Oh, how a decade can change things. It was just 10 years ago, in 2006, that BMW vehemently denied the notion of a front-wheel drive BMW ever being a thing in a series of animal related print adverts. Around the same time we were still living in a world where BMW’s M division said they’d never build a turbocharged M-car. Fast-forward 10 years and every M-car features at least one turbo, and BMW offers not just one, but two FWD models, with more on the horizon. The latest to join the fray is the F48 BMW X1.
You may point out at this juncture that our BMW X1 xDrive 25i model on test here is 4WD, and you’d be right; but at its core the new BMW X1 is a FWD model, and even the xDrive variant is FWD 95% of the time, or at least until the front wheels slip and the rears need to get some drive going through them.
BMW are no strangers to FWD though. They’ve been engineering ‘wrong-wheel drive’ models for the last 16 years and badging them as MINIs – and they’ve been absolute crackers to drive since the turn of the millennium. This new BMW X1 essentially fits onto a larger version of the platform that underpins the MINI Countryman, which itself isn’t exactly something to turn your nose up at.
So then, this new BMW X1 is pretty good? You could say that, and you could say the MINI influence runs deeper than just the FWD platform. In this 25i xDrive guise, the BMW X1 shares a closely related engine with the most potent MINI available, the Cooper JCW. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged motor with outputs healthily sitting at 170kW and 350Nm.
In regular driving scenarios this motor drives the front wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission – but due to the transversely mounted engine this isn’t the household ZF 8-speed from rear-wheel drive BMWs. Instead it’s sourced from Aisin, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Shifts both up and down are snappy and timeous, although upshifts at part throttle are sometimes hesitant which perhaps distinguishes this ‘box from the excellent ZF unit.
Despite the BMW X1 weighing a not insubstantial 1615kg, the 2-litre engine’s 170kW and 350Nm make light work of carting the X1 around. Flat out from standstill the X1 is capable of a rather sprightly 0-100km/h sprint of 6.5 seconds before maxing out at 235km/h. That’s hot hatch-troubling pace, right there, and the BMW X1 feels every bit as quick as those figures suggest. Overtaking is equally rapid, and easy enough to do, with quick responses from both the engine and transmission.
But the hot hatch intimidation ends where the straight roads do – the raised suspension and high centre of gravity taking a toll on the X1’s handling. That’s not to say the BMW X1 isn’t a deft handler; it is; but on standard suspension as our test unit was, there’s a definite element of body-roll (with 183mm of ground clearance this isn’t surprising) suggesting a greater bias toward comfort.
Grab it by the scruff of the neck and chuck it around, and it’ll respond willingly. Despite the predominantly front-wheel drive setup, it feels surprisingly neutral, resisting understeer until you press firmly against the limits of what an SUV (or SAV as BMW calls this) should do, at which point power shuffles rearwards to help smooth things out.
But even though it’s capable of such antics, it’s happier in a far more reserved role. The BMW X1 feels typically BMW in the way it seems solidly planted on the road at all times. But despite the solidity, the X1 wafts along any road of your choosing without the slightest bit of hesitation. Bumps and corrugations along the way don’t ruffle its feathers much, as the suspension soaks it all up with ease.
The electronic power steering – now the staple in the BMW garage – just keeps getting better for the brand. Despite lacking intricate feedback, the weighting is absolutely spot on, and incredibly direct just off centre. Being speed sensitive, responses slow at higher speeds for stability, making the BMW X1 as easy to use in a tight parking lot as it is on a long-distance highway trip.
But in one aspect the BMW X1 is found lacking. Brake feel hasn’t been one of BMW’s strongest points in recent years, but the desire to make a large, raised vehicle stop with as little effort as possible has resulted in engineer’s developing the brakes to be massively over-servoed. What this means is the pedal travels a couple of centimetres with next to no brake force, but within a few millimetres more the X1 goes from cruising casually to hard on the anchors, particularly at low speeds – great for emergency braking, less so for trying to creep to a halt in a traffic jam. The latter situation saw me self-diagnosing a minor case of whiplash after a few days’ commutes.
Aside from the possible effects on the handling characteristics, the major driving factor in the move to front wheel drive for the BMW X1 was packaging. By removing the need for a driveshaft and transmission tunnel running the length of the car on this platform, BMW has been able to flatten the floor-pan somewhat – which couldn’t be done in the old X1 as it was based on the RWD 3-series platform – and lower the centre console in the front of the cabin, as well as lower the floor pan in the boot.
The resulting space gains mean a third passenger can comfortably occupy the middle of the rear bench without their knees around their ears, while the lower centre console means front occupants aren’t as cosseted and claustrophobic as rear-drive BMWs. It’s also freed up some more storage space, with new storage binnacles beneath the arm rest and at the front of the centre console. Lastly, the voluminous boot – offering 505 litres of space with the rear seats up and a cavernous 1550 litres with them folded – is easier to access with a lower load sill.
Features-wise, the BMW X1 is typically German – very little is standard, and you pay dearly for options. The base BMW X1 xDrive 25i auto with xLine kit costs a fairly hefty R681 934 before options, including as standard rear park distance control (PDC) and automatic air conditioning. With just a few boxes ticked on our test unit to include the massive panoramic glass roof, Harman/Kardon sound system, 18-inch Y-spoke alloys, rear view camera, electric seats, powered tailgate, wood-look inlays, climate control, cruise control, LED headlights, and navigation, the finishing price ends up at a hefty R735 125.40.
It’s a lot to ask, and features such as keyless entry aren’t standard. It can be opted though – and is a must have on such a car, as is the Real-Time Traffic Information (RTTI). To be equipped to all BMW models as standard produced from July onwards, the navigation and RTTI systems managed to better predict traffic than even the venerable Waze and Google Maps, on more than one occasion during my test period.
The BMW X1 isn’t a driver’s car so much as it is a commuter’s car. With acceptable consumption of 7.8l/100km, high levels of overall comfort, and more than ample power in xDrive 25i guise, it’s definitely a strong package to consider. Impressively, BMW hasn’t lost the fun factor with the move to ‘wrong-wheel drive’, and instead it feels like a natural progression from what has come before.
The truth is that there will be those that lament the loss of purity in going front-wheel drive. But the fact is, this is progress; and if you’re even considering a turbocharged or high-riding SAV from BMW then your ‘purist’ credentials have long since left the station. This is the future for BMW’s economy models, and if the future crop of non-driver’s cars come out as good as this, then I say BMW’s front-wheel drive future is bright.
Words: Roger Biermann
Photos: Roarke Bouffe