Time Forgot Volkswagen’s Bizarre VR-5 Engine

By automotive-mag.com 7 Min Read

The Volkswagen Group pioneered the use of the auto industry’s now-standard engine: the turbocharged four-cylinder. While we now associate VW with these overtly normal engines, in the 1990s and into the 2000s, the automaker went on a tear pushing internal-combustion engines to bizarre new places. This is how we ended up with the VR-5.

Badged as a “V5,” this engine was a 2.3-liter five-cylinder with pistons arranged in a 15-degree vee with three on one side, two on the other. Both banks shared a single cylinder head.

The VR-5 was borne from Volkswagen’s legendary VR-6, itself an attempt to solve a specific problem. In the 1980s, Volkswagen wanted more power from its transverse-engine cars, but didn’t want to turbocharge its existing four-cylinder, or attempt to fit any other conventional engine type under the hood. The solution was a narrow-angle V-6, with six cylinders arranged in a 15-degree vee, sat under one cylinder head. In German, an inline engine is called a reihenmotor, making the name VR-6 a simple acronym.

Volkswagen’s VR-6 debuted in the Golf and Corrado and quickly found a home elsewhere in the VW lineup, both in transverse and longitudinal applications. Even the Porsche Cayenne used a VR-6 and the engine is still in production for models sold in China. While it is technically a vee- engine, the VR-6, as Jason Cammissa explains in a great Hagerty video, is functionally more like a straight-six. The pistons have offset crankpins, giving it the same firing order as a straight-six. Imagine taking a straight-six and smashing it down from top and bottom. That’s kind of what you get with a VR-6. So why not make an even smaller VR-5?

That was basically it. In a guide published for mechanics, Volkswagen said simply “[t]he V5 was derived from the VR6 by removing the first cylinder from the latter. The resulting, even more compact design makes it possible to use this powerful unit in all vehicle classes.”

Volkswagen Bora V5

VR-5-equipped Volkswagen Bora. This model was sold in the U.S. as the Jetta.

Like the VR-6, the VR-5 has the same firing order as a typical inline-five, 1-2-4-5-3. An article from Autozine explains that the narrow vee angle and counterweighted crankshaft ensure that the VR-5 runs smoothly, as does an inline-five. A dual-mass flywheel also helps quell vibrations. The bore and stroke of 81.0 mm and 90.2 mm, respectively, are the same as the VR-6’s. As is the VR-5’s compression ratio of 10.0:1. Also like the VR-6, the VR-5 offsets its banks by 12.5 mm so that the cylinders don’t overlap at the bottom.

Volkswagen brought out its first VR-5 with the Golf in 1997. In that application, the engine made 150 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque. The first VR-5 had two valves per cylinder, with one camshaft for the exhaust valves and another for the intake valves. In 2000, VW introduced a four-valve head, which interestingly still used just two camshafts. The cam lobes actuated rocker arms that opened intake valves on both banks—one for intake, one for exhaust. So two camshafts for a four-valve V-engine. Quite remarkable. The switch to four-valve heads and a slight bump in compression ratio upped power to 170 hp and 168 pound-feet. But you might be able to see the problem here.

Both versions of the VR-5 were no more powerful than the 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder available throughout VW’s lineup. And as we all know, a downsized turbocharged engine provides better fuel economy and emissions performance in testing. So really then, what was the point of the VR-5?

Volkswagen New Beetle V5

The VR-6 itself was never all that popular, so both VR engines were likely costly to build. Then there’s the fact that while a VR engine is more compact than a traditional vee engine, other automakers designed transverse V-6s and sold them in huge numbers. Volkswagen itself later came out with a traditional inline-five cylinder, though that too was dead by the mid 2010s in favor of turbocharged fours.

The VR-5 was maybe too clever by half. Which is the story of the Volkswagen Group in the 1990s into the 2000s. Ferdinand Piech, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, took over as the head of VW in 1993 and crusaded for engineering excellence. He wanted to push VW upmarket, making Audi a Mercedes/BMW competitor, purchasing Bentley, and revitalizing Bugatti. An engineer himself, he loved complex projects, and while he didn’t lead VR-6 development, the VR-5 has his fingerprints. He was particularly fond of the W engine, a combination of two VR engines arranged at an angle but sharing a common block. 

 

Under Piech, the W-8, W-12, and W-16 became a reality. The automaker even developed a W-10 out of two VR-5s and tested the unit in a modified E39-generation BMW M5, allegedly used by Piech himself as a personal car. But like the VR engine, the W engine was very much a niche product, used only in specialized applications. Bentley was the last to use the W-12, and soon, Bugatti will end W-16 production in favor of a V-16.

VW never sold the VR-5 in America. Instead, we got a glut of four-cylinders, some turbocharged, and the aforementioned inline-five for a few years. Outside of its electric models, the VW brand only sells turbocharged four-cylinder cars here. The VR-6 departed our shores when the Atlas crossover was facelifted for 2024. 

For most enthusiasts, the Volkswagen VR-5 was forgotten. Even among Piech’s flights of fancy, it doesn’t really rank up there with the Bugatti Veyron, the Volkswagen Phaeton, and Audi’s Le Mans project. Yet in a world of anonymous and ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinders, a world in large part created by Volkswagen, we were better off for having oddities like the VR-5. 

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