When BMW contacted me and asked me to drive one of their lovely new battery electric cars to our lovely ancient Lake District, well, how could I refuse? They threw in a couple of days at the Brimstone Hotel on Ambleside, which is one of the nicest hostelries I’ve ever stayed in, here or abroad. There’s an informality, and the arrangements are so structured that the vulgar business of money is generally avoided. So, it’s like staying at a friend’s. A very wealthy friend with a large staff servicing a block of two-storey apartments with optional balcony and log-burning stoves. Very cosy, and I should add that this time of year is actually ideal to go to the Lakes – less crowded and not so sweaty getting up and down the fells. I speak for myself, obvs.
BMW iX1 xDrive30 M Sport
Price: £63,709 (as tested; range starts at £46,825)
Drivetrain: Twin electric motors, powered by 64.7kWh battery pack
Power: 308 hp
Top speed: 112mph
Fuel economy: 3.6m/kWh
CO2 emissions: 0
They, ie both parties, wanted me to see what it’s like to explore the national park in a BMW iX1, not least because the hotel offers one to visitors to try out, as an alternative to a bamboo cane massage. I’m told a surprising number of petrolheads turn up in their fossil fuel funmobiles to take advantage of the experience and are won over by BMW’s entry-level compact all-electric SUV offering. So win-win.
Just to show I’ve not been unduly influenced, I’d like to report that the BMW is a very capable car to drive, and virtually flawless, but not really that... special, as you might be entitled to expect, given the premium badge sitting on that oversized piano-black finish famous grille. The BMW’s “face”, a look shared with the petrol and hybrid versions of the X1, isn’t quite as Curse of the Were-Rabbit ugly as on other models in the range, but there’s still something vaguely aggressive about it. I don’t really think BMW have to try as hard as that to assert its identity.
Now, I’m no style icon myself, and I find it difficult to be too sniffy about looks, but, aside from the goofy front, the rest of the car is very generic-SUV looking, and from most angles it’s virtually indistinguishable from the plethora of alternatives. Its Korean rivals, the gorgeous retro Hyundai Ioniq 6 and the crisp Ioniq 5 are far more attractive, for example; and the Volvo XC40 Recharge more handsome. Against its usual premium German opposition, the Mercedes-Benz EQA and Audi Q4 e-tron, the iX1 looks fine but loses a little on indoors ambience. The BMW has a superbly ergonomic interior, with excellent steering wheel controls and obviously high-quality materials, but both the EQA and Q4 are more exuberant.
The BMW’s kit can’t be faulted either, and the Harman Kardon sound system is one of the best (but note that the Maserati Grecale’s Sonus faber hits the highest notes for high fidelity). The BMW virtually drives itself, with adaptive cruise control, parking assistant, and lane monitoring looking after you and your passengers. When you are called upon for some inputs, it’s responsive, has progressive brakes (once you get used to the way braking regeneration works), and highly stable handling, thanks to a twin-motor four-wheel drive system.
The performance, as with most electric cars, is impressive, and there’s even a little “boost” paddle behind the steering wheel which gives a short, sharp shock (in a nice way) of extra power when, say, overtaking. The iX1 has performance that would have only been found on BMW’s M Sport derivatives a few years ago, and now it’s taken for granted. One of the things about the transition to electric that’s not discussed enough is how drivers used to petrol and diesel engines will deal with the huge torque readily available from rest in the latest electric models. Words of caution should be issued.
Overall, the BMW iX1 did all that was expected of it, and the only thing I really disliked was the Alexa-style voice command system which started stuttering at me at random times. It’s smooth, brisk, has a useful economy setting and a reasonable range of 250 miles or so. If you can find one of the latest commercial chargers you’ll find the car copes well with a very rapid top up of electricity – 20 minutes’ worth is all you’ll probably ever need to get home, as a rule of thumb. But dynamically it doesn’t stand out from the competition, which is surprising because the BMW i4, a fastback, is a brilliant driver’s machine, and the massive i7 limousine is one of the finest cars in the world, as smooth and urgent as a V12, but utterly silent.
Compact as it is, the BMW iX1 is about as “fat” as you’d want to get while trying to navigate the narrow lanes around Windermere and Grasmere. It’s a good size for a couple or small family – the boot’s not massive – and as a premium small SUV with the “right” badge it’ll be a default choice for many. The real obstacle isn’t the easy-to-live with battery electric technology, but financial. My example, loaded with all the nice extras, comes in at £63,709. A Kia Niro or an MG ZS would be the better value option to be honest – and you’ll be able to enjoy a lengthy stay at the Brimstone with the change.