Was Audi Right to Fire Durheimer?
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Early on Friday morning, we found out the Audi had fired Wolfgang Durheimer. No, they didn't mutually agreed to stop their collaboration for family reasons, he was ousted from the company like he was never even important.
Durheimer was a rising star in the Volkswagen group after taking a number of very crucial jobs in the now hugely multi-company brand. From Porsche to Bentley and Bugatti, this 54-year old motorcycle enthusiast seemed to be an all-star for the company, brought into the game and expected to make miracles.
At Bentley, he became know as a visionary man with an eye for the bigger picture and customers' real needs. He left that job knowing he did what he set out, but at Audi, his work was barely 10 months in. His name appears on every story about every big project for the future, things like adding differentiated design, building the R4 sportscar, replacing the R8, focusing on SUV development and, most importantly in my opinion, building the next A4.
Details are sketchy at the moment, but it appears that Wolkfgang Durheimer frequently clashed with Audi executives. It's believed that he canceled the A1 and R8 e-tron project which was a sort of final nail. Even without knowing the exact details about what happened, we have frequent indications that the ex R&D boss did not like green technology, believing EVs and hydrogen cars to be maybe a decade if not more away from making economic sense.
Durheimer gave maybe a dozen interviews this year alone in which he seemed increasingly frustrated, like a fish out of water. Working for Audi not a dream job? Maybe!
VW chairman Martin Winterkorn is probably to blame, as he took an increasingly hands-on approach, tightening his grip on the many projects he believes were critical to making the German conglomerate the world’s largest-selling automaker by 2018. He believed electric cars were very important, but the ex Bentley head chose to ignore this and focused on the expansion into the SUV market with the Q6 and the Q7 replacement, as well as targeting China.
Winterkorn has also been critical of Durheimer's proposals for the design of future Audi models which were said to be a bit too aggressive. Only one of them can be right, and on a very personal level I completely side with Durheimer. Audi does need very bold and aggressive designs to attract people's attention, and both the A1 e-tron and R8 e-tron were projects that were too costly and in my mind delivered absolutely nothing.
Firstly, the A1 is a brilliant premium small car, but transforming regular road cars into electric ones has never worked, especially now when BMW will launch the bespoke i3, which has the engine in the back for better distribution and makes use of carbon fiber. The R8 e-tron is even more of a crazy idea.
Durheimer's replacement is going to be Ulrich Hackenberg, involved with development of the MQB platform and the 1-liter XL1 or the CrossBlue SUV concept, two hybrid cars. Is having electric cars really more important for a luxury carmaker than SUVs and modern styling?
Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn is probably a man obsessed with overtaking BMW at any price, but I think that would be a victory without any meaning. BMW has compromised way too much to still be considered a real luxury brand. It's planning about a dozen small cars with front-wheel drive that have nothing to do with the company's heritage. And in any case, the Bavarians are so ahead at what they're doing that it would be impossible for Audi to compete.
As far as I'm concerned, Mercedes, who is actually the third largest luxury maker, is actually the least polluted as a brand, the only one still worth considering a luxury maker. Bold designs, plenty of SUVs and sportscars and a no EVs – the Benz would be a much better place for Durheimer to work at.
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