REVIEW | Is this the BMW X1 we always wanted? We drive the new xDrive28i

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  • With the Mini brand waning, BMW AG is positioning the X1 as its comprehensive compact crossover product.
  • The third-generation X1 features tidier styling details and much-improved infotainment.
  • We experienced the X1 xDrive28i on some of America's most challenging roads.

The original X1 was a study in awkward proportions and hardly BMW design's finest moment.

Now in its third generation, the X1 is positioned as a crucial volume model for BMW. This is especially true in South Africa, where the premium hatchback and compact sedan markets are vanishing, much to the disadvantage of German luxury brands like BMW.

The compact crossover association has not always been kind to the X1, with many BMW brand loyalists regarding it as a lesser vehicle, instead of a junior X3. Keen to redress the issue, BMW's poured a lot of R&D into making the third-generation X1 a more substantial car.

BMW X1 xDrive28i
BMW X1 xDrive28i

With styling, the small details matter, and BMW's designers have got them very right with this new X1. Compact crossovers can look ungainly from the rear, but X1 avoids this with some geometric edging on the head- and taillight clusters, which harmonise the car's corner proportions.

OS 8 infotainment

Cabin architecture and infotainment are where the X1 most impresses; the 10.3-inch digital instrumentation cluster twins with a curved 10.7-inch infotainment display. Both screens feature contemporary graphics, a high degree of legibility (even in direct sunlight) and excellent UX – something many legacy car companies struggle to get right.

BMW X1 xDrive28i
BMW X1 xDrive28i

Beyond the intuition of BMW's latest in-car personal assistant, quickly prompted and not easily confused by voice commands, the camera-assisted route guidance stands out. When you are driving on the opposite side of the road, in complex traffic and signalling environments (like California), the quality of SatNav can either calm or trigger anxiety.

The X1 benefits from BMW's forward camera recognition system, which relays a live video feed to the 10.7-inch infotainment screen. This camera feed includes overlayed graphic arrows, directing where one should go when approaching junctions, turn-offs or traffic lights. It's a brilliantly intuitive system.

Powered by BMW's latest OS 8 operating system, there's virtually no lag when scrolling menus or initiating digital functions. A tidy detail is the vertical phone cradle clip, which is optional and doubles as an induction charging pad. It is a simple and elegant way of providing superior Smartphone storage when driving rather than placing your device in a cupholder (which we all eventually do).

BMW X1 xDrive28i
BMW X1 xDrive28i

A stealth hot hatch?

As we've mentioned, the X1 xDrive28i's 2.0-litre petrol engine is slightly more powerful than before, boosting 180kW and 400Nm. More significant is its drivetrain upgrade, which sacrifices a gear for quicker shifting, ZF's eight-speed automatic transmission having been replaced with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

Riding on the UKL2 platform, the third-generation X1 has a high centre of gravity and more generous ground clearance, which has grown by 22mm. It might be limited by tyre specification, rated for X1 xDrive28i's 240km/h top speed, but with 205mm of ground clearance, you can edge over the highest kerbs when wanting to avoid an embarrassing three-point turn.

The ground clearance number is impressive, and although X1's dirt road travelling ability is constrained by its requirement for high-speed tyres, 205mm of underbody clearance is 15mm more than a Rav4.

Does the increase in ground clearance and centre of mass blunt X1 xDrive28i's dynamic flow through fast sweeps and hairpin corners? There were many of both on our Californian test route as it navigated from Palm Springs to Riverside County.

BMW's engineers are lauded for their ability to deliver undiluted driving dynamics and feel, regardless of vehicle class, weight or ride height. And the latest X1 xDrive28i is evidence of that. Some terrifically clever people at BMW have calculated X1's increased ride height and perfectly calibrated the steering speed and assistance ratio, resulting in great confidence at the helm.

Feels more (hot) hatchback than a compromised crossover

The X1 will never have a pseudo E46 steering feel (to play upon a tired BMW stereotype), but it's effortless to place accurately on technical roads.

On our Californian test loop, the X1 xDrive28i felt hot hatch quick, as you'd expect from a relatively compact vehicle with 180kW of power and 400Nm. Surges of real-world acceleration correlated to the 0-100km/h claim of 6.4 seconds.

The change from ZF's 8-speed automatic transmission to BMW's 7-speed DCT amplifies driving dynamics. Despite being a crossover, the latest X1 xDrive28i feels truer to the legacy of BMW's rewarding compact performance cars than the previous generation.

A weakness of high-performance crossovers is their hyperactive stability and traction intervention systems. Engineers create overly firm suspension compression to counter body roll, but wheel rebounds can go out of sync across poorly surfaced corners and trigger annoying stability and traction control interventions.

Mid-corner bumps don't upset its traction

X1 has adopted BMW's near-actuator wheel slip limitation, which uses much shorter signalling paths for the dynamic stability system, by integrating with the ECU. The result? More accurate and less annoying stability and traction control interventions – and on a South African B-road, that should provide a more rewarding driving experience.

Gone are the awkward styling details and unsettled ride over textured road surfaces. Clever cabin ergonomics, reasonable roominess, slick digitisation and more harmonised dynamics define the X1 xDrive28i. It seamlessly purposes into the role of a high-riding hot hatch, and in the South African context, it could make a lot of sense across a diverse array of road surfaces.

The X1 has finally evolved into a true junior X3, something that BMW's first- and second-generation compact crossovers did not achieve. 

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