2023 Best Premium Small SUV: BMW X1

A new-generation BMW X1 and a first-ever Alfa Romeo Tonale take on the 2019 Wheels Car of the Year Volvo XC40 in a battle of luxury compact SUVs.

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It seems only yesterday that Volvo’s XC40 took out the title as the Wheels Car of the Year – but, believe it or not, it’s been four years, and a number of small SUVs have come to the premium-segment party since.

Despite the time, the smallest Volvo is still holding up well. The range is yet to get a significant update for the original variants, but a few interesting electrified versions have joined as Volvo promised at the start, and the model remains a strong contender in the field. But is it strong enough?

Last year, the third generation of BMW’s X1 arrived with some serious technology to contend with, along with proportions that have grown up but engines that have downsized. The new version is quite a different proposition to previous generations and a better fit for today’s landscape, says BMW.

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What you won’t find in any of our trio, however, are all-wheel-drive systems, big-banger six-cylinder engines, or torque-rich diesels

Our third hopeful for premium small-SUV superiority comes from the storied Alfa Romeo stable. This is Alfa’s first foray into the small SUV realm, but if it’s to have a chance against some established heavy hitters it needs to play catch-up fast.

Not everyone has a budget of $50,000 to $60,000 to drop on a small SUV, but if you do, you’ll find the little end of the spectrum packing some of the features that, until recently, were exclusively the preserve of the medium and large segments.

What you won’t find in any of our trio, however, are all-wheel-drive systems, big-banger six-cylinder engines, or torque-rich diesels. This comparison is all about 48-volt mild-hybrid efficiency and making small, luxurious SUVs go further.

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While all eyes are on the full-electric versions that have more recently joined the XC40 family, less attention has been on the more affordable end of the line-up.

At the entry point you’ll find the Plus B4 priced from $53,490. It’s powered a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder driving the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. Equipment highlights include the excellent Google co-developed information and entertainment system with internet access and four years of Play Store access included.

Like the Volvo, the BMW X1 sDrive18i represents the most affordable point of the range, priced from $53,900 and is also very competitively specced, with heaps of technology and sharp interior finishes which belies its entry-level status.

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That said, the new X1 sDrive18i is $6000 more than the previous equivalent version.

This variant powers the front wheels by a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine hooked to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

Alfa’s Tonale is the Italian brand’s second SUV after the larger Stelvio. Of the two-model line-up, the most affordable is the Ti which sneaks in under $50,000, but we’re focusing the up-spec Veloce which costs $56,400. Ours has also been upgraded with the $4500 Lusso pack which adds a generous list of comfort and luxury features and 20-inch alloy wheels.

It also gets a 1.5-litre turbocharged engine albeit with an extra cylinder compared with the BMW.

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All drivetrains on test here feature 48-volt mild-hybrid assistance that the respective manufacturers claim boost efficiency and useable torque.

The Volvo offers a pleasantly familiar recipe of understated Swedish style with excellent quality. There are none of the daring bright colours available in this particular cabin as an option and the design is looking a little plain compared with the other fresher contenders.

That said, the Orrefors crystal gear selector is an acceptably blingy touch, while the portrait central screen and digital instrument cluster still looks contemporary.

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In the Alfa’s cabin, first impressions are good with sharp styling touches such as big gear shift paddles

There’s plenty of space and visibility in the front row but not such good news in the back where knee room is limited, a very short bench doesn’t offer great lower leg support and 30mm of headroom is just about adequate for our 186cm reviewer.

At the back, the XC40 has a generous 452-litre boot with a slim but handy space under its floor, while electric seat folding release offers a large flat area of volume-boosted cargo area.

In the Alfa’s cabin, first impressions are good with sharp styling touches such as big gear shift paddles, enveloping black leather upholstery and generous screens for the instruments and central display. Sporty front seats are supportive and firm but tall drivers will feel seated a bit high with the seatbelt top mount too low.

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The second row sees passengers seated higher than the front row occupants, but with little benefit to the view out.

In fact, the high seating means taller passengers’ eyes are level if not higher than the top of the rear window. Kids might complain less.

Plenty of toe and knee room can’t fully redeem the lack of headroom or poor lower leg support, and compared with the other pair, door pockets are tiny.

Boot space is good with a 500 litre capacity although the space between wheel arch intrusions is the narrowest at 96cm and the rear seats don’t fold fully flat.

By comparison, the BMW is generous in all areas. It has the most premium-feeling interior with cool, light and sustainable materials, generous space in the front row, extra storage cubbies everywhere including the clever space under the centre arm rest. It’s also the only car here to offer a head-up display; a very impressive execution with a large, sharp full-colour display.

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Rear-seat room is the best of the lot with about 40mm of clear air above a 186cm occupant, plus heaps of toe and knee room.

Perhaps the only blot on the X1’s scorecard is the lack of a space-saver spare like the other pair, but its 540-litre boot with the widest 1030mm gap between wheelarches is redemption for a car that probably won’t see the unbeaten trail too much.

It’s also worth mentioning that our BMW was dressed up in a few tasty options including the nicer 19-inch wheels, Enhancement Pack and gorgeous Cape York Green paint adding about $7000 to the bottom line, but all the key kit, including the class-leading curved information display and digital driver display, are standard.

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Ride, dynamics and handling have been a key element in elevating the Volvo in previous testing and the blend of balanced ride comfort and rewarding dynamics remains.

Bump absorption and overall ride quality remains the best out of these three, but there’s a new athlete in town.

With a kerb weight that comes in about 200kg lighter than the XC40, BMW’s X1 is more fun and responsive. Its drivetrain is also the more charismatic. Volvo’s combination of conventional turbo four and torque convertor auto feel the most normal – whether that be a compliment or not – but less fresh compared with the sprightly nature of the BMW’s three-pot and DCT combo.

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It’s a comparative lack of weight that makes the BMW feel faster despite its power disadvantage. The boosty three-cylinder can be a little laggy but its fast torque-build is useful and predictable, while the BMW has easily the quietest cabin of the three, even when the turbo three-pot is fully wrung out.

Furthermore, the X1 delivers a likeable balance of light steering weight and decent feedback.

None of the trio are fast, with 0-100km/h performance ranging from 9.0sec for the BMW to 8.8sec for the Alfa and 8.4sec for the Volvo. In the real world, there’s very little in it.

Unfortunately, we expected more from the Tonale’s driving proposition with the brand’s reputation for verve and dynamics justifiably deserved from recent models such as the Giulia and Stelvio. Unfortunately the Tonale rides not on the excellent Giorgio platform but a version of the one under the Jeep Compass.

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While exhibiting excellent cornering grip and pleasant chassis damping, the Tonale is let down by an off-putting steering calibration, along with sub-par brake and accelerator pedal modulation.

Points must be awarded to a hybrid system that manages to stay in pure electric mode longer than the Volvo or BMW and provides a good electric boost from standstill, but can be frustratingly unresponsive when the petrol engine fires up in normal mode.

The throttle pedal requires a protractedly long push for any meaningful performance and refuses to coax the petrol into life even when on steep hill starts, while the brake is equally odd with an over-assisted feel early in the travel but requires more pressure than expected under harder braking. That’s suurprising, given the Alfa’s lovely four-piston front Brembo calipers.

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Steering calibration is what really disappoints, however, with a strange synthetic inertia and rotational momentum away from dead-ahead.

The Alfa manages to exhibit both excessively heavy and light steering and neither in a pleasant way.

The ratio is also too fast. With a little more feedback it might be easier to live with and allow you to enjoy the responsive front end much like the (also strange) Tesla Model Y steering, but with little feel, the steering is at best fidgety and at worst neurotic.

As far as fuel claims go, the XC40 is the thirstiest using 6.9L/100km on the combined cycle, followed by the BMW which consumes 6.5L/100km, while the Alfa is most frugal using 5.6L/100km, according to the ADR test.

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As for safety, all three vehicles have been awarded the full five-start safety rating by the Australian New Car Assessment Program

In practice, those rankings are unshuffled albeit with bigger numbers. During our testing, the Volvo used 8.5L/100km during a combination of freeway, suburban and country motoring, the BMW got through 7.6L/100km while the Alfa put in an impressive performance with just 6.8L/100km used on average.

As for safety, all three vehicles have been awarded the full five-start safety rating by the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP). The Volvo retains its award from assessment in 2018, while the other two were tested in 2022.

While all share the same star rating, the Volvo stands out for adult occupant protection with a 97 percent rating, the X1 excelled in safety assistance features and vulnerable road-user protection (94 and 76 percent respectively), while the Alfa ranked well for child occupant protection with an 87 percent score.

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BMW’s five-year capped price servicing deal means the X1 will cost on average $360 per scheduled visit to a service centre, totalling $1800 over the duration with 16,000km intervals. Compared with the Volvo and Alfa Romeo, the X1 is significantly cheaper to service.

Alfa also offers a five-year capped price deal but it’s costlier and will set the Tonale owner back $3675 over the course of the first five years or $1735 over three years.

Volvo servicing costs are mid-range costing $3000 over the same five-year period and are also offered as part of a capped price deal, or $1750 for the first three years.

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The stylish entry-level XC40 still makes sense amongst a family that’s filling up with electrified alternatives and at a sharp price.

Even after five years slogging against newcomers, the Volvo is a very easy premium small SUV to recommend. It offers driving enjoyment, safety, ride comfort and clever features in equal measures, and even though its conventional drivetrain and hefty kerb weight is starting to show its age, the stylish entry-level XC40 still makes sense amongst a family that’s filling up with electrified alternatives and at a sharp price.

By comparison, Alfa Romeo’s new and exciting offering teeters on excellence in so many ways but squanders much of it with unresolved execution.

Its hybrid drivetrain is efficient and refined but lacks the performance that a true Veloce-badged Alfa needs, the steering setup mars what could have been a sublime chassis, while too many practical oversights detract from the purpose of a small SUV in any category. Its premium price only exacerbates the conundrum.

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BMW’s X1, however, delivers one pleasant surprise after another. Razor-sharp design and cool styling continues from the outside to the ergonomically and aesthetically brilliant cabin, and there are value-boosting touches to please the pragmatists everywhere.

Enlarged exterior dimensions enhance practicality but not to the detriment of versatility, while a lively drivetrain that manages to be efficient and torquey is the icing on the cake.

BMW could have got away with an incremental step up for the new X1 but instead it delivers a comprehensively rethought and improved model that pulls big BMW features all the way down from the top and bundles them into a luxurious package that transcends its price. It’s enough to claim the win here and by some margin.

ModelBMW X1 sDrive18iVolvo XC40 Plus B4Alfa Romeo Tonale Veloce
Engine1499cc 3cyl, dohc, 12v, turbo1969cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo1469cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power115kW145kW @ 6000rpm118kW @ 5750rpm
Max torque230Nm300Nm @ 1900-2500rpm240Nm @ 1500rpm
Transmission7-speed dual-clutch8-speed automatic7-speed dual-clutch
Economy6.5L/100km (ADR combined)6.9L/100km (ADR combined)5.6L/100km (ADR combined)
0-100km/h9.0sec (claimed)8.4sec (claimed)8.8sec (claimed)
On saleNowNowNow


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