Editor's note: This review was written in August 2013 about the 2013 BMW X1. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Though pint-sized, the 2013 BMW X1 delivers huge value in gas mileage and affordability while keeping BMW's signature driving enjoyment and luxury.
Since 2004, the X3 has been BMW's smallest SUV. Now the company has added the all-new 2013 X1, which becomes both the smallest and most affordable BMW SUV. The automaker could have easily muddied the distinction between these two models — a mistake we've seen from other automakers — but BMW properly distinguishes the similar-looking X1 and X3 SUVs in size, price and usability so buyers should have an easy go deciding which one better fits their lifestyle.
Compared with BMW's other SUVs, which include the X3, X5 and X6, the X1's low ride height, ease of entry and small backseat space are more like what a hatchback or wagon offers. The X3 has grown so large and expensive — $40,000 with destination — that a small SUV like the X1 starting closer to $32,000 should intrigue luxury SUV shoppers.
Did someone say wagons? BMW's new 2014 3 Series Sports Wagon has slightly more cargo room than the X1 but less than the X3, and it's priced closer to the X3. Compare the X1, 3 Series wagon and X3 here.
I tested a BMW X1 sDrive 28i with a standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine, eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive; all-wheel drive (xDrive) and a more-powerful turbocharged six-cylinder (35i) are available.
Honey, I Shrunk the BMW X3
The X1 and X3 are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other when whizzing by on the road. However, the X1 is smaller than the X3 in almost every dimension. Overall length is 6.5 inches shorter than the X3, height is down 4.6 inches and the X1 is 3.3 inches narrower. The X1's svelte size was a pure pleasure to drive through Chicago's narrow back alleys and neighborhood streets, and just as easy to park, with a turning diameter of 37.1 feet in the rear-drive version. With xDrive, the diameter is 38.7 feet, almost identical to the X3, which comes only with all-wheel drive. The turning circle offers more agility than an Acura RDX (39) or Audi Q5 (38) but isn't as short as the Audi A3 hatchback (35.1) or toy-size Buick Encore (36.7). Compare turning circles and other specifications of those models here.
The X1's smaller dimensions are easier to spot on the inside, where cargo and backseat room take the biggest hit compared with the X3. The X1's maximum cargo volume with the backseat folded is 56 cubic feet, versus the X3's 63.3 cubic feet. In practice, the X1's cargo area is still very usable with nearly as much space as the X3 behind the rear seats — 25 cubic feet compared to 27.6 cubic feet for the X3. The X1's rear seats fold easily in a versatile 40/20/40 split. There's enough room for groceries and smaller household items, but fitting a large stroller in the back with the seats up takes up most of the usable room.
Families will value the X3's larger maximum cargo size. The 2014 BMW 3 Series Sports Wagon fits right between the X1 and X3, with a maximum 53 cubic feet of cargo volume with the seats down. The wagon, like the X3, has standard all-wheel drive.
The X1's backseat is tight, with little room to spare and a large center hump that intrudes on leg space. Up front is where you want to sit. A low driver's seating position gives sedanlike ease of entry and exit, plus there's enough legroom and headroom for 6-foot-tall adults like myself to be completely comfortable. Small SUVs often keep characteristics of larger ones, like a high seating position for visibility, which is a common reason many people buy SUVs. The X1 is not one of those SUVs; it's more like a low-slung sports sedan, though visibility is still very good thanks to tall, large windows.
Features & Interior Quality
Its $31,725 starting price (including the destination charge) makes the X1 BMW's least-expensive model, below the BMW 128i coupe. The larger 2014 X3 starts at $40,525, and a 328i Sports Wagon is $42,375. It's clear the X1 is the baby, budget SUV once you start looking at standard and optional equipment. It's lacking a power liftgate, which is a popular feature among SUVs of all sizes, and not just luxury ones. There's a manual handbrake instead of an electronic parking brake, and you won't find a head-up display, blind spot warning, lane departure warning or other advanced collision-avoidance systems.
Notable standard features on the X1 sDrive28i include automatic climate control, heated exterior mirrors, HD radio, a USB input and rain-sensing windshield wipers. What's not standard are leather seating, all-wheel drive, satellite radio and power front seats. The list of optional features reads more like a sedan's, with no power liftgate or BMW's top-down-view camera system for easy parking. BMW's iDrive navigation and multimedia system with social media and internet radio apps is also available.
I tested an X1 with the M Sport Package, navigation, Nevada leather, panoramic moonroof and more — and our test vehicle's $44,245 price was anything but entry-level. Still, loading up the X1 with options isn't putting lipstick on a pig; the upgraded interior was nearly as luxurious as an X3's. I could fault it only because the X3 has more nicely trimmed door panels with soft materials and accent stitching. The X1's grab handles are bare of any decoration. Everything else inside is surprisingly nice for the X1's entry-level starting point.
M Sport Package
After spending time with the X1, you'll realize it's more chiseled, athletic and slender than the X3 not only in how it looks, but also in how it drives. The M Sport Package from BMW's M division amplifies the driving experience with a sport suspension, sport seats, an M steering wheel and 18-inch M wheels with Pirelli all-season performance tires. Despite the body lines that say "SUV," the steering wheel says "sports sedan" with this seriously fun package that keeps the X1 poised and flat when thrown into a corner.
But even without the M Package, the fun factor is still there with the base 240-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, with Eco Pro and Sport modes for the driver's choice of economy or performance, respectively. The 240-hp rating seems conservative considering how the potent engine moves the 3,527-pound X1 from zero to 60 mph in a claimed 6.2 seconds. The X1 is 541 pounds lighter than the X3, which is appropriate, and only 117 pounds heavier than a 328i sedan with an automatic transmission. Now that's impressive.
The EPA rates the X1 sDrive28i at 24/34 mpg city/highway with rear-wheel drive. The estimates drop to 22/33 mpg for the all-wheel-drive xDrive28i, and to 18/27 mpg for the xDrive35i, which has a 300-hp, six-cylinder engine.
So the X1 is fun to drive, quick and gets up to 34 mpg on the highway? Sounds more like the 3 Series sedan than an SUV. The X3 with the same four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive is rated 21/28 mpg, and the 328i wagon is 22/33 mpg. Unlike the X3 and X1, the wagon has a diesel engine option rated a much higher 31/43 mpg.
The most troubling part of the engine and fuel economy equation is the auto stop-start mode that's there to save fuel while at a stop, a feature that now plagues many BMW cars and SUVs. The X1's execution is among the worst; when the engine starts up, it's felt through the entire car. I mostly drove with the feature turned off.
Rather unimpressive is how the X1 with the sport suspension rides over rough roads — which is to say, poorly. High-dollar cars often combine sportiness and comfort through the use of electronically adjustable suspensions. The X1's suspension has a fixed firmness — fixed in the "ouch" condition for rear passengers. I ran over what I thought was a moderate imperfection in the road with three passengers in the backseat who all made it very clear they didn't like being back there.
The BMW X1 is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, having scored the agency's best rating, Good, in frontal, side, rear and roof tests. The X1 scored Marginal in the institute's new small overlap front tests — second from the lowest in the range (Good, Acceptable, Marginal, Poor), keeping the X1 from earning IIHS' highest award, Top Safety Pick+.
Standard safety features include frontal and side-impact airbags for front occupants and side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants, as well as the federally mandated electronic stability system and antilock brakes. Available safety features include a backup camera and backup sensors. Advanced safety technology, like blind spot warning and lane departure warning, are not available. See more safety features here, and check out how child-safety seats fit in the X1 in our Car Seat Check.
2013 BMW X1 in the Market
Downsizing is happening within the luxury market; new, smaller engines and smaller cars and SUVs like the Acura ILX and Buick Encore give luxury buyers more-affordable options.
Buyers may miss out on the latest and highest-tech gadgets and features BMW offers, but they won't miss out on BMW's mainstays of interior quality and a properly entertaining driving experience, especially with the M Sport Package. For now, the X1's smaller size doesn't seem to be hurting the subcompact luxury SUV one bit: The X1 outsold the X3 in July 2013. The BMW X1 is downsizing done right; the gas mileage is right, the size is right and the price is right.