The Ferdinand Piëch reign of Volkswagen AG brought a number of cars to market that no sane automaker would have dared to even attempt. Between the beastly Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne, the stately Volkswagen Phaeton, and other hits, Piëch is also responsible for the firm’s wildest engines. The W engine became a staple of Volkswagen AG performance, and the weirdest application of it is not a Bugatti, but a Volkswagen Passat. The Passat W8 is a rare masterpiece, and the folks of TFL Studios decided to see how the fastest Passat from nearly two decades ago stacks up to a new base model Jetta.
Lately, we’ve been having you lovely readers send us your holy grails, and those cars have been awesome. Keep those cars coming! We love what you love. But for a brief moment here I want to return back to one of my own holy grails. One of the first projects that I wrote about at the old lighting site was a Volkswagen Passat W8 that I picked up for the princely sum of $800. It got wrapped around a pole and rear-ended. It had junkyard parts that weren’t the right color. And the sunroof was deleted with force. Honestly, the car was trash, but I got it just for its engine and manual transmission. I keep dreaming of finding another.
Here’s how Volkswagen tells the story of the origin of the W engine:
The W engine’s journey began in an unlikely place: The Shinkansen express train running between Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan. In 1997, after a conversation with Karl-Heinz Neumann, then head of powertrain development at Volkswagen, Piëch grabbed an envelope and sketched out an idea that had been rolling around in his head for some time. The six-cylinder VR6® engine was in wide use by Volkswagen by the mid-90s; its uniquely offset cylinder banks made it compact enough to fit transversely even in small cars like the Volkswagen Golf. By marrying two of the relatively narrow engines in a further “V,” a compact 12-cylinder could be made. The offset cylinders of the merged VR6 engines formed a “W,” and the nomenclature was born.
And the engines that came out of the other end were pure madness. One design was a 555-horsepower, 6.25-liter W18, an engine consisting of three VR6 engines smashed together. However, Piëch ran into a problem, and it’s that VAG didn’t really have a place for these crazy engines. Bugatti was for sale, and Piëch sought to restore the marque’s fame using the engine as a centerpiece. Volkswagen and Bugatti got to work, cranking out drool-worthy concepts with big W engines. The group would eventually settle on a W16 for what would become the Veyron, but before that car saw the light of day in production form, W engines were already hitting the road elsewhere.
In 2001, the W engine hit the road in an accessible package. At the time, the Volkswagen Passat was in its fifth-generation, known as the B5. The family car, which shared a platform with the Audi A4, got a facelift in late 2000, which earned it the moniker B5.5. These freshened Passats also spawned two holy grails. One was a diesel that made the Passat America’s only mid-size diesel car. The other is the infamous W8.
For the price of $37,900 ($63,775 today) for the sedan or $38,700 ($65,121 today) for the wagon in 2002, you got the most luxurious and most powerful version of the Passat. The Passat W8 featured Torsen-based permanent all-wheel-drive, leather seating, wood trim, and a 4.0-liter W8 under the hood. This engine, itself a work of mechanical art, produces 270 HP and 273 lb-ft torque.
That’s 40 fewer ponies than Volkswagen AG’s 4.2-liter V8 made the same year, but it fit just perfectly in the Passat. I owned one of these once and found myself wowed at how little space there is in the engine bay.
Volkswagen sold 4,931 W8s in America, of which just 424 have manual transmissions. Of that lot, just 95 are wagons. Apparently, just two examples were sold in the United States with this color combination. Our friend Tommy from The Fast Lane Studios teamed up with Brendan to answer a simple question. Is their manual W8 sedan faster than a base model 2022 Jetta?
As Tommy points out, this test is a bit sad. They were putting one of the best sedans that Volkswagen had to offer in the 2000s up against one of Volkswagen’s very last sedans in America. Today, there is no Passat sold in America, but you can buy an Arteon for a limited time or this, the 2022 Jetta.
This Jetta sports a 1.5-liter turbo four making 158 HP and 184 lb-ft torque. That puts it at a power disadvantage with the W8, but the Jetta weighs in at just 2,915 pounds, while the Passat comes in at a chunky 4,067 pounds. Further helping the Jetta is the fact that the naturally aspirated Passat has to deal with the mile of elevation the race is being held at.
Brendan and Tommy performed a number of drag races, including starts from a dead stop and rolling starts. Here’s where things got really fun. The W8’s exhaust is stock, save for a muffler delete. While not the best-sounding W8 I’ve heard, it’s amazing how good the W8 sounds with this simple upgrade. To me, the raucous orchestration is one of the best selling points of the W8 as you get the distinctive sound of a Volkswagen VR engine, but with notes of V8 power.
As for the races themselves, the results were a little bit surprising. The little Jetta stayed right on the Passat’s bumper through every test. You can calculate power losses at altitude, and this Passat is working with about 228 ponies at an elevation of about a mile. It would be interesting to see how the races would be different closer to sea level.
In the end, the TFL guys conclude that while the Jetta isn’t quite as fast as a W8, it’s close enough. And the price of $20,365 isn’t bad, either, even if the Jetta can’t quite match the symphony that is a W8.
If you love bad idea cars as much as I do, definitely give the TFL guys a watch. The W8 in the video went on to be sold on TFL Bids. It’s still a new site, and perhaps as a result, there was just a single bidder. They took it away for just $4,100. Oh I wish I put in a bid on this one!