This week, Volkswagen announced that its hot-selling Atlas crossover is getting a new face, a new engine, and a way better interior. Buried between the lines was the fact that the VR6 engine will not be making a return. This means that when the 2024 Atlas launches in the third quarter, the VR6 will be dead in America. When this happens, Volkswagen’s fabled solution to packaging a V6 into a small car will die after powering cars for 32 years. Without this engine, there would be no W8, W12, or W16. Let’s take a look at this wonderful engine.
At the end of 2021, Volkswagen flew me out to Johnson Valley, California to send it in a pair of rally-prepped ID.4s on the King of the Hammers course. When I wasn’t jumping across expanses of desert, I was driving a 2022 Atlas Cross Sport SEL Premium R-Line that Volkswagen had loaned me.
As many of you know, I own two first-generation Volkswagen Touaregs, one with a 3.2-liter VR6 and the other with Volkswagen’s mighty 5.0-liter V10 TDI. The Atlas replaced the Touareg in America, so part of my drive with the Cross Sport involved evaluating if the Atlas felt like a Touareg with the off-road capability removed.
To my surprise, the Atlas Cross Sport was an incredibly competent crossover. It had tech that I could only dream of my Touareg having, it held the road well, and it accelerated to 60 mph nearly as fast as my V10, but without the maintenance nightmares of keeping a V10 diesel alive. The only part that I felt was not really there was the interior, which had inconsistent use of materials ranging from harsh plastic to nice leather. Now I can say that Volkswagen has fixed that with the 2024 model.
I was most surprised by what was under the hood. The badge on the back of that Atlas Cross Sport said “V6” but when I put the hammer down, I heard the sounds of an engine that was no regular V6. No, I popped the hood and found a familiar powerplant: Volkswagen’s narrow-angle VR6.
In the Atlas siblings, it’s a 3.6-liter VR6 pumping out 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft torque, which gets the 4Motion AWD Atlas to 60 mph in about 8.3 seconds. Not bad for a 4,464-lb crossover.
In the 2024 model, the Atlas will be powered by a 2.0-liter turbo four making 269 horsepower and 273 lb-ft torque that hits at 1,500 RPM. This engine hits peak torque lower and apparently scoots the Atlas to 60 mph in a faster 7.5 seconds. It is even set to get better fuel economy.
Volkswagen officials tell me that the VR6 was using old technology and that made it hard to continue certifying for ever-tightening emissions standards. Add the fact that it’s not exactly frugal, and Volkswagen had plenty of reasons to phase it out.
We’ve all actually known the VR6 was on the way out for years; Road & Track wrote its obituary back in 2017. It just took a while to finally get phased out of every VW in production.
Over time, this meant that only the Atlas had the engine in America. And as of right now, just two Chinese market models have a smaller VR6, though I’m told that even those are on borrowed time as Volkswagen intends to keep the trend of smaller engines going.
So why am I sad that an inferior engine is being sent to the grave?
An Engine That’s Technically Both Inline And V
The VR6 engine is a rare configuration: it’s a compact V-engine that takes some attributes from an inline. The “V” in the VR6 name refers to “V-Motor” while the “R” refers to “Reihenmotor”, or inline-engine in German. Smash it all together and you get V-inline engine. But how can an engine be a V and inline at the same time, and why does it even exist?
The story of this type of engine actually goes way back to 1922 and with a different company. In 1922, Lancia launched its own famous V4 in the Lambda. Like most stuff Lancia put it out before it became a barely-existing afterthought at Stellantis, this car was pretty innovative. It was built with unitized construction and it had an independent suspension. Under its hood sat a narrow-bank angle aluminum Lancia V4. Bank angle started at 13 degrees and displacement started at 2.1 liters, growing to 2.6 liters. These engines had power outputs from 49 horses to 69 horses.
Lancia would continue to experiment with its V4 until it was plunked down into its final vehicle in 1963, the Fulvia. In this application, Lancia was using a 13-degree bank angle V4 mounted at a 45-degree angle. It sat in the Fulvia until its final year in 1976, and by that time the bank angle had decreased to 11 degrees and the engine was making about 130 horses.
The VR engine would make a triumphant return in 1991. This time, it would be made by Volkswagen. That year, the Corrado and the Passat B3 would have the option of a 2.8-liter VR6 making 178 HP and 172 HP, respectively. The VR6 was a triumph in packaging. It allowed Volkswagen to shoehorn V6 power into an engine bay that normally housed a four. For example, when the Corrado launched, the most powerful engine was a 1.8-liter G60 supercharged four making 158 HP. The VR6 allowed that modest gain to 176 HP and later, 188 HP. Back in the days before turbocharged four-cylinder engines were as ubiquitous as they are now, this allowed VW to put down some respectable grunt in a small package.
How Volkswagen did it was pretty genius, too. Instead of having a 60-degree or 90-degree angle between cylinder banks like you’d see in a typical V-engine, Volkswagen’s VR6 would initially space them out only 15 degrees. The cylinders would be staggered and thanks to the compact packaging, these were technically V-engines that shared a common head.
This type of engine design creates some engineering challenges, and I’ll let the folks of EngineLabs explain:
In order to maintain the typical 120-degree firing interval between the cylinders, the split-pin design offsets each bank’s crank journal by 22 degrees. Another aspect of the engine design shared with inline engines is obvious when looking at the crankshaft. The crankshaft bears more resemblance to that of an inline-six crankpin arrangement than that of an even-fire (split-pin) V6 crankshaft.
Just like the block, a single-cylinder head for two banks of cylinders creates some unique considerations. Built in both two- and four-valve-per-cylinder designs, the overhead camshaft cylinder head design posed a unique challenge to engineers. In order to have each intake runner be the same length and volume to ensure that each cylinder was making the same power at a given RPM, they had to get creative, while maintaining tight packaging.
The VR6 didn’t just stay in its original configuration, either. The VR6 forms the basis of the VR5, an engine with the same architecture but with a cylinder deleted. When Ferdinand Piëch took control of Volkswagen in 1993, the VR6 was already in widespread use. He used the VR engine as the basis for the famous W engine.
A W12 is just two VR6 engines married together, making a “W” shape. Wolfsburg would take the basic VR design and use it to make W engines ranging from the optional W8 engine for the Passat B5.5 and all of the way up to the W16 found in Bugattis to even concept W18s. As Volkswagen’s officials have told me, without the VR engine the Bugatti Veyron might not have had an engine.
And if all of that isn’t convincing enough, listen to how tuned VR6 engines sound:
I’ve seen a number of VR6 builds over the years and it makes sense because it’s nominally a V6 that has a footprint barely larger than a four.
Of course, I have my own VR6 in my 2005 Volkswagen Touareg. Despite it being the lowest engine available for that SUV, it has been a reliable workhorse. It has towed a Honda Beat and a Suzuki Every across the country, it takes me off-roading, and it has done it all running so smoothly that at idle you may forget that it’s even running. Over the course of my ownership, it has scored about 18 mpg, too.
Why Volkswagen No Longer Needs The VR6
Alright, so if this engine is so great, why has it been disappearing?
Indeed, there was once a time when the VR6 found a home in everything from the Eurovan, to the Golf, Touareg, and even the Eos. In recent years, the VR6 could be found in the Passat, the Atlas, and Chinese market models like the Audi Q6 and the Volkswagen Talagon. Now, the VR6 can be found only in the Chinese models, and I’m told that even those are on borrowed time. So, what gives? Why is Volkswagen killing off its legendary VR6?
Well, this excellent video from Jason from Engineering Explained and Charles from Humble Mechanic explain:
In short, the pair explain that the VR6 has awesome packaging, but it’s a weird engine to work with. Add the fact that a modern turbo four can make the same output with better efficiency, and you have an engine that doesn’t really need to exist. Blame tightening emissions standards and a general downsizing of internal combustion engines across the industry, plus the rise of EVs, and you get why oddball motors like this don’t work as they used to.
What Volkswagen’s officials told me echoes this. The VR6 comes from a time when Volkswagen made more power from more engine. Now, a smaller engine can do the same job and in theory, do it better.
Thus, Volkswagen no longer needs or even has the desire to keep the VR6 around. It did a great job powering enthusiast cars for three decades and even being the basis for some of the wildest engines ever put into production cars. Now, the engine is passing the torch to smaller turbo fours—to say nothing of stuff like the electric ID.4.
But countless water-cooled VW fans will always have a soft spot in their hearts for the mighty VR6, the oddball six that’s roughly the size of a four and had character in spades.
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
Stop What You’re Doing And Drool Over This 444 HP Volkswagen Touareg W12 For Sale In Canada
The Bugatti W16 Mistral Is The Swan Song For The Incredible W16 Engine
Powering A BMW Motorcycle With An Air-Cooled Volkswagen Engine Is A Thing And It’s Amazing
The 2024 Volkswagen Atlas Loses A Legendary Engine But Gains A Posh Interior
One fun thing: my understanding as to why the VR6 was even created was that VW was desperately trying to avoid having to turbocharge diesels.
So, they were targeting 2.3 liter displacement in a Golf’s engine bay, and copying the Lancia V4 to fit 6 cylinders in a Golf was one of the two ways they tried to do it. (As I understand, the main reasons why it didn’t work were that the wedge-shaped combustion chamber didn’t allow achieving high (23:1 most likely) compression, a wedge-shaped piston – to make the combustion chamber oval – would have sealing issues on one side, and the indirect injection technology that VW was using in the mid 1980s had cooling issues in the cylinder head leading to cracked heads to begin with, before you consider the added heat of the three front cylinders’ longer exhaust runners in a VR configuration.)
The other way they tried to do it was oval pistons.
In any case, the 2.3 liter RV6 (not VR6 at first) diesel became a 2.4 liter gasoline engine, then the 2.8 (and a 2.9) liter production 12 valve VR6es.
Indeed, there was once a time when the VR6 found a home in everything from the Eurovan (sic), to the Golf, Touareg, and even the Eos.
Mercedes-Benz: “wait, you forgot me!”
The VR6 engine was also fitted to the first-generation Vito and V-Klasse (W638) with transverse-mounted FWD drivetrain from 1996 to 2003.
Honestly inline 4s need to go the way of the dodo. V4s and Flat 4s can stay but the Inline 4s need to go away.
For some more narrow-angle fun check out the VR5. Yes, really – a VR6 minus ONE cylinder!
I recall my dad telling me around maybe 1989 or 1990 that he’d been told off the record VW had an experimental elliptical piston engine in a mule, to get a larger capacity high performance engine into a transverse setup. I now think this info was maybe garbled (they apparently made an experimental elliptical inline 4 diesel around the same time) or perhaps they were actually talking about the experimental VR6 but not wanting people to know what the secret formula was.
RIP VW VR6. I had a Mk4 Jetta and a Mk4 GTI with that engine. The engine note was subline and the low end torque was supreme. My favorite memory. Giving a co-worker a ride home in my VR6 Jetta. Wanted to pass a bus going up the on ramp to the highway. I just hit the gas without downshifting and we flew by. My co-worker’s mouth was agape. I’m like ‘yeah, the car has amazing torque”
Somewhere in my dream garage is a VR6 Corrado, preferably in bright yellow.
“Add the fact that a modern turbo four can make the same output with better
FTFY. It think it’s still debatable whether small fours are actually more efficient overall, but they do better on the EPA tests so that’s what we get.
I’ve owned two fun-oriented turbo 4s in a row and neither of them have come close to their EPA city ratings. My GTI usually got 16-20 MPG in actually city driving and my Kona N has been even worse. Their highway efficiency *sort of* evens things out but the lifetime MPG for my Kona N has been 20.7 and my GTI was in 23s after 2 years of ownership.
Neither is efficient, and frankly there’s a part of me that wonders if I might as well have just gotten a big NA engine.
Turbo-downsizing only works to improve fuel consumption if the end result is driven appropriately.
The lack of economy isn’t the fault of the engine. You should be complaining that it gets great economy but is really slow.
Source: former designer of large engines, then smaller turbocharged engines.
Pouring one out for the best sounding v6 motor ever made. You were mostly bark with not enough bite but I will still try and swap you into any car I own. RIP you beautiful bastard.
-og 12v owner
I have a 2019 Atlas tech package and the VR6 has been great. There have been some other issues with poor quality of materials and a few minor recalls, but nothing to do with the engine.
I’m all for greater efficiency. That’s why I’m disappointed there isn’t a plug-in hybrid Atlas, or even a plug-in hybrid VW of any variety.
I could maybe do an ID Buzz as a replacement, IF range is extended slightly. But, a plug-in hybrid is really where I’m at..
…oh yeah, back to the VR6.. still a cool engine.
So can I get my new-to-me ’03 Eurovan to sound awesome, too? It does not sound awesome in stock form.
Neither does my 03 EV. Rust ate the muffler so it sounds like hot garbage until I get that fixed. I’m on the fence between making the EV sound awesome, or making it as quiet and comfortable as possible.
You can…but the stock auto transmission that came with them won’t like it. The VR6 in the Eurovan was more of a marketing exercise to try and sell a few T4’s in North America than a properly funded engineering solution.
Back in the day when they were new I really wanted a Corrado VR6 but my graduate student budget barely supported my 82 Scirocco.
I still want an early Corrado. I used to work with a guy who had 2 VWs with a VR6. A 95 Passat and I think it was a 92 Corrado. He bought the Passat first and then got his hands on a Corrado. I was so jealous when he got it. It was green and so clean. I just hope it stayed that way because he wasn’t a gentle driver.
I’ve had that engine in two cars, a ’99 Eurovan and ’04 GTI. I had tons of weird, expensive, and mildly amusing problems with both of those cars, but never with the VR6 that powered them.
First of all, great article Mercedes. It’s a eulogy for a great like only you could pull off. I understand why the VR6 is being phased out but I can’t help but wonder if the potential gains are really going to be worth it. Boosted 4 poppers are more efficient and emit less for sure, but are they REALLY better long term? They need much more upkeep and are much less reliable…particularly the ones VW is making. The EA888 in the GTI I owned was a disaster and it was brand new.
Which brings me to the bigger question here…what is VW doing right now that’s actually appealing? I feel like everything has an asterisk. The GTI/Golf R are great, but you have to deal with a horrific infotainment system, haptic nonsense on the steering wheel, an interior that was downgraded between generations, and reliability question marks.
The Tiguan, Taos, and Atlas are resoundingly okay, but what would compel someone to buy one over a Japanese or Korean competitor? They’re less reliable, usually the same price or more expensive, etc. The Jetta GLI is nice but for roughly the same price you can get an Elantra N which is exponentially more fun and capable, or a WRX which has all wheel drive, or a base level luxury sedan which has more comfort. They’ve even neutered the DSG in pretty much all of its applications other than the sporty Golfs. The general consensus it it behaves like a torque converter now.
The ID.4 is a huge sales success but I don’t get it, because on paper it isn’t competitive and it also has the tech hell world interior. Before someone calls me a VW hater, I grew up around VWs. My immediate and extended family have cycled through them over the years. When I could finally afford my first new car I sprinted to get a GTI, and my dad’s first new car in the 80s was a Jetta, so it runs in the family. Cars like the GTI, Beetle, assorted van variants, etc. were hugely influential for me.
But after a disastrous GTI ownership experience, watching my sister have a similarly disastrous Tiguan one, and seeing the direction that the company is going in today, my question is simple…what’s still appealing at this point? I want to love VW but I just can’t anymore.
I think your Jetta GLI has better visuals than the other two Boi Racers. Subaru has plenty of its own reliability skeletons in it’s closet. The Elantra is actually compelling, but the number of years it has been out there is likely why the GLI even competes still. I am sad the Stinger is going away, but honestly with that being out there versus the Elantra the stinger would win every time. The turbo 4 Hyundai lawsuit was only just settled last year, and you cannot steal a VW with a charging cord.
There are a few things to address here.
1). A DCT Elantra N will hit 60 in 5.1 seconds (or less) and a base Stinger is advertised at 5.2 but in actual testing it’s fared worse. The best Motortrend could get was 5.7 seconds. So no, it won’t “win every time” in its base format, which is already 5 grand or more above the GLI and EN.
If you get the twin turbo 6 then it will but that engine puts it in the $50,000+ range, which doesn’t compete with the cars we’re discussing. At that price it better be faster.
2). That lawsuit involves the Theta 2 engines which aren’t what the Ns use. If I’m not mistaken they aren’t even related.
3). You can’t steal any push button start Hyundai or Kia with a chord. That applies to their cars that still use regular keys. All of the Ns and the Stinger are push button start.
Basically, if you’re gonna come at the N products you’d better come correct. They’re amazing cars, and I’d know because I own one and have driven 2 out of the 3. I’ve also driven a Jetta GLI and owned a GTI….which had already had 3 unscheduled stops at the service bay in the mileage I’ve already put on my Kona N, which has had 0 problems.
Hyundai and Kia have sold some bad cars, and I’m not so much of a fanboy that I won’t acknowledge the fact that a lot of their past reputation had been earned. But to be like BAD ENGINES AND THEY CAN BE STOLEN EASILY LOL is just not true. I get that online enthusiast groupthink is very real so I’m not gonna rag on ya too hard but please try to understand the products before shitting on them.
If you want to properly critique the Ns you should bring up the DCT recall…I was fortunate enough to miss it but a lot of other people weren’t. Either way…I’d still rather have my Hyundai than deal with owning another damn VW.
You mean enthusiast groupthink like “TURBO 4’S DIE TOO QUICKLY!”?
it does not matter that the motor is a different thing, as I said on paper it is compelling. the people looking to buy them though might not realize the difference and because of the major issues with other Hyunda turbo 4’s, they might look past them until the stink of past skeletons wears off. Same witht he Charging cord debacle. Some insurance companies will not even consider insuring anything Hyundai right now. It’s a mess. I acknowledge the N does have a manual trans option which I like, I also like that they are not going down in the sub 2 liter four banger realm, but the N is the top dog in the Elantra category.
Again in this arean the stinger has the reputation even if it is not what some would admit in comparison. I would also only ever get the GT 3.3T v6 AWD variant. the others are non-starters for me.
Yeah… I don’t think he meant the 0-60. Probably more to do with the Ns being an expensive cheap car and the Stinger being actually designed for that price point.
As far as the GLI vs the others, all you really have to do is a google image search.
I’m going to stay out of the EA888 vs Hyundai debate, neither of them have a very good history and it is my understanding that they are both now very good.
In my opinion, 275hp in a FWD car is goofy for many reasons.
….have you actually driven an N and/or the Civic Type R or are you just making assumptions? It isn’t the year 2000 anymore.
I don’t see the point in them over something else that handles well but with less power. They simply aren’t putting that power down in real-world conditions.
For the “expensive cheap car” point I’m talking along the lines of economy-oriented engineering that goes into the chassis. Stinger is supposed to be more of a BMW competitor vs the N cars/CTR being hot economy cars.
We like our regular 14 Elantra GT a lot, other than the crappy torsion bar rear suspension and lack of LSD up front. Generally very reliable too, I’ve only really had to do wear parts and it’s at 90k miles.
It does have one glaring issue, that is shared by many other cars from the two marques- it drinks oil way faster than a car of it’s age and mileage should. If you’re attentive it’s not killer, I guess until the catalytic converter goes. But given the factory recommended change interval of 10k miles and the fact that many, including mine, drink a quart in 1-3k miles, for many average consumers who haven’t been taught to check the oil between changes… it’s a recipe for catastrophe. I believe Mercedes wrote an article on this a while back either here or on the other site.
My 13 Sorento just started drinking oil. I checked, and it’s eligible for a free engine replacement even though it has 16x,xxx miles.
VW can’t make a gas powered turbo i4 to save their life. So this really is a tragic event. If they put the daza i5 in everything it would be okay but the ea888 is awful. There are only a handful of cars they made post ’99 worth owning.
My friend’s got 300k on a very poorly maintained FSI 2.0T in a 2008 GTI. We replaced the timing chain and tensioner and just about every gasket/seal/o-ring we took off during the job disintegrated in our hands along with one of the PCV hoses. I’ve got 130k on mine with no issues. Boosted vehicles being unreliable is a thing of the past, especially when tuned from the factory. There will be lemons, of course.
The ’08 would be an EA113. I just killed one at 190k but I’m hoping to get some heavy mileage out of its replacement.
“The Tiguan, Taos, and Atlas are resoundingly okay, but what would compel someone to buy one over a Japanese or Korean competitor?”
According to my brother, who owns an Atlas, the answer is “large quantities of cash on the hood and approval from the wife”. It wasn’t his first choice, but it was the one they could afford that his wife didn’t veto.
What year was your GTI? My understanding is that the piston rings were a rocky start and the timing chain tensioners were no bueno but I feel like the EA888 is generally considered pretty good now.
It was a 2020…and I got curious and pulled the VIN up yesterday and it looks like it’s still living in the service bay to this day. The new owner has had to take it in multiple times since buying it in July and it’s only around 16,000 miles today. Lemons happen, but after my experience and watching my sister’s horrific nightmare that was buying a certified Tiguan (the TL:DR version is VW techs somehow missed a recall during the certification process, multiple things broke over 2 years of ownership, and they had to fight tooth and nail with VW to honor the warranty), I’m not touching VW again anytime soon.
And it sucks, because as I mentioned I grew up around VWs and have always liked them. But at least in my experience their reputation of being unreliable proved to be true…and all of the data that’s out there suggests the same. I can deal with a little bit of fussiness and I expect that it’ll happen given I favor small, forced induction cars, but I can’t deal with a car that lights up the gauge cluster like a Christmas tree every 2-3 months. Unfortunately the wife and I both work intense jobs with long hours in the healthcare field and we just don’t have a lot of free time to spare.
That’s rough. I can only hope that’s a rare experience.
Alas. As I said elsewhere, my second car was a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta GLX VR6. And while it was trouble-prone, it caused me to somehow fall in love with VWs and German cars in general.
Which brings us to where I am today, with a 2013 Audi A8 L 4.0T as a second car. And, speaking of W engines, I am foolishly thinking of swapping my 4.0T A8 for one with the W12 engine, preferably a post-facelift (2015+). Gotta keep the narrow-angle legacy alive somehow.
I’ve never drove a VW with a VR6, but I own a 2012 Cayenne with the VR6, it’s been extremely reliable and it sounds amazing. It’s not fast with 300HP and over 4k pounds to move, but it’s not slow either. And there is so much room in the engine bay.
You should sell me that VR Touareg since you have one to spare…
You want that thing? You’re really living up to your namesake (I say, lovingly) 😛
I am a glutton for automotive punishment.
How many Allroads do you own ?
I think the VR6 just needed to be turbocharged and they could have kept the small hatches up with modern V8 performance.
Smaller 2.8 VR6 turbocharged to 380hp with manual and AWD would be a better golf R.
Now regular suv Mercedes AMG models are pumping that out from their superior closed-deck iron block front-facing turbocharger setup similar to the old lancer Evos design.
280hp from the 2.0 just isnt up to par anymore and their engine design with semi open decks and aluminum just cant handle the power.
Keep the VR6 around in turbo form.
They were developing a 3.0T VR6 for the Arteon, but it got killed because we all know why. Also I don’t think Audi would have liked that very much. Sad we never got it. 🙁
also the EA888 is iron
I love your username. I drool over Piech-era cars too, and my wallet knows this well.