Reel after reel of film has shown us how the melting poles will soon raise the oceans of the world, sending them out in a murderous rush that will inundate cities and wipe out the human race in no time. As bleak and dreadful as this doomsday scenario has been portrayed by filmmakers and as avidly as it has been gobbled up by mindless moviegoers, real Armageddon is unlikely to be brought about by swelling water bodies, but by the shrinking reserves of another, considerably thicker fluid — oil.
Although no mainstream movie has yet been made on this subject, geologists believe that the colossal engine that drives human civilisation like a well-oiled machine will come to a grinding halt much sooner than we've thought. And this catastrophic situation could be unleashed way before the world decides on a viable renewable alternative to its dwindling fossil energy sources, which are being burned at a terrifying rate.
Scary is an understatement. The prospect of living in a world without electricity, traffic lights and air travel is bad enough, but can you imagine a time when V12s and V8s start pushing up daisies? Like it or not, that's the reality that is racing towards us at an alarming pace and the trick to survive in that post-apocalyptic world is downsizing. When petrol pumps become few and far between and people start lynching each other for a bottle of the fuel, only the smart ones among us will survive. And that won't be just the ones whizzing about in EVs and fuel-cell cars, but also those driving high-end luxury cars, albeit powered by smaller, thriftier lumps.
Smaller engines need not necessarily mean less fun. With forced aspiration and cutting-edge technology changing the game, these lesser variants have suddenly become credible substitutes to their hallowed bigger brothers. So when both BMW and Audi launched turbocharged four-cylinder engines in their mid-sized 5 Series and A6 saloons respectively, we promptly decided to find out which of the two would make a better set of wheels to get away from the depressing ruins of dead V8s and V12s, and have some fun on doomsday.
When it comes to vital statistics, no two rivals can be more identically endowed than these two saloons. Both are powered by 2.0-litre four pots, and both top out at a similar 226kph. While the A6 puts out 180 horses, the 5er's turbocharged lump is good for 184bhp, the former hitting 100kph from standstill in 8.3sec and the latter taking just 8.0 seconds. However, the torque figures vary considerably, with the BMW trailing the Audi by 50Nm. But scratch a little below the surface and you'll find that despite these similarities, these two are completely different from each other. The 520i, for example, has an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission channelling its horses to the rear wheels, while the Audi has a CVT — yes, a CVT — sending power through to the front wheels. So with an interesting combination of identical figures and different drivetrains, how do these perform on the road?
Boy, do I detest CVTs. Audi has basically ruined a peach of an engine by coupling it with a multitronic transmission. The CVT, together with the 2.0-litre engine's noticeable turbo lag, causes an initial hesitation to move off the line, giving the A6 2.0T a perceptibly sluggish start. Although it feels fairly nippy once it overcomes this early lethargy, the constant drone from that rubber band takes away whatever fun the engine could potentially offer. But if you're willing to overlook that irritant, the CVT's literally seamless power delivery and the considerably higher 320Nm of torque make it a match for the 520i once it gathers pace. And if you don't mind being cheated, there's the ‘manual' shift feature where you can swap between eight preset ratios using the paddles. I hate being cheated, so I didn't.
In comparison, the BMW's in-line four with its twin scroll turbocharging makes up for the lack in twist by spooling up faster with the supremely responsive eight-speed tranny, affording lightning-fast shifts and smooth, effortless progress. Although it occasionally keeps hunting for gears to adjust to the 2.0-litre engine's lower torque, the 520i offers a more engaging drive overall than its rival. But that doesn't mean the A6's ride and handling are bad. In fact the current A6 is a huge improvement over its predecessor in this department and the ride quality is even a tad better than the Bimmer's. Lighter by 30kg than before, the A6 has less body roll and greater composure around bends than before. The new A6's steering also runs the 520i's superbly responsive wheel quite close, weighing up nicely with speed, but overall the F10 BMW has set a benchmark so high that exceptionally good handling doesn't seem to cut it any more.
However, the Audi amply compensates for its other shortcomings with its looks. Right from when I clapped eyes on the new F10 5 Series at its global launch event in Lisbon, I haven't been a big fan of the way it looks. Not anywhere near as distinctive as the Chris Bangle-penned E60, it's just a fatter 3 Series (the previous one). So when parked next to the graceful and beautifully streamlined new A6, the 5er looks all the more ungainly. Agreed, the A6 is also a bloated A4 but the fact that it now shares more of the characteristic family features with its gorgeous bigger brother, the A7 Sportback, adds to its handsome looks. The Audi's upper hand in the looks department doesn't end there but extends into the interior as well. Of course when it comes to build quality, both Ingolstadt and Munich are neck and neck. However, Audi's classy, superbly crafted cabin is a lot more appealing than the Bimmer's which pales in comparison.
But the very reason for the existence of these two base models isn't any of the above, but their remarkably low fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Both the cars make use of their energy recovery systems and stop-start features to achieve identical fuel efficiency of 6.4 litres-per-100km, an astoundingly impressive figure when you know that the Toyota Yaris hatchback with its 1.3-litre engine returns similar numbers. However, this is under ideal scenarios with specific tyres; be prepared to live with something between 8-9 litres-per-100km in real life situations. The CO2 emissions of both the saloons are an equally low 149g/km.
So, if we were to pick one from these two executive saloons to extract every single drop of fun from its last tank of petrol, which one would it be? When it comes to squeezing out that extra kilometre, both do an equally good job, but when you bring outright performance and handling into that equation, the BMW has an upper hand. Had Audi mated the 2.0T to an S-tronic double clutch 'box instead of the CVT, the whole game could have changed, as it's a notch better than the Bimmer in most other aspects including styling, interior quality and the ride. Also, it should be mentioned that keeping out the S-tronic and the Quattro all-wheel drive has helped Audi price the A6 quite competitively; almost Dh30K less than the base Bimmer. But to ride out the end of the world, I wouldn't mind paying that difference