The 2014 BMW X1 is a great example. It's has about the same compact-car parking footprint as vehicles like the Range Rover Evoque and Ford Escape, but with a roofline that's a few inches lower than those already-carlike utes.
That's where the BMW really isn't leaving any spot on the compact end of the market uncovered. With a range of hatchback vehicles all seemingly a half-step apart, it has sport wagons covered, with a version of the excellent F30 3-Series on the way this year; and in addition to the X3 crossover it now also has the 2013 X1. And that's before moving across the lot, to consider the smaller MINI Countryman.
First, by the numbers, the X1 is just a couple of inches shorter (in overall length) than the new 3-Series Wagon, though it's about six inches shorter than the X3. Likewise, the X1 is about six inches taller overall than the 3-Series Wagon and about five inches shorter in height than the X3. Yet the X1 rides on the same 108.7-inch wheelbase as the current 3-Series, and that's within a couple of inches of the X3's wheelbase.
As you might expect, the generous wheelbase means that BMW hasn't skimped all that much on passenger space. In front, you sit a bit higher than in a sedan, although the view outward isn't much different than it would be in a sport wagon. There's no lack of headroom or legroom, and seats are ample and very supportive. Move to the back seat and surprisingly, even with the front seats scooted near the back of their travel, it's tight but still doable for taller adults. Having lots of headroom helps, although the rear cushions are a little short.
The farther back you go, the more compact
Even a short glance back from there is enough to tell you where the X1 really skimps on cargo space compared to the X3 or some other crossovers. Don't expect any more space than you'd have in a smaller hatchback. A small load of groceries—or a couple of sport bags and ski boots, based on our presentation here—is about all that you might fit, unless you flip the seatbacks forward. The load floor is reasonably large, but it's impractically shallow compared to the cargo hold of other utility vehicles.
Up in the cabin, there are a few frustrating elements about the X1—most of which may be related to the original version being designed without the U.S. market in mind. For instance, the center console feels like an afterthought, as if BMW intended to fit some of the things in there that it does in its other vehicles, and then it simply ran out of space. There's one cupholder in the space just aft of the shifter; but the other cupholder—installed just off the left side of the center console, hanging over the passenger-side floor—proved to be a knee-bruiser. Repeatedly, with two different average-height passengers, knees slammed against it when getting in.
What's different in the X1, once you're used to its driving position, which is neither entirely like that of BMW's sport sedans or wagons nor of its crossovers, is that as soon as you're underway you'll feel like the driving experience is rekindling an old flame. There's no hiding that this is a vehicle built on the underpinnings of the E90 (still-current 1-Series). With its predictable, precise steering—backed up by old-style hydraulic boost in xDrive all-wheel-drive models—the X1 has an almost immediate, fits-like-a-glove sense that's entirely unusual among compact crossovers. There's no floppy body motion, no roll and lean.
The 240-horsepower, 2.0-liter, turbocharged-and-direct-injected four-cylinder engine that's under the X1's hood is essentially the same engine that's used in many other current BMW vehicles—although perhaps with a little more gruffness making it into the cabin on acceleration, and somehow with more diesel-like direct-injection clatter at idle.
Powertrain never off its game
Although a manual gearbox is sorely missing from the X1, we can't come up with a single complaint about the eight-speed automatic transmission, and it responds quickly when a downshift is needed, is smooth but reassuringly quick on upshifts, and doesn't waste revs (and fuel) when a higher gear could do the job. Together, with the engine's wallop of low-rev torque, this is a powertrain combination that's never caught off its game.