WORKING AT TOPCAR, road-tripping is part of the job. It’s something I’m really familiar with, regardless of the distance involved. As a child a growing up in Zimbabwe, my family used to travel a lot. With just about every major school holiday, we’d pile into the back of our Ford Anglia estate and head off to visit family in sunny South Africa. If it wasn’t Gweru to Durban, it was the Gweru to Cape Town epic instead. Those who have driven Ford Anglias will no doubt agree that the use of epic here is entirely apt.
Every road trip begins with a sense of excitement, unless your particular carriage for the day happens to an ox wagon. Thankfully, the pre-seatbelt Anglia had a mattress over the folded back seat to soak up the bumps and allow us kids the room to sleep, play, fight and then sleep some more. As the topCar team found out on our Cape Peninsula day trek, the BMW X1, too, is a worthy road trip carriage, just not for the same reasons.
For starters the xDrive28i is powered by an engine, not the modern-day equivalent of a sewing machine. And it’s certainly not sprung by mattress – far from it. In fact, the suspension is on the firm side, which in the traditional BMW manner means it has very little body roll. Provided the road surface is decent and you’re not slinging it from side to side around Chapman’s Peak at a fair lick, X1 occupants aren’t likely to feel queasy, get car sick or want to commit mutiny. However, over irregular, repaired urban roads like those encountered between Simon’s Town and Kalk Bay, it is less comfortable. Hit a ridge and the forces transfer through the front without much resistance. No suspension set-up is perfect, but some other firmly-sprung cars are better at cushioning these jolts.
Still, I remain convinced that opting for the standard 17-inch rims over flashier, better-looking 18s or 19s has been worth it in terms of overall ride quality. Of course, our X1 does roll on run-flat Pirelli tyres, which by design have stiffer sidewalls than regular tyres. How much of a difference it makes is best left to mathematicians and engineers. However, the advantages of run-flats are obvious. Get a puncture at night on a deserted road and you don’t even have to stop. BMW claims fully-deflated tyres can do a minimum of 150km at speeds of up 80kph. There’s no unpacking of the boot and no fiddling with a jack and a heavy spare wheel, either. And as we recently experienced, depending on the size and position of the puncture, it’s no longer taboo to plug a run-flat.
As a final resort, like all Beemers our X1 comes standard with 24-hour roadside assistance, snappily titled BMW On Call. We’ve completed several road trips covering more than 13500 kilometres in the last seven months and have not yet needed to make the call. We trust other owners have the same experience.
RUN-FLAT TYRES – harsh ride, expensive to replace, hard to find, right? Over the years we’ve received a fair amount of mail from readers to this effect, adding to our own reservations. Yet BMW has stuck bull-doggedly to the idea, mostly because it is not without merit. Now in third-generation-plus form, ride comfort has improved to a point of imperceptibility in cars like the new 3 Series. Naturally, our X1 runs them and while the ride is nowhere near as supple as the all-new Three, it is well ahead of the previous-generation, ‘solid axle’ X3 cart wagon. But the real test of usefulness comes when you have a flat, and right on cue, we had one earlier in the month.
Quite alarmingly, the tyre pressure monitor (TPM) insisted I stop immediately due to a loss of pressure in the left rear. Being late at night on a dark section of the N1, I ignored the command and instead slowed to less than 80kph. After all, the major benefit of run-flats is exactly that. Only slightly inconvenienced, I pulled into the nearest service station, inflated the tyre back up to the correct pressure and reset the TPM system via iDrive. Two days later, the pressure had dropped sufficiently to awaken the monitor once more. Slow puncture thus confirmed, I gave my local BMW dealer a call and it was suggested I check it out at a tyre fitment centre.
So it was off to a nearby Tiger Wheel and Tyre, who gave the offending tyre a bubble bath of sorts. The tyre technician located and removed a harmless-looking, one centimetre-long metal shard. Fearing the ‘Thank you sir, that will be six million roubles for the tyre, but we don’t carry stock’ scenario, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that because the puncture was in a non-critical area, they could repair instead. R75 later, I drove off, plug-in-boot so to speak.
Since then the X1 has covered 4000km, completing two tours of camera car duty, including tracking the three ICBMs (inter-city ballistic missiles) featured up front of this issue and an off-road adventure without putting a boot wrong and no further cause for [pressure loss] alarm.
Unfortunately, running as camera car alongside the brand new 335i sedan highlighted how old-school the X1 feels by comparison. Obviously, technical specification plays a huge role here. Where the 335 sports the latest electro-mechanical steering, Servotronic (speed-sensitive assistance) and variable ratio steering, Servotronic is not even an option on our xDrive 28i. Compared with the decisively responsive, almost delicate helm in the 335, the hydraulically-assisted X1 feels heavy and sluggish at low speed and awfully vague around centre. It’s exactly how power steering used to be before electronics came and fixed/ruined – whichever you deem applicable – everything.
As for other aspects of the car, the engine hasn’t improved its vocal performance, especially when cold, but has definitely loosened up and is at last returning more kilometres per tank. Best performance so far is 619km from around 59 litres. Not bad for a turbo petrol 4wd auto on a very mixed cycle.