BMW X1 and the Return of the Clown Car

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Aug 23, 2013

With luck, one day I’ll be telling my yet-to-be-born grandchildren the story of how I came to write the very first anti-SUV op-ed for the New York Times, a-way back in 1994. Whether it will mean anything to them is less certain, doubtful even. But that won’t stop me from telling them how the piece earned me the disdain of most carmakers and many a car magazine editor at the time, as SUVs had become a large part of the industry’s prosperity, to the unwholesome exclusion of regular cars, which was what inspired me to write. But, I’ll have to admit, the enmity toward me faded quickly as it became clear that most Americans had chosen to ignore my fact-rich arguments against the era’s standard-issue SUV. A dangerous, ill-handling, space-inefficient, thirsty slob of a pick up truck-based conveyance, the SUV would be many manufacturers’ most reliable cash cow for the entire 1990s.

Things were bad enough in that far-away decade. But then came the attack of September 11, 2001. It became the basis for a supercharged, governmental effort to keep the economy from stalling by getting Americans into more new SUVs. Zero down, 72 months to pay and free rhino bars. Then next thing you knew the country was at real war, and suddenly it seemed as if there was an even more humongous truck for everyone; in the best Bush-era tradition of tending first to the downtrodden, a special helping hand was extended to society’s wealthiest members with extraordinarily handsome tax incentives for those willing to do their patriotic duty by spending a portion of their already lightly-taxed capital gains to buy America’s heaviest and most expensive SUVs.

The Hummer: an even more humongous truck for everyone. (Wikimedia)

But then the war dragged on and the economy crashed. Oil prices spiked, fuel economy requirements grew stricter. Fashion changed. Hummer got shut down and the carmakers began moving away from building truck-based SUVs to what carmakers call crossovers. Jacked up and aspiring to look rugged, crossovers are really just car platforms that have been cast in a new role -- sissies in army boots. They get worse gas mileage than the ordinary sedans and wagons on which they’re based, and they don’t handle as well, because they’re tall, while rarely delivering more seating or useable space. But they’re here to stay. Call these crossovers SUVs Lite. They’re kind of bad, compared to what else you might drive, but not nearly as bad as their predecessors.

I’m an optimist by nature, but the SUV Lite trend still doesn’t make me happy – for all the rough edges it removes, the crossover SUV still tends to be clunky looking, heavier than it ought to be and a real headache maker on the road, with rough ride (caused by big wheels and tires,) poor visibility (caused by height and caveman body designs) plus naturally weak handling (high center of gravity) still there to bug us. And though they look like they’re built to go off-road, few ever will. Mercifully, advanced electronics have of late dramatically reduced rollover risk, always one of the best arguments against the genus.

But, more importantly, who cares what I think? People are lapping them up, from Beijing to Boston and back again. Big, showy SUVs are strongly ascendant, too. In the luxury corner of the market, the snootiest brands fall over themselves sprinting to supply the world’s growing number of preening millionaires with super-pricey (think $100,000 and up) crossovers, plus-size models weighing 5000 lbs and more. Joining Porsche, Mercedes, Lexus, Audi, Infiniti, Cadillac, Volvo, Lincoln and BMW in the heavyweight fray shortly will be Lamborghini, Bentley, Maserati and Tesla. Ostentation, extravagance, vehicular absurdity (a wildly expensive car built to drive off-road?) – none of these looks to be a problem; indeed, they may be the whole point. So look for long-time holdouts Jaguar and Rolls Royce to head on in to SUV-ville in the years ahead. Can Ferrari be far behind? There are more than a few vulgarian millionaires ready with open checkbooks. Only time will tell if there is a limit to how many loud and expensive SUVs the market can swallow.

Luxury SUVs - the more expensive and absurd, the better - are catching on in places like China. (navigator94, Wikimedia)

Mine is a minority position. Once again for me, the horse has left the barn, just as surely as the SUV has left the shopping mall parking lot headed for the suburban cul de sac. The facts are in, and they are incontrovertible: everyone loves SUVs, whether they need one or not. Every carmaker feels they must build them. Like government snooping, a radioactive ocean and interminable LinkedIn requests to endorse someone else (“handy with a Geiger counter and makes a mean bologna sandwich!”) it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.

None of this in my view constitutes a positive trend, but the industry has decided there’s too much money being left on the table. And carmakers make no bones about it being all about the money, which is fair enough, in that it’s honestly what they think. Luxury brands think they can sell every one of their wealthy customers an SUV to go with the luxury sports car or limo they sold him last time. So they have to do it, they say. If we don’t do it, someone else will.

If there is any silver lining to it all, it is not just that today’s SUVs are safer and more fuel-efficient than those of yesteryear. The spread of the crossover format into every nook and cranny of the car business also helps explain the renewed development and growing footprint of small SUVs, which come closer to what you might call a rational ideal of vehicles, ones that don’t use any more – okay not much more -- fuel or take up any more space than they have to. Being smaller they tend to be more fun to drive, too.

One case in point would be the new Buick Encore, a surprisingly decent, well-mannered, quiet and luxurious mini-ute with a curious name. (As in, encore to what?) Then there's the new BMW X1, which I find myself liking in spite of my anti-ute tendencies. For one thing, it's based on a comparatively small car, the 1-Series BMW. Basing your faux SUV on something small is a good start if you're going to go soft-roading; you may be riding high in a fantasy land, but you're not really harming anyone by doing so.

The Buick Encore is surprisingly decent. (lotprocar, Flickr)

The 1-series BMW on which the new crossover is based is, in truth, no featherweight, and at 3800 lbs. there’s nothing faux about the number of meals the X1 could stand to skip itself, ringing the scales almost 600 lbs heavier than Mazda’s CX-5, another excellent, small-ish crossover of recent vintage. But the secret is this-- the X1 is actually not that jacked up; it derives its SUV credentials more by being a tall car – and it’s kind of wacky one at that. It doesn’t think it’s Judge Dredd and it’s more practical for it. It’s also a helluva'n improvement on BMW's X6, which won't seat any more passengers or carry much more luggage, but weighs 225-lb. and costs $80,000, stripped. In its defense, the X6 is faster and probably telegraphs a lot more about its owner's wealth and heightened state of aggression. Also it has a way more killer stereo.

Rather than aping the classical crossover SUV at ¾ scale, with the X1, BMW lined up on the side of actual functionality rather than the illusion of it. This is so much so of the X1 that its nearly relegates the model to the oft-unappreciated ranks of clown car, the camp where practicality, not style, rules the day. I'm not talking about the 1- or 2-clown clown machine, like the Suzuki X90 or the short lived Australian Mercury Capri. I'm talking seriously practical clown car, with room for the whole clown family and their collapsible mini-bike. Things like the first Honda Civic wagons, or the Mitsubishi Expo and Space Expo of years gone by – you found yourself involuntarily waiting for Ronald McDonald to climb out when you saw them drive up. But in their upright confines they sure had a hell of a lot of room for passengers and cargo. They may have looked silly. But they were efficient and practical. In Europe, then as now, they do cars like this all the time. Here, not so much.

As BMW's X1 shows, basing your faux SUV on something small is a good start. (Wikimedia)

The BMW is, then, not an object of desire, but rather an object of considerable utility in a lightly but increasingly populated genre. Its price -- $41,000 as tested -- isn't very cheap, but the car doesn't feel very cheap either (though I did manage to brutally pinch my left pinky finger while releasing the driver's interior door handle.) Its performance is on the sedate side of acceptable, all that weight giving the standard four-cylinder turbo engine a lot to think about. Fuel economy wasn’t anything to write home to mother about in consequence, even with a gas-saving stop/start function activated. Nor is it terrible, either, with an indicated 23.7mpg showing on the trip computer after 256 miles of mixed city and suburban driving, with a fair bit of highways thrown in. To put that in perspective the Fiat 500 I had for a year would have seen 34mpg or more on these same roads, while a very practical 2006 Audi A3 2.0T we kept would have seen about 30mpg. The point is the X1 beats a 13-mpg 1986 Chevy Blazer handily.

The X1 chassis, rear- or all-wheel-drive, is composed, more faithful than inspiring, but it will process and execute all requests quite happily. It won’t make a sporty driver want to kill himself, not even a little. In that sense it is a true BMW. And that its body style is dictated by function rings a classical BMW chord, too, one that’s alas often left unstruck by the company of late.

For just as racing is said to improve the breed – because the technology and focus rubs off on the brand – so must a headlong march into truckery and SUV-ism drag a sporting brand down. One look need no further than BMW whose legacy of fine driver’s cars has been diluted by an ever-burgeoning line-up of would-be off-roaders, which it calls SAVs for Sports Activity Vehicles, as if that changed anything. SAV or SUV, the X1 is an unexpected antidote for what’s wrong at home.

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