There’s a real automotive sweet spot that’s been developing in recent years: Premium compact sport utility vehicles. A bit of utility, a bit of prestige, a bit of luxury, all wrapped up in a package that’s not too big and not too fuel thirsty.
For the 2013 model year alone, new or updated entries from Acura, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. The GMC division of General Motors has even gotten into the act with an upscale Denali version of its compact Terrain crossover SUV.
This segment was really started by BMW with its X3. That was a follow-up to the larger X5, the first SUV-type vehicle for the German brand. The X3 allowed people to have some of the driving fun and luxury of the popular 3-Series sedan, with a large cargo hold out back and the option of all wheel drive.
But just like the 3-Series, the X3 has grown a bit, to the point that it’s not quite the small, nimble utility vehicle that it started life as. Enter the X1, which is not only smaller but looks quite a bit different than the X3. Not only trimmer, but sitting a little lower to the ground.
As with many vehicles these days, one of the goals for the X1 was fuel efficiency. The base engine is BMW’s excellent 2.0 liter four cylinder with an advanced turbocharging system, mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration and smoothness are right up to BMW standards, but with impressive mileage.
Official ratings for the X1 sDrive 28i (never mind that confusing numerical designation – the engine isn’t a 2.8 liter) are 24 miles per gallon city and 34 highway, with a combined figure of 28. Adding all wheel drive (xDrive 28i) drops the combined figure to 26, and if you want an X1 with BMW’s always excellent inline six cylinder engine (xDrive35i), the combined mpg number is down to 21.
One way to improve fuel economy slightly has been employed on the X1, just as it has on other BMW models. Start-stop technology allows the engine to switch off when you’re sitting at a light, instantly restarting it as soon as you move your foot off the brake pedal. This feature is worth about one mile per gallon, though no word yet on what it will eventually cost the owner in starter replacements.
BMW is after fuel efficiency, of course, but not at the expense of performance. I drove the all wheel drive four cylinder version, and it does feel quite sporty. Acceleration is smooth and seamless, and unless you plan on driving on lots of hills or always having four people on board, I’m not sure why you’d spent the extra money (for the vehicle as well as fuel) for the xDrive35i version.
The X1 is also a really nice size, effectively playing the part of a trim little station wagon. I had the vehicle during my hectic week at the L.A. Auto Show’s press days, and the substantial cargo hold was most welcome for carting all manner of camera gear and what-have-you all over the area surrounding downtown Los Angeles. And after a long day treading the carpet of the exhibit halls, the comfort of the seat was most welcome too.
For an urban commuter vehicle with a touch of style, this one really does hit the sweet spot. Dinner for four? Pile everyone in; there’s plenty of room. A run to Costco or Home Depot? No sweat. Fold down the rear seat and there’s a whole bunch of cargo space. A trip to the mountains? All wheel drive, electronic stability control, and heated seats will make the drive a pleasure.
Like any BMW product, this one isn’t what you’d call inexpensive. Base price for the two wheel drive sDrive28i is just a tick over $30,000. Add $1700 to upgrade to all wheel drive, and the xDrive35i (the six cylinder only comes all wheel drive) has a base price of over $38,000. But BMW, like other premium brands, loves to offer option packages, so my test vehicle wore a final MSRP of just over $45,000.
BMW’s timing is probably really good with the X1. Lots of buyers are looking to go smaller and more efficient, and those looking for a bit of luxury and prestige could find this a nice fit. It’s right smack in the sweet spot.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave