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CAPE TOWN, Western Cape – If there was ever a gap in a certain niche-plugging Bavarian brand’s burgeoning crossover range just begging to be filled, it was the coupé-shaped cranny separating BMW’s X1 and X3.

Lending a pleasing completeness to BMW’s alphanumeric crossover line-up – ahead of the arrival of the flagship X7 and seemingly inevitable X8, anyway – the new X2 runs on the same UKL2 platform as the X1, the 2 Series Active Tourer and Mini siblings, the Countryman and Clubman.

In the same way as the X4 is positioned as a sportier version of the X3 – and, indeed, as the X6 relates to the X5 – the latest member of the X-badged family uses the X1 as a base and adds both bolder styling and ostensibly more exuberant on-road manners.

So, is this more than merely an X1 in a swish suit? Well, before we answer that question, let’s take a closer look at the X2’s freshly tailored attire. Interestingly, the new model’s coupé-like silhouette isn’t quite as pronounced as those of the X4 and X6, even if its roofline is some 70 mm closer to the tarmac than that of the more conventionally proportioned X1. It’s also shorter overall, despite sharing the same 2 670 mm wheelbase, but boasts a dramatically rising shoulder line.

All dressed up

The exterior design is certainly distinct – and not too far removed from the daring concept we first clapped eyes on at the Paris Motor Show in 2016 – adding striking elements such as an inverted kidney grille and the retro-inspired positioning of the brand’s roundel on the C-pillar to familiar BMW styling traits like the signature (albeit slightly tweaked, in this case) Hofmeister kink. In short, the X2 undisputedly has its own visual charisma, whether you pick the standard M Sport package or the more rugged-looking M Sport X option pictured here.

And, we’re happy to report, that character filters through to the driving experience, too. While we came away suitably impressed after sampling the grippy xDrive20d variant in Portugal, the petrol-powered, front-wheel-drive derivative that forms the subject of this local driving impression (take note that a cheaper sDrive18i variant will arrive in May) offers a similarly enjoyable if less punchy experience from behind its leather-clad tiller.

The familiar turbocharged 2,0-litre petrol mill serves up 141 kW, while peak twisting force of 280 N.m is available from 1 350 r/min all the way through to 4 600 r/min. The resulting tractability, along with the deftness of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, lends the sDrive20i both an ease of use in comfort mode and a certain sprightliness in its most dynamic setting (the four-paw turbodiesel model, however, is still the better to drive of the two).

Under the skin

But it’s the chassis tuning that really sets the X2 apart from the model on which it is based. With M Sport suspension as standard (including a 10 mm drop in ride height), the newest member of the X family feels markedly more agile than its already nimble X1 counterpart, and noticeably more resistant to body roll, too. Add a lower-sited seating position and the X2 begins to feel more like a neat little warm hatch than a common-or-garden crossover.

This tidy handling (if not entirely BMW-like in sDrive20i form, what with grunt sent exclusively to the front axle) comes courtesy of tauter springs, which in turn, along with the relatively low-profile rubber coating the standard 19-inch alloys, results in a fairly stiffly sprung ride that is sometimes upset by poorly maintained road surfaces. Refinement levels, though, are high, even if some tyre roar does make its way into the cabin.

Inside, the X2 borrows much of its hardware – and software, in the form of the intuitive iDrive system – from the X1, although new figure-hugging front seats have been added to the mix (how much you appreciate these firmer pews will depend largely on, well, your figure).

The new model’s more dramatic shape, however, cuts into rear headroom a little, and takes a small bite out of the luggage compartment, too. Furthermore, the rear bench loses its ability to slide fore and aft. Still, the X2’s cabin is less functionally compromised than anticipated and certainly seems capable of serving the needs of a small, young family.

Plenty of competition

Ultimately, this lithe crossover-cum-hatchback is entering an already bustling segment – where the lines are becoming increasingly blurred as each automaker finds and fills another micro-niche – that will soon be further bolstered by the local arrival of the new Volvo XC40 and later the next-generation Mercedes-Benz GLA, to name but two. Indeed, the sheer number of rivals means the X2 most certainly won’t have things all its own way.

So, is it more than just a dressed-up, slightly more expensive X1? Well, despite sharing a large portion of greasy bits under the skin, there’s no doubt that the strikingly styled, markedly sharper X2 possesses a character entirely separate to that of the X1, thus appealing to an audience new to the BMW brand. Gap plugged.

LISBON, Portugal – CAR editor Steve Smith answers some key questions after his drive in the new BMW X2.

Another day, another SUV crossover … what’s this one then?

Oh, we’re jaded now, are we? But yes, you’re right, these crossovers are being sliced into ever-thinner segments and this one, as the name suggests, slots in between the BMW X1 and X3. Based on BMW’s UKL2 platform, it is actually ...

Wait. UKL2 platform? Like the new Mini Countryman?

Indeed, and the X1, too. Remember that we were very impressed with the new-generation Countryman, so this is a good thing. Back to what I was saying … despite its bigger-numbered nomenclature, the X2 is actually a little smaller than the X1. They have identical wheelbases but, at 4 373 mm from bumper to bumper, the X2 is 81 mm shorter and rides 71 mm lower than its sibling.

Shorter overhangs, lower to the ground … it’s basically being positioned as a sportier X1 then?

Well, BMW says the X2 brings “previously uncharted levels of driving pleasure to this vehicle segment”, but I’ll get to its dynamic characteristics in a moment. Purely on the styling, you can see the X2 is pitched at a younger subset of BMW buyers – they are ones likely to be living in urban areas but still enjoy active lifestyles, says BMW’s marketing team. Whereas the X1 is BMW’s starter family crossover, the X2 favours styling over the X1’s practicality, looking more like a muscled-up hatchback than a proper crossover.

It might not have the coupé-like fastback roof of its bigger, even-numbered crossover siblings (the X4 and X6), but the X2 still presents a sporty visage with those swept-back headlamps with sharp-creased eyelids; high sills and slim-line windows; and a roofline that’s 70 mm lower than that of the X1. If fact, much of the original concept that made its debut at the 2016 Paris Motor Show has been kept – and that includes the blue-and-white BMW roundel plastered to the C-pillar. It’s a retro nod to classic BMW coupés but, to be honest, it feels a bit artificial to connect something like a 3,0 CSL to the X2.

I read CAR’s initial news piece on the X2. It said there would be two engine derivatives in two trim levels available in our market.

Yes, that was confirmed at this launch. We’ll be getting the front-wheel-drive sDrive20i (2,0-litre turbopetrol, 141 kW/280 N.m), and the car we drove at this launch – the all-wheel drive xDrive20d. It features BMW’s familiar 2,0-litre turbodiesel that’s good for 140 kW and 400 N.m. The sDrive20i gets a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, while the more powerful xDrive20d comes with the more robust eight-speed torque-converter auto.

In Europe, there are three levels of trim – Base, M Sport and M Sport X – but we’re getting only the latter two. The thinking here by BMW SA is that it wants to create a distinct price buffer between the X1 and the more expensive X2 … the Base model would blur those lines a little.

And difference between M Sport and M Sport X is?

Firstly, price. The M Sport X package adds a further R29 700 to the total. Externally, they have different front and rear bumper designs and side-sill trim that gives the M Sport more of a hatchback feel, while the M Sport X with its chunkier cladding has more of a crossover look (both come with 19-inch wheels as standard). Inside, the M Sport gets Dakota leather, while the M Sport X employs an Alcantara/cloth combo.

Does this interior echo the X2’s younger, sportier pretentions, then?

It does. While clearly X1-influenced, the design and trim elements are a tad more upmarket and the seats sport an all-new design that feels more comfortable and supportive than the X1’s perches. They are covered in what BMW calls a “Micro Hexagon” fabric Anthracite/Alcantara combination, complete with M piping and contrast stitching.

Given its younger target market, infotainment and connectivity are important features, and along with a black panel digital instrumentation (that will appear in the X1 by mid-year), the X2 gets the latest iDrive infotainment system with standard 6,5-inch screen that's upgradeable to a 6,5-inch touchscreen or a bigger 8,8-inch display. A head-up display is another option, as is BMW Connected+ that provides a digital bridge between smartphones and the car with more of your smartphone’s functionality now integrated into the X2’s displays. A built-in WiFi hotspot is another (expensive, given our data charges) option, though Apple CarPlay is standard.

While rear passenger legroom feels about on par with the X1, given that sleeker roofline, there’s clearly less luggage space available. BMW’s quoted figures of 470 litres of boot space and 1 355 litres of utility space (with the 40:20:40 split rear seats folded flat), indicate about 20% less than the X1 and, unlike its sibling’s, the X2’s rear bench doesn’t slide forward to free up extra cargo space.

Okay, got it. Let’s here about the model you drove, then…

That would be the 2,0-litre turbodiesel – a familiar Munich oil-burner that’s in the 1/2/3 Series and the X1/3/4 – and our press vehicle was the M Sport X derivative, which meant all-wheel drive and an eight-speed Steptronic (torque-convertor) auto transmission.

The AWD system is BMW’s variable torque split arrangement that uses ABS and DSC to detect slip and apportion power and, in this model, comes standard with hill descent control if – something that is admittedly very unlikely – said target market decides to take their sporty boutique crossover off-road.

That, of course, would be silly because on-road is where this car feels very much at home. Our launch route took us on a 180 km loop north of Lisbon that incorporated some highway driving and tight and twisty coastal roads.

Through the hilly, narrow streets of downtown Lisbon, the X2 felt comfortable and composed, its suspension dealing well with speed bumps and sharp road imperfections in comfort mode (our vehicle was fitted with optional dynamic damper control). Out on the highway, there was little in the way of NVH intrusion into the cabin, not even from the optional 20-inch rubber.

It was a particular stretch of twisty asphalt outside of Ribeira that provided an opportunity to explore the X2’s dynamic abilities. Like the X1, its electric power steering typically provides little in the way of feedback, but it makes for effortless driving in urban areas and the speed-sensitive system does weight up nicely when pushing on.

Featuring the same basic suspension architecture as the X1, but boasting a substantially different front stabiliser and bearing set-up (taken from the X4), the X2’s MacPherson front and multilink rear system amplifies BMW’s trademark dynamic handling characteristics. This very clearly feels a lot sportier than its sibling. All M Sport and M Sport X models also have the M Sport suspension as standard, and its tauter spring and damper tuning provide even better body control.

Swift changes of direction exhibit typically BMW suppleness with the damping providing controlled body movement rather than skittish stiffness. This M Sport suspension also has a 10 mm lower ride height than the base model and this, along with dynamic damper control set to sport (there are just two modes: comfort and sport), and the all-wheel drive system, means there is plenty of grip … certainly more than enough to complement this 2,0-litre turbodiesel engine.

That’s not a criticism of the powertrain. It’s no performance motor, but there’s plenty of torque on tap between 1 750 and 2 500 r/min and the eight-speed auto and its paddle-shifter are slick enough to take advantage of that power band. It serves up more of a “spirited drive” rather than a proper “performance” experience. There is, by the way, a more powerful xDrive25d with 170 kW/450 N.m that is available in other markets and no doubt we will see a performance X2 variant a little further down the line … and likely a hybrid too, given that there’s a such a powertrain in the Countryman.

So, BMW has a winner?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It certainly has a strong contender in an increasingly competitive little segment that includes the Mercedes-Benz GLA, the new Jaguar E-Pace (which we’ve just driven in Corsica) and Audi’s upcoming new Q3. With its dropped ride height – you sit 20mm lower in the cabin than the X1, too – and tweaked steering, the X2’s crossover-ometre needle leans far more toward hatchback than SUV.

I left the launch impressed with the X2’s styling, interior quality and its dynamic abilities. In short, its arrival should make for one hell of a comparative test. Keep your eye on the mag…

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