The second-generation BMW X1 holds a special place in my heart. It was the first car I drove during a press trip as a car journalist. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. But it was also just a really good car, one that impressed the hell out of me on that sunny day in Mexico. So when it came time to drive this new third-generation, I had high expectations. And I’m happy to say that my early impressions are good. Very good.

I walked out of the hotel doors in Palm Springs, bright and early in the morning, only to be greeted by a fleet of brand-new BMWs to drive. It felt like walking into a candy story as a kid and seeing “Free” labels on every jar. One of the cars there was the heart-pounding, hair-raising BMW M4 CSL.

However, I still needed my morning coffee and preferred to have another journalist warm up those Cup 2 R tires on the surprisingly chilly desert morning. So I decided to snag something a bit tamer to start out with, something a bit more relaxed. That’s when I saw the BMW X1 and immediately jumped in.

An Excellent Family Car

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My first stop was Starbucks, because it was on the way to the road I wanted to get to and I desperately needed coffee. After my caffeine pit stop, I head off down California’s highway 74 to a stunning scenic road through the canyons. While the X1 isn’t designed to be a proper sports car, any BMW worth its salt should be at least a little bit fun on a twisty road, so that’s where I headed.

But both my pit stop and the ride to the good road allowed me to sample the X1 in its natural environment, where customers are going to use it most—in traffic. The BMW X1 is going to be used as a family car, handling the day-to-day monotony of a daily commute, school run for the kids, and grocery getting. And it can handle all of those things well.

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The back seat is plenty big enough for even adults, as I was able to sit in the back in a surprising amount of comfort. Its actual rear seat is a bit flat and hard, so it’s not the most comfortable back seat, but I had plenty of leg room and headroom, meaning I could spent quite a bit of time back there without it growing tiresome. And its truck is decently sized as well, enough to easily swallow my camera gear with tons of room to spare. Just eyeballing it, I know I can fit all of my stroller and baby gear with no problem.

If there’s an issue with the X1’s practicality, it doesn’t look like there will be much room for front passenger with car seats behind them. So if your kids are small enough to still need car seats, make sure you bring one along for your test drive to make sure everyone can fit comfortably.

One of BMW’s Best Interiors

BMW completely changed the X1’s cabin for the third-generation and it’s quite a bit different from every other BMW interior as well. Not only is it different, though—it’s good. Really good. The design is sporty and premium, its front seats are great, visibility is outstanding, and the tech is mostly great. Mostly.

There is one big issue I have with the cabin—and it really is a big one—is the lack of iDrive rotary dial. The BMW X1 is the only car in the current lineup without one and ditching it was a huge mistake by BMW. Not only is using the touchscreen for absolutely everything annoying in perfect conditions, it’s especially difficult in the X1 because of its placement. I’m of average height at around 5’9″, with average arm length, and I like to sit relatively close to the steering wheel and pedals, and yet I had to control the touchscreen with a completely outstretched arm. It’s uncomfortable, difficult, and frustrating while driving.

The rest of the cabin is fantastic, and is among BMW’s best, but the touchscreen-only iDrive isn’t good. Is that a deal-breaker? No, probably not. Voice commands do work surprisingly well to mitigate the damage and you can get used to the touchscreen. However, it is a disappointment.

Handles Like a Hot Hatch

Every generation of BMW X1 has handled well, even if it’s come in different ways. The first-gen car was rear-wheel drive and surprisingly small, so it handled like a big hot-hatch. While the second-gen, front-wheel drive-based car wasn’t quite as nimble, it still had great steering and agile enough handling to be enjoyable. It was also the best handling car in its class by a good margin. This new one continues the trend and actually improves on its predecessor.

The new BMW X1 has among the best steering of any Bimmer in the business. That might sound silly, considering it’s a front-wheel drive crossover, but it’s true, the X1’s steering is quick, sharp, accurate, and its weight loads up well as you add steering lock. So while there isn’t exactly any steering feel, you do get a sense of heft from the wheel as you turn off-center. That provides both a sense of what the front end is doing and good on-center feel.

Like any sporty hatchback, the BMW X1 has just a hint of body roll, so you know what the chassis is doing, but it settles on its tires well and then grips nicely. There’s a fluidity to the way the X1 handles that’s lacking in even some of BMW’s sportier cars. I’ve driven a lot of small crossovers and this new BMW X1 is probably the best of them, in terms of steering and handling.

Its suspension is also nicely damped. My test car was a pretty entry-level spec car and didn’t have adaptive dampers but the ride/handling balance was shockingly good for a crossover. The ride is a bit on the firmer side but that’s the way I like it. I can see how some customers might prefer the Audi Q3 or Mercedes GLA for their softer rides but I think typical BMW customers will appreciate the X1’s tighter setup.

On the twisty canyon roads, the BMW X1 was genuinely fun. Was it as exciting as cars like the 3 Series? No, of course not. But it was far more enjoyable than I had expected. My only beef was spec-related. My test car lacked the M Sport package, which meant it also lacked paddle shifters. But because the shift lever is gone, replaced by a small toggle shifter, there was no way to manually shift gears. That not only ruined the fun a bit but it made it less controllable on the way down the hill.

On the whole, though, the BMW X1 is a blast for a small crossover and customers are going to really enjoy it.

Shoulda Been Electric

BMW iX1 xDrive30

The BMW X1 is powered by a familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 241 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque and it’s fine. However, it lacks the performance and charisma to be enjoyable. It works well enough and does make the X1 quick enough, but I do with it had an electric powertrain instead. The electric BMW iX1 is not only quicker but it’s more enjoyable to use. I’m at the point now where I don’t wait any mediocre engines. Unless it’s a special engine, such as Porsche’s 4.0 liter flat-six or the Z06’s new V8, just gimme electric motors. I’d so much rather have the iX1 over the standard X1 but, alas, BMW won’t sell it here.

I will say that the X1’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is quite good. Shifts are snappy, always on time when in “D”, while still being smooth, it always felt like it was in the right gear.

Conclusion

Overall, the new BMW X1 is a great family car. It’s spacious enough for a family of four, comfortable enough to wear a premium badge, and even fun enough be worthy of its blue and white Roundel. The new BMW X1 is a clear step up over its predecessor and I’m excited about an M Performance version.

2023 BMW X1 xDrive28i

Good
  • Design
  • Interior Quality
  • Driving Dynamics
Bad
  • No physical buttons
  • Lack of iDrive knob
Exterior Appeal - 8
Interior Quality - 8
Steering Feedback - 7
Performance - 8
Handling - 8
BMWness/Ultimate Driving Machine - 9
Price Point - 8

8

The BMW X1 is a clear upgrade over its predecessor and one of the best all-around BMWs on sale.