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?
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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.
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.
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.
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!