Photography: Kahkashan B. and Mohd. Asif
Words: Syed Shiraz
“Are you one of the judges?” asked the young chap at the gate. “No, my brother is participating; I have come to pick him up.” I said, assuming that a fashion show which was supposed to start at 5 pm would have gotten over by now as it was 7.40 pm. “Sir, please come on in; it’s about to start in ten minutes!” He said enthusiastically, and did not even ask me if I was carrying the invite! He was from the organizing team of that contest and told me that one of the four judges was running late, and that’s why the delay. So, despite being late by almost three hours, I had still reached in time! And I had turned up in a BMW X1…
Now, the first question of that exuberant fellow and his simultaneous display of hospitality reiterated two things: a) these ‘celebs’ do not have the word ‘punctual’ in their dictionaries, and b) the X1, despite being the cheapest X in the BMW lineup, does make you look like the who’s who of the glitterati. And that’s important, more so in the Indian scheme of things where luxury vehicles are bought more for the snob value offered than anything else.
So yes, your neighbours would be more envious (to put it politely) if you bought this one than, say, a Fortuner or even a Superb. Of course, both the Jap and the Czech certainly cost less than the German, but it would not be preposterous to assume that if you could afford either of those two, you might as well be able to convince the wife for the BMW. But would you?
That’s something I wanted to find out, and with neither a better half to convince nor an accountant to consult, I went along with my road test duties to dig out the answer. Read on to find out if there is more to the X1 than just the aspirational value attached to the Bavarian brand…
Exterior design: Does it have the show?
One word: Brawn. No, it’s no Mr. Olympia like the X6, and it certainly ain’t a supermodel like the Evoque either. This, people, is an athlete that doesn’t purposely showcase its striated muscles, and it definitely doesn’t care about the lack of conventional ‘good looks’ – it knows its real strength lies under that taut-looking bonnet and elsewhere… but more on that a little later.
Still, it’s a confident looking car and the individual design elements like the aforementioned muscular hood, huge kidney grille, assertive xenon eyes with LED daytime running corona rings, and sharp creases on the sides, which run across almost the entire length of the car, impart a bold demeanour to the X1 that does turn a fair number of heads everywhere it goes!
The car looks best from rear three-quarters though, where big chunks of silver inserts at the rear bumper and running boards perfectly complement the thick five-spoke 17-inch alloys and meaty rubber. Roof rails, LED tail lamps, and a rear spoiler with integrated stop lamp look the part too.
Interiors: The in-cabin experience
When the X1 first came out in 2009 it was the cheapest BMW on sale, and I am not talking about just the sticker price. Most customers missed the flair, especially on the inside, that they typically associate with premium vehicles, and although they still bought it in hordes, buyers eventually started shying away when Audi brought in the Q3. So in 2013, BMW gave us the facelifted X1, of which it not only spruced up the exterior, but also addressed the shortcomings of its interiors. In the process, the manufacturer did away with the petrol variants, and now, in 2015, you can only have the X1 in its top-end xLine trim.
Open the door and you are greeted by a cabin that is posh, yet understated – yes, I used ‘posh’ and ‘understated’ in the same sentence. Why? Because that is exactly how things are in this vehicle. BMW, this time, has not left any loose ends in the X1 and the sense of occasion when you get inside is now truly befitting a vehicle in this price bracket, but without making you feel as if you were stepping on a Persian cat. Everything feels impeccably built and neatly laid out.
Oh, and it is really loaded too – the standard fare includes iDrive, push button start/stop for the engine, six airbags, navigation system, 8.8 inch MID screen, automatic headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, headlamp washers, dual-zone climate control, powered front seats, panoramic sunroof, multi-function steering wheel, and a kickass audio system with six speakers, among loads of other stuff.
Now, Park Distance Control System, with guiding lines that appear in the display screen, is good, but the omission of a rear-view camera is appalling. I believe it’s on the options list but BMW should have provided it as standard equipment. Ya, I know, even the Audi Q3 does not have it, but if a sub-10-lakh-rupee Hyundai can come with it, so can cars costing more than three times that.
That’s the only gripe that I have with theX1’s interiors. Okay, despite having the longest wheelbase in the segment, legroom at the rear can be a bit stifling for six-footers and above but only if the front seats are pushed back completely. Also, the drive tunnel won’t allow a third person to sit in the middle at the rear on long journeys – the backrest of the middle seat can pop out as a centre armrest should you choose to use the X1 as a strict four-seater. In all other aspects, the seats are supremely comfortable even during long rides.
Moreover, if you plan to take a month long sabbatical to go camping, you can fold away the rear seats to liberate more cargo space for your tent, stove, and other paraphernalia. The best seat in the house is the driver’s seat anyway, so…
And it comes with two memory settings; plus, the steering wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake, therefore, drivers of all dimensions will be able to quickly find the perfect driving position in the X1, and drive away before friends change their fickle minds and phone you that they are coming along.
The Drive: Ultimate Driving Machine in the segment?
BMW by now should ideally be providing tutorials on how to build the best steering systems in the business. I mean, seriously, if their hydraulic set-up remained the benchmark for decades, the shift to electric assistance, though moaned by purists, has not diluted the experience one bit – and I am not exaggerating. The fifth wheel in the X1 has this sixth sense that tells it why you have chosen it over others, so it returns the favour by sending you into, er, the seventh heaven of driving bliss. You’ll always know what the front tyres are upto – it’s so darn alive and precise. Also, like before, and like other BMWs, the X1 is still not for wimps or those who learnt the ropes on a Maruti Suzuki Esteem. You got to have both hands on the steering wheel of a BMW, and the X1, thankfully, is no exception. That’s the Bavarian way to teach you some responsible driving. Follow that and the X1 will coax you into waking up early on Sunday mornings and straighten all those roundabouts in your town!
But you can only do that in a vehicle if its chassis is willing. At this point, it’s important to know that the X1 shares the platform with the previous generation 3-Series Touring (E91) estate car, but the X is shorter in length, has better ground clearance, and is taller. If you know your BMWs and can separate an E36 from an E46, you would already know how potent the E90 series’ chassis were. But for the benefit of most, and without boring them with technical mumbo-jumbo, I would just explain it in one line – the last gen 3-Series was more agile, period. And that chassis still underpins the X1! Mind you, the current 3-Series is still at the top of the game when it comes to driving pleasure, but in the quest of bringing the ride quality on a par with the Mercs’, BMW has made the cars, I dare say, a smidgen tamer. The worrying part is that Mercedes is doing just the opposite. In a similar manner.
Anyway, back to the X1. I already told you that the steering response is still great and also that it’s a B-boying ace when it comes to changing directions in a jiffy. Thankfully, that kind of agility has not come at the cost of stability or grip and those wide run-flats hug the tarmac like an adamant possessive partner. That grip also aids the fantastic set of brakes in bringing the X1 to a safe halt from high triple-digit speeds without a fuss. And with acronyms like DSC, ABS, DTC, etc., working overtime to keep the shiny stuff up, you’ve really got to be a dimwit to topple this one!
Now, being a high sprung vehicle as compared to the 3-Series sedan, there is a trifle more body roll in the X1, but its cornering manners can still put a lot of other and more expensive saloons to shame! And the taller suspension certainly makes its ride quality better by a couple of notches than its sedan sibling’s – the X1 actually turned out to be more comfortable than I had thought it to be! Also, contrary to another general perception, the X1’s ground clearance at 194 mm is better than both the Q3’s (170 mm) and the Mercedes GLA’s (183 mm). So yes, you can take that gravel trail faster than you think. Just don’t emulate Pritt Koik while at it…
The X1 is also the most powerful vehicle in the class. Its 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine produces 184 bhp of peak power at 4,200 rpm which is not only substantially better than GLA’s 134 bhp, but also a good 10 horses more than Q3’s peak power output. The BMW is torquey too (though the Audi matches it here) with 380 Nm of twisting force at your disposal between 1,750 rpm to 2,750 rpm. All that power and torque is sent to the rear wheels via a brilliant eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, which, along with that superb steering and chassis, makes for a recipe of enormous fun, especially in manual mode where even that negligible turbo lag almost magically disappears! Every dab of the throttle pedal then results in the X1 shooting ahead of all traffic provided, of course, you don’t have an M, AMG, or an RS lurking about. Even in full auto mode there is hardly any delay in proceedings with the X1’s motor summoning the rear wheels urgently whenever you flex your right foot.
BMW claims a 7.9-second dash to 100 km/h from a standstill, and the seat-of-the-pants feel tells me to not doubt that figure. The company also claims that the top speed is 205 km/h (electronically restricted), which I certainly don’t doubt as though I ran out of road before I could touch that mark, the same engine in the heavier 5-Series does a lot more than that… And this joy machine still returned 12 km/l in rush hour traffic and a dot 15 km/l on highways! You can extract more, but please don’t bother; drive this one like it should be driven!
The only downside here is the diesel rattle when the motor is cranked – the vibrations do shake the cabin, albeit momentarily, but I wasn’t expecting that in a vehicle in this segment. Also, the auto start/stop function is unnerving initially as the engine shuts down the moment you come to a complete halt. Releasing the brake starts the engine again, and you can get used to it, but it is definitely irritating! Fret not, as it can be shut off.
I’m sure you would have deduced by now whether the X1’s palette has enough in it to colour your world. But I had set out to find a precise answer to a question that I mentioned in the beginning of the story. I now believe that I already knew the answer. Perhaps I just wanted to reiterate it to my own self. So here it is then: If I had around 30-40 lakhs to splurge on a new vehicle, the rational me would go for a seven-seater Japanese, Korean, or American SUV with ground clearance and presence of a truck, and a 4×4 tranny that would help it go places where none of the two-wheel-drive crossovers , premium or otherwise, would dare. And I might even save a lot of cash in most cases.
But, I wonder, once I park it and start walking, will I turn back to steal a glance? Possibly not.
One would argue that the novelty value wears off sooner or later, and I don’t disagree. But would those leviathans make me feel special the way a Beemer or any of its counterparts would? Certainly not! Will they be even half the fun the X1 is on the road? NO! Will they be as easy to drive around in town? No. And will you really take your new 4×4 SUV to places where, presence of low ratio notwithstanding, it can get stuck? With family? I won’t.
I need a vehicle in which I can take my family on drives in good amount of comfort and luxury and one of the criteria is that they should not be sitting so close to the ground that Joe, on his Passion Pro, at the traffic signal can easily peep in and check out what footwear they are wearing! I know you can opt for window blinds, but you get the point, right? Also, the vehicle should have good amount of ground clearance so that I don’t grind its underbelly on those legal and illegal speed humps that keep sprouting up with the erratic frequency of an adolescent’s pustules. Most sedans are out then.
That leaves me with the crossovers in this price bracket. The GLA is front-wheel-drive and I won’t spend that kind of money on just 134 bhp anyway; the Q3 is nice but I don’t really need Quattro, and it simply is not as involving to drive as the rear-wheel-drive 184 bhp X1. Also, the X1 being more frugal than these two, and also than the 4x4s hulks, happens to be the cherry on top. And finally, a five star crash test rating also works positively for the conscience…
BMW calls the X1 an SAV (Sport Activity Vehicle) and they may as well write ‘Sport’ in upper case as there is nothing in the segment that justifies the word so well as this one does! It’s indeed a sport vehicle folks. And drifting is a sport.