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Don't be fooled by the seen-it-before shape. The 2016 X1 is arguably the most comprehensive remake of an existing nameplate in BMW history. It may also be, in the eyes of many BMW aficionados, the most controversial.

Admittedly, a premium compact CUV may not be the BMW most likely to inflame the passions of the faithful. But here's the thing: This is the first "front-wheel-drive" BMW ever sold in North America.

Why the quotes on "front-wheel drive"? Because, being a crossover and an X-series BMW, the X1 is, of course, all-wheel drive. But unlike its predecessor or any other previous AWD BMW, the 2016's basic architecture is front-wheel drive – an item of information curiously absent from the 2016 X1 press release.

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The X1 shares its underlying structure and component set with the new Mini Clubman (and no doubt, the next-generation Mini Countryman) as well as the Euro market 2 Series Active Tourer MPV.

The X1 is also the first BMW to host the new modular engine family that made its debut in the Gen-3 Mini. Mounted sideways in the nose of the X1, the two-litre "four" is tuned to produce 228 horsepower, the same as in the Mini JCW, plus a wealth of torque. The only available transmission remains an Aisin-made eight-speed automatic.

Now, let's all agree that, in an all-wheel drive CUV, we don't really care which are the primary driven wheels – and besides, according to BMW, the X1's seamlessly variable xDrive system can, on the rare occasion that conditions warrant it, transfer 100 per cent of drive to the rear.

More importantly, front-wheel drive favours efficient packaging, and the X1 proves the point: Its footprint is essentially unchanged from before, but passenger volume and cargo volume grow by 3 and 8 per cent respectively. These dimensions are the largest in a peer group defined by BMW as the Mercedes-Benz GLA and (to a lesser extent) the pricier Range Rover Evoque. We would add to that list the Audi Q3 (smaller inside) and the Range Rover Discovery Sport (bigger, and available as a three-row).

Despite the news-release reticence, BMW clearly didn't let the X1's "front-wheel-driveness" restrain its choice of press-intro venue. Let's just say that if the drive route through Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains wasn't once part of the fabled Carrera Panamericana road race of the 1950s, it should have been.

We stepped into a sport-performance packaged X1straight out of a similarly equipped 340i and the CUV's steering response felt keener than the sport sedan's. The following 125 kilometres of switchbacks and canyon carving clinched the deal: The X1 is agile and athletic by any standards, never mind for a "utility" vehicle.

The straight-line performance won't mollify owners of the Gen-1 35i version with its 300-hp, 3.0-litre six-pot, but the 2016 should be more than a match for base-engined rivals. For our red-mist rampage at elevations up to 2,300 metres, the sweet-spinning four-pot and the slick-shifting eight-speed played together beautifully.

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So, the X1 has sport and it has utility. What remains to be seen is how it drives in the daily grind back home. The X1 hits Canadian showrooms later this month.

You'll like this car if ... You need genuine crossover versatility, but you want the cachet of a BMW badge, along with the deft dynamics that come with it.

TECH SPECS

  • Base price: From $38,800.
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder, 228 hp/258 lb.-ft.
  • Drive: All-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.7 city; 7.4 hwy
  • Alternatives: Audi Q3, Infiniti QX50, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Mercedes-Benz GLA, Range Rover Evoque

RATINGS

  • Looks: It is what it is: pure unadulterated BMW. The shape looks like a cross between its predecessor and the bigger X3.
  • Interior: Among its peers, the X1 has space to spare. The rear seat not only is much higher off the floor, there’s also more knee room than before. The low cowl and lofty seating promote an airy feel, and we welcome the conventional shift lever rather than the stubby toggle switch on many other modern BMWs.
  • Technology: Notable standard features include push-button start and dynamic cruise control, but you’ll need to splurge on pricey option packages for head-up display, active parking assistance, active cruise with stop-and-go and automatic collision-mitigation braking as well as many layers of connectivity.
  • Performance: Despite our mountainous, high-altitude test route, the X1 always had ample thrust on tap. BMW claims 0-100-km/h in 6.5 seconds.
  • Cargo: An additional 60 litres of cargo volume credit the X1 with segment-leading cargo space – and that’s not counting 200 litres more under the floor if you go with run-flat tires, or the flexi-space added by the optional sliding/reclining rear bench.

The Verdict

8.5

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The X1 has evolved from a rather toy-like CUV-wannabe to the real deal. You can treat yourself to a (relatively) affordable sporty BMW and convince your other half that you bought a nice, sensible utility vehicle.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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