The Curious Case for the BMW 123d

Test Drives | November 11th, 2009 by 13
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After three long, yet glorious days at BMW North America’s facility in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, I found myself watching old episodes of Top Gear …

After three long, yet glorious days at BMW North America’s facility in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, I found myself watching old episodes of Top Gear as a means of relaxing while waiting for my flight back home. Who knew you could relax while listening to Jeremy Clarkson?

Ironically enough, it was an episode from Season 10 in which the Top Gear boys purchased a BMW 330d and converted it to racing spec for a 24-hour endurance race at the historic Silverstone circuit.

I’d seen it hundreds of times but it’s still enjoyable to see Top Gear give a somewhat serious look at a BMW performance, much less a diesel one at that. However, the episode brought me back to my experience at BMW’s New Jersey headquarters earlier that day.

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After some presentations regarding EfficientDynamics, a showing of the Rolls Royce Ghost and the full information session of the soon-to-be released 550i Gran Turismo, I was able to step out into the parking lot to test out a variety of new BMW models. Aside from the MINI-E, what caught my eye was a subtle little 5-door hatchback wedged behind an X6 Active Hybrid. Upon wandering over, it was indeed the 123d M Sport hatchback that we’d been promised would “happen” to be present for us to test on BMW’s campus during the inaugural BMW One Day University program. The back-story to 123d is what you would expect: it was manufactured in Germany and then eventually brought over to the U.S. facility as a car for engineers to examine and try out. As this car was purely for the engineers and not certified for U.S. consumption, I was reserved to hustling it around the gorgeous ex-apple orchard that is the BMW campus.

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Interestingly enough, this was to be the first amount of seat time I’d had with any 1 Series car, much less a diesel. After plopping behind the wheel, I was pleasantly surprised to find the interior to be comparable in terms of quality to that of an E90 and that I had a massive amount of headroom compared to my E46 coupe. Maybe last March I should have kept that deposit on a 135i after all?

I inserted the key and thumbed the starter and the little diesel rumbled to life. The start-up of the car felt a bit jittery for a second or so and I could feel it through the gear lever but that was all replaced by a very low, clattery noise as the car idled. After looking the controls over once more to make sure I was familiar with everything, I set it off through the parking lot and onto the road looping the campus. As I began to build the revs and shift from first to second, the clattery noise seemed to disappear and the engine sounded more like lower displacement inline-6’s than what I expected a diesel engine to sound like: a GMC 2500HD truck. Thankfully, I was wrong and as the revs raced, rather quickly as that, to the redline, the engine had a much more angry note, saying “Yes, I’m efficient but I want to drive!” I began to speed the little bimmer around the campus and was immediately impressed by the seats of the 1 Series, much better bolstering than my E46, and the way the whole package worked in unison.

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The 123d does an excellent job of providing a well-balanced driving experience with a compliant chassis and well-balance suspension. I felt that the steering wheel and the weight of the steering was balanced and gave me the feedback I wanted from the front wheels without being too abrasive.  Again, the car reminded me of an E46 soul successor in the way the car performed as a whole package. What really stood out, as you’d expect, was the engine. Despite having a low redline compared to gasoline engines, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of thrust from the wall of torque that comes on strong very low in the rev range all the way through to the top end. The torque and low redline required I be very attentive to when to shift gears; a task I was more than happy to engage in.  Unfortunately, the start-stop technology on the test was not switched on at the time of our tests so I’m unable to comment on that aspect of the engine.

But, at low speeds and in higher gears the 123d still felt very civil and hid its dirty diesel lineage well by reminding me more of a zippy 4 cylinder gasoline-powered car. Does the engine sound as good as an inline-6 or possibly even a highly-strung gasoline 4-cylinder when simply cruising or when you’re hammering down? No and diesels probably never will. But it does return high fuel economy and provide an engaging driving experience that I’ve come to expect from a rear-wheel-drive BMW which was a reassuring realization about the diesel hatchback. It was a great reminder that, as BMW have told us many times over, you can have efficiency AND performance with little, if any, compromise.


After kicking around the Alpine White on black leather 123d for a little while I reluctantly brought it back to the parking lot to join its American market brothers in arms. After getting out of the car, I felt a sense of disappointment, though. The 123d is a wonderful all-round car and if I really wanted to, there was absolutely no way for me to walk into my local dealership to order one. It is such as shame for the U.S. market that we might never get this car solely because of the stigmas of yesteryear’s diesels plaguing the minds of the premium car consumer in the United States. Personally, this is a car I would love to own. I drive a significant amount for work and would love something that is fuel efficient and attractive while also being sporty. Something I can pick up clients in during the week and then take to a track day on the weekend. The 123d (the hatchback is unexpectedly handsome and compelling in person though personal preference would be the coupe variant) would be an excellent solution for me. I know I’m not alone in wanting a car that fulfils those needs and I know I’m not alone as someone willing to take a step out of a gasoline-engined BMW and into a diesel-powered BMW. However, it would seem that the future of a U.S. spec 123d is at the mercy of the generally diesel-ignorant buying public. Thankfully, BMW is on the offensive with educating everyone to the benefits of diesels!

13 responses to “The Curious Case for the BMW 123d”

  1. J.T. says:

    Why must you tease us with the 1er, let alone a diesel and a M-Sport!. ;^;

  2. michael says:

    see i didn’t realise there was a 123d
    we only get the 120d here in Australia

  3. Esteves says:

    It’s the top 1er diesel in Europe. 2.0 inline 4 with 204ps and 400Nm averaging 45mpg in our test cycle. It’s a sweet car. But you can also get lower powered diesel models. The lowest is the 116d, which just produces 115ps but averages 53mpg.

  4. Elgee says:

    I have a 118d and i love it ! people, luxury and pleasure doesn’t mean big !

  5. john says:

    the 1 series is a magical car that i wish i had the option to buy as a diesel wether it be the 116,120,123 …. i would trade my car in and buy the 1 series today if i could

  6. drew says:

    BRING IT!!!

    (which isn’t going to happen I fully realise)…

    but please BMW please bring the next gen 1er hatch stateside…

  7. Shawn says:

    Andrew, that was a brilliant article – keep it coming!

    I really identify with you in your need of a practical, efficient, uncompromising sports car. I really feel that the 123d would do well in the American and Canadian market if given a chance.

  8. 100$ GUY says:

    No appeal for me whatsoever, but happy you enjoyed it.

  9. Ronald Switzerland says:

    Well I just ordered one here in Europe, a beautiful blue 123d. As the writer noticed a 4 cilinder diesel car don’t have the sound experience of a gasoline car, but for that the driving experience, torque and fuel economy are wonderfull.
    The reason that diesel is an enourmes success here in Europe has to do with exactly that combination (and ofcourse fuel is around 3x more expensive then in the US). At the moment a big pain point is the dollar-euro exchange rate. Since these cars are produced in europe there is almost no possibility to have them sold with profit in the US.

  10. new 123d says:

    I just collected my 123d here in Australia Nov 09. I used to own a Golf Mk V Gti. 123d is definitely a better car in term of handling and acceleration. I had more confidence overtaking going up hill. Power delivery is smooth and instance. 123d manages more than 700km in 1 full tank compare to 500km in the Gti. I am heavy foot driver. Insurance is cheaper in the 123d and it only needs 1 servicing every 20000km or once every 2 years. Gti needs servicing every 15000km or every year. I had lots of quality issues with the gti since day 1 but not with the 123d. Built quality is excellent compare to the gti. The only let down is the weak air-con. It’s the same with the gti.

  11. tytek says:

    Actually, you can already have one here stateside – unfortunately with FWD and a different logo – it is called an Audi A3 TDI ;-)

    In all seriousness, the TDI A3 is not a best seller for Audi in the US, but they have moved their fair share of them. Not sure why BMW is not trying to go after some of those buyers… (actually, I do know – it is the cost of getting them US ready).

    The US market is changing, albeit slowly. According to VAG, 75% of 2010 Jetta SportWagens sold in the US were diesels (2.0 CR TDI). The diesel stigma is lifting and buyers are educating themselves (with OEMs help) on the benefits of oil burners. Even Mazda will be offering diesel engine options soon (the only Japanese automaker to do so in North America).

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