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Hell has frozen over. Dogs are sleeping with cats. Fish are pedaling bicycles. The Ultimate Driving Machine has made a front-wheel driver.

Fear not, the BMW X1 is still X-cellent.

Tiny SUVs are all the rage, so naturally the luxury shark tank is boiling with predators from Audi, Buick and Mercedes. Slotted under the BMW X3, the X1 debuted in 2013 and swam circles around the other fish with the brand’s trademark, rear-wheel biased, all-wheel drive chassis. SUVs are fun to drive? You bet. But the X1 disappointed with a dysfunctional console and backseat legroom unfit for anyone over 5 feet tall.

“X1: The Sequel” aims to address those shortcomings by moving to a bigger skeleton shared with the, um, front-wheel drive Mini Cooper. More room, more visibility ... but less BMW?

After all, unique, rear-wheel drive platforms are what makes BMW a pure performance breed. Shared platforms? That’s for mutts like Toyota’s Lexus or Ford’s Lincoln.

The X1 arrived in my driveway Christmas week and I reacted like a 6-year-old with a new toy. I assaulted the chilly local roads, flinging the all-wheel drive into lakefront switchbacks, over curvy lanes, and — what ho, ho, ho? It stuck like glue.

I’d have to take it to the track (an absurd notion) to truly compare it to the rear-drive original. No doubt Gen One would be more flingable at the limit, but that’s a universe no one will ever explore on public roads. Suffice to say, Gen Two maintains Bimmer’s athletic prowess. Despite its high center of gravity, X1 still feels like a hot hatch on stilts. Pity its electronics are such a nanny.

Now, stop that, young man! What do you think this — a fun box?

Well, yes. The dynamic safety systems are waaaay too intrusive. Even with traction control turned off, the system interferes when you want to hang the tail out (one of the glories of AWD) for a bit of fun in the snow. Want to do doughnuts in the parking lot?

Oh, behave.

There are other, niggling annoyances that linger in this otherwise superb package.

Around town the car’s a quiet delight — until I floor the throttle and the X1’s eight-speed box bangs through the gears like a whipped horse. It doesn’t compare to the crisp, glorious, eight-speed tranny in the new (5 grand cheaper) Chevy Camaro, which barks through upshifts like, well, a BMW should.

Then there’s Bimmer’s iDrive rotary dial smack dab in the middle of the console. Controversial since its introduction last decade, BMW fans have learned to live with the (improved) rotary dialer. But in an age when touchscreen smartphones are the infotainment standard, accessing navigation and tunes via a remote dial seems more antiquated to me than ever.

If touch-swipe screens are state of the art, how come the stubborn variety of rotary knobs, sliders and other inferior methods are in luxe today? Exasperated by his XTS’s distracting slider volume controls, a friend says, “I am quitting Cadillac.” For what? A maddening iDrive? Sigh. How long until Jeep UConnect-like touchscreens with complementary volume knobs become the standard?

Meanwhile, you’ll have to console yourself that the new X1’s iDrive console with its quirky “jet-fighter-style” shifter is an improvement over the previous generation. Gen One had one cup-holder behind the iDrive, one inside the center console and a third to snap on the passenger side.

Where other manufacturers have worked to unclutter the console, the iDrive limits designers who have placed twin cup-holders in front of the (proper) gearshift. Better, but still awkward.

Germans struggle with this Americans-living-in-their-cars thing.

Space is also improved in the rear seat. How bad was rear legroom in the first gen X1? My 5-foot-5 women friends refused to sit back there. At 6-foot-5 I needed a giant shoehorn to get in. With its stretched dimensions — and more upright stance — the ’16 model gains nearly two inches in both head and leg room. I could easily sit behind myself.

The first-try X1 looked awkward from the side with a low roofline and narrow sides, as if BMW couldn’t decide whether the wee ute was a crossover or a wagon. The new X has no such identity crisis with a taller roofline, strong shoulder line and available 18-inch wheels. Sure, it now looks like every small SUV — but there’s no doubt this is a Bimmer.

Flanked by menacing, hooded headlamps, the face is more upright, more business-like than its predecessor. I’ve never been a fan of the BMW 3 series lights that are attached to the kidneys like two olives on a toothpick. The X1 properly separates lights from grille, allowing them space to make separate design statements.

The design improvements are critical to convincing customers to cough up more cash to what is essentially a smaller, more expensive Ford Escape: Front wheel-bias all-wheel drive. Full length moon roof. Powerful, 2.0-liter turbo four banger. Self-park assist. BMW even adopts Ford’s kick-me-in-the-can rear deck (though its rear seats won’t lay flat like the Ford).

Whoa, back up — what was that about just a turbo four-banger?

You read that right. The X1 ditches the rocking, 300-horse straight six from the first generation. And the four-banger actually loses 12 ponies to the outgoing engine’s 240. Yet another sacrifice at the green altar.

But whaddaya gonna do? BMW has been relentlessly ahead of the curve on bringing new models to market — especially exploiting American demands for all things ute. While Cadillac and Lincoln and Lexus and Acura have yet to introduce a small crossover variant to the U.S. market, the boys from Bavaria are already perfecting their second generation.

How far behind is Caddy? BMW X1, BMW (plug-in) i3, BMW X3, X4, and X5 are a quintuple threat against Caddy’s sole XT5 (formerly SRX). That’s a lot of catching up to do.

I still yearn for a BMW hot hatch to take on the iconic VW GTI and Audi A3 Sportback e-tron. But for now the X1 will have to do. With its front-wheel drive platform and 200-plus horsepower, its specs dovetail nicely with its sporty Teutonic competitors.

Sure, hell has frozen over. But with AWD, the X1 can negotiate it just fine.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at

2016 BMW X1

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport utility

Price: $35,795 base ($45,920 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3; Top speed, 130 mph (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,660 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway/26 combined

Report card

Highs: Muscular styling; more interior room than cramped Gen One.

Lows: Nanny electronic controls; rough transmission


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

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