Nou­veau Niche

BMW X1 tack­les Bain’s Kloof Pass

Road Trip - - CONTENTS - Story and Cap­tured by: Ray Leath­ern

BMW X1 tack­les Bain’s Kloof Pass

When BMW started mak­ing them, you knew the com­pact SUV had crosse­dover from niche to nou­veau riche. Ray Leath­ern puts the lat­est X1 to the test in Bain’s Kloof.

Was it a kerb-hop­ping city car, or was it meant to bring snob value to the Tankwa Ka­roo? No one knew.

The growth of the high-rise hatch shows no sign of abat­ing. Once only a small niche of main­stream hatches, now even pre­mium man­u­fac­tur­ers such as BMW re­alise that they are likely to sell more of these al­most-suvs than all of their stal­wart sedan mod­els com­bined.

En­ter the se­cond-gen­er­a­tion X1.the first one, made from bits of old 3 Se­ries with a lumpy Suv-meets-es­tate body welded on top, looked in some ways like a pre­cur­sor to the alt-left 3 and 5 Se­ries Gran Turis­mos of the brand. It de­liv­ered an equally con­fused drive.was it a kerb-hop­ping city car, or was it meant to bring snob value to the Tankwa Ka­roo? No one knew.

The new X1 (pic­tured here in M sport spec) is much bet­ter ex­e­cuted. Our S drive test unit has a trans­versely mounted four-cylin­der mo­tor and front-wheel drive, just like a Mini Coun­try­man. You will have to stretch the bud­get by around R60k for the all-wheel drive on-de­mand X drive ver­sion.

We are set for the Boland Moun­tain Com­plex, more specif­i­cally the his­toric Bain’s Kloof moun­tain pass, un­doubt­edly the most re­mark­able piece of road in South Africa. An act of civil en­gi­neer­ing so gutsy and so com­plex, it is the only one – out of the hun­dreds of roads cred­ited to the Bains fam­ily – that ac­tu­ally car­ries the fa­mous name.this will be the ideal test for the fauxby-four BMW.

Con­ceived dur­ing the ex­pan­sion­ist pro­gram of road build­ing in the Western Cape dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, An­drew Ged­des Bains, the then In­spec­tor of Roads, and Colo­nial Sec­re­tary, John Mon­tagu, were trav­el­ing along the Breede River be­tween projects at Houw Hoek Pass and Michells Pass when they came upon their ‘grand­est dis­cov­ery’ – a promis­ing look­ing kloof through the Limi­et­berge and Slanghoek­berge to Welling­ton. Upon see­ing the pass, Mon­tagu re­put­edly ex­claimed, with Galileo-like clar­ity, ‘Bains, that is just the line!’

Bains’ en­thu­si­asm for the project was soon over­come by the ex­treme re­al­i­ties of build­ing his most am­bi­tious road. “The fright­ful terra incog­nita (un­known land) is repul­sive and sav­agely grand. Vast rocks ev­ery­where dis­turb­ing progress, pro­trud­ing their un­earthly shapes to the banks of the foam­ing tor­rent of the Witte River … seem­ingly for­ever set at de­fi­ance of the ap­proach of man. So gloomy was this place, there is a per­fect ab­sence of an­i­mal life,” Bains wrote in a let­ter to Mon­tagu af­ter his first ex­pe­di­tion.

De­spite this, the Colo­nial Sec­re­taries Of­fice of the Cape en­listed the forced labour of one thou­sand con­victs (not POWS as so many in­cor­rectly be­lieve). On av­er­age, 350 men worked on the pass at any one time.the first 10 km from the neck of the pass down the Eastern side had to be blasted en­tirely out of solid rock.

As Bains de­scribed it, “No sooner is

one ob­sta­cle re­moved, than oth­ers ap­pear in rapid suc­ces­sion, but the pow­er­ful agency of gunpowder is slowly mak­ing them dis­ap­pear.” All other drilling had to be done by hand. Af­ter four and a half years, at the un­think­able cost (back then) of £50,000, the road was com­pleted and un­veiled in 1853. In 1980 it was de­clared a na­tional mon­u­ment.

My fas­ci­na­tion with the 30 km pass comes from the fact that, aside from main­te­nance up­grades over the years, it re­mains iden­ti­cal – sig­na­ture white ‘Bains tomb­stones’ and all – to the one un­veiled 164 years ago. Carved and dy­na­mited out of rock by sheer brute force, it is a spec­tac­u­lar ed­i­fi­ca­tion of one man’s pi­o­neer­ing spirit.

And, con­se­quently, a fit­ting road to tackle in the equally strong-willed X1. On the climb out of Welling­ton, hug­ging up against the Western side of the pass through dap­pled for­est light, I am all but blown away by the strength of the tur­bod­iesel X1 20d.

With 140 kw and 400 Nm avail­able from 1750 r/min, the X1 has more torque than an E46 M3.that is the type of thrust that gives it an al­most un­fair ad­van­tage over its ri­vals; its nigh on Golf GTD fast (0-100 km/h in 7.6 sec­onds). Shall we think about that for a mo­ment? More torque than a cel­e­brated sports saloon, sent only to the front wheels. Well, you guessed it. The trac­tion con­trol sys­tem of the X1 is the most over­worked Münch­ner since Han­nah the Ok­to­ber­fest bar maid.

De­spite hav­ing to multi-task steer­ing and trans­fer­ring power to the road, the X1 has ad­mirable lev­els of front grip and a nim­ble turn-in, thanks to Ls-diff-like brake con­trol on the front axle and ur­gent steer­ing. A lack of axle ar­tic­u­la­tion and low-pro­file tyres, how­ever, means that there is a gnarly thump over the more se­vere bumps, and a gen­er­ally bouncy at­ti­tude over the rest.

We sprint up, crest the sum­mit … and re­lax, back­ing it off to com­fort mode to cruise the Eastern edge of the pass at a pace more be­fit­ting of an X1. Deep in the heart of the val­ley, at a se­cluded spot you have prob­a­bly driven past tens of times be­fore and never no­ticed; we duck off left to our overnight halt: Bastiaansk­loof Pri­vate Na­ture Re­serve.

Pre­dictably, we must leave the com­fort­ing feel of bi­tu­men be­hind and ex­plore the war­ren of dirt roads of the re­serve be­fore night­fall sets in.the X1 grips strongly even on the cor­ru­gated gravel and the steer­ing re­mains equally alert, but those low pro­file tyres never set­tle on the ir­reg­u­lar sur­face. Till deep in the val­ley we reach a road that warns “4×4 Ve­hi­cles Only” and some­what mer­ci­fully, we de­cide to throw in the towel and head back to cosy-up in the cot­tage for the night.

The ver­dict is this.we want more from the X1, but we do not know what ex­actly. It is hand­some, very brisk, solidly built, and rep­re­sents a big im­prove­ment over its ob­nox­ious older brother. And yet, this is a BMW, and we are a picky bunch.the BMW X1 is the right car for some­thing, but even af­ter our Bain’s Kloof ad­ven­ture, we are not sure ex­actly what …

Deep in the val­ley we reach a road that warns “4×4 Ve­hi­cles Only” and some­what mer­ci­fully, we de­cide to throw in the towel and head back to cosy-up in the cot­tage for the night.

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