YOU WANT TO give a car the kiss of death in South Africa? Just call it an estate, avant or station wagon and watch sales wither away into nothingness. You’ll have more luck trying to sell a Lions jerseys at Loftus than trying to peddle your mommy wagon.
I don’t get my countrymen’s loathing of estates. I love them. They handle like sedans but are far more practical thanks to all that extra space in the back. You even get 4×4 versions with decent ground clearance that will take you comfortably and safely on gravel if you need to go exploring.
Instead South Africans love their SUV’s. They adore the high seating position, the perceived extra space, the feeling of invincibility that comes from driving something bigger or a least as big as any other car on the road. And there’s always the dream of a cross-country African trip to hold on to. Or at least the knowledge that you can hop a pavement if there’s no parking place left in the school’s car park when you need to fetch little Johnny.
I’ve just spent two weeks driving BMW’s latest X-car, the X1, and examining it from every angle. BMW is calling it the first sports activity vehicle in the compact premium segment (a small luxury SUV in other words), but I’m now thinking a rose by any other name is still a rose. I’m calling this one a station wagon.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS
The most contentious part of this wagon is the exterior styling. Imagine a giant hand pressing hard on the roof of an X3, flattening and elongating it before dealing out a hard smack on the nose to flatten the front. You’re a lot closer to the ground than in an X3, but still slightly higher behind the wheel than you’d be in a 3 Series. Officially it’s called a ‘semi-command’ position, which presumably means you’re in full command in an X6 but unfortunately have less authority in a dinky1 Series.
Choose your colours, exterior trim and alloys well, and I contend the X1 will strike a more handsome pose than most other SUVs at the mall’s parking lot. If a bit of bling is your thing, go for the optional X Line package at R7100. It’s basically a set of silver-painted inserts on the front and rear bumpers as well as on the side sills which together make the car pop a bit more. The best looking set of alloys will set you back another R13800 though.
On the inside versatility is the name of this X-game. Clever storage spaces and cupholders abound, supplementing an otherwise very solid and traditional BMW interior. It’s a full five-seater, with a rear bench that splits and folds forward in a 40/20/40 configuration for when you want to slip long items like water-skis or surfboards through the rear hatch. Legroom at the back is good, even for adults. The angle of the rear seats can also be adjusted.
The rear luggage compartment grows from 420 litres to a 1350 litres with the seats folded down. It’s all functional and easy to use. If you want to spec the car up to more luxurious SUV levels, you’re going to have to fork out a lot more than the R376000 asking price of our test car. Leather seats are R13900, aluminium interior trim finishes demand another R3200, cruise control R3 500, electric front seats R10400, Bluetooth compatibility R6700 and an USB audio interface will cost another R3100. The list (really) does go on.
LIFE’S A JOURNEY
BMW has built its reputation on making cars that are good to drive, and the X1 is not going to be the model to ruin it for them. It’s based on the 3 Series Touring (there’s that wagon creeping into things again!) so it’s solid on the long straight stretches and dynamically good in the sweeps. One of our testers thought the steering was too heavy, especially at low speeds, but I prefer a bit of weight to my wheel. I wouldn’t have noticed it if he hadn’t mentioned it. The X1’s available in four models, of which only the two top of the range diesels are four-wheel drive models. The only petrol in the range, the 2.0-litre SDrive18i, and our test car, the SDrive 20 D, are rear-wheel drive only. Personally I’d save some bucks and sacrifice the X-drive system. Our roads are seldom icy and this is not meant to be an off-roader. The lighter SDrive 20D will reward you with better performance and better fuel economy than its heavier four-wheel drive brother.
It’s not necessarily the quietest diesel we’ve driven, but it’s surprisingly revvy and responsive for an oilburner, with 130kW and 350Nm on tap. It’s probably best mated to the six-speed automatic transmission rather than the manual transmission of our test car though. We reckon in this specific diesel case you’d be much happier paying the additional R16000 for the auto and let the car do the shifting for you. For once we actually came quite close to BMW’s claimed fuel economy figure of 5.6 litres per 100km, which is quite remarkable since we didn’t shy away from spirited driving. BMW is claiming to have opened up a brand new niche with the X1. Maybe, but our take is that it’s a really good station wagon which manages to blur the lines between hatch, estate and SUV extremely well. Expect to see a lot of them very soon in a suburb near you.