Oliver Schmidt, 48, is the second person to be sent to prison over the scandal after being dispatched to the US from Germany in 2015 to meet with suspicious California regulators.
At his sentencing in Detroit, District Judge Sean Cox called it an astonishing fraud on American consumers.
Schmidt was earlier found guilty of not disclosing rogue software that had long fooled authorities into believing that VW was meeting emissions rules on nearly 600,000 vehicles.
He also misled American investigators and destroyed documents.
"I'm sure, based upon common sense, that you viewed this cover-up as an opportunity to shine - to climb the corporate ladder at VW," Judge Cox said. "Your goal was to impress senior management."
The judge called Schmidt, who had led VW's engineering and environmental office in Michigan for three years, a "key conspirator" in the deception.
"Without trust in corporate America," Judge Cox said, "the economy can't function."
The diesel vehicles were programmed to trigger certain pollution results only during testing, not during regular road use.
The plan was hatched in 2006, and the vehicles were marketed as "clean diesel". Justice Department prosecutor Ben Singer called it the "height of irony".
Schmidt was arrested in Miami in January while trying to return to Germany after a vacation.
"For the disruption of my life, I only have to blame myself... I accept the responsibility for the wrong I committed," Schmidt told the judge.
Engineer James Liang cooperated with the FBI and was sentenced to 40 months in prison last summer.
Six others at VW or Audi were charged, but they are in Germany and out of reach of US authorities.
Among them is Heinz-Jakob Neusser, who was described as Schmidt's boss. He was head of engine development and, later, VW brand development.
VW pleaded guilty as a corporation in March and agreed to pay 4.3 billion dollars (£3.2bn) in civil and criminal penalties on top of billions more dollars to buy back cars.
Schmidt's lawyer, David DuMouchel, argued that his sentence should be identical to Liang's, noting that his role only heated up in 2015 in the last months of the scheme.
But Mr Singer noted that Schmidt still was a major player at key events and purposely "lied and deceived".
"He could have made a lot of different choices," the prosecutor said.