Everything I know about cars I have learned in two places: in high school and at Automobile Magazine deputy editor Joe DeMatio’s dinner table. And when I say “know about cars,” I mean “impressions of what a car is supposed to be like” rather than anything actually substantive about motor vehicles. I have picked up the occasional very minor technical tidbit, and I’m somewhat up-to-date on newer safety technology, but only because my retired parents are looking to trade up from their 12-year-old Toyota Camry for something with stability control and front and rear parking assist. But, in the main, every impression I have of what a particular marque is goes back to what the guys at my high school said about it in the hallway between classes.
So, when Joe called to tell me I could drive the magazine’s Four Seasons BMW to Chicago, I was swept up in an ecstasy of high school nostalgia. “A Bimmer,” I thought. “Now, I will be cool!”
You see, I came of age in the era of The Preppy Handbook and actually attended a prep school mentioned in its pages. Although I drove to school daily in my grandmother’s old early-1970s Buick — quickly named “Bertha” by my classmates but appreciated for its solid and reliable ability to ferry up to seven of us somewhere with enough personal space not to wrinkle our khakis — the coolest of the kids had BMWs — red and boxy-fronted with the blue-and-white propeller badge. (There was one girl from our sister school with a small British convertible sports car, which was mega-cool, but it was always in the shop.)
So I drove up to the Automobile Magazine offices in my 2001 Subaru Forester (essentially the current equivalent of Bertha: safe, hyper-reliable, definitely sensible, and tragically unsexy), hoping to see a version of the stylish BMWs that had filled my high school insecurities. It didn’t have to be a 7-series of course, even a lowly 3-series would help me banish the demons of my high school automotive inferiority complex. And what did they have for me but something that looked like, well, a family car, the 2014 BMW X1 xdrive28i. Instead of a dashing sporting vehicle of my pubescent imaginations, I was getting a mommy-goes-to-hot-yoga-after-dropping-the-kids-at-the-country-club car. Was it just an updated, more expensive version of my very own Bertha-Subaru?
Those last two sentences aren’t exactly fair to the X1, and they’re certainly the product of my own middle-class-impostor-in-a-rich-kid-school past. To be sure, the X1 is way sleeker than either Bertha or my Subaru. The midnight blue exterior ($550 upcharge) is striking, and the front grille and lighting details give it the refined aura of something that has been designed and put together. If Mommy’s going to yoga, she’s doing so with her hair carefully pulled up and back, with her leggings topped by an exquisite hand-knit oversize Irish fisherman’s sweater, and wearing her simple pearl-stud earrings. When you watch Project Runway, there’s always that one design on the catwalk that pulls it all together: amazing lines and form that still give a sense of casual effortlessness. That’s the X1, even if it is a mommy car.
So, I hop in the BMW-not-quite-of-my-dreams, and Joe starts to familiarize me with its features and singularities. That’s when things get interesting. This sleek German machine, it turns out, is also full of protocols and rules. To shift the transmission, I have to press the button on the side of control stick; there is no simply moving it where I want. Each time I forget, I am reminded of my failing by a notice on the dashboard, which I must acknowledge by tapping on the iDrive controller. “OK, ja, ich verstehe, danke,” I think to myself with slightly adolescent irritation. The driver’s-side door doesn’t open the first time I pull on the handle. It waits for the second time, to make sure I really want to get out of the car. And the split-screen nav system, which theoretically offers drivers a multiplicity of choices — destination map in one of four views on one side and almost any other metric you want on the other — also takes a fair amount of fiddling to figure out. It is more logical than intuitive.
After all that is worked out, I hop into the car and head west on I-94 to a weekend of meetings and coaching in Chicago. This little jaunt will, it turns out, test all the X1’s protective, controlling logic circuits. Because, unbeknownst to me, I’m headed straight toward eine Polarwirbelsschneearmageddon, that is, a Polar Vortex Snow Armageddon.
I know it is going to be cold in the Windy City this weekend. On my agenda for Friday is the meeting of a national governing board, bringing many members in from California, Florida, and the northeast. Since many of us are also Facebook friends, I had watched their trepidation about high temps of five degrees with the schadenfreude that Midwesterners reserve for our weak-blooded coastal cousins who are finally faced with the reality of winter weather. But somehow I, and everyone else I knew, missed the possibility of sudden whiteout snow squalls around the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Both Detroit and Chicago had been getting snow, but nothing we don’t handle on a regular basis.
Driving from southeast Michigan to Chicago is easy: just take I-94 west, and when you hit Indiana, head north on the Skyway into the city. Couldn’t be simpler. The only reason I set the X1’s navigation is to test it out. (One of the things I have learned about cars from hanging out with Joe is that each navigation system is its own nut to be cracked. Since the editors at car magazines drive new cars all the time, and as engineering among different marks seems to be getting increasingly similar, the peculiarities of each car’s infotainment/navigation system is a major topic of discussion.)
So, I’m driving west on I-94 on a sunny winter’s day, and the X1’s nav system tells me to take I-69 South and then head west on the Indiana Toll Road. Ja, OK, ich verstehe, I say in my head, and then I promptly ignore this bossy German car that doesn’t, apparently, even know the quickest way to Chicago.
I should have listened to the car. West of Kalamazoo, the roads get worse. What had been clear asphalt is now studded with small snow ruts. It’s no problem. The X1, particularly equipped with Michelin Pilot Alpin PA2 ZP winter performance tires, handles the conditions with aplomb and ease, and I am, for once, the cool kid in the cool car driving steadily and surely in the left lane, passing those traveling at a slow though not quite crawling pace in the right lane. The automatic windshield wipers click on as a light snow comes into the air. The Bruckner symphony I have chosen from my iPhone wafts through the car with its Germanic certainty. I am in the “We don’t know where the road will take you, but we’d be happy to get you there” winter television ad, enjoying the automotive highlife.
And then, suddenly, in the space of half a mile: the whole world turns white. The car’s vented disc brakes bring me easily and smoothly down to a safe speed, and soon enough there are brake lights visible through the gloom as the entire highway comes to a stop.
Luckily, those of us heading westbound are safe. But the eastbound lanes about ten miles up have seen tragedy: a crash involving multiple eighteen-wheelers and several cars unfortunate enough to be amongst them has taken three lives and sent others to the hospital. Our side of the highway is closed so emergency vehicles can get to the scene more quickly. And so we sit. The snowstorm lifts, bringing a gorgeous sunset sky of light purples with it, and people get out of their cars to share news and to ponder how long we will be stuck here.
I should have listened to Brunhilde, as I now call the X1, when she told me to divert south earlier. Clearly, she had picked up information about either the snow or the accident before I heard about it, and in this case, she knew best. So, as we start moving again, I follow her directives — ja ich verstehe, this time completely without irony — and get off I-94 to drive through Michigan City on surface roads, eventually making my way on to Chicago.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t have the nav programmed so that Brunhilde could talk to me. And I probably didn’t have the traffic alerts selected. No alert popped up on the dashboard, such things being reserved only for errant shifting impulses. So, approaching Chicago, I need to switch my destination location to the restaurant for the board meeting dinner rather than my friends’ Boystown condo because of the delay. Rather than using the simultaneously trusted and not-trusted BMW nav system or trying to adjust it as I drive in wintry Chicago traffic, I pull out my iPhone and ask Siri to get me where I need to go. Siri takes over, speaking to me across the wonder that is Bluetooth, and gets me there pronto. I even prop the phone up in the extra cupholder that pushes slightly into the passenger’s side of the cabin so I can check the visuals as needed.
The weekend in Chicago goes well. The Polar Vortex lifts, and temperatures are above freezing. The X1 handles any and all road conditions; the parking assists allow me to squeeze into snow-drift constricted parking spots any number of times; and the windshield wipers keep my view clear front and back without a hitch.
Getting ready to come home on Sunday, weather is again looming. This time I will not be caught unawares. I’ll take the Indiana Toll Road, which is usually much better maintained in snow armageddons. I program the X1’s navigation system with Ann Arbor as the destination and turn on the voice notifications.
Sure enough, as I come around the southern end of Lake Michigan, the snow starts. But this time, instead of sending me south, the X1 wants me to continue around the bottom of the lake to I-94. I check the Google Maps app on my iPhone, and it tells me to take the Toll Road to the south, which was my human-directed decision as well.
And there begins a battle of wills: Siri v. Brunhilde, in a cage match of soothingly engineered women’s voices. With each exit, the X1 tells me to get off and head north to hook up with the highway through Michigan, even when that means backtracking some 50 miles. But I ignore her and keep moving forward — ja ich verstehe, now just shut up! — all the way past Elkhart to I-69 North on perfectly tended roads.
As I head north to Michigan, the roads became truly awful. (And, as I find out later, this would have been the case all along I-94 as well.) Again, the all-wheel-drive BMW handles the conditions without faltering. I never feel pulled out of track or as if I am going to slip off the road, though this was certainly not the case for other vehicles around me. I get as far as Jackson, Michigan, and call it a night, not because Brunhilde isn’t performing like a champ but because when the truckers are sliding on the road around you, it’s good to get out of their way, no matter how stable the X1 is or how good its safety features are.
I descend on friends in Jackson with little notice — “Siri, call Tom and Tod,” — and a little help in finding their place — “Siri, give me directions to Tom and Tod’s house,” — glad that I don’t have to fiddle with the car’s nav system as I try to avoid being pinned against the highway wall by an eighteen-wheeler. The next day, rested, hot-tubbed, breakfasted, caught up with their lives and lunched, I drive back to Ann Arbor, again with the BMW handling the conditions flawlessly. I leave Brunhilde’s voice controls off.
In the end, I loved this car. Like Bertha and my Subaru, it is safe, hyper-reliable, and sensible. Unlike them, it is undeniably stylish and pulled-together in a confident sort of way. It is undeniably comfortable in how it sits on the road and how I sit in its amazing and completely adjustable heated seats. The steering wheel is both responsive and as a bonus is heated for hyper-cold days. Over time, I’m sure Brunhilde and I could come to an understanding about my impulsivity and her needs for navigational control, but my iPhone workaround works just fine for me. I wonder why car companies don’t just fold on a losing hand while they can and fully equip their cars to integrate with smartphones, allowing Google Maps to show up on the nav screens.
In the end, though, that last point is a quibble. Who cares? I got to drive a Bimmer to Chicago for the weekend, safely handling one of the worst weather weekends of this winter. And I got to tick a long-dreamed-of item off the bucket list: I am one of the cool kids at last.
- Body style 4-door hatchback
- Accommodation 5-passenger
- Construction Steel unibody
- Base price (with dest.) $33,425
- Price As tested $41,075
- Engine 16-valve DOHC turbocharged I-4
- Displacement 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
- Power 241 hp @ 5000-6500 rpm
- Torque 258 (369 w/overboost) lb-ft @ 1250-4800 rpm
- Transmission 8-speed automatic
- Drive All-wheel
- EPA Fuel Economy 22/33/26 (city/hwy/combined)
- Steering Hydraulically assisted
- Lock-to-lock 3.3 turns
- Turning circle 38.7 ft
- Suspension, Front Strut-type, coil springs
- Suspension, Rear Multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R Vented discs
- Wheels 17-inch aluminum
- Tires Goodyear Eagle LS2
- Tire size 225/50R-17 94H
- Headroom F/R 41.3/39.7 in
- Legroom F/R 41.4/34.9 in
- Shoulder room F/R 55.0/54.6 in
- Wheelbase 108.7 in
- Track F/R 59.1/60.2 in
- L x W x H 176.5 x 70.8 x 60.8 in
- Passenger capacity 98.0 cu ft
- Cargo capacity 27.6/63.3 cu ft
- Weight 3726 lb
- Weight dist. F/R 50.6/49.4 %
- Fuel capacity 16.6 gal
- Est. fuel range 430 miles
- Fuel grade 91 octane (premium unleaded)
- Halogen fog lights
- LED taillights
- Matte-black roof rails
- Rain-sensing windshield wipers
- Leather-wrapped steering wheel
- Leatherette-trimmed interior
- Tilt-and-telescopic steering column
- Cruise control
- USB port
- Automatic climate control
- Adjustable front armrest
- Midnight Blue metallic paint $550
- Cold weather package
- Retractable headlights washer
- Heated steering wheel and front seats
- Servotronic steering $250
- Ultimate package
- Keyless entry and ignition
- Rearview camera
- Panoramic sunroof
- Auto-dimming rearview mirror and exterior mirrors
- Power front seats w/lumbar support
- Front and rear parking assist
- Interior ambient lighting
- Voice control
- SiriusXM satellite radio and traffic w/one-year trial subscription
- BMW Online and BMW Apps