Bugatti’s 8.0-liter quad-turbo W-16 is unique in the automotive world, taking the Veyron and Chiron to production car speed records. With the engine likely doomed to extinction in the face of electrification, Bugatti recently recounted its development.
The W-16 was born from an idea of the former CEO of the Volkswagen Group Ferdinand Piëch. According to the official story, while traveling on a Shinkansen high-speed train between Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan, Piëch had free time and drew a huge engine on the back of an envelope.
Piëch, who later retired shortly before the VW diesel emissions scandal, envisioned a naturally aspirated 18-cylinder engine made up of three VW VR6 blocks put together, offset by 60 degrees. It had a displacement of 6.25 liters and was designed to produce 547 hp.
Piëch did not have a car for this engine in mind, but later opted for Bugatti after his son Gregor asked for a model of a Tipo 57 Atlantic. At the time, the rights to the Bugatti name were up for grabs following the collapse of a recent revival of the carmaker by Italian businessman Romano Artioli (who produced the Bugatti EB 110).
After the engineers got hold of Piëch’s sketch, the design was changed to the quad-turbo W-16 configuration which eventually reached production. The executive had set a goal of 1,000 metric horsepower and this was considered the best way to achieve it.
The engine was first tested in 2001 and presented some unique challenges. A new test bench and ventilation system had to be built to manage the power delivered by the W-16. Due to its fluid nature, Bugatti said a new system had to be developed to detect misfires and knocks. The resulting Bugatti Ion Current System (BIS) monitors the ion current flowing to each spark plug.
The W-16 debuted the Veyron 16.4 in 2005 with 987 hp (1,200 hp) and a top speed of 253.81 mph, making it the fastest production car in the world at the time. Bugatti then upped the ante with the 1,184hp Veyron Super Sport, which once again claimed the production car’s speed record at 267mph.
Production of the Veyron ended in 2015 to make way for the Chiron, which used a revised version of the W-16. For the Chiron, Bugatti introduced sequential turbochargers, which helped boost power to 1,480hp in the early versions (some later models made even more horsepower). While not a clean design, the Chiron version of the W-16 still received 16,000 hours of development time and over 310,000 test miles.
Once again, the W-16 would take Bugatti to a speed record of a production car. In August 2019, a prototype of the Chiron Super Sport 300+ hit 304.773 mph at VW’s Ehra Lessien test track in Germany, becoming the first production car to break the 300 mph barrier. Bugatti has just completed deliveries of customer versions of the record-breaking car.
With the end of Chiron production, the W-16 will continue in limited editions such as Centodieci and Bolide, which are expected to keep the factory occupied until 2025. Thereafter, a Chiron successor will be produced under the leadership of electric supercar manufacturer Rimac. While that likely points to an all-electric future, Rimac founder Mate Rimac has said the next Bugatti supercar will be a hybrid. But will he still have the W-16?