W12 engines were nothing new when Bentley popularised them in the early 2000s. Eight decades before Volkswagen started workshopping its mill in the late 1990s, the actual W layout was first seen in aeroplanes with three banks of four cylinders. Those engines would appear in land, sea and air-fairing speed record vehicles and eventually (unsuccessfully) in a Le Mans racer. The Life F1 W12 of 1990 used this layout, too, but Volkswagen’s W12 was more like two VR6 engines stuck together in the same crank.
The best cars to use the W12 engine
Truthfully, it’s closer to a V12 than a traditional W, using only two sets of camshafts, but the staggered cylinder bores in the blocks and heads created two minuscule 15-degree Vs, adding up to one sort-of W. The benefit? It was more compact in length than a conventional V12 and was spectacularly smooth. As Volkswagen went on to demonstrate in spectacular fashion, and as time has largely proven, it was reliable too. Finally, after 23 years, the VW W12 is set to go out of production, so we thought we’d chart its history from the beginning. It’s not just Bentleys this amazing motor has seen action in…
Audi Avus Concept (1991)
The murky history of the W12 project goes as far back as the very late 1980s and early 1990s. No doubt a Ferdinant Piech-driven idea, in the public eye, it debuted as early as 1991, with the Audi Avus Concept. Sleek, metallic and a tribute to the titanic Auto Union grand prix cars of the 1930s, it also housed what appeared to be the first W12 engine destined for a road car. It didn’t, as the real W12 was very early in development. Did they put something else in it? Not a bit of it. So important was the introduction of the idea of this engine, that the Avus featured a design buck showing it visible through the glass engine cover, fed by a large NACA duct on its roof.
Volkswagen W12 Nardo (2001)
A full six years later, Volkswagen would debut a stunning concept car – the Synchro – featuring the W12 engine and a new all-wheel-drive system. An open-top Roadster followed but what came after was the big one. Known now as the Nardo, 2001 saw Volkswagen show off a fully working twin-turbo W12-engined supercar, built with one purpose in mind: to prove the reliability of the VW group’s incredible new mill. We’re still bitter that the Veyron killed any prospect of this thing making it to production. Still, it did its job, setting a world record for all speed classes over 24 hours at Nardo – hence the name – covering 4,809 miles at an average of 200.6mph. Properly incredible stuff. It was mad at the time but with hindsight, knowing the extensive term of service this engine put in, we sanction it.
Audi A8 W12 6.0 (2001)
The justification of the project come the end of 2002? Less than 1,000 cars sold using a naturally-aspirated 420PS (309kW) version of the engine. Was that model a Bentley or a Volkswagen? Nope, we’re back to Audi and, would you believe it, the D2 Audi A8. Yes, the first-generation Audi A8 was the first production car to use the W12 engine, which turned out to be more powerful than the performance-focused S8. Strange.
Volkswagen Phaeton (2003)
Even weirder was that alongside the second-gen A8 that followed and indeed, the Bentley Continental GT, Volkswagen (translated, people’s car) put into production its own W12 limousine. Few other cars defined pre-recession oppulence, or indeed Ferdinand Piech’s engineering fetishism quite like it. In spite of being a handsome old beast and beautiful to waft around in, people’s understanding of the VW badge didn’t change. It's small wonder then that what was quite an expensive car didn’t really sell.
Bentley Continental Flying Spur (2005)
In an attempt to make sure this list isn't just a sea of Continentals and to spread the net far and wide, we've waited for the Flying Spur to add the first-gen Conti GT. The original two-door didn’t really make sense, either. It was a sporty-looking luxurious coupe that drove like the saloons with which it shared a platform. So when the four-door Flying Spur came out, offering a monstrous 560PS (412kW), a near-200mph top speed and a character more befitting its form, it showed the full potential of both the W12 and the new Bentley platform for the first time. A great car that today is a very tempting second-hand prospect.
Volkswagen Touareg (2005)
It happened. It definitely happened. For like, a while there, the Volkswagen Touareg SUV was purchasable with the W12 engine. That shouldn’t seem so weird given today’s Bentley Bentayga – commonly W12-powered – is a close relation, but it really does. More so than the Phaeton. Initially planned as a 500-car limited-run model, it eventually became a full production option. Does that mean there was demand? Surely not? How awfully strange.
Spyker C12 La Turbie (2006)
For those who were still bitter about the Nardo being canned, this could have served as some recompense. Most remember the Spyker C8 and its Audi-sourced V8. Most don’t remember the C12 and its Audi (VW)-sourced W12. That’s because just a handful were made, including the Zagato-bodied special. It’s instantly recognisable apart from the C8s mind, thanks to its broader mouth, sharper lights, longer wheelbase and quad exhaust. This might be the most powerful version of the naturally-aspirated W12 engine, with 507PS (372kW).
Volkswagen Golf W12 Concept
This was a bit of a hammer blow too, especially considering VW nearly built it. Yes, they nearly built a Golf with a twin-turbo W12 sat in the middle. A last-minute show-off concept for the Worthersee VW show, the Golf W12’s broad hips, intakes and enormous exhausts make no secret of what hides within. Up to this point, this was the most powerful version of the W12, with a monster 650PS (478kW). How do you W12 a Golf? With a mish-mash of Bentley, VW, Lamborghini and Audi parts, that’s how.
Bentley Continental Supersports (2009)
Now we’re onto the Bentleys properly. Indeed, by 2010 it was only in these that the W12 properly lived on. Yes, it stayed in the A8 and Phaeton for a bit but by the time the amazing Continental Supersports came out, the W12 was almost a de facto Bentley engine. In Supersports spec the engine was boosted to 630PS (463kW) – the most powerful Bentley road car ever made at the time – and could be run on E85 ethanol fuel.
Audi A8 L W12 6.3 (2012)
There’s nothing really of note here to say, given we’d just declared the W12 thoroughly a Bentley engine by 2010. Yet because this is Volkswagen Group, with its weird and wonderful ways, a very difficult-to-buy version of the third-generation A8 came out in 2012, with a 6.3-litre version of the engine. It was good for around 500PS (368kW) thanks to bigger bores and direct injection and was for some reason, exclusive to the A8.
Bentley Continental Supersports (2017)
The second-generation Conti GT went out with a bang, again using the Supersports badge. In this guise it gained some aggressive aero treatments to let everyone know this was the fast(er) one and the most powerful version of the W12 yet used, with 710PS (552kW).
Bentley Bentayga Speed (2019)
The Bentayga was an important moment in the W12’s history in general given how popular it was (and remains) and given it was how the next-gen W12 was introduced, featuring a 30 per cent stronger crankcase, cooling improvements, port and direct injection, revised turbos and cylinder shutoff tech. The Speed then got the W12 another record, as the world’s fastest SUV. This leviathan of a machine could get to a 190mph top speed, hitting 62mph in 3.9 seconds along the way, thanks to its 635PS (467kW) W12.
Finally, we get to the Batur, the swansong for the W12. It’s in this limited-run coach-built special that the mill sees out its final days, albeit in a blaze of glory. Kicking out a 750PS (552kW) wallop, it tops a 100,000-unit (Bentley only) run for the W12 engine. As for how many there were overall? We’d hazard a guess that the numbers of non-Bentley W12s aren’t huge. Regardless, it’s a solemn goodbye to an engine that is at this point, almost a part of the furniture. And that is what finally grants the W12 not just the title of great engine, but of great Bentley engine.
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