BMW introduces a 1.5-litre three-cylinder X1 to capture a larger clientele
BMW introduces 1.5-litre three-cylinder X1 The BMW X1 sDrive18i is almost wagon-like in its load- carrying capacity.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The economy is sputtering, businesses are cutting costs and companies are shedding workers. In this climate, it pays to be prudent.

But what if you still yearn for a luxury European compact crossover? One option would be to look for a downsized car, such as the BMW X1 sDrive18i.

When the new front-wheel-drive X1 was launched in Singapore exactly a year ago, it came in only one form: an sDrive20i with a 2-litre turbocharged engine paired with an eight-speed gearbox.

It is still available, but in the middle of this year, BMW agent Performance Motors brought in a 1.5-litre three-cylinder variant with a six-speed autobox.

At $175,800, this car is $19,000, or 10 per cent, cheaper than the 2.0.

It is just as handsome as its more powerful sibling and is still shod with 18-inch wheels (with a different design).

The only clue to the new X1's form lies in a pair of chrome model plates next to the front wheel arches. They say "sDrive18i" instead of "sDrive20i".

The number 18 is confusing because it suggests that the car has a 1.8-litre engine when it does not.

On paper, the 1.5-litre power plant is more frugal (5.6 litres/ 100km versus 6.1 litres/100km). But it suffers an output deficit of 60Nm (220Nm versus 280Nm) and 56bhp (136bhp versus 192bhp). It clocks a century sprint in 9.7 seconds, two seconds slower than the sDrive20i's 7.7 seconds timing.

In fact, compared with the 318i sedan and 218i coupe and convertible, which also have the same 1.5-litre power plant, the X1 is the slowest in the century sprint.

On the move, the deficit feels much smaller. Like the 2-litre X1, all of its torque is accessible from a low engine speed of 1,250rpm, making the car punchy and eager in the city. In Singapore, where the maximum speed is 90kmh, the six gears on its transmission are more than adequate.

The only time that I felt the car lacked shove was when overtaking on an expressway. I floored the throttle at 90kmh as I switched from the second to first lane of the East Coast Parkway. The car did not pick up speed fast enough and I ended up being high-beamed by a fast-approaching Mercedes-Benz C180.

Other than swift overtaking moves, the car excels in all other areas. The steering feedback is precise and the suspension is well set up.

In fact, I could negotiate the downhill bends of South Buona Vista Road with the same confidence as with the BMW M2, which I drove two days before the X1.

There are three drive modes - Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro. The Sport mode is a misnomer because the X1 is not a sporty car at all.

But in Comfort, the car is as cossetting as a grand tourer. A friend whom I frequently ferry in test cars says: "Of the test cars I've sat in, this is the car that makes me want to fall asleep."

The strongest trait of the X1 is its practical space. The rear legroom is generous. With the rear seats folded down, it can accommodate two mountain bikes with their front wheels in place. This makes the X1 almost wagon-like in its load-carrying capacity.

Overall, the downsized X1 is a sensible choice.

It is cheaper, more practical and arguably better-looking than the 318i sedan. The other cheaper four-door cars in the BMW line-up - the 116d hatchback and 216d MPV - are diesel-powered and cannot match the X1 in space, comfort or refinement.

The X1 will appeal to first-time BMW owners, outdoorsy types, young families and perhaps empty nesters. Seeing where the economy is headed, a downsized car makes sense.