Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 BMW X1

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

A reader email the other day got me thinking about a question: ‘What makes a really good AWD system?”

Notably, xDrive is largely invisible in its operation.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a list of all-wheel drive systems that stand out in my memory, some more fondly than others. When asked by a reader to qualify what makes an AWD system ‘good’, it set me into a bit of a think.

What your writer considers to make an AWD system good is less a list of things you feel, and more a list of things you don’t. In a good AWD system, you don’t feel torque steer. You don’t feel two wheels spin a moment before the other two engage. You don’t feel squirming and lurching as the wheels interface with the surface beneath while accelerating, as various traction levels pass beneath each one. You don’t feel the vehicle ‘dig’ into the snow when taking off from a stop. You definitely don’t feel a solid “WHAM’ from beneath the vehicle when you jump on the throttle and the center clutch engages aggressively. Finally, you don’t feel the system dragging two of its wheels, unpowered, when you take off up a hill, or with light throttle, in deep snow.

The X1’s AWD system – xDrive, BMW calls it – ticks all the boxes, presented above, as what your writer would classify as a really good AWD system – and I’ve tried them all.

Notably, xDrive is largely invisible in its operation. Hammer the throttle from a dig through an intersection dotted with patches of snow and ice, and little more than a slight squirm is apparent as traction comes and goes at each wheel. Initial off-the-line turbo lag makes it even harder to set the wheels spinning, so X1 prefers, largely, to accelerate hard in snow with power only very slightly outgunning available traction. Wheelspin is fun, but fuss-free acceleration is classy, and the X1 is classy indeed.

As power shifts from side to side as you corner on snow and ice, the X1 just follows its line, no fussing, no drama. Park it some moderately deep snow, hit the throttle, and you’re off – no spinning at one axle, no digging.

In simple terms, drivers can expect instant forward momentum and precise handling, delivered with smoothness and refinement, when accelerating or cornering over virtually anything.

Push it a little, and all systems aim for neutral ground, keeping the X1’s nose going exactly where it’s pointed, with the back following tightly behind. If you’re into sideways snowy stuff, you won’t achieve it easily with the throttle – though the X1 does respond well to flicking, and appropriately-timed dabs of braking in slippery corners.

Drivers taking in the traction during a greasy drive in the new generation of BMW’s smallest ute are well backed up for confidence in other ways, too. Like the braking system: stab the brakes with one side of the X1 on ice and the other on pavement, and it stops in quick order, and more importantly, with little more than a slight initial pull in the direction of higher traction before the ABS system straightens things out. You stop straight, fast, and without second-guessing, virtually no matter the surfaces passing underfoot.

Or, when the stability control needs to engage: you feel the X1 discreetly pulling and shifting its position on its axis in response to single-wheel braking activation, though you don’t feel or hear the clicking action of those brakes unless you’ve really mucked things up and you’re heading for the ditch while thrashing on the controls. An electronic clutch system in the rear differential can divvy power across the axle without need for brake activation, improving handling precision, performance, and a direct feel of your inputs being transmitted to the ground beneath.

Add in the heavyset steering that locks the X1 solidly onto its line, and mitigates the startling steering pull apparent when some rides suddenly encounter deep snow or slush-stripes at speed, and you’ve got a machine that sets drivers up nicely for confidence.

It’s taken in from a cabin that’s pure BMW. Other than a few modern touches relating to trim materials, ambient lighting and the like, there’s nothing unfamiliar on board. The tester’s price pushed some $50,000 with options, and by and large, the cabin’s attention to detail, use of upscale materials and thoughtful trimming with gloss and wood and aluminum support the atmosphere.

Entry and exit are simple – the X1 sits relatively low to the ground, so a sideways shift and slight drop puts occupants into their perches. Headroom is notably generous, even for taller drivers, and rear seats will comfortably accommodate two adults with head and knee-room to spare. Out back, the cargo load height falls just above knee-level for most, and the stretched-to-the-edges cargo space proved larger than your writer expected. Power folding seatbacks add further convenience and flexibility in back.

Up front is a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, spinning up 228 horsepower and more importantly, nearly 260 lb-ft of torque. It’s a smooth and potent performer, remarkably effortless at low revs, creamy smooth when worked, and thanks to all that torque, it fills its rev range with a pleasing response and a nice shove into your seat when the throttle is jammed, almost no matter where the revs are. There’s an 8-speed automatic with delightfully fast paddle shift response and perfect rev-matching. The gearbox is largely invisible when left in drive, provided it’s had a few hundred kilometers to learn your driving habits and make its way through the eight gears intuitively.

In all, there’s some entertainment value to be had from browsing the gears at full throttle via the paddles, even if the engine is nothing much to listen to at full song. Assuming you’re not coming out of a lifted Super Duty with smokestacks, and that you’ve established object permanence, you’ll accept this new turbo four-cylinder as valuable fuel-saving resource. It’s just as happy being driven gently, the low-end torque providing an effortless surge through traffic as needed.

Mileage proved exceptional: 9.5L/100km on my watch, including plenty of highway driving, and spirited surfing through slippery backroads. An ‘EcoPro’ driving mode is available, helping save fuel at the expense of throttle response, though your writer never used it. Interestingly, the 228-horsepower X1 put away less fuel than the 148-horsepower Subaru Crosstrek I drove a week earlier, driven similarly, and in similar conditions. Your results will likely vary.

Cruising the highway, the steering and suspension systems feel matched expertly to one another. The steering is stiff, robust and connected, and doesn’t feel like it’s made of lasagna. The feel is heavy and confident, aligning with a suspension calibration that’s taut without being jittery or nervous. Cruise the highway at a good clip, and the X1 feels heavier than it is: locking into its intended path, requiring virtually no readjustment of the steering to stay centered. It’s comfortable and compliant, without being squishier than a stack of over-buttered pancakes.

Gripes include headlight performance that’s good, not great, for a BMW, and an overabundance of throttle management that’s frustrating in very deep snow. Even with traction controls fully disengaged, the X1 is never permitted to spin its wheels more than just a little in the deep stuff, meaning getting unstuck can require several attempts.

Further, with the large wheels included as part of the tester’s options, ride quality is wholly at the mercy of the surface beneath. On my test drive, the beautiful highway feel gave way to a rough, jarring and noisy ride around the badly-maintained roads in my locale. If you’re considering the up-sized wheels, be sure to test-drive an X1 on the roughest road you can find, to investigate the ride quality for yourself.

Test driven alongside the Audi Q3 and Mercedes GLA, many shoppers will find the X1 delivers a compelling blend of very handsome styling, pleasing performance, fantastic winter driving confidence, a nice list of trimmings, and a great ride on smooth roads.

A final note: this X1 rolled on a set of winter tires, and if you’re planning to drive yours in winter, it should too.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

Audi Q3
Buick Encore
Infiniti Q30
Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

Model Tested 2016 BMW X1
Base Price $38,800
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $52,235
Optional Equipment
Executive Package ($2,950), Premium Package Enhanced ($4,950), Sport Performance Package ($750), ConnectedDrive ($500), Lumbar Support ($300), Metallic Paint ($895), Sliding/Reclining rear seats with cargo net ($895)