July 26, 2016 @ 02:16 PM

Road trip: Evolution? No, this is a revolution

All traces of the previous generation are gone, apart from the X nameplate. Say hello to the new BMW X1

Words and Photography: Chris Ng

The clearing sky was a good sign that the heavens have sorted out the plumbing. The evidence of the early morning downpour remained and will remain so for some hours to come. I have left the tarmac for some muddy, red-earthed trail that happens to border very flooded fields of paddy. I was driving, as fast as I safely could, the front-wheel driven Mini Countryman, in an attempt to make the biggest splash as I can for a photo shoot.

I succeeded, of course, and the strawberry on this ice cream came in the form of mud-chunks on the roof. All I needed to do was to stand on the bonnet and spray the champagne that I don’t have at the cheering crowds that weren't there to complete my imaginary rally experience. Although the shoot was done to make the pages and the Countryman look extremely good, it also proved that Mini’s compact SUV was the funnest vehicle to drive that side of the price bracket, at that time, around town and country. 

Existing at around the same time as the Countryman was the first-ever BMW X1, which dug itself into the luxury compact SUV segment in hopes that it will make a big impact as how the X3 and X5 killed in their respective classes. 730,000 is the number of the first generation X1 SUVs, or SAVs, that BMW has successfully transferred from dealer showrooms to owner driveways. Not bad for an SUV that took shape on a rear-wheel drive platform that was conceived for the 3-Series Touring. But the fit was as perfect as Adam Levine wearing Dwayne Johnson’s three-piece suit. It showed in the shape, and in the sDrive20i version, the drive, which never quite held it together for me be it town or country. The X1 had a bit more of everything — a bit more roll, a bit more dive and a bit more wobble. Even the interior didn’t quite have plenty of usable space that’s typical of SUVs. True that the X1 macheted a trail for the emergence of other luxury compact SUV, which let it boast about having all the space in the world, but the Japanese products were offering more cubic space for less. 

But still, assuming that each person bought one, 730,000 people cannot be wrong… can they? Obviously, BMW wants that number to increase. For that to happen, the X1 needed a revolution in thought and design that must go deeper than a new body shape.

And so, the X1 now has a shape that you can trace a straight evolutionary line from the X3. The uptake: better proportions all round. And this one looks lightyears better, so much so that it commands multiple double-takes from ladies of good taste. I kid you not. The new X1 has a shorter bonnet but a wider stance. The roof is noticeably higher than the previous one, adding 53mm to the overall height that in turn carves out more interior space.

More headroom, shoulder room and elbow room directly benefits from the new measurements. Rear knee room also has been extended by 37mm for more kick-space. Moving the drive axle from rear to front frees up much space in the back, up to 505 litres of space or an 85-litre improvement over the previous X1. Fold the rear seats and space will be expanded up to 1550 litres. 

Did the handling improve as with the rest of the SUV? To test, I feed the steering right and hold. It’s a sweeper, not a long one, but enough to let me hold the throttle at the half. The X1 leans slightly then grips, setting itself on very large rails. The long corner ends with an abrupt left, typical of dual lane carriageway that connects one rustic village to another. Foot off the throttle and onto the brakes. A light dab is all it takes to shave off speed before I snatch the steering left; foot back on the throttle and hold. The little tyre screech, the gentle nudging of the nose away from the corner and the obliging rear that follows through feels familiar, like I am back behind the wheel of the two-wheel driven Countryman. Would it be wrong to say that the whole point of the Countryman’s existence was to audition for BMW’s next X1? Possibly, but we’ll never know for sure. 

What we do know is that the X1 now drives from the front wheels, owing to the same platform that underpins the Active Tourer and the soon-to-arrive Clubman. Realigning the engine from the first-generation’s North-South to the second-generation’s East-West has altered the way the X1 handles; familiar, friendlier and more predictable. The new chassis is now made up of a single-joint strut front suspension and multi-link rear axle. Aluminium swivel bearings, high-strength steel control arms and axle carriers escalate the front’s rigidity, adding agility and precision. Anti-roll bars moulded into the shape of tubes mounted on the front and rear axle increases pliancy to the ride. All of that adds to the quick steering and equally eager front wheels. You’ll be snapping around potholes and road-pimples with as much glee as bombing on the nation’s backroads. Yes, the X1 do have adequate ground clearance to pass over the ruined tarmac but where’s the fun in that?

The X1 produces momentum from the family’s 2.0-litre force-fed four-cylinder engine that never falls short in the delivery, no matter what speed it's running at. The eight-speed automatic portions out the 192bhp and 280Nm smoothly. Power is always on tap and ready to serve the moment you bell for it with the throttle, allowing the 1560kg SUV to escape junctions and merge lanes without breaking momentum. Which is plenty useful when everyone in the city is in a not-yielding mood. There’s a sportier driving mode that ups the engine’s aggressions when you need that extra push. Or switch it down to EcoPro when ambling around town is fine. No matter which drive mode you start out with, you’ll get up to speed quick and easy that the speedometer will break into highway speed territory sooner than you realise. 

Not your fault, all of BMW’s interior seems to be made with a solidity that mutes out all sensations of speed and harshness. The interior design is very much BMW and there isn’t much to differentiate this and the other vehicles that sport the blue-white roundel on the bonnet. The X1 on test wears the Sport Line, which is clearly evident with the red stitching on the black seats and the matt Coral Red strips on the dashboard. You can also instantly tell the Sport Line from the black kidney grille bars. The centre console is very much focused on the driver right up to the point where a wall, just a small one, exists between the front passenger and the transmission to make it seem like two-thirds of the front belongs to the driver, just to show who’s running things here, but still fail to stop her from fiddling with the iDrive and 6.5-inch screen.

To be honest, I didn’t really expect much from this X1. Generation One had left an unfavourable impression that lingered for a considerable amount of time. When the call came for the second generation to be tested, I remain sceptically prejudiced that the new one will give me a hard time during the test drive. Time, and a complete redesign of the platform, heals all wounds as they say and this new generation is exactly the panacea needed make the X1 brilliant.

BMW X1 sDrive20i

RM279,800 OTR, GST inclusive, without insurance
1998cc, twin-scroll turbocharger, high precision injection, VALVETRONIC, Double-VANOS, 192bhp @ 5000-6000rpm, 280Nm @ 1250-4600 
8-speed Steptronic transmission, front-wheel drive
7.7s 0-100kph, 225kph, 5.9l/100km, 139g/km
Dimensions (length/width/height)
4439mm / 1821mm / 1598mm
On sale

For more images of the BMW X1 sDrive20i, visit our photo gallery!

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