But for all its might, VW is struggling already with more mundane challenges -- not the least of which is its decline in the United States, where sales of the core VW brand are shrinking at a double-digit rate this year. Sales of the Passat mid-sized sedan, produced in Chattanooga since 2011, have tailed off, and VW is not a factor in the booming market for small crossovers.
With sales of just 407,700 Volkswagen vehicles in 2013 -- the brand peaked at just under 569,200 cars in 1970 -- VW replaced the head of its U.S. operations at the start of this year in an effort to quell a dealer revolt and get back on track to reach its target of 1 million VW and Audi vehicles sold by 2018.
The longer-term solution -- a better lineup of products to answer American consumers' tastes for SUVs and crossovers, and more competitively priced cars -- is well understood among VW's U.S. and German executives.
Those plans were slowed by a long-pending decision on where to build the new crossover, a decision that ultimately went in favor of the Chattanooga plant, where VW had already laid the groundwork for an expansion. But even with Winterkorn’s announcement today on the future of the crossover — along with plans for a 200-employee development center at the same site — it will still be late 2016 before the crossover shows up on dealer lots.
That represents one of several holes in VW's global presence. "In the strictest sense, Volkswagen is not a global player," said Helmut Becker, head of the Munich-based think tank IWK and author of several books on the industry. He feels the company is becoming too dependent on China, which accounted for a third of VW Group's sales last year.
"They are strong in China, Europe and Brazil, but they continue to struggle in the U.S. market, are a latecomer to Russia, and they are not at all present in India," Becker said.
Even Brazil is starting to cause problems, with sales dropping 16 percent last year and falling 18 percent in the first quarter. The automaker's 2013 deliveries in India declined 19 percent, almost three times the rate of decline of the overall market, which dipped 7 percent. And after repeated attempts at establishing a foothold in Southeast Asia -- initially with Malaysia's Proton -- it still has failed to gain traction there.
Some analysts see this pattern as the result of a corporate structure that's too massive and unwieldy to manage effectively. Debt-rating firm Fitch also complained in May about conflicts of interest as well as a "lack of independence and diversity" in the board as a key weakness in VW's corporate governance.
Meanwhile minority investors are powerless, since most public stock doesn't confer the right to vote at annual meetings. In other companies, activist shareholders often play a valuable role by challenging boardroom decisions, pushing for change and putting pressure on management to unlock value by focusing their strategy and selling noncore assets.
VW, for example, still owns a 19.9 percent stake in Suzuki Motor Corp. that is strategically questionable given that the Japanese company wants out. Suzuki filed for international arbitration in November 2011 after Volkswagen refused to sell back its stake. VW also operates companies that produce steam turbines and container ship engines, which are left over from its acquisition of MAN, and even owns 8.3 percent of German soccer club Bayern Munich through its Audi brand.
For the moment, VW seems to have steered clear of the recall problems that befell Toyota after its growth spurt under former CEO Katsuaki Watanabe, and the German carmaker's current success goes a long way toward masking some of the underlying problems at the company.
"No other carmaker in the world has been able to increase its production by 4 million cars during the time since Winterkorn took over," said IWK's Becker. "Achieving that kind of growth while safeguarding quality is a real accomplishment. You can't do everything at the same time."