After nearly 20 years of designing Porsche 911s and Cayennes, Michael Mauer says new competitors led by electric-vehicle brands from China are making managers and designers in Germany more receptive to risky vehicle concepts.
“These start-ups, with no heritage, they can do things completely different,” Porsche and Volkswagen's head of design said in an interview.
“I consider it a positive thing, actually, as a designer, because that makes the decision-makers – ie, the management board – more open-minded.”
Volkswagen and Porsche will offer an update on their success in the coming week, when both companies report third-quarter results.
Germany has long been at the forefront of car design with enduring classics such as the Volkswagen Beetle, Porsche 911 and instantly recognisable BMW and Mercedes-Benz sedans. But incumbent carmakers have watched Tesla overtake them in the EV transition, and the new era of battery powertrains calls for a fresh take on a car’s look and functionality, which remain a top priority for customers choosing their next vehicle.
New standards for the industry are evolving fast – from ultra-modern designs such as Tesla's Cybertruck and Xpeng's P7 to on-board features including Li Auto’s 3-D dashboard and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group’s Zeekr’s massaging seats.
VW chief executive Oliver Blume last month added design to a list of priorities in his bid to entice more EV buyers and stem a slide in market share in China.
The move strengthened the hand of designers to come up with distinct looks across the company’s brands, which include VW, Audi and Skoda. The goal is to give past favourites such as the VW Golf an edgy new twist and to bolster linchpin EV projects.
“I always have this image in my head of this stone that you throw into the future,” said Mr Mauer, who has led Porsche’s design team since 2004.
“The question is, how far do I throw it? Hitting that sweet spot exactly, going far enough into the future, but not too far, is a real challenge.”
VW has pinned some of its slide in China on losing sight of the aesthetics and in-car features that were luring Chinese customers.
“The success that Volkswagen brand had in the volume segment was, in my opinion, due to the fact that there was a strong focus on design and design quality,” Mr Mauer said.
“Design is certainly not the biggest issue in the company but it’s an area where I can still achieve a lot with relatively modest resources.”
Mr Mauer, 61, recalled BMW's design revamp more than a decade ago, when the company’s then-chief designer, Chris Bangle, redefined the look of the 5-Series and 7-Series. While purists initially snubbed the changes, Mr Mauer said it ultimately helped BMW position itself as a more modern carmaker that could win new customers.
New designs, Mr Mauer said, need to reflect a driving experience that is far more connected to the outside world through software and apps. The difficulty is getting the balance right.
“I believe the German auto industry in particular has potential to be better,” he said.