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BBC Autos

Review

2013 BMW X1 xDrive28i

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At long last, North American drivers appear ready to decouple their notion of a car’s prestige from its size.

This is what the social engineers – the ones who decried the SUV boom of the 1990s and 2000s as the product of “Detroit” marketing – have long sought. Now, they say, a small car can be just as desirable and, yes, expensive as a large one.

At least outside of Europe, however, the market has yet to bear that hunch out. Though some attractive small cars with premium detailing have fared well, particularly those from Mini, titans of industry are not piloting Coopers to the golf course. They reserve such purchases for their, ahem, nieces.

With the X1 compact crossover, BMW is betting that small cars can command the same social capital at the club, even without the physical heft. Small is the new big, the thinking goes.

The X1 has been conquering Europe and other corners of the world since 2009. It has proven so popular, in fact, that production volumes of the Leipzig-produced car were insufficient to cover a US rollout until a recent manufacturing push, according to Juergen Urban, product manager for the X1. In the car’s first two months ashore, BMW sold more than 6,000 units – remarkable for a niche, premium model.

Its appeal? Taut, smooth, BMW-grade handling, without the top-heavy feel of an SUV or punishing ride that may result from trying to make a tall, heavy vehicle respond like a lightweight.

That is because the X1 is built on the chassis of the previous-generation 3 Series sedan – known internally and among BMW cognoscenti as the E90 – and it sits low to the road, more like a car, rather than up high like many other car-based crossovers. It bears the stance and proportions of the previous-generation Subaru Forester, before that vehicle acquired a case of bloat.

The back seat is decidedly snug, but a comfortable fit for two adults. The cargo hatch will not accept sheets of drywall, but the soft luggage and Pack ‘n Play folding crib of its targeted young, upwardly mobile buyer should pose no challenge.

Urban notes that car guys, emphasis on “guys”, have flocked to the X1. BMW expected the X1 to resonate with women buyers, but purchasing has not bore that out, he said. The conventional wisdom about these vehicles is often wrong. Last year’s flavour-of-the-month, the Range Rover Evoque, was decried as a women’s car, but in the United States, its sales skew 64% male.

Urban says regardless of gender, buyers are attracted to the X1’s value proposition. The tested xDrive28i all-wheel-drive, equipped with the base 2-litre, 240-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, starts at $33,245, inclusive of $895 destination charge, which sounds reasonable for a BMW. With popular options selected, an xDrive28i leaves a showroom for less than $40,000. Indeed, the average transaction price for the X1 falls below the $40,000 threshold, Urban said.

Which would make the X1 a pretty good value. But the test car stickered for $45,995, nearly $15,000 above the base, rear-drive sDrive28i. Steering clear, very clear, of the options list is a prerequisite of X1 consideration, lest a buyer arrive in the neighbourhood of the larger X3, or that lovely Evoque.

Aside from the price bloat, which is a hallmark of the BMW buying experience, a small blemish on the X1 is its gas mileage. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it returns 22 miles per gallon in urban and 33 mpg in highway driving – not terrible, but not a headline-stealer. The city number was replicated in mixed suburban driving.

A buyer does, however, get a real BMW for the money, and not a watered-down facsimile wearing the trademark blue-and-white roundel badge. The X1 could have easily been a rebadged Mini Countryman – that chunky runabout produced by the BMW Group subsidiary – but the Bavarian bean counters were held at bay. The authenticity, however, is for both good and ill.

The good means that there is authentic BMW road feel and handling, and an advanced turbocharged engine matched to a creamy ZF 8-speed automatic transmission. The transmission is programmed impressively, always willing to suffer continuous gear changes – an engineering coup considering there are so many gears at the computer’s disposal. The leather-trimmed steering wheel transmits road feel to the driver’s hands and the X1 feels properly balanced in turns, as a BMW should. All good stuff.

Authenticity, however, also mandates saddling the X1 with the infernal iDrive infotainment interface, which has made changing radio stations or using navigation features needlessly difficult for nigh on a decade.

And there is the pushbutton ignition, which rarely fails to do the wrong thing. Get in, depress it, and the system goes to accessory power instead of igniting the engine. Press it again and the accessories turn off. Usually the third time is the charm.

Another dubious inheritance is BMW’s latest electronic shifter, which flouts a half-century of shift-pattern convention in favour of its own.

Pop quiz: To back out of your driveway, how do you select Reverse? One click back on the shifter, right? Wrong. In new BMWs the driver presses the shifter forward. It does not click into place, but rather springs back like a joystick to what may seem to the uninitiated like Neutral. But no, welcome to Reverse gear, which is as retrograde as it sounds.

Then there is the automatic stop/start system. To conserve fuel, it shuts off the engine when the vehicle is stopped at a light and restarts automatically when a foot lifts off the brake pedal. But unlike the seamless systems in place on countless hybrids, BMW favors the conventional starter, resulting in a jarring, clunky restart. Yes, it can be deactivated, but only if you press the Disable button every single time you get in the car. “We are trying to improve it as much as possible to address customer feedback,” Urban conceded.

Why should otherwise great cars, particularly those billed as ultimate driving machines, be saddled with such irksome ancillary technology? Within the BMW product line, at least the inevitable shifter gripes can be avoided by selecting a manual transmission, but the automatic is the only box available for the X1.

Somehow, the imperative to deliver the Ultimate Driving Machine has been driven to distraction. The machine cannot keep its minions in check. It is a shame, because the X1 is fundamentally a good little car, provided the consumer steers clear of pricey options.

Unless, of course, the “niece” demands them.

The X1 could have easily been a rebadged Mini Countryman, but the Bavarian bean counters were held at bay. — Dan Carney