BMW X1 xDrive 23d Prototype

We get behind the wheel of BMW’s X1 prototype

BMW X1 xDrive 23d Prototype

Until very recently, my only experience with camouflaged pre-production vehicles was trying to decode the updated lines and bodywork as their spy shots graced the pages of my favorite car magazines. This week, however, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Mallorca, Spain to drive BMW’s new X1 SUV, not only before it hits showroom floors, but before it even sees the assembly line.

FAST FACTS

1. The X1 is based on the BMW 3 Series platform.

2. We tested a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel with 204hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque, but North American models are likely to get a 230hp 3.0-liter inline-six with 200 ft-lbs of torque.

3. The BMW X1 isn’t likely to go on sale until 2010 or ’11 as a 2011 or ’12 model.

Car companies rarely, if ever, allow us journalist types to see, let alone drive, a project that hasn’t been completed, but BMW evidently felt confident enough with the progress of the X1 to start showing it off.

After having a chance to put it through its paces, I can see why. Aside from some fine-tuning from the driving dynamics team and the fitment of some interior bits and pieces, the current X1 is darn close to what European customers will experience when it is launches in Europe soon. North Americans will have to wait for the 2011 (or possibly even 2012) model, likely to arrive sometime in late 2010 or ‘11.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED: 1 SERIES OR 3 SERIES CHASSIS?

On route to the event, the origin of the X1 chassis was the topic of a hotly contested debate. “Obviously it will be based on the 1-series platform,” quipped one journalist “Otherwise it would make the X3 obsolete,” he added. Upon meeting members of the engineering team responsible for the fit and finish of the driving characteristics, this debate had to be put to rest. As it turns out, the X1 is in fact based on the 3 Series platform, sharing its wheelbase and some mechanical bits. The reason for this, in addition to ride quality and cabin size, is that the 1-Series doesn’t currently have xDrive capabilities – which was a priority for the X1 project.

TESTING ITS OFF-ROAD CAPABILITIES

BMW arranged for our group to test the X1 in a wide variety of diverse driving conditions. After a short jaunt down a gravel path, we immediately went off-road and handily tackled terrain I wouldn’t have expected the X1 would be capable of traversing.

Steep inclines and declines, loose rocks, tree stumps and uneven ground that would make a ‘Trail Rated’ Jeep bounce around uncontrollably, the X1 negotiated the obstacles without protest. Equally capable on and off road, the X1 consistently offered a smooth, comfortable ride wherever the road led and however hard it was pushed. BMW’s aforementioned xDrive all-wheel-drive system transfers power to where the most amount of grip resides with a 40/60 front to rear power spit under normal driving conditions. The X1 also boasts BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) and Performance Control systems. Arriving at a test track consisting of loose gravel constructed to demonstrate the capabilities of these systems, the X1 engineers described how the systems work in conjunction with each other and then allowed us to try them out firsthand. Having the opportunity to briskly circle the track in various modes allowed me to feel how good the systems really are. Instead of applying abrupt slaps on the wrist like many vehicles, the X1 seamlessly reduces throttle where traction is lacking and even applies braking when needed. No understeer, no oversteer, no funny business. Those who buy SUVs strictly for safety and winter stability will surely find this attractive.

IMPRESSIVE DIESEL POWERPLANT NOT LIKELY TO CROSS THE ATLANTIC

Back on the tarmac, our convoy was led up a steep and narrow mountain road with varying radius turns both on and off camber and nearly 90-degree switchbacks in some places. Our testers were outfitted with 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder diesel powerplants rated at 204 hp mated to six-speed manumatic transmissions that allowed for gear changes from the steering wheel mounted buttons.

While North Americans generally shy away from diesel engines, it is difficult to argue with a 2.0-liter powerplant producing 295 ft-lbs of torque at 2000 rpm -which sure came in handy heading up that mountain road. The sprint to 62 mph happens in a modest 7.3 seconds and turbo lag is all but eliminated. Power delivery is seamless and always there whether you want or need it.

Driving characteristics were not unlike that of the 3-Series and were far more similar to a (gasp) station wagon than that of an SUV. Body roll was nearly undetectable and the ride was so smooth that our PR representative had no issues gingerly typing away on her Blackberry during the entire trip. Where the X1 differs from the 3-Series is in ride height and cargo space, offering 47.6 cubic feet of stowage when the split/folding rear seats are flattened.

When the X1 arrives on our fair shores, it will likely be with the 3.0L in-line six-cylinder gasoline engine that boasts 230 hp and 200 ft-lbs of torque. It is a shame the diesel I drove is unlikely find itself on this side of the Atlantic. It offers the power of a six-cylinder engine with the economy of a four. In fact, highway mileage is an impressive 44 mpg! Diesel engines have come a long way since the old days of pinking Oldsmobiles shooting black smoke.

THE VERDICT

My guess is that the X1 will offer what most current X3 owners were looking for but were previously not offered. The X1 combines the drivability of a car, along with the cargo space, safety and versatility of an SUV – all in typically well-engineered and superbly executed BMW fashion.

Were the X3 not on deck to receive a makeover, I would surmise that it would be in jeopardy of losing sales from the introduction of its little sibling. Something tells me that this fact hasn’t escaped BMW and it has a plan up its sleeve. We will just have to wait and see what the future brings.

PLUS

  • Car-like driving dynamics
  • Capable xDrive AWD system
  • Crossover versatility and space

MINUS

  • X1 makes the X3 obsolete?
  • We probably won’t get the diesel
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