Sadly, the W12 never made it into production, but it did set the tone for Bugatti models to come.
Jaws dropped when Volkswagen debuted the W12 concept car at the 1997 Tokyo International Motor Show. The mid-engined beauty was a far cry from VW's sensible hatchbacks, boasting a revolutionary engine configuration. The 5.6-liter W12 powertrain was created by mating a pair of 2.8-liter VR6 engines sharing a common crank. While revolutionary at the time, the unique layout is still used in the Bentley Continental GT and set the tone for the W16 engine used in the Bugatti Veyron and the Chiron.
Over the years, the Giugiaro-designed W12 Nardo underwent several changes. A Roadster joined the fray and received a healthy power increase courtesy of a larger displacement 6.0-liter W12. Power went up to 591 horsepower, while rear-wheel drive and less weight meant it hit 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds. But the reason behind its existence became clear when, in 2001, Volkswagen announced it would attempt to set the 24-hour speed record at the Nardo Ring in Italy.
In October of the same year, the W12 covered 4,402 miles at an average speed of 183.5 mph, shattering the previous world record. This was a remarkable achievement, considering that this was the first true test of VW's W12 engine. Despite the incredible feat, Volkswagen knew the supercar had more potential. Less than four months later, the W12 would return to the Italian speed bank.
The sleek Volkswagen not only managed to blitz its previous record, covering 4,809 miles at an average speed of 200.6 mph but also managed to set seven world records and 12 international class records at the same time. Amazingly, these records still stand to this day.
Sadly, the W12 never made it into production. At the time, Volkswagen wasn't known for premium products and the concept supercar would have proven unpopular with buyers who demand not only high performance, but heritage and pedigree too.
This was evidenced by the Phaeton luxury sedan which failed spectacularly despite its immense opulence; BMW and Mercedes-Benz owners weren't willing to spend large sums of money for something with a VW badge.
Ironically, the first-generation Bentley Continental GT borrowed heavily from the Phaeton, utilizing its engine (albeit with twin-turbochargers), platform, and four-wheel-drive system. The pricier Brit was a sales success compared to the big Volkswagen, proving that a prestigious badge counts for a lot in the luxury segment.
While it's disappointing that the Volkswagen W12 Nardo never made it into production, it was probably for the best. If the Phaeton was such a colossal flop, what chance did a VW-badged supercar stand? Still, the W engine configuration lives on today and, whether it's in a 12-cylinder Bentley or 16-cylinder Chiron, we're happy the VW Group remained steadfast in bringing the record-breaking engine into the mainstream.