model, new for 2013, used the same 3.0-L turbocharged inline six cylinder that powers many of BMW’s products these days, making 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of useful torque. It came packaged with a six-speed automatic. Sadly, you won’t come across an X1 model with a stick here.
In the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing, the X1 earned the top rating in moderate-overlap frontal offset, side impact, roof strength and head restraint tests, but a marginal rating in the small-overlap frontal collision test.
Other than a few minor trim and equipment tweaks, the X1 remained unchanged through 2015. An entirely new X1 appeared for 2016, one that employed BMW’s front-drive architecture shared with its Mini division. As much as “front-wheel-drive BMW” sounds like sacrilege, in a vehicle this small the front-drive platform pays dividends.
True aficionados, however, shed a tear for the first-generation X1, the product of BMW’s old ways of doing things.
DRIVING THE X1
Observers were stumped by the X1’s corpulence (all 1,735 kg of it), curious for such a small vehicle powered by an aluminum four-cylinder engine. Despite its burden, the X1’s twin-scroll turbo spools up with the best of them and can propel the little ute to 97 km/h in 6.0 seconds flat, thanks in part to the expert gear changes executed by the eight-speed autobox.
The N55 3.0-L inline turbo six is quicker, but not by a huge margin. Highway velocity comes up in 5.2 seconds – plenty good for what is marketed as BMW’s entry-level ute. The X1 is fleeter than its X3 big brother and there’s some satisfaction in that, given the price differential.
“The car is fast, and the AWD and suspension tuning makes the car fun to drive, very comfy and confidence-inspiring, whatever the weather,” posted one owner of a 2013 model.
Already an agile handler – let’s hear it for old-school hydraulic steering – X1 buyers may wish to avoid the low-profile tires that came with the optional Sport package. Some found the ride too harsh, especially on frost-heaved pavement. Seasoned BMW buyers thought the X1 was noisier than their previous Bimmer, blaming the hard run-flat tires in part.
The four-cylinder turbo is admirably frugal with fuel, but observed fuel consumption by the six-cylinder engine can be much higher than its Energuide rating. Keep in mind both engines demand premium fuel. BMW’s start-stop system, which shuts down the engine at every red light to preserve fuel, can feel abrupt and unrefined. Fortunately, it can be turned off at the touch of a button.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
Buyers gravitated to the first-gen X1 because it cleaved a unique niche for itself as a tall wagon with the DNA of the vaunted 3 Series cars. If you have to have the twin-kidney grille, the X1 is a smart way to obtain it, along with the trademark performance, without breaking the bank.
In terms of dependability, the made-in-Germany X1 hasn’t been a troublesome model for the most part. The number-one complaint involves the standard run-flat tires, which were specified so that the meagre cargo hold isn’t compromised by a spare tire. But owners roundly criticize the run-flat rubber for wearing out quickly, failing easily and costing a small ransom to buy, since the tires can’t be repaired.
“A small piece of gravel embedded in the tire and caused a slow leak. When the stone was removed… totally flat tire. No replacement available for three days. Almost $600 for a new tire,” griped one inconvenienced owner. There are unnerving reports of faulty brakes, too.
“The brakes’ power assist failed while approaching a stop sign in a low-speed residential area. Brakes required more effort but they did eventually grab, although not before momentum carried the vehicle partially into cross-traffic,” reported one X1 driver.
The problem was addressed by a campaign (BMW 13V-454) that saw 2012-2014 3-Series, 5-Series, X1, X3 and Z4 models with four-cylinder engines recalled because vacuum pump problems can cause the power assist to fail. Driven by the intake camshaft, the oil supply to the pump can become blocked. Dealers install a locking ring on the camshaft to keep the seal disk from moving.
The turbocharged four-cylinder engine is gaining a reputation for smoking, thanks to leaking valve cover gaskets and oil filter housing gaskets. Also, the four-banger’s electronic thermostat can fail and trip the Check Engine lamp. The power door locks were singled out for being uncooperative, occasionally locking people inside or outside the vehicle.
Beyond these relatively rare occurrences, the X1 comports itself with the style and grace befitting the marque. By retaining the best features of a wagon and SUV – combined with time-honoured BMW goodness – the first-generation X1 is an oft-overlooked model that suffers from steep depreciation. Which makes it just about perfect as a used-vehicle buy.
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