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VW chief mad about cars

Manuela Kasper-Claridge / hgJanuary 12, 2014

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has said he's been in love with cars ever since his childhood. At the helm of Europe's largest automaker, he wants to make sure VW stays ahead of the curve technologically.

VW CEO behind the steering wheel
Image: Reuters

The vehicle in front of us is white and looks like a little racing car. It's got perfect aerodynamic properties and awesome engine power. Two wing doors open at the push of a button. There are no side-view mirrors, only a camera informing the driver about everything going on behind him. This car is a XL1, consuming under one liter of petrol per 100 kilometers (62 miles).

There are not many XL1s around, and this one here belongs to Martin Winterkorn, head of VW. He owns this hybrid two-seater, sporting both an electric and a combustion engine.

Porsche test drives

"People, who like me, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s after WWII, grew up with cars," Winterkorn said. "Notions such as mobility and cars were anything but alien to us." He added that he developed an interest in cars simply by watching beautiful Porsches whizz by in Swabia.

"And that's why it was a pleasure for me to become an auto engineer," Winterkorn commented. Porsche is meanwhile an integral part of the Volkswagen Group.

"That's what makes me particularly happy, remembering how fascinated I used to be as a boy watching Porsche staging test drives," he said.

Fuel-efficient, intelligent cars

Now, Winterkorn himself tests every new VW model coming off the assembly line. He proudly presents the new E-Golf, which was presented last year at the IAA auto show in Frankfurt. The idea is for such a car not to cost more than three euros ($4.07) per 100 kilometers.

"The car of the future will be one with minimal emissions," Winterkorn argued. "It will be a car that can run on diesel and petrol, but also on electric power, and it will raise the bar with regard to the use of information technology as there will be a lot more interaction between vehicles."

VW's XL 1
VW's XL1 serves as an example of extremely low fuel consumptionImage: Volkswagen

"Just imagine your car talking to you," he said with a twinkle in his eye, saying it's not about sheer gimmickry, but rather about more security on the roads and more driving enjoyment.

VW has been cooperating with Google to push innovations. But Winterkorn doesn't believe that there will come a time when software will become more important than hardware.

"It's a question of physics to say that movement needs something mechanical, a car for instance," he said. "And Google, Apple and others have realized that cooperating with us has the advantage of working together with people who understand the hardware, hence our cooperation with Google." He added that making cars would always take more than bending sheets of metal.

Chinese like it softer

Winterkorn says VW is well-positioned in diverse markets, with its model range growing dynamically and tailor-made cars being developed for regional markets.

The Crossblue Coupe for instance was developed specially for Chinese clients. The SUV hybrid comes with softer upholstery to please local clients. Overall sales figures are already quite impressive. In 2013, VW sold over three million units in China.

IAA Frankfurt
Innovation will drive VW's ambition to become the global number oneImage: Continental

Number one?

Becoming the world's number one carmaker in terms of annual sales is VW's self-proclaimed objective, and Winterkorn is confident that this goal can be reached by 2018, despite fierce competition particularly from Toyota and GM.

Executive and Christian

"As a professing Christian, I feel responsible for our employees," the CEO said. "We're not just talking about our own workforce of 570,000 globally, but also about the many suppliers, dealers and family members – so, in the end we're talking about something in the region of 10 million people."

He emphasized being a Christian would motivate him to see to it that others were well, too and didn't have to be afraid of the future.

He himself looks to the future with a lot of confidence, noting that - for him - there's nothing quite like making new cars. His current contract expires in 2016.