For nearly 100 years, 12-cylinder engines have held an almost mythical status in the automotive world. From the stately inline engines of pre-war Packards and Cadillacs, to the exotic insanity of the V12 Ferraris and Lamborghinis, the smooth and seemingly limitless power of 12 cylinders is enough to make any gearhead swoon as soon as they hear the unmistakable sound of one. But unlike the traditional “V” setup of most modern 12 cylinder engines, Volkswagen has long championed an unusual layout that’s been key in its transformation from a builder of small cars to the world’s second largest automaker.
Since the 1990s, the company has produced its VR6 engine, a narrow V6 with offset cylinders that share a single cylinder head, like an inline engine. This allows for the power and smoothness of a larger V engine while being compact enough to fit in a space designed for an inline-four. Due to their compact design and potential for power, Volkswagen has long been combining VR blocks to create larger, more powerful engines with a unique “W” layout. As a result, its VR4s were used to create the W8s that powered the 2001-2005 Volkswagen Passat, the W8s were modified to form the 1001 horsepower W16 that powered the Bugatti Veyron, and since 2001, the VR6 has been combined to create the company’s 6.0 liter W12.
In the years since, few other engines in Volkswagen’s brand portfolio have been as versatile or as high-profile as its W12. From the Bentley Continental to the Audi A8L to the Volkswagen Touareg and Phaeton, the W12 has been the beating heart inside some of the most interesting cars to come from this century. But with the upcoming Bentley Bentayga ultra-luxury SUV on the way, the company is overhauling its W12, and making the idea of living with a 12 cylinder car more appealing than ever.
Unveiling the new 6.0 liter W12 TSI at the 36th International Vienna Motor Symposium, Volkswagen board member Dr. Heinz-Jakob Neusser declared “The car of the future will continue to fascinate people,” then gave some pretty compelling reasons why. Presented alongside the company’s new turbocharged 2.0 liter inline-four, the updated 6.0 liter W12 TSI features the best engine tech the company has to offer, including Audi’s direct injection system, Bentley’s multi-port injection system, and twin-scroll turbochargers. This bumps the power to 600 horsepower and 663 pound-feet of torque – a significant leap from the 567 horses and 516 pound-feet found in the current W12 Bentley Continental GT.
Because this next-generation engine was designed with the Bentayga SUV in mind, it even has its own active suspension, making it a prime candidate to also see duty under the hood of Lamborghini’s upcoming SUV. With a rated top speed of 186 miles per hour (though it will undoubtedly be tuned for higher performance models), the new W12 would be right at home powering an off-roading Lambo.
On top of all that power, Volkswagen outfitted its new engine with cylinder deactivation and stop/start systems. These party tricks allow the mighty W12 to offer the fuel economy expected from a midsize sedan instead of an overweight luxo-barge; The company claims the new engine is 30 percent more fuel efficient than the current engine, giving it a combined rating of 22 miles per gallon.
For 14 years, the Volkswagen group has been the world’s largest builder of 12 cylinder engines. That’s an impressive achievement (and an impressive lifespan for an engine), but as horsepower and fuel economy move upward, the old engine is quickly beginning to show its age. With an ingenious combination of power and efficiency, Volkswagen’s next-generation 6.0 W12 TSI could very well set the standard for another decade-and-a-half of 12-cylinder power.