2016 BMW X1 First Drive

by Heather Platt | Posted on Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Perhaps more than any other model, the X1 exemplifies the shift going on at BMW. That the X1 is the first front-drive-based car to wear the BMW badge in the US is both remarkable and doesn’t matter at all.

2016 BMW X1

Some background: The first X1, sold here for the latter half of its six-year run, was an Old BMW. Based on E90 3 Series underpinnings, it was basically a tall, last-gen 3 wagon, a car on short stilts. We loved it. It drove almost exactly like a good 3 Series at a time when that 3 Series was no longer available. It sold in okay numbers. It’s gone now.

This new X1, the 2016 model, is a sort of about face, or at least a right-hand turn in the engine compartment. This is New BMW. The base engine is again a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a new design based on the company’s modular engine architecture that can spit out threes, fours, and sixes using the same component set. It’s mounted transversely, not longitudinally like in the rest of BMW’s US offerings. It loses some horsepower to the last X1’s 2.0 (228 hp versus 240) and a bit of torque (258 lb-ft down from 260). Again, few will notice. The optional 3.0-liter turbocharged six from the last generation is gone. Not many customers chose it, and the six likely wouldn’t fit under the hood of this rearranged X1.

So packaging won. There’s really no other explanation for the longitudinal-transverse swap, except that maybe it’s less expensive to build this way. EPA fuel-economy numbers match those from the 2015 xDrive28i exactly – 22 mpg city, 32 highway – so no gains there. But the packaging advantages are abundant. The interior is somewhat narrow, but it’s opened up a bit by the lack of a transmission tunnel that would normally eat space between the front occupants. Instead, the center console is set low, with a tall shift lever rising practically from the floor up to meet your hand. There’s storage forward of the shifter and a folding center armrest that opens for small items.

The original X1 was sold here with rear-wheel as well as all-wheel drive. For obvious reasons, that won’t be the case this time around. BMW also won’t sell a front-drive model here (although one is offered in Europe and elsewhere) likely because it would involve the admission that this is not your average BMW, but instead a New BMW, one designed for more people and fewer enthusiasts.

All of this from a company that still has a page on its consumer website dedicated to explaining the advantages of rear-wheel drive. The change was inevitable, but it might take some time to sink in. It’s made a little easier to bear when you remember that BMW makes Minis, all of them front-drive, and many of them enthusiast options. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that the X1 shares its architecture with the least-mini new Mini, the Clubman. But it’s not simply badge engineering.

Compared to the Clubman, the X1 is longer, taller, and wider, with similar track widths front and rear and the same wheelbase measure. The BMW is, not surprisingly, larger inside as a result. It drives sort of like a Mini, which is no bad thing; it has quicker steering and more power than the Clubman S – both use a version of BMW’s B46 engine and an eight-speed automatic from Aisin.

The transmission is perfectly fine but not a standout. Shifts come smoothly enough, but it can take some prodding to coax a downshift, less so in sport mode. You can select your own gears with the very tall shift lever; getting the “Sport transmission” – the one with different programming and paddle shifters – requires the M Sport package, a late-availability option for 2016. We only drove the car with the standard transmission. The four-cylinder is smooth and delivers its power with few hints that it’s turbocharged. It doesn’t matter how it’s situated, BMW always builds a nice engine.

The real key is that the BMW rides nicely, with none of the brittleness that Mini has injected into its ever-growing lineup to try and fight the feeling of their growing, uh, growth. There’s more body roll than with the first-gen X1, though, and the chassis is less immediate to respond. Another boon to the ride: Run-flat tires are standard, but, mercifully, non-run-flats are a no-cost option – and a unique one among modern non-M BMWs. You can also add a compact spare with either the run-flats or don’t-run-flats. We welcome this particular move toward the mainstream.

The X1 is comfortable in all the right places, it’s bigger inside than before, and the seating position goes from carlike in the last generation to SUV-level here. The all-wheel-drive system kicks in when you need it, otherwise sending the majority of power to the front. All the things small crossover shoppers want. There’s an available sliding/reclining rear seat that seems like a no-brainer choice; for $350 extra, it lets you reposition the seat bottom about five inches fore and aft to make more space for people or cargo, and the 60/40-split sections move independently for when you have a combo of persons and things to take to a place.

The changes to layout mean the X1 will better compete with the Mercedes GLA,Audi Q3, and Buick Encore. All of those models have transverse engines as well. Buyers in this segment generally don’t know the difference between a front- or rear-drive chassis, and if they do they don’t care. None of this is to denigrate these customers. They know what they want from a little BMW and that’s space, comfort, parkability, a commanding view of the road, and a roundel front and rear.

You can read a lot into the decision to break with company tradition and build a crossover on a front-drive platform. Some of that is valid, as rear-drive has been a core brand value for, well, ever. But those who don’t like the way things are going probably don’t want a small crossover anyway, so this change shouldn’t affect them.

The 3 Series is still available the way it was from the start, and until that changes there shouldn’t be much to worry about. BMW, on the other hand, is going to make piles of money on the X1, and if Porsche’s Cayenne is anything to go on, that should mean continued funding for wacky projects like the M4 GTS. Let’s hope, anyway.

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