Key Takeaways

  • Volkswagen engines have won engine awards countless times over the years.
  • VW has made many reliable cars in its history that get excellent fuel consumption, and are well regarded by classic car restorers.
  • The 1.8T TSI (EA888) is considered to be one of the best engines that VW made.
  • The 2015 Emission scandal dealt with a 3.0L TDI engine  

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There is no question that Volkswagen has made some significant engines over the years, but which motors might qualify as the best VW engines?

Of the many classic engines VW has made, the best engines produced are the 1.8T TSI (EA888) Gen 3, the 1.4T TSI (EA211), and for classic lovers the 1600 cc air-cooled boxer that appeared in the iconic Beetle during the seventies. These engines have reliable performance, power, and fuel economy.

From the days of the iconic love bug to the advanced electric motors powering the ID Buzz today, if it’s one thing you can count on, it’s Volkswagen engineering. Over the years, VW has amassed enough engine awards that they must be running out of room in their trophy case. While their engine development hasn’t been without controversy at times, (think TDI emissions scandal), there is no question that VWs have helped move millions of people around the planet. Even today, the company continues to manufacture precise, long-lasting powerplants that check the boxes for power, performance, reliability, and fuel efficiency. We thought it might be fun to review some of their top-performing engines as a homage to the skill of German engineering. So, what is the best VW engine? Let’s read on to see if we can determine which of these works of engineering excellence takes the prize.

Table of Contents

An Homage To The VW Engine Beginnings

Let’s begin with a brief overview of the role VW engines have played over the years. While the VW Bug might have its roots in a dark chapter of our world’s history, the real production of the Type 1 VW didn’t start until after the war, when British Major, Ivan Hirst, convinced the British military to purchase 20k units. Before long, in 1947, the company was transitioning to civilian production. The initial powerplant during this period was an air-cooled four-cylinder boxer engine (1131 cc) that putted its way down the road with 25 hp, and while it could maintain around 60 mph, it wasn’t built for speed. It was a rear-wheel drive four-seater with the engine in the back and the trunk in the front, and it was designed to be easy to run and maintain.

VW Grows and Grows

By 1955, the company had rolled its millionth car off the line, and just a short time later (1960) the Type 1 engine was increased to 1192 cc. During the sixties, the Bug became very popular, and by 1967, the engineers were at it again, pushing the engine to 1500 cc. (The most popular engine in this early class was the 1600 cc engine, placed in the ‘71 MY Bug, producing 60 hp with a relocated oil cooler. But by the mid-seventies, the Beetle was all but dead. Even though it would hang around until 2003, there wasn’t much demand for the vehicle.

Over The Years, More Engines Keep Coming

In 1974, Audi developed the EA111 engine, which it introduced in the Audi 50, and later in the VW Polo. The VW front-mounted water-cooled engine drove the front wheels and was a radical departure from the previous air-cooled RWD powerplants that had been a part of the Beetle. This engine would be the impetus for most of the other engines that Volkswagen produces today, and it was offered in three-cylinder, four-cylinder, and diesel versions over its lifetime. The original 1.1L and 1.3L engines in the VW Golf were from the EA111 family, while the higher displacements (1.5L, 1.6L, and 1.8L are based on the EA827 engine, which Audi had been developing for use in their A80 model).

Though the EA111 had been in production for quite some time, in 2005, VW produced a notable 1.4 R4 16v TSI/TFSI version with a direct injection single turbo, and a twin charger (with both a supercharger and turbo-charger). The lower displacement engine could outperform engines with higher displacements while delivering better fuel efficiency and lower emissions. The new engine debuted at the 2005 Frankfurt auto show and was used for VW Golf, Polo, and some Jetta sedans. It was also the winner of the “Best New Engine” category in the International Engine of the Year competition in 2006. The 1.4 TSI was also the winner for Engine of the Year in 2009, 2010 after the 1.0L version won International Engine of the Year for six straight years from 2006 - 2011.

VW developed lots of other engines including the EA113 (2004), EA888 (2007), EA211 (2011), and EA839 (2016). The 1.4 R4 16v TSI/TFSI won multiple engine awards, including being named to the Wards Best Engine list and winning International Engine of the Year on more than one occasion. While the EA888 is still being produced to this day. .

What Are The Best Engines VW Has Made?

There are several engines that have won awards over the years and have proven themselves to be reliable examples of excellent engineering. Let’s look at some of them.

1.8T TSI EA888 (Gen 3)

1.8T TSI EA888 (Gen 3)
1.8T TSI EA888 (Gen 3)

The turbocharged version of the 1.8 is considered to be the best VW engine that was ever made. The E888 was first introduced in 2007 and found its way into several Audi models (the Golf GTI/R, Tiguan, and Passat B6). A year later, the company fashioned a 2.0T variant, slapping it into the Golf MK6 and Audi A4.

VW still uses both the 1.8 TSI engine and its 2.0L variant, now in its third generation, which was introduced in 2014. The third-gen motor initially appeared in the 2014 Jetta and Passat, followed by the 2014 Beetle. This powerplant produces 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque at a relatively low rpm of 1500.

What makes the Gen 3 version unique is that it was designed to be lighter, while at the same time being more efficient. VW redesigned the cast iron block with thinner walls, gave the engine new pistons and rings, a new steel crankshaft, and relocated the oil pump. The 16v cylinder head was refashioned to accommodate the water-cooled exhaust manifold. The engine has four valves per cylinder (2 intake and exhaust valves). Combined with the exhaust manifold, hot outward gases stay in check, helping to regulate engine temperature.

The engine is a dual injection system that incorporates port MPI and direct fuel injection (one injector is in the port and the other is mounted inside the cylinder’s combustion chamber). The dual injection helps provide additional power when needed, which makes the 1.8 and 2.0T TSI engines very responsive. In addition, the direct injection helped minimize carbon buildup, which had been an issue for the early EA113 engines.

While early 1.8T and 2.0T engines had a reputation for consuming oil, the Gen 3 version mitigates this somewhat (although the timing cover gasket tends to leak). Gen 1 and 2 versions of the EA888 have timing chain pre-tensioners that tend to fail after high mileage, and if left untreated can cause catastrophic damage to the engine. VW changed the pre-tensioners in 2012.

Over the years, the EA888 has encountered some issues. Frequent complaints are ignition coil breakdowns, dirty intake valve carbon buildup, and water pump issues. However, with proper maintenance (the Gen 3 motor takes synthetic oil), owners should reasonably expect the motor to last 200,000 miles.

1.4 TSI Engine (EA111/EA211)

1.4 TSI Engine (EA111/EA211)
Image credit: Wikipedia

This engine was based on the EA111 and could be described as the most successful VW power plant. The engine was a multi-year overall award winner for International Engine Of The Year, (2009, 2010), as well as placing first in its category for six years straight (2006 - 2011). As the winner of the best new engine in 2006 and numerous other awards, this little piece of German engineering is one of the favorites of classic VW lovers.

The original 1.4 TSI engine came in two versions, a single turbocharged four-cylinder version that produced 122 - 131 hp, while the twin-turbo motor bumped the power quotient up significantly to 140 - 179 hp. While the early version of the 1.4 TSI was the multi-award winner, it has also been plagued by problems. VW recognized the issues and released an EA211 version of the 1.4 TSI with a single turbocharger around 2011.

The new 1.4 TSI engine (EA211) was fashioned with a lightweight cylinder block rather than the cast iron cylinder block used before, in head exhaust manifolds, and a significantly higher power output. VW needed an engine designed to do one thing; provide adequate power while aiding fuel consumption. (Volkswagen knew that more rigid fuel economy standards were coming, so it wanted an engine to address this issue. In 2015, when the Government fined the company for misleading Volkswagen owners concerning the emissions of its TDI engines, the EA211 became even more vital).

The 1.4 TSI ended up in a wide variety of Volkswagen vehicles, on three generations of the Jetta, the Golf Mk5/Mk6, the Passat B6, and Tiguan. Even though the early 1.4 TSI engines were award winners, they developed some serious issues including ignition coil failure, timing chains stretching or failing due to faulty pretensioners, excessive oil consumption, and turbo wastegate failure.

The EA211 version corrected many issues, including reverting back to timing belts rather than chains and replacing the pre-tensioners. Part of the upgrade for the EA211 was the use of an aluminum alloy for the block and cylinder head. The weight reduction was almost 50 lbs, which was significant for both power and performance. Owners found the EA211 engine was good for more than just good looks. It had the pep customers needed without killing their wallets at the pump.

1600 cc Dual Port

Out of respect for the iconic Beetle of the 70s, we wanted to offer the most popular VW engine that powered millions of baby boomers on personal quests. This mighty little engine only produced 60 hp and might have only had a top speed of 70 mph in its day, but for a rebuild, you cannot beat it. Known for its durability and simple design, the engine is a favorite for restorers, who have developed a demand for a whole aftermarket industry. Today, it is easy to get parts or even whole VW Bug engines in almost any configuration (many modern aftermarket engines get significantly more horsepower). The fact that they are so uncomplicated makes maintaining them much more manageable.

The air-cooled engine first appeared in the mid-late sixties as an engine in Type 2 VWs in Europe. Then as it made its way to the States, it appeared in the 1968 Microbus, 1971 - 79 Beetle, the ‘70 - 74 Karma Ghia, and even had a stint in South America from 1971 - 1989 in the VW Puma.

The main issue with the 1600 cc was often due to overheating issues. On a standard water-cooled vehicle, there are all kinds of sensors to warn drivers when the engine is getting too hot. Since there are no temp gauges on a stock Beetle, (there is only an oil temp idiot light), the air-cooled engine could overheat without the driver knowing it.

VW recognized this issue with some of the later model classic Beetles, which is why you find four engine cooling slots in the ‘72 model and later. With proper maintenance (keeping the oil changed regularly is a must), most 1600 cc engines will perform very well. This classic engine has a vast following, and any article concerning the best VW engines should include it.

Best VW Engine

About The Author

Matt Meurer

Matt Meurer

Matt is a VW Master Technician since 2009 after proceeding through the ranks as a Team Leader and Shop Foreman. He has developed software to increase car dealership efficiency, managed 10+ techs, and instructed students at multiple high-performance driving events since 2011. He is also the lead mechanic, engineer, and driver for Blue Goose Racing.

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