FIRST DRIVE: BMW X1

PEOPLE have been saying for a long time that the world is getting smaller. Looking at BMW's latest 'X' model, it appears that they were right.

The X1 is a new addition to the range of SUV 'X' models and, as indicated by the name, is the smallest yet. It's a vehicle that follows in the wake of success left by the original 'X' model - the X5 - but it's also a model that could be tainted by the tepid reception received by the previous scaled-down 'X' model - the X3.

One thing is certain; like the others, including the X6, it is the first of its kind to hit the market. That works in its favour in terms of grabbing attention, but leaves it exposed if it doesn't stand up to the scrutiny.

Where it appears the X5 and, more recently, the X6 models got it right was in their ability to offer something different. Big, brash, accommodating and more than capable of putting four wheels into the slippery stuff, the large models still performed likes sports cars on the Tarmac.

Where the X3, the model which many will have in mind when considering the X1, seemingly fails to garner the same enthusiasm in the UK is in delivering something different enough. The driving position and four-wheel drive transmission certainly have their benefits, but they are not a dramatic enough improvement over a perfectly adept 5-Series Touring to tempt the majority.

The X1, despite being styled like an X5 ‘Mini-Me’, does not appear to hold any major off-roading pretentions. It’s even available with two-wheel drive (the rear wheels, naturally) for the first time on a ‘X’ model. Yet, with the four-wheel drive chassis of the BMW X1 xDrive20d SE model, there’s a braked trailer towing limit of 2000kg. With prices marginally less than those of similarly specified 320d Touring, the X1 is already beginning to make sense.

In the UK, the X1 will only be available with a choice of three 2.0-litre diesels with varying power outputs thanks to varying turbo inputs. BMW expects the middling 174bhp unit to be the big seller and, interestingly, in two-wheel drive specification.

Yet, in four-wheel drive form, the 20d SE proves particularly competent. At the wheel, it exudes a feeling of solidity typical of BMW. The German manufacturer calls the driving position “Semi-Command”; it’s marginally loftier than a traditional saloon or estate, meaning a better view out of the cabin, but still low enough to prevent the driver feeling detached from the road.

Even with the less involving six-speed automatic transmission the X1 xDrive20d SE provides a rewarding driving experience. The steering is responsive and accurate, body roll is limited through the corners and the four-wheel drive system ensures fine grip and road holding.

A firmer ride than is present in most SUVs helps maintain a sportier driving experience but, while it stops short of being too firm, it does pick out larger imperfections in the road surface. Fortunately, typically sturdy BMW build quality means there’s little reverberation through the body. Drivers will notice the slightly gruff performance of the diesel engine, however, which penetrates the cabin with a low rumble even when warm.

Inside, further benefits of the X1’s pseudo SUV styling can be found in the shape of headroom. The tall body makes the interior feel spacious despite the X1 not being the widest of vehicles. Although the long wheelbase and raised roofline means the rear can happily accommodate adult frames, it’s better suited to two in terms of width. The transmission tunnel does not help in this regard, either.

That said, the long wheelbase allows for good size doors and a respectable boot and with the rear seats folded the high rise body becomes very accommodating.

Currently, one in five BMW’s sold worldwide is an ‘X’ model. The German manufacturer expects the X1 to increase that figure, and it’s not hard to see why. Its size, pricing and unique qualities mean it can appeal to drivers across age groups, to those looking to downsize from larger SUVs and to those seeking something in addition to a premium family estate.

It’s the smallest ‘X’ model to date, and for many it will be the most attractive, too.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: BMW X1 xDrive20d SE, £25,510 on the road.

Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel unit developing 174bhp and 258lb/ft of torque.

Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission, driving all four wheels.

Performance: Maximum speed 127mph (electronically limited), 0-62mph 8.4 seconds.

CO2 emissions: 153g/km.

Economy: 48.7mpg.