Back in 2009 the BMW X car phenomenon was a decade old and still gathering steam. The second generation X5 was two years old, the X6 had taken the SUV world by storm the year before, and the first generation X3 was just months away from being replaced.
That summer I was invited to drive a camouflaged, pre-production example of the first generation BMW X1 in Mallorca. This drive found me chasing an X3 expertly piloted by a chassis dynamics engineer, up a challenging uphill route, and then across an off-road course.
Built around 3-Series X1 Touring derived underpinnings, and lower in overall height as well as ground clearance than the X3, that first generation X1 drove more like a car than a 4x4, and proved to be hugely capable on tarmac and competent off-road too
Just how crucial the success of that first X1 was to BMW is best explained in sales percentage terms. By 2015 the X model portfolio was running at 28% of total BMW sales, and the X1 was a top three model, accounting for 10% of overall production.
The second generation X1 that arrived in 2015 looked a lot more grown up. Taller than its predecessor it appeared more like a scaled down X3, with much greater presence and attitude than before.
Crucially, the new formula struck gold with BMW’s target audience, and this was reflected in sales. In the huge Chinese market where compact SUV sales have accelerated away over the last few years the second generation X1 was the right car at the right time.
Customers often wonder why face lifted models do not get the very latest telematics introduced in their all-new stable-mates scant months before. The answer lies in the electronic and hardware structures of a vehicle.
For instance, a car that was not originally launched with provision for a head-up display cannot suddenly grow one at face-lift time, as this bulky unit has to be designed into the dashboard and the metalwork supporting it from day one. The rake and curvature of the front windscreen is also part of the deal, not to mention crash testing and homologation, so things are not as easy as they might appear to onlookers.
Similarly, if a manufacturer changes its car audio supplier for an all-new model the face-lifted car has to soldier on with the old system until the line is eventually replaced.
This is why the face-lifted X1 that goes on sale next month still uses the OS6 generation infotainment system in a now larger 10.25-inch widescreen touch display atop the centre of the dashboard, rather than the OS7 generation seen on the all-new BMW models released in recent months.
Personally I am not upset that the revised X1 has not been able to adopt the new style electronic instrument pack that appeared on the X5 last year. As the rev counter of the new layout moves in a direction that many feel is counter intuitive, the mirror imaged speedo and rev counter layout has polarised opinions amongst enthusiasts. Instead the new X1 has a TFT screen with black panel technology that retains the traditional and simple BMW round dial design, which is clearer and easier to read.
There are three new upholstery colours to choose from, and if you are into mood lighting there is the option of six colour ambient lighting for the instrument panel and front and rear doors. All but the Base model has a leather look dash top covering, with black stitching for the upper section and contrast stitching below.
Other new features to aid busy people on the move are the induction charger for a mobile phone in the centre console, with a USB outlet above it, and a USB-C outlet at the rear of the console.
Exterior changes include a larger remodelled grille, new front light clusters with LED lights standard, new wider rear lights with optional LED technology and revised bumpers with reshaped intakes in front that clearly distinguish them from the outgoing model. Over and above these basic changes, buyers have the choice of Base, xLine, Sport Line and M Sport styling packages.
Our first test car, a petrol-powered xDrive25i, looked even more purposeful thanks to the latest M Sport package with its distinctive colour coded front and rear bumpers, side skirts, wheel arch trims and 10mm lower sports suspension.
The big central under bumper air intake and the kidney grilles with the active slats behind do the real heavy breathing for the engine, and the big ‘intakes’ on each side are actually plastic mouldings there for effect. That said the end result is quite eye catching, particularly in this shade of blue!
On non M Sport models the choice of wheel size runs from 17 to 19-inches, but the big blue M Sport brake callipers behind the 8.5J x 19-inch alloys shod with 225/45R19 rubber on this car certainly adds to the sporting image. At the rear the black plastic ‘diffuser’ in the valence helps to reduce the visual mass of this tall vehicle, and also showcases the two 90mm diameter chrome exhaust tips.
I clearly remember the naturally aspirated straight-six motors in the first generation X3. They made a nice noise and were very smooth, but in a heavy, blunt SUV they were distinctly lacking in torque. The turbocharged fours that replaced them had more muscle and better fuel economy.
The updated 1,998cc TwinPower Turbo four in the latest X1 xDrive 25i is a descendant of that motor and has a healthy 231hp from 5,000 to 6,000rpm, underpinned by 350Nm of torque from a low 1,450rpm to 4,500rpm. Thanks to the compound turbocharger it has crisp pickup and real thrust from low down, and then revs cleanly to peak power.
While its stopwatch numbers are genuinely rapid for a non-sporting compact SUV, with 100km/h coming up in 6.5 seconds on the way to a 235km/h top speed, the important thing is that this most powerful of the petrol X1s feels eager and fun to drive.
With the uprated suspension and 19-inch wheels on this M Sport version it is a real blast on a twisty country road, the great visibility from the elevated driving position helping you make good progress from point to point. Despite the low profile tyres and sport suspension the ride is quite absorbent. Meanwhile the medium weighted power steering and well balanced chassis deliver confidence inspiring poise on a twisty road.
The 2.0 litre turbo-diesel powered X1 xDrive25d we drove next had the xLine package. This is the luxury trim level that we think produces the most handsome and classiest looking of the four trim levels.
This heavy oil burner also has 231hp, but really hits the ball out of the park with a lusty 450Nm of torque. That said, despite its greater twist the slower and lower revving diesel takes 0.1 seconds longer to break the 100km/h mark from rest.
That great big slug of torque is a source of joy on the open road where the 25d rockets out of bends with even greater determination than its petrol powered sister. It is also significantly more economical - 5.2-4.9 L/100km plays 6.8-6.3 L/100km - so you can go quite a bit further between fill ups.
The xDrive25d shares the close ratio eight-speed ZF automatic with the 25i and it is fast and seamless when left to its own devices and sportingly responsive when you use the paddle shifters in manual over-ride.
It has to be said that the petrol four is noticeably quieter and more refined when accelerating and on part throttle, so if you are not going to do the sort of mileages where the greater economy of the diesel comes into its own then the xDrive25i is the more cultured travelling companion. If economy and low emissions are a priority then the Plug-In Hybrid X1 xDrive25e that goes on sale in March 2020 is the third way. BMW claims it can travel 50km on e-power. Right at the other end of the scale the entry level front-wheel-drive sDrive16i is powered by a 140hp turbocharged 1,499cc three cylinder motor, and is the only X1 available with a manual gearbox.
The X1 may be BMW’s entry-level SUV but it has matured into a very complete family car with a generous helping of the values that make all the X models popular with their owners.
With its newly sharpened looks, freshened interior, solid build quality and good overall performance the BMW X1 remains near the top of the tree in the desirability stakes. So once more it is “game on!”