Martin Winterkorn, the 65-year-old perfectionist who has run Volkswagen since 2007, is steering the 12-brand group toward becoming the world's biggest and most profitable carmaker by 2018.
The hard-driving CEO is determined to sell 10 million vehicles worldwide by that date, topping General Motors and Toyota in the process.
Last year, VW Group sold 8.27 million units, trailing GM's 9.03 million but finishing ahead of Toyota. Now Toyota is back on top after recovering from the Japan earthquake and tsunami and VW is third.
But Winterkorn is expanding VW's reach to achieve his goal. One way he plans to unseat the two giants is by launching a low-cost brand for emerging markets by 2015. The brand's vehicles would be priced between $6,000 and $13,000 and would include a van, station wagon and a small sedan.
The United States plays an important role in the growth strategy. Winterkorn says a new SUV designed for the United States will likely be built at VW's factory in Chattanooga, which produces the Passat sedan.
Before the Passat was launched, Winterkorn, an engineer and former head of Audi, traveled to the United States six times to drive the car. He called for changes each time.
"Each and every car you see on the road went through his hands," says a VW insider. "If he's not happy with it, it will not be launched. A car could be done and he drives it and says 'that is not the look and feel we need' -- so it's back to the drawing board."
Winterkorn is confident VW will prevail despite the economic turmoil in its home market of Europe where vehicle sales are likely to hit a 19-year low in 2012. The VW Group is cushioned by exporting more vehicles to China and expanding its operations and model lineup in Brazil.
Winterkorn says the group will likely match last year's record operating profit of $14.8 billion. Sales rose 13 percent in the first nine months to about 7 million vehicles and its global share grew to 12.6 percent compared with 12.3 percent a year earlier.
Winterkorn's boss, Volkswagen Supervisory Board Chairman Ferdinand Piech, says Winterkorn will stay on at least until the next-generation VW Golf comes out in five to seven years. That means he will be around to make sure his 2018 goals are met.
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