It seems obvious, but let's put this on the table anyway: If you want a 2012 BMW 535i xDrive equipped the same way Audi loads up its all-new A6 quattro, you'll face a price premium of $5,540.
The BMW starts with a higher sticker price – $66,335 versus the Audi's $60,795 with freight and prep – and you'll need to add BMW's heated seats for $550. Now you may be among those who argue the 5-Series can and should command a pricing premium. After all, the 5 is the ne plus ultra of mid-size luxury sedans, correct?
Not so fast.
The 5 is a brilliant car in all sorts of ways, but don't relegate the A6 out of hand, don't just assume the Bimmer is the handling and performance leader. Truth is, there is a convergence happening here when it comes to the two Bavarian cars – the A6 and the 5-Series.
BMW traditionally put handling and performance ahead of all other considerations until the latest 5 arrived. In an appeal to the broader masses of $60,000-car buyers, the folks from Munich softened the car a bit, made it quieter and a little more focused on serenity, less on corner carving.
That's okay and I suspect it now sits where a broad swath of aging boomer buyers are going these days. Boomers are, after all, getting older and heavier and stiffer and perhaps a tad less aggressive with advancing years.
This has opened the door for Audi to push its A6 closer to the 5. That is, the A6 up to this generation was itself a kinder, softer, perhaps even feminine mid-size luxury sedan (and wagon). Yes, some of you will be hurling the "sexist" label at me and so be it. It's an apt and traditionally acceptable description of the old A6's qualities.
So along comes the redesigned 2012 Audi A6 3.0 TFSI quattro. With a supercharged 3.0-litre V-6 engine under the hood, it flies off the line, but unlike its predecessor, this A6 feels completely at home on snaky roads. On top of that, Audi's commitment to leading-edge technology resonates here.
The story, then, is of an Audi determined to out-BMW BMW. No one at Audi makes any bones about this, either. The volume premium brand of the Volkswagen Group is well aware of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but those running home base in Ingolstadt would rather knock off BMW. To do that, they also know they need to knock the 5-Series off its pedestal.
And so we have this A6. Like the A4, A5 and A7 before it, this car rides on Audi's MLB chassis. Why care? Well, the engine is mounted longitudinally – north-south – and placed further back behind the front axle.
This is to create the feel of a rear-drive Bimmer in a front-drive-based Audi with standard quattro all-wheel drive. This brings us to an engineering trick: the A6's torsen-type centre differential biases 60 per cent of engine torque to the rear axle. Again, you are intended to think you're steering a rear-driver, but you get the benefits of power being available to all four wheels.
Audi's designers have also gotten into the act. With engineering help, they have chopped off about 75 mm of front overhang. Less mass hanging up front not only makes for a car that is more visually appealing – with its wheels pushed to the corners – but also improves responses.
That said, the problem with AWD is the added mass created by all those mechanical bits and pieces sending power here, there and everywhere. Well, consider this: the 2012 Audi A6's curb weight (1,835 kg) is 85 kg less than the Bimmer with xDrive and 20 kg less than the strictly rear-drive 535i, too. There is no big secret here. Audi uses lightweight aluminum body panels and suspension parts to keep the A6's weight in check.
This brings us to the power story. We all love BMW's turbocharged inline-six-cylinder (300 hp/300 lb-ft of torque). It is a brilliant engine, with direct fuel injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger – strong, smooth and sweet in every way imaginable.
Audi, though, has a pretty nice 3.0-litre V-6 engine of its own. The supercharged powerplant also has direct fuel injection and serves up a healthy 310 hp/325 lb-ft of torque over a broad and responsive torque curve. The bad news is fuel economy: 11.3 litres/100 km in the city, 7.4 highway, versus 9.7 city/6.6 highway for the Bimmer. The A6 is quicker and thirstier.
To manage all that power, both Audi and BMW use ZF eight-speed automatic transmissions and both do their work superbly. Drivers can dial up "sport modes" and all that and, quite honestly, one would need to be a sour curmudgeon to find fault with either.
You and I and everyone else also are more likely to say the A6 has the more beautiful interior – though BMW has the better, more supportive seats. Audi is the standard for rich cabins with flashy furnishings tamed just so by warm finishings.
So the conclusion: Audi until now has not really had a car to challenge the 5-Series, not on its own terms. But no longer. This once-lopsided Bavarian rivalry has become a race to excellence, with a winner yet to be decided.
2012 Audi A6 quattro 3.0 Premium
Type: Mid-size luxury sedan
Base price: $58,800 ($1,995 freight)
Engine: 3.0-litre V-6, supercharged
Horsepower/torque: 310 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.3 city/7.4 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Infiniti M-Class, Lexus GS-Class