The next-generation 3-series, due in 2012, won’t be sold as a wagon in the United States. Surprising? Probably not. The writing was on the wall when BMW decided not to import the 2011 BMW 5-Series wagon. Upsetting? Unlikely. Just 1700 people bought 3-series wagons last year. So why should you care? As the crossover shrinks smaller and smaller in size, it gets closer and closer to becoming a wagon. And BMW’s new X1 is the smallest luxury crossover yet.
Downsizing is nothing new for mainstream automakers, which have been pumping out subcompacts for several years now, but the X1 presages a coming tide of smaller luxury vehicles, both cars and crossovers. Audi has an X1 rival in the upcoming Q3 and Mercedes-Benz is readying a car smaller than the C-class. To our eye, the X1 would only need to sit an inch lower on its springs and struts to qualify as a wagon. It is more compact — in width and length — than the 3-series wagon, but it’s much closer in size to that car than the larger X3 crossover is.
Downsizing the engine
The X1 doesn’t just speak to the future of the 3-series wagon, it is also a harbinger for BMW’s powertrain future. Under the hood, there’s the new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that’s set to replace the normally aspirated six-cylinder in use throughout the BMW lineup. Eventually, it will show up in the 1-series, 3-series, 5-series, X3, and Z4.
Compared to the outgoing inline-six, the new four-cylinder is both more powerful and torquier, using direct injection, Valvetronic variable valve lift, and a twin-scroll turbocharger. Output is rated at 240 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, versus 230 hp and 200 lb-ft in the outgoing six-cylinder. BMW pedants will dock the new engine for being neither as smooth nor as sonorous as the outgoing inline six, but it pulls harder and should deliver better fuel economy. The eight-speed automatic transmission found in the 5-series and elsewhere will be the popular choice for our market, but our test car was equipped with a six-speed manual, which also will be available to U.S. buyers. It is marked by the usual BMW precise action, nice effort, and longish throws. BMW claims a zero-to-62 mph time of 6.1 seconds with a six-speed manual, and while the company isn’t talking about fuel economy numbers, we expect the X1 with an eight-speed automatic to return about 22 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.
Comparisons with Audi’s ubiquitous turbocharged 2.0-liter — an engine we’ve been praising for years — are inevitable. Just as with Audi unit, BMW’s boosted four-cylinder provides both a liveliness and livability that make it a suitable replacement for the six-cylinder. While we haven’t driven both engines back-to-back, our initial impression is that the Audi pulls a bit harder at the low end, but the BMW four has the advantage at the top of the tach. The only shortcoming we found with the X1’s new engine during our brief, 25-minute drive was the throttle calibration — no surprise given our frustration with the gas pedals in the 5-series and 7-series. The right pedal’s sluggish response makes for a laggy feel and requires an aggressive and prolonged prod of the throttle to rev-match downshifts.
A wagon-like driving experience
The driver sits low relative to the dash, giving the X1 a car-like feel, a notion that is backed by the X1’s handling character. The X1 weighs in at a reasonable 3500 pounds and corners with a flatness and firmness befitting a BMW sedan. Unfortunately, while the electric power steering is well calibrated in terms of effort, it is more notable for the utter numbness that mutes every lane change, bend, and corner. We weren’t expecting the smooth German roads of our short drive loop to reveal much about the ride quality, but over gentle oscillations on the autobahn the rear suspension pogo’d awkwardly.
BMW interior, size small
Inside, the X1 is typical BMW with the usual control layout and material mix. Only the lower dash materials feel uncharacteristically hard and plasticky to the touch. The narrow center console forces the rotary iDrive controller further back than usual, so it doesn’t fall to hand quite like it does in the larger BMWs like the X3. The supportive bucket seats are comfortable and the aforementioned driving position adds to the X1’s feeling of compactness. We were surprised, though, at how readily the rear seat accommodates full-size adults. The cargo hold is about one cubic foot smaller than the 3-series wagon’s, but that’s still spacious enough for four people’s luggage.
BMW’s original plan had the X1 arriving in showrooms in the spring of 2011. But the popularity of the small crossover in other markets has stressed the Leipzig, Germany assembly line to the point that the X1’s importation is indefinitely delayed. When it does arrive (hopefully before the end of 2011), we expect it to carry a price tag around $34,000. While the X1 doesn’t have the baked-in dynamic goodness of a car-based wagon, it does drive with a nimbleness that’s refreshing. In packaging, the X1 is undoubtedly is a suitable successor to the 3-series wagon with the appeal of a crossover that U.S. buyers demand.