While I was driving the new BMW X1, the Russian nesting dolls called matryoshka came to mind.
Like several purveyors of sport utilities and crossovers, BMW has offered models that initially seemed to be sized just right, at least until Americans decided, like antsy homeowners, that they needed more room. BMW duly expanded its smallest SUV, the X3, after customers complained that it wasn't spacious enough for family duty.
There was only one problem: the redesigned X3 was suddenly as spacious inside as the X5, which had been the bigger -- and more expensive -- of the pair. So BMW gave the X5 a significant stretch, too.
All this one-size-upmanship, with a continuing microscopic experiment -- how many American guinea pigs will squeeze into tinier, fuel-efficient cars? -- has opened up a wholly unexpected niche within the crossover niche.
Hence, the concept of Russian nesting dolls: the X1 is the baby, slotting neatly inside the X3 and X5 -- a smaller space than you might have imagined possible for a quasi-SUV BMW's new baby is no mistake, so long as Americans are eager to pay $32,000 to $52,000 for a crossover with no more interior space than a compact station wagon.
I wouldn't bet against it. The X1 is based on the solid 1 Series, and it may easily outstrip the popularity of that small but pricey coupe. The X1 is much more practical, and it offers the raised ride height and all-wheel drive that Americans have voted for time and again.
The X1 travels fast, handles dynamically and is surprisingly luxurious for a junior crossover. If that's not enough, it delivers fairly spectacular mileage, at least when drivers act as if they're in a Prius, not an M3.
A weeklong spin in the 240-horsepower X1 xDrive 28i delivered what seems to be a harbinger of success for utility vehicles: the women that I encountered fell hard for it. One actually said, "When you told me you were bringing a BMW, I didn't picture anything like this."
Their refrain matched what I hear when I'm forced to take my friend's Shih Tzu for a walk: "Oh, it's so cute!" As with that little dog, I heard it enough times that I began to believe it myself.
Honestly, the BMW is awfully cute, with a streamlined profile and an intriguing tussle of convex and concave surfaces. Deep-set headlamps glide into a crisp crease along the doors, finishing in striking tubes of crimson light in the taillamps. Arrow-shape cutouts in the tailgate lend a sense of forward motion. Gray sections of the front and rear fascias contrast with optional 18-inch wheels in a glossy geometric pattern.
So how small is this thing?
Stretching 176.5 inches, the X1 is two inches shorter than a Ford Focus sedan. The BMW is 6.5 inches shy of its X3 big brother and about three inches narrower. The X1's roofline is also lower -- by a significant 4.6 inches -- than the X3's. That avoids the school-bus silhouette of many compact sport utilities, and the seating position is barely higher than a sedan's. Ultimately, the X1 is more of a jacked-up luxury hatchback than any sort of truck.
The reclining back seat will just fit two adults with minimal complaint, though there is a dubious center perch for three-abreast situations. But riders will also see a level of luxury and features -- many at extra cost, given that this is a BMW -- not far removed from an X3 or X5.
The lovely midnight blue paint of my 28i test car contrasted with rust-color leather seats and doors, dark copper trim, a natty gray-and-aqua pinstripe across the seats and an embossed "X'' on the front headrests. A parabola of matte-finish wood ($500 extra) makes an arc along the dash and is repeated on all four doors.
While the xDrive 28i starts at $33,245, the fancier interior is part of the available xLine and Sport Line trim packages ($1,900 for either) or the M Sport Line ($2,500 or $3,000).
The M Sport upgrade also adds niceties including sport seats, a firmer suspension, paddle shifters and summer tires. Another $600 brings handsome 19-inch alloy wheels.
There are 25 cubic feet of storage behind the second seat row, matching the enlarged 2013 edition of the 3 Series wagon that will go on sale next spring. Dropping the rear seats, which are split in a 40/20/40 configuration, opens up 56 cubic feet of cargo space -- a surprise, given the vehicle's small footprint. Still, taller-roofed SUV's can handle yet more stuff, including more unwieldy items; consider the roughly 71-cubic-foot cargo hold of the utilitarian Honda CR-V.
The BMW, to its credit, feels anything but utilitarian. The company's new 2-liter turbocharged TwinPower engine is rapidly transforming BMW's American lineup. If there's a better combination of 4-cylinder power and economy in the world today, I haven't driven it.
With 241 horsepower and a mighty 258 pound-feet of torque, the TwinPower scoots the xDrive 28i from a standstill to 60 mph in a company-estimated 6.3 seconds. Yet that muscle takes no toll at the pump, with the all-wheel-drive model achieving an impressive EPA rating of 22/33 mpg. The CR-V manages just 30 highway mpg, even with 56 fewer horsepower and a deficit in torque of 95 pound-feet.
For special-effects rocketry, the $39,345 xDrive 35i gets a stronger and more sonorous in-line 6 that counts advantages by threes: 3 liters of displacement, 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration to 60 mph drops to 5.3 seconds, though fuel economy also drops, to 18/27 mpg.
In a first for a BMW sport ute, the X1 offers a rear-wheel-drive version, the sDrive 28i. Starting at $31,545, this most affordable X1 makes financial sense for people whose lives and driveways are unencumbered by snow. Mileage for this version is even better, at 24 mpg in town and 34 on the highway.
Buyers of the more expensive 35i may pointedly inquire as to why they get only six forward speeds; a slicker 8-speed ZF automatic transmission is reserved for 4-cylinder models. Fans of manual gearboxes are out of luck, with no stick shift offered in any X1.
Flight aficionados may recall the bullet-shaped X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager in 1947, as the first aircraft to break the sound barrier. BMW's X1 may be less quick, but it's fast enough to sweep aside petite crossover competitors, including the Mini Countryman and the new Buick Encore.
With its powder keg of an engine, the 35i seems an anomaly in its class. Even a 420-horsepower Porsche Cayenne GTS won't beat this BMW in a drag race, and saddled with roughly 1,000 additional pounds, the Cayenne would be likely to lose a battle on the racetrack as well.
Interestingly, all-wheel-drive X1s have a secret weapon you won't find even on a mega-powered $100,000 M5 or M6: hydraulic steering rather than the electrified units sweeping through BMW and the industry at large. I returned enthusiastic from an early drive wondering why the X1 felt more connected than some BMW automobiles I'd been testing. One answer is the X1's old-school steering, which has no electric motors to filter out road feel.
If the X1 is the baby doll of the BMW SUV family, its engine stop-start system is Raggedy Andy: the system means well, switching off the engine at stoplights to save fuel. But as with other BMWs, its automatic restart is so shuddery that I reflexively pushed the dashboard button that turns off the system entirely.
Less obtrusive is the ECO PRO setting, especially when you're in a cruising, cool-jazz state of mind. This button-operated mode mutes the throttle response and seeks higher transmission speeds to save fuel. The X1's bounteous torque lets the system operate with little apparent strain, in contrast to similar but more annoying systems from Nissan, Toyota and others. ECO PRO can also flash efficient driving tips on the center display screen when, for example, you defy the program by hammering the throttle or brakes.
Even without ECO PRO, the 28i delivered a laudable 35 mpg during a steady 65 mph cruise, beating its federal rating by two mpg.
Luxury, performance and technical excellence will cost you. My heavily optioned 28i test car came in at $45,595.
Russia's nesting dolls are known for traditional peasant attire. The four-wheel Bavarian versions may be more fun to play with, but they're dressed and priced at haute-couture levels.