It’s safe to say that BMW is playing catchup in the premium compact segment at the moment. The company actually had the jump on everyone (well, except Audi with the A3) with the introduction of the 1 Series hatchback in 2004. At the time, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class was still an oddball MPV-esque monobox, designed more for space efficiency rather than a fashionable style.

But Munich failed to capitalise on its head start – the 1 Series’ controversial styling and cramped interior brought on by the rear-wheel drive layout meant that the car remained a bit player in an increasingly lucrative segment. Meanwhile, Stuttgart revitalised its compact offerings with the more stylish third-generation A-Class, the swoopy CLA four-door coupé and the GLA crossover, and promptly raked in the cash.

Finding itself on the back foot, BMW has been hard at work trying to get back on track. After more than a decade of sticking doggedly to a rear-drive platform, the 1 Series will soon migrate to the UKL front-wheel drive architecture for the next generation – a move that has already garnered denigration from enthusiasts but should result in greater interior space and a less awkward design.

The same recipe has already been applied to the X1 crossover with great effect – previously unloved for its gawky looks and tiny cabin, the second-gen model went out of its way to fix those errors, so much so that it quickly won our shootout against the GLA and the ageing Audi Q3 on the Driven Web Series upon launch. Now, BMW is going for the fashion-conscious crowd with the more coupé-like X2, but is it all fluff? We drive it in Portugal to see if there is indeed any substance underneath.

Unveiled in October last year, the F39 BMW X2 is the latest in a slew of new models planned to be built on the UKL (short for Unterklasse, or entry-level) platform. Aside from the aforementioned 1 Series, there’s also the four-door 2 Series Gran Coupé that will be joining the X1 and the 2 Series Active Tourer and Gran Tourer MPVs (which have recently received a mid-cycle facelift).

Given that the X4 and X6 are basically low-slung versions of the X3 and X5 respectively, BMW could have easily chopped the roof of the X1 and called it a day. But while the X1 and X2 share plenty of components under the skin, the latter comes across as something completely different, at least from the outside.

In fact, not a single exterior panel is shared with the X1, and that has allowed the designers to deliver a car with far greater style and road presence. The front end is particularly aggressive, with a trapezoidal double kidney grille – a first for a BMW, and a design cue which will eventually be adopted by the 8 Series and Z4 – ensuring you’ll be jumping out of the way if an X2 ever winds up in your rear-view mirror.

Flanking it are slim, sharp headlights, optionally available with LED lighting and distinctive hexagonal corona ring daytime running lights. Moving over to the side, the athletic look of the X2 stands out with a low, stretched-out glasshouse, slim windows, a steeply-rising beltline and angled, squared-off wheel arches. The BMW roundel on the C-pillar, meanwhile, harkens back to classic coupés such as the 2000 CS and 3.0 CSL.

At the rear, the tapered glasshouse provide the X2 with more muscular rear haunches, emphasised by the broad L-shaped tail lights and the letterbox slot of a rear windscreen. Completing the look are large single or dual tailpipes measuring 90 mm in diameter – the same as the X6 M, BMW claims.

The overall look is certainly polarising, a clear departure from the usual staid BMW styling. Opinions in the office are split right down the middle, largely along age lines (young-at-heart Anthony being an exception, of course). For this writer, the use of non-traditional graphics and surfacing is refreshing in a sea of lookalike Munich sedans, and while the X2 is not a traditionally pretty car, it does have an appeal all to its own.

What we can all agree on is that the X2 looks substantially smaller than the X1, and that’s because it is. Measuring 4,360 mm long, 1,824 mm wide and 1,526 mm tall, the X2 is 49 mm shorter and 69 mm lower, although the 2,670 mm wheelbase is identical to its more practical sibling.

Unlike other BMW models, the X2 won’t be available in Sport or Luxury lines, nor the more rugged xLine variant as with the X models. Instead, there’s just the base model with black body cladding all around, 17-inch alloy wheels (19-inch rollers are available as an option) and rather pedestrian-looking front and rear bumpers.

For a different look, you’ll have to go straight to the M Sport pack, which, as usual, adds sportier front and rear bumpers – here accented with Dark Shadow grey on the front air intakes, side skirts and rear diffuser. The cladding is also body-coloured for a more road-hugging look. This comes standard-fit with 19-inch alloys (20s optional), and is the one that we’re getting for our market.

The test unit in these pictures is the M Sport X model, a new variant that BMW says is inspired by rally racing. Aside from a beefier front air intake insert, it also comes with matte Frozen Grey highlights and cladding, plus body-coloured side skirts. On all models, there’s a new Galvanic Gold colour option, as well as Misano Blue for the M Sport and M Sport X variants.

After the boldness of the exterior, the interior is a bit of a disappointment, as the neat but ultimately dull cabin has been lifted almost wholesale from the X1. To lift the perceived quality, the dashboard has been upholstered in Sensatec faux leather, and the seats are now available in fabric and Alcantara with stylish yellow stitching, as well as Magma Red Dakota leather.

On a whole, however, the X2 brings little new to the segment, at least from a design standpoint. That said, it’s still solidly put together in typical BMW fashion, and the interior has the measure of the GLA’s in terms of its control logic. The basics are well taken care of here – the sports seats offer plenty of lumbar and lateral support, and can be adjusted to the perfect driving position in concert with the steering wheel.

The iDrive infotainment system is still streets ahead of the competition. Now in its sixth generation, it features a tiled interface for its home screen, complete with relevant live information for applications like weather, trip computer and navigation. The 8.8-inch display for the range-topping Professional navigation system is now a touchscreen, but the rotary controller and its shortcut buttons remain faultless in their operation.

As the X2 is a “coupé” version of the X1, you’d expect practicality to be compromised, and in some respects that’s exactly the case. With the low roofline, headroom is fairly tight, especially at the back; the high beltline also makes the rear quarters feel quite claustrophobic, so the X2 isn’t the best car to ferry children.

However, there’s still plenty of shoulder- and legroom to spare, and there are standard rear air-con vents that aren’t offered on local GLA models (AMG GLA 45 excluded). And while the 470 litre boot is 35 litres smaller than the X1’s, what’s left is still plenty enough for a family weekend away. Make no mistake, this is still a decent little runabout, and there’s always the X1 if you need something bigger.

At launch, there will be a range of three engines available. The one we’ll be getting is the sDrive20i, which utilises the stalwart B48 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder making 192 hp from 5,000 to 6,000 rpm and 280 Nm of torque between 1,350 and 4,600 rpm.

A new seven-speed wet dual-clutch transmission – which will also make its way to the X1, replacing the current eight-speed automatic – sends power to the front wheels. Relevant figures include a zero-to-100 km/h sprint time of 7.7 seconds, a top speed of 227 km/h, fuel consumption of between 5.5 and 5.9 litres per 100 km and carbon dioxide emissions ranging from 126 to 134 grams per kilometre.

Unfortunately, there are no petrol test cars available – all units are of the xDrive20d variety, powered by a similarly-sized B47 turbodiesel making 190 hp at 4,000 rpm and 400 Nm from 1,750 to 2,500 rpm. There’s also an xDrive25d on offer, making 231 hp at 4,400 rpm and 450 Nm between 1,500 and 3,000 rpm. Both are paired to an eight-speed automatic and xDrive all-wheel drive.

These test units are often specified to put the car’s best foot forward, and this oil burner stands out for its reserved demeanour and punchy power delivery. As with most BMW diesels, the xDrive20d has plenty of torque low down, and once you push past the brief turbo lag it pulls strongly all throughout the rev range.

The Aisin-sourced gearbox is not as peerless as the ZF unit used on rear-drive models, but it’s still smooth, quick and intuitive, almost always handing you the exact gear you need at any given moment. Of course, none of this has any bearing for our market as we’ll be getting the dual-clutch transmission – Malaysians are fairly sceptical of DCTs, so we’re eager to give it a go when it arrives.

The powertrain’s deftness is all the more notable due to the lack of noise and vibration once you get moving, and even though there’s a little bit of diesel rattle at idle, it’s not at all intrusive. What is intrusive is the level of road and wind noise at highway speeds – the latter can be attributed to the blustery conditions that we are experiencing during the Portuguese winter.

Under the skin, the X2 benefits from a number of tweaks designed to make it a more entertaining steer than the X1. First off, the body is 10% stiffer, and that has necessitated revised springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. Negative camber has also been increased at the front to improve grip and reduce understeer.

The available M Sport suspension throws in shorter springs that lower the ride height some 10 mm, along with stiffer dampers. This can be coupled with Dynamic Damper Control (DDC), which also comes with unique anti-roll bar bushings that provide greater body control without sacrificing ride comfort. The M Sport steering also has a quicker ratio as compared to the standard X1.

Put all that together and the result is a car imbued with a real sense of agility. Equipped with M Sport suspension and steering, the X2 flows through the scenic, twisting tarmac out of Lisbon with a natural rhythm to its responses, neither feeling too darty or lazy.

The steering, while muted in feedback, is quick and precise, and has a good amount of heft to it without feeling too cumbersome at low speeds. And despite the crossover’s tall stance, the X2 resists roll well and remains composed over mid-corner undulations.

The all-wheel drive system on this particular unit also ensures there are huge reserves of grip, with very little understeer when pushing hard. Since we’re getting the front-wheel drive model, however, we’ll need some time with a local petrol-powered variant to see how it drives over in Malaysia.

Drawbacks? Well, there’s the light and inconsistent brake pedal, which has a sizeable dead spot at the top of travel before a significant amount of braking force can be felt. The ride on 19-inch wheels and sports suspension is also suspect – even on these smooth roads, minor surface imperfections can be picked up through the seats. We’ll have to try it out on our pockmarked roads for a more thorough evaluation.

The M Sport model you see here is the one we’ll be getting

At the end of the day, BMW appears to have delivered on its promise of a sportier model with the X2. The funky, Instagram-worthy styling may have been little more than a marketing ploy, but one drive and you’ll be convinced that real effort has been made to give the driver something to care about.

Yes, there are minor niggles here and there, most glaring of which is the potentially jarring ride. But BMW already has the family-friendly end of the market sewn up with the X1, which, if past experience is to be believed, will cater to those who need a larger, more comfortable vehicle. For everyone else, the X2’s sharp road manners and appealing (to some) looks might be just the ticket.

As an all-round proposition, the X2 has the GLA licked, especially on the road – with the now-standard off-road suspension, the Mercedes is both too bouncy on rough roads and too soft in the corners. However, given that Stuttgart has already unveiled the first of its new-generation compact models with the fourth-gen A-Class, a new GLA shouldn’t be too far away, so an apples-to-apples comparison will have to wait.

The real issue at the moment is what is expected to be an ambitious price tag, which could prove costly (hah!). If the estimated pricing of RM320,000 turns out to be accurate, the X2 will be a whole RM50,000 more expensive than the RM269,888 GLA 250 4Matic, which comes with a more powerful engine and all-wheel drive. At least it will have more kit as standard, with items such as keyless entry, a head-up display, a centre touchscreen and dual-zone auto climate control, none of which are offered on the GLA.

Also fitted are LED headlights, fog lights and tail lights, 19-inch alloy wheels, a hands-free powered tailgate, powered seats with driver’s side memory, Park Assistant and a reverse camera. Unfortunately, however, we won’t get autonomous emergency braking, which is unacceptable – especially at this price range.

Whether any of these issues will sway those in the market away from it remains to be seen, and we’ll have to wait for a proper launch in the first quarter of the year to be sure. But for now, BMW deserves credit for building a talented pair of compact crossovers with the X1 and X2 – two thoroughly capable machines.


GALLERY: BMW X2 official on-location photos