To kick off 2020, BMW's smallest and most affordable SUV, the X1, perhaps surprisingly, became its biggest seller. So are the majority of new Beemer buyers justified in opting for an untraditional front-wheel drive SUV?

If you’d have asked me which car in BMW’s lineup was its best-selling model last month here in Australia, the X3 or 3 Series would have been my first guesses as they were the company’s top sellers in 2019.

I’d have been wrong however, as the ageing X1 managed to overtake both, surely confirming that SUVs are the way of the future, with this playing a role in the culling of the only diesel 3 Series, the 320d, due to slowing sales.

Fresh off the back of a recent facelift and range re-shuffle for the new year, I wanted to see just why so many people chose this over a 1 Series or 3 Series, so I grabbed the keys to the sDrive18d, the only diesel in the X1 range, to find out.

Certainly, the X1’s strong sales show that buyers aren’t perturbed by the brand shifting away from rear-wheel drive in favour of front-wheel drive for certain models as all bar the range-topping xDrive25i see the power sent to the front wheels alone.

But in many regards, it feels different to what those used to higher-end BMWs will have come to expect. Single-zone manual climate controls stand out in the middle of the dashboard as a sign of its cut-price positioning, as does the lack of a proper centre console, with a deployable armrest containing a wireless phone charger sat over an open storage bin there instead.

And even the shifter stands out as being different to your average Beemer as the electronic shifter that returns to centre has been replaced with one that more closely resembles a manual shifter with a full leather boot and everything. Shame there isn’t actually a manual shifter there, in my opinion.

It’s still very much a BMW inside, however, but simply one that openly admits to being a bit yesterday, as the infotainment system and semi-digital gauge cluster are identical to what you’d have found in, say, a last-gen 1 Series.

While everything looks nice and works well, the shame of it is that all the next-generation BMW tech is so good that it makes everything here look dated, so if you are set on one of these, don’t feel tempted into checking our a 1er or 3er, then, as it’ll rather ruin it for you. As it is though, this older iDrive system is perfectly clear and straightforward to use.

All the materials are perfectly up to scratch, however, with plenty of high-quality faux leather, piano black trim (looks nice but does scratch easily), and sturdy switchgear. Sure, you may get more in the way of features in something such as a Toyota RAV4 or Hyundai Kona, but there is a certain air of quality here that is almost irreplicable.

It’s a well laid-out interior, too, with all the controls falling easily to hand and a good amount of storage space, even if it’s not enclosed on the centre console.

There’s plenty of headroom and legroom in both rows, too, and the panoramic sunroof does help the interior feel a bit airer and more open. The boot is massive too, with a flat-loading false floor and additional storage space underneath it, meaning that six big bags of dolomite were an easy fit back there, with room to hide away the squash racquets another journo had left behind in this car underneath there, too.

In the sDrive18d, you get a 2.0-litre transversely-mounted four-cylinder turbo diesel engine making 110kW and 330Nm paired to an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission as standard, which, as mentioned, sends the power to the front wheels alone.

While this diesel is nowhere near as refined as the more powerful four and six-pot units I’ve tested in other BMWs, sounding tractor-esque and gruff getting off the line, very little of that is actually heard inside the cabin, so while you’ll be clearly advertising to the world that you’re driving an oiler, you yourself will be none the wiser from behind the wheel.

Although it’s pickup is excellent at lower speeds – the torque all lies down low as is typical with diesels – the power definitely starts to taper off once you’re at or above average highway speeds, highlighting its smaller turbocharger size.

However, at triple digit speeds, it is remarkably quiet and subdued, with not a trace of engine noise to be heard. Road and wind-noise is well-suppressed too, which, again, is reflective of that sturdy German build quality you don’t get elsewhere.

The transmission – as you’d expect from BMW, which delivers some of the best automatic transmission programming on the market – is beautifully smooth and well-judged, and does do its best to extract what this engine has to give effectively. The promptness of its shifts is most impressive, too, with it hiding the fact that it’s a torque converter-type auto very well.

And while the ride in the X1 is very smooth and absorbs bumps with relative ease, it has enough rigidity to it to not fall apart completely in the corners.

Now, sure, it’s not the sharpest-handling thing out there, as the smaller, stiffer 1 Series would outclass it through the bends, but despite its height, it does manage what body roll there is fairly well, with it only starting to display it as you really approach the limit.

You’ll start to detect some understeer as a gentle warning before you really reach that point, however, likely originating most from its nose-heaviness typical of all front-wheel drive cars paired with the fatter tyre sidewalls most SUVs feature.

Don’t get me wrong though as it’s not half bad through the bends, it’s just that relaxed highway cruising is more clearly in its repertoire, especially when it comes to this ultra-frugal diesel, which used merely 6.1L/100km during the 730km I spent behind the wheel of it.

So, it’s spacious, good on fuel, pretty nice to drive – especially on the freeway – and at $49,900 before options and on-roads, it’s not actually all that expensive for a Beemer.

While personally, I’d rather spend that same amount of money on a well-spec’d 1 Series in order to get newer and more advanced technology, but with SUVs being what people are after – especially ones with flash badges on the front of them – it’s not surprise that the bigger, higher-riding car is what’s outselling the humble hatch.

If you’ve got deeper pockets, the X2 may also be worth looking at if you’d like some more interesting styling, or an X1 xDrive25i if you’re after something with a bit more pep, but as this diesel X1 sits, for those after one of the more affordable premium-branded runabouts or highway cruisers, you could do a lot worse.

BMW X1 sDrive18d M Sport List Price: $49,900
  • 7.5/10
    Performance - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Tech & Features - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Value for Money - 7.5/10

Pros: Quiet ride at freeway speeds, frugal diesel engine, high-quality interior feel, spacious interior and two-tiered boot
Cons: Older iDrive system is good but outclassed by the newest iteration, diesel sounds gruff and clattery at lower speeds, lacking some features you’d expect at this price point

In a nutshell: The X1 does make a case for itself as to why it’s BMW’s new top-seller, but you’ll want to look elsewhere in the range if you’re after the company’s slick and advanced new tech. 

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by BMW Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. Additionally, our friends at MPF Detailing gave it a complementary Express Detail for us prior to our photoshoot.

Patrick Jackson
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