In this work we study the performance of some variational multiscale models (VMS) in the large eddy simulation (LES) of turbulent flows. We consider VMS models obtained by different subgrid scale approximations which include either static or dynamic subscales, linear or nonlinear multiscale splitting, and different choices of the subscale space. After a brief review of these models, we discuss some implementation aspects particularly relevant to the simulation of turbulent flows, namely the use of a skew symmetric form of the convective term and the computation of projections when orthogonal subscales are used. We analyze the energy conservation (and numerical dissipation) of the alternative VMS formulations, which is numerically evaluated. In the numerical study, we have considered three well known problems: the decay of homogeneous isotropic turbulence, the Taylor–Green vortex problem and the turbulent flow in a channel. We compare the results obtained using different VMS models, paying special attention to the effect of using orthogonal subscale spaces. The VMS results are also compared against classical LES scheme based on filtering and the dynamic Smagorinsky closure. Altogether, our results show the tremendous potential of VMS for the numerical simulation of turbulence. Further, we study the sensitivity of VMS to the algorithmic constants and analyze the behavior in the small time step limit. We have also carried out a computational cost comparison of the different formulations. Out of these experiments, we can state that the numerical results obtained with the different VMS formulations (as far as they converge) are quite similar. However, some choices are prone to instabilities and the results obtained in terms of computational cost are certainly different. The dynamic orthogonal subscales model turns out to be best in terms of efficiency and robustness.