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2016 BMW X1 crossover shakes its wagon roots for small SUV style

The outgoing generation of BMW’s X1 compact crossover was a favorite of mine. Though marketed, perceived and sold as a small SUV — or SAV (sports activity vehicle) in eye-rolling BMW-speak — the vehicle actually looked, stood and drove more like a slightly enlarged hatchback or a small wagon. Its handling and performance are ultimately what wowed me, but I have to admit that the novelty of this covert wagon infiltrating the rapidly growing compact SUV market really cemented the X1’s place in my heart.

BMW says that its buyers felt differently. They wanted more space, a more commanding seating position and, perhaps most importantly, they wanted their new small crossover to, well, actually look like a small SUV. Can’t have the neighbors calling it a wagon, ew. So, the BMW X1 has been totally redesigned for 2016. It’s got a shorter wheelbase, is taller overall, and now boasts the more SUV like design that buyers in this segment are looking.

And though I’m sad to see the North American wagon die just a little bit more, even I have to admit after my drive that the 2016 BMW X1 xDrive28i is better than before.

As a fan of the old X1, I doubted the new SUV-like profile, but even I was won over by the improved performance and space.
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The more upright stance and some clever interior design affords the new X1 more interior volume than before. Its cabin has more room for people than the Audi Q3 and, to boot, there’s more boot space for cargo out back. In a three-way comparison with the Q3 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA, the X1 is the most spacious.

At 228 horsepower for the xDrive28i trim, it’s also the most powerful. The new X1 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that outputs a tidy 258 pound-feet of torque. Despite having the same number of cylinders and the same displacement as last year, this is an all new engine of the automaker’s new modular series.

The new mill feels even more responsive than the one that won me over in 2013; the new 8-speed automatic transmission, on the other hand, somewhat dulls the fun. Fortunately, there are Sport drive mode settings that put the entire powertrain on edge and allow the engine to shine. (There’s also an Eco Pro setting that does the opposite, smoothing out acceleration for improved efficiency.)

Inside, the BMW boasts more space for people and their stuff than the Audi Q3 or Mercedes-Benz GLA. Its iDrive tech is also better, overall.
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

At an EPA estimated 23 city, 34 highway, and 27 combined mpg, the BMW is has the same thrifty combined estimate as the Merc-Benz GLA250 4matic (gaining ground on highway efficiency, but losing it in the city). Across the board, the Bimmer sips less than the Audi Q3 Quattro, which is surprising considering the Audi’s power deficit and claimed focus on efficiency.

In the new dashboard, just above the new asymmetrical center console, is new generation of BMW’s iDrive infotainment, which is to say that’s it’s the same software that we’ve grown to love, but with snappier hardware underpinning it. I wasn’t able to really test out the navigation or connected features on the during my drive and I wasn’t able to really put the Harman-Kardon audio system through its paces with only satellite radio to listen to, but I did note that the system was responsive when clicking and scrolling around the various functions and the iDrive controller feels intuitive and is an easy reach in its position on the center console.

I was able to test the BMW X1 at a driving event in the Copper Canyons of northern Mexico. This was an interesting challenge, I think for the X1 — a vehicle that attempts to add the perception of off-road capability to a nameplate that I associate with driving dynamics. Imagine the best mountain driving road on the planet — scenic and picturesque, warm and dramatic, snaking up and down the sides of dramatic mountains. Now, in your imagination roll a bunch of gigantic boulders down that and visualize the effect that would have on those roads.

The roads of Mexico’s Copper Canyon are amazing, but rocks, craters and goats make it a uniquely challenging passage.
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In places the asphalt was carpeted with loose gravel and small stones — these were the “good” passages. In others, there were larger stones that needed to be dodged and intermittent basketball sized craters left by the impacts of falling rocks. Rounding one corner, a boulder the size of a VW bus occupied the entire inside lane, reducing two opposing lanes to one. Driving through the Copper Canyon is a bit like tackling Switzerland’s Stelvio Pass on the Moon… with goats. (Did I mention the goats and cattle that would wander into the road? There were dozens of them!)

And the X1 handled it wonderfully. For the first few miles, the tossable chassis and new xDrive all-wheel drive system (a standard feature) made short work of the gravel and stones layered over the asphalt, keeping the nose pointed where steered, applying a bit of torque vectoring to rotate the chassis around bends and generally helping the vehicle to feel more controlled. Power from the 2.0-liter was very good, though there is a bit of lag between a pedal input and the seat of the pants feel of acceleration. This is no sports car — despite its dynamic feel — but returned what felt like good performance for this class. After seeing the X1 handle one of the best/worst roads I’ve ever driven, I’m confident that it’ll handle the cracked pavement of my favorite driving roads with the same ease.

And then I ran out of road. Construction of a new bridge required diverting off of the main road and onto a rocky off-road segment rough enough that I normally wouldn’t even dream of taking in a compact BMW. With the automaker’s blessing, I slowly crawled the crossover through the ruts, rocks and mud. This poorly maintained dirt road wasn’t rock crawling by any stretch, but X1 certainly felt out of its element here — it’s also no Jeep Renegade Trailhawk — but to its credit it also never protested, groaned or rattled. By the time we rejoined the road on the other side of the canyon, I was glad for the extra ground clearance of the more upright crossover.

We’ll need more time behind the wheel before I can give the 2016 BMW X1 a score, but my initial impressions are that it is vastly improved over the previous generation and is poised to find itself at the top of the premium/luxury compact crossover class when it reaches dealerships later this year. If it has a weak spot, it’s that the X1 will likely be one of the most expensive models in that class as well.

The 2016 BMW X1 xDrive28i will start at $35,800 and stretch into the low 40s with options. In the UK and Australian markets, where the X1 will feature a slightly different (and expanded) range of engines, expect to start at £26,780 or AU$49,500, respectively.

CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it’s far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET’s editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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