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BMW iX1: Brilliant Driving Machine

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

The electric vehicle revolution, that has gained so much traction in Europe and Scandinavia, has yet to make a significant impact in South Africa and it’s difficult to forecast when – and even if – it will happen. Charging infrastructure is one hurdle, while a patchy electricity supply is another obvious stumbling block, not to mention distances between major cities, that will always be beyond the natural range of electric vehicles, for the time being at least.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

But does that mean that a fully electric car, as opposed to a hybrid, is a non-starter in this country? On the evidence of our week with the BMW iX1, you would have to hope not, because this was one of the most impressive driving experiences it has been our pleasure to encounter.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

The iX1 is the smallest electric SUV in the BMW range, with the iX3 and iX completing the line-up. Mind you, calling it ‘small’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it is actually rather large, being 4.5 metres long, 1.85 metres wide and 1.65 metres tall, and weighing in at just over two tonnes. However, given the instant power available from the two electric motors – one front and one rear, giving four-wheel drive – and typically taut BMW handling, it drives a lot lighter than it actually is.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Mounted underneath the floor is a 64.7kWh battery, giving a best range of around 350km, obviously depending on driving conditions, load, etc. This is rather impressive, if one is using it solely for urban transport with a charge point waiting in your garage but, as a long-distance carriage, it is rather less practical, when charging point availability and charge time is taken into account.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Plugged into a normal household socket, charging can be painfully slow; from 9pm to 9am, battery level went from 48% to 78%. Naturally, this would be improved vastly by utilising the BMW-supplied fast-charging hardware or by using one of the surprisingly numerous charge points around Johannesburg, including those at BMW dealerships. When charging the test car at BMW Sandton, however, a notice informed us that, as from the 1st May, 2024, this would no longer be free.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

How much would a full charge cost? Well, according to figures supplied to us by BMW after we had charged the vehicle at BMW Sandton, a charge from 50% to 100% took around an hour, and cost approx R250, so you’re looking in the region of R500 for a full charge, giving 350km of range.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

As a comparison, our rough calculations have the BMW X1 sDrive18d M Sport giving 878km from a full tank of diesel, costing roughly R1,100.

So much for the details, which will either give food for thought or have you struggling to balance the pros and cons of fully electric vehicles.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

What will have the scales tipping in favour of electric is the performance which stretches credulity. With the equivalent of 309bhp and 493Nm of instant torque, the iX1 takes off like a scalded cat, even without the steering wheel-mounted boost paddle activated; a 0-100km/h time of 5.6 seconds is quoted! What makes it all the more impressive, is that acceleration is achieved in total silence and a complete lack of vibration of any sort.

It is so completely drama-free, apart from the shove in your back, but so outrageously fast, that you can’t help grinning like a schoolboy every time you mash your right foot to the floor, which is often; it does nothing for battery life but, boy, is it fun.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

The test vehicle was the top-spec M-Sport model, which gets adaptive suspension as standard and this gives a firm but never harsh ride, while road thumps and bumps are beautifully insulated inside the cabin. Because the bulk of the weight is carried low down thanks to the batteries being mounted under the floor, there is very little roll when cornering enthusiastically, although you can never quite forget that this is a heavy car, even though driver inputs are kept to a minimum by excellent variable power steering.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Naturally, equipment levels are impressive, with no fewer than six driving modes (although three were locked to us, without access to the BMW ID code). ‘Personal’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Efficient’ were accessible, but we had no chance to sample ‘Expressive’, ‘Relax’ and ‘Digital Art’. These latter three alter the dashboard screen graphics and allow the driver to select an engine sound that is piped through the stereo, apparently composed by Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Personally, we were so impressed by the silence in any driving situation that we hated the thought of introducing fake sounds to the equation.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Various levels of regenerative braking are available to feed some power back to the batteries and, on the highest setting, the ‘engine braking’ effect was enough to catch us out at first when driving in traffic, so sharp is the deceleration. After an hour’s city driving, the dash indicated that 5.4km of range had been added to the battery life.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

One thing we weren’t too keen on was the almost total reliance on the touch screen for adjustments to the driving and cabin settings, necessitating taking your eyes off the road for far too long, even when more familiar with the set-up. Voice activation is available via a button on the steering wheel but it would have been much simpler to provide buttons/knobs for adjusting the fan speed, for example. Also, the driver’s information screen was a little fussy and awkward to read at a glance. But these are minor niggles and, no doubt, familiarity would make things easier, especially when certain settings that would rarely be changed were dialled in.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Passenger comfort is very well looked after, the front seats being extremely supportive against cornering forces and featuring a wide range of adjustability. A common complaint about EVs is excessive rear floor height due to the location of the batteries but the iX1 doesn’t suffer from this malady, with the result that rear seat passengers can sit normally without having their knees up around their ears.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Boot space is generous and there is a flap in the floor under which you can store potentially dirty charging cables. Overall, the cabin of the iX1 is a pleasantly distinguished place to be, with excellent quality materials used throughout and, thankfully, a lack of any form of wood trim, real or not.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

Out of curiosity, we opened the bonnet only to be confronted by machinery, the purpose of which we had absolutely no clue. It was rather disconcerting to have no idea what you were looking at after many decades of looking at internal combustion engines in various states of disguise. What did amuse us was the presence of a bog-standard car battery, exactly where you’d expect to find it in a normal-engined car. Thinking about it, that does make sense, given the need for various systems to remain working when the drive batteries are completely dead.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

In conclusion, this is a deeply impressive piece of engineering and a stunning driving experience that will never become boring through familiarity. But we just can’t get away from the issues of range and recharge time, no matter how hard we try. Given that most households have two or more cars, so that the petrol or diesel model will be used for long-distance trips, is such a big car as the iX1 needed for solely city use? Wouldn’t it be more relevant to look at smaller models, such as the Mini Cooper SE, which have all the advantages of full-electric drive but in a much more city-friendly package?

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Lifestyle

It seems as if we might be swimming in the face of public opinion, however, as an SUV is the default setting for so many drivers in SA. With that in mind, the BMW iX1 is a natural and logical choice, possessing a lot of qualities and few drawbacks.

Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
From an early age, Harry was obsessed with anything that moved under its own steam, particularly cars and motorcycles. For reasons of a financial nature, his stable of fine automobiles failed to materialise, at which point he realised that motorcycles were far more affordable and so he started his two wheel career, owning, riding, building and fixing many classic bikes. Then came the day when he converted his love of bikes into a living, writing, filming and talking about them endlessly. The passion for four wheels never left him, however, and he has now converted his writing skills into singing the praises of cars in all their infinite variety. Bikes are still his favourite means of getting around but the car in its modern form is reaching a level of perfection that is hard to resist. And they're warmer in winter....
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