Daily taste and fun with BMW

BMW X1 – Comparing front wheel drive with all-wheel drive on snow, sDrive vs xDrive!

Well, the new generation of the BMW X1 has front-wheel drive versions, besides the all-wheel drive ones. And what would a Bavarian SUV with front wheel drive do on snow?

It’s not our first meeting with the new BMW X1 – in September 2015 we’ve been the firsts to delight you with a full test drive of the new Bavarian SUV. At that time, we drove an xDrive20i on the autumn offroad landscape. But we had no mud then, or snow. And still, the new model has managed to please us.

So, we will not speak now about the interior space, the quality of the materials used or the volume of the luggage compartment, because we did all that in the first test.

Well, the new generation has front-wheel drive versions, besides the all-wheel drive ones. Yes – if the old generation was built on a conventional BMW architecture, with longitudinally mounted engine which favorites rear wheel drive, having xDrive versions with AWD and sDrive with RWD, then the new generation of X1 is built on a platform shared with the 2 Series Active Tourer and 2 Series Gran Tourer, with transversally mounted engine and favoring front wheel drive instead of RWD. And that means sDrive versions of the new X1 come with front wheel drive.

And what would a Bavarian SUV with front wheel drive do? Will the new SAV do any better than a family van from the 2 Series family with the same driving wheels? Does it worth being bought, or you better look at the all-wheel drive versions? What is the driving feel of a FWD X1 comparing to an AWD one on public roads, on ice, on slippery roads and on snow? Well, we have a lot of questions ahead of a quite unusual international test drive, where we’ve been invited to test the new model on mountain roads in Alps, as well as drifting with the new model on ice covered tracks! Wait a minute? Are you crazy?

Drifting with a front wheel drive car, in a car that doesn’t even have a proper mechanical hand brake, having a button instead of it? Well, let’s see what the new compact SAV from BMW is capable of, first on public mountain roads, and then we see about the drifting part…

We’ve tested:

  • X1 sDrive18i
  • X1 sDrive18d
  • X1 xDrive20d
  • X1 xDrive25i

On public roads, with tight turns, glazed frost and snow

The story started in Munich and, since we had 4 different engine variations to test and quite a long route ahead, Bavarians took care of us having a good rest before the test. So, it was morning time in Munich and we were ready to challenge the new BMW SUV. Oh, sorry – SAV, if we are to stay with the official name for the segment, the Sports Activity Vehicle. But we all know we would not make any actual mistake in naming those cars SUVs, so let us not pretend it makes any real difference.

Although you may imagine we would be greedy enough to hurry up for the most powerful version at first, the xDrive25i, we have been much more temperate in our initial choice and took the front wheel drive diesel sDrive18d. Our first destination was situated somewhere in the heights of Alps, so we had quite an honorable distance to make with this engine.

The diesel motor develops 150 HP and 330 Nm, but don’t be tempted to believe we talk about a 3-cylinder engine. Actually, in case of the new X1, the badge sDrive18d comes with a 4-cylinder engine of a 2.0-litre displacement. It is a more relaxed version of the same engine under the hood of the xDrive20d, but for an SUV of the size of the new BMW X1, 150 HP and 330 Nm prove to be more than sufficient for a good dynamism. We started our trip on German autobahns, where any lack of power is immediately felt, and this engine didn’t offered us reasons to feel a lack of that type. More than that, the engine was quite dynamic to push the car in acceleration even at speeds of more than 150 km/h. All the cars in our test are equipped with the 8-speed automatic transmission, which helps the engine to be felt in a more dynamic way, thanks to prompt reactions in downshifting. Helped by the gearbox, the diesel engine manages to be felt in a pleasant and dynamic way and on the dry autobahn BMW X1 still feels confident at high speeds.

After some time, we left the autobahns and started to get more and more altitude on Austrian mountain routes. The road surface began to be covered with snow, and the sky above was felt really determined to throw tons of nice snow. We are equipped with winter tyres, butnot the car is going to be much more challenged! And soon we experience a lack of that supreme precision and confidence that an xDrive system offers you – we are driving a front wheel drive X1 now. The car’s behavior on these slippery roads requires much more prudence and if you are brave enough to take some bends with higher speeds, you start to feel the car understeering a bit. In that moment the traction control corrects the trajectory and a middle skilled driver wouldn’t even notice those corrections. Some of the turns, where the road is not as slippery, can be taken with higher speed, with a slight push of the gas pedal, in order to transmit the desired vector to the car and come out of the turn in the right way. But, if you aren’t brave enough in those moments and you take out your foot from the gas pedal, or even brake, then you have a big chance to push the car in an undesired drift out the wished trajectory. That drift is, again, very short usually and is taken into control right away by the ESC system, but for me more than half of the pleasure of driving a BMW SUV comes from the precision of the xDrive system, and you don’t have that sublime precision here. Thus, the car feels mediocre in a way, on these slippery roads. It feels like an SUV which has been created for large crowds of customers without the pretentions of supreme driving pleasure and supreme precision you normally expect from a BMW, and you expect it being present there in a natural, and less electronic way. But we must anyway admit the efficiency of the diesel engine under the hood and the pleasure to put it at work. We liked the engine.

Then, we switched the car for an xDrive25i. Well, this is a totally different story. The car pushes you with a lot more confidence and, if you know how to make use of the engine’s revolutions, the car can make some spectacular overtaking. This car feel a lot more confident in tight bends, being capable of negotiating them with a higher than average speed. Or, that is how a BMW must be – a car being capable of doing almost everything far above than average! Well, this X1 feels much more like a true BMW!

But I don’t really enjoy the sitting position behind the steering wheel, and that is valid for all X1s. The driver’s chair’s position is too tall, and I like a lower driving position even in SUVs. The minimum position of this chair is anyway kind of too tall, and this gives me the slightly hunched feeling of driving a van. I know most of you like the higher positions, especially in an SUV, but I really felt like lacking 4-5 cm more in lowering the chair for a full driving pleasure. By the way, the sport seats help in having a better comfort, thanks to wider shape of the seating area. Those seats look good even with textile upholstery.

The dynamism of the X1 xDrive25i is the one which brings you the delicious savor of driving. We know this engine from our last year’s expedition to Northernmost point of Europe, at Nordkapp, aboard the new 2 Series Active Tourer, where we enjoyed good dynamics and an excellent average consumption. Now I feel similar behavior, with the dynamics being just slightly tempered by the bigger dimensions of the new model and by the all-wheel drive system. Actually, when you drive this car the increased precision feels like coming from the more dynamic engine rather than from the all-wheel drive system, and it feels like the engine is the one to ensure you the desired vector to exit the turn with precision. I do not really come to feel the exact intervention of all the four wheels and the xDrive system. And if I push harder, at higher speeds, I start to feel the wheels grabbing together with the ESC correction. But let us make the challenges even harder! Let us go on real snowy roads!

On snowy roads

Starting on uphill, on snow, with a BMW X1 xDrive25i? Simple as that. You have only to push slightly the gas pedal and the car moves without any effort. Would you like to start quickly on the same snowy uphill? Well, that’s fun! You push the gas pedal harder and you feel the car pushing itself firmly up, with some skidding of the wheels, but you feel all the four wheels working in order to push the car rapidly up!

Here are the first real snowy turns on our route, which I enjoyed challenging with some extra speed. All the electronic systems were on and I felt how all the centrifugal natural forces are mastered by the those electronic systems and by all-wheel drive. And I mentioned them in that order on purpose, because I really do feel more electronic intervention than mechanic. And I would like to feel more mechanical, natural precision of the renown xDrive system! I was driving on a narrow mountain road with a lot of snow and, although it was a risky decision, I decoupled the ESC system for a while. I tried to take another turn, watching for the car’s behavior, pushing the gas pedal little harder in the hope to get some oversteering from the xDrive system. But no – the first part of the turn I had only understeer and only at the very end of the turn I had a glimpse of oversteering, so the car corrected itself into a short drift. I tried it over and over and the feeling was similar – too much understeering at the beginning, even though you push the gas pedal harder, and the transition of the torque to rear wheels seemed to come with a delay. Only in the 6th of 7th turn I’ve managed to catch an earlier drift which lasted for a slightly longer while, until the front wheels pushed me out of it. Something is strange here, I said to myself. The BMW xDrive systems are usually much happier to transmit their power to rear wheels if you provoke them to do so, and you don’t usually feel that delay. It feels like the new X1 with xDrive has an all-wheel drive system which actually is a front-wheel drive one until if sensors adherence loss and couples the rear wheels. Well, we still have to clarify that!…

Again on slippery roads, with xDrive20d

After tasting the xDrive25i, we’ve switched for the diesel version with all-wheel drive, the X1 xDrive20d. And this engine tells you right away that is it the perfect balance between a good dynamism and an excellent efficiency, all coupled with all-wheel drive. This car has 190 HP and 400 Nm and these parameters are more than delicious for a compact SUV of that size. Just think that this version can sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in 7.6 seconds! And the car is very lively even at low rpms, even when you slightly touch the gas pedal. We liked a lot the combination of this engine with the automatic transmission and the xDrive system and we think this is one of the most satisfying combination in terms of pleasure of ownership.
And yes, this car goes just as well on slippery roads thanks to the all-wheel drive system, but also thanks to the higher torque, earlier delivered for an exit out of a bend. A little later this version would also show us what it can do on an icy circuit!

Drifting with a diesel, X1 xDrive20d

For a good drift, you need a good reaction at the gas pedal, which is why the classic idea of a diesel engine doesn’t really fit into a drifting picture. But diesel engines also have a higher torque, and the higher torque can be an advantage into pushing a car into a controlled drift. Well, as we are now on a closed circuit, we took the X1 xDrive20d first for a drifting session. It didn’t actually mattered what do we start with, but it was recommended to drive both front wheel drive and all-wheel drive in these drifting sessions, for a better comparison.

We did the first tours with all electronic systems on. A kind of a normal driving as on public roads, where your car does everything it can to for keeping itself on a safe trajectory. And that is what people actually need on public roads. And we must admit that the new X1, with all its electronic thinking and systems, knows how to stay safe and how to keep you away of the parapets even on slippery and snowy roads.

Then we switched the ESC off partially, leaving only the traction control. In this regime, the car allows the wheel to spin, for harsher winter conditions, for example, and the torque distribution for all the four wheels is always on. Stop! Wait! What did you just said, mister instructor? What do you mean, “torque distribution for all the four wheels is always on”? Isn’t it always on? Well, no! It’s not a permanent all-wheel drive! On the new X1, even xDrive versions are sending their torque to front wheels only in normal conditions and only at starts and in care of losing adherence the real wheel are activated. Damn! This explains what I’ve experienced earlier! This disclosure sounded a bit disappointing for me, but I said myself I have to see what the car can actually do on this icy track. And, surprise! With the electronics only partially off, the car started to drift beautifully and easy! Aha! We are going to grab the bull by the horns, that’s for sure! So, if you have a forcefully connected permanent all-wheel drive, you get a nice drift! Well, nice drifts followed, drifts which our slightly absent-minded photographer missed to picture, or at least most of them. But we ask for your trust to believe us. Then we switched the electronics off. We had there more space, which allowed us to do some nice drifts as well, but those drifts were more convulsive, dictated by the inclusion and release of the real wheels. You could do nice drifts as well, but the car didn’t have the same level of intuitiveness. Well, that’s a bizarre conclusion: this car drifts better and more predictive with the electronic partially off than with them totally off!

Drift with front wheel drive?

Well, after experiencing that we switched for the sDrive18i, the less powerful engine available at the test. Under the bonnet of that version there is actually a 3-cylinder petrol engine, which doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of a SUV, but which anyway came to be hosted here. The 1.5–litre displacement of the turbo aspirated engine delivers 136 CP and 220 Nm. Those numbers are not really impressive, but let us see how this car behaves here, on the track.

With all the systems on, you can feel the centrifugal forces much more dominant, with a visible understeering, but the electronic systems still manage to keep the car on a safe trajectory. Then we switched the electronics partially. Here it comes – the first wide turn, and I push the gas pedal slightly harder, and then surprirse! – the rear end of the car goes in oversteering and drifting! A long and nice controlled drift! How? How is that possible with a front-wheel drive car? We don’t have traction on rear wheels and we don’t even have a mechanical handbrake to block the rear wheels. We’ve repeated that scenario again and again and each time we’ve been convinced that in this regime, the car is capable of beautiful drifts on snow and ice! Why? The answer came from the instructors. In this partially off regime, the cars actually brakes the rear wheels subsequently, keeping a nice drifting angle, and that is how those drifts are possible. And if all the electronics are off, then the physics take their own and the car goes into long understeerings. Again, the partially-off regime of the electronics is much more enjoyable and fun to drive that the totally-off! So, with ESC partially off, the new BMW X1 can drift with front wheel drive and with a 3-cylinder engine!

The 3-cylinder engine on the sDrive18i. A good choice?

After having fun on the race track, we still had to drive 200 more km to Munich. And we kept the same version, with the 3-cylinder petrol engine, the sDrive18i, because we wanted to taste it at higher speed and because we know its price is very attractive in a lot of markets. Actually, we know this engine from the comparison test drive of the D-segment sedans, with the BMW 3 Series 318i. At that moment we yelled “Keep full throttle for full pleasure!”, and that’s because at high rpms the engine had a great sound and a good dynamism. Here we see the same easiness of the engine to go at upper revolutions, but the sound isn’t as pleasant. It is an acceptable sound, but it is less impressive than the sporty noise made by the 3 Series.

And since the gearbox and the electronic brain easily force the engine to go at high rpms, you have the impression of good dynamics, especially at “civil” speed of up to 120-140 km/h. Until these numbers the car can accelerate and overtake well. On German autobahns, at higher speeds, the car starts to feel anemic, and doesn’t offer the same dynamism at higher speeds. You can push full throttle, but the engine will still need some time to accelerate the car until speeds of 160-180 km/h. Well, we even reached 200 km/h with thin engine, but at that speed you feel like getting absolutely everything out of that motor. And if on normal roads, with this engine, we managed to obtain an admirable average consumption of 5.5 liters/100 km, then the first 10 kilometers of running wild on autobahns have raised our average consumption at almost 7 liters/100 km, a sign that when pushed really hard, this engine is not efficient any more.

Thus, if the thirst for sportiness is not the most important quality for you when searching for an SUV and you would enjoy a decent fuel consumption , then this variant would fit you very well, especially that the starting price in a lot of markets is quite attractive. The price is offered for the same engine coupled with manual transmission, but with a few thousands euro you could configure a quite pleasant X1 xDrive18i. Still, if you are fine with front wheel drive, we would recommend the 4-cylinder diesel from the sDrive18d, an engine is has a more pleasant architecture, is more refined, has a better fuel efficiency and comes at a very decent price different of just around 2,000 euro comparing to the upper mentioned version. Well, there is a 3-cylinder diesel in the range, with the badge sDrive16d, which starts at 24,390 euro, but we would not really advise you to go for that diesel unless you have some special enthusiasm for it. Thus, we would recommend sDrive18d for those prefer front wheel drive and xDrive20d who really seek an ideal balance between efficiency and dynamism. The xDrive20i version, tested by us last autumn is a comparable ideal balance with a petrol engine, and finally, xDrive25i is the car meant to be driven by those who want their SUV to be always live, always fast, always at maximum precision.

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