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Virtue-signaling features are as common an inclusion as tires and windscreens in the modern world of cars.
Seat supports from the re-melted steel of third-world prison bars? Tick. Plastic trim from shredded drink bottles raked from the rubbish-clogged inland waterways of Indochina? Tick. Leather from the well-fed, free-roaming, sympathetically culled bovines of Scotland who died smiling? Tick.
Sustainability in vehicle manufacturing is seen as the fresh edge in brand appeal, and it’s a selling point accelerating faster than a Tesla Plaid on full autonomy with a sleeping driver.
But equally, it plants the seed of consumer uncertainty about what is being fed to us via brochures (derived from 100 percent organic hemp) resplendent with imagery of towering rainforests and crystal-clear streams of water.
In the end, Porsche legend and car design guru Michael Mauer says it all comes down to trust and, more specifically, trust in a particular brand’s values.
That’s a relatively comfortable call to make from his office in Weissach, Germany, not far from the Zuffenhausen factory of the world’s greatest sports car brand.
For 12 years, Mauer was the head of style at Porsche, which meant he was responsible for some of the company’s most important new-generation products, from the 991 and 992 versions of the legendary 911, to the 918 Spyder supercar, the hugely successful Macan SUV, the two-seater Cayman and, more recently, the adrenaline-inducing all-electric Porsche Taycan.
He’s now moved into an even loftier and more critical role, as Head of Design for the entire Volkswagen Group, which encompasses Porsche, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley, Ducati, Cupra and Spanish brand SEAT.
It’s like going from challenging the palates at a successful craft brewer to having the call on every beer brewed by Lion Nathan. But when Mauer talks about brand integrity and trust, it’s Porsche that is his brew of choice.
“It has become more and more complicated for customers to find out what are good products, what are reliable products, what are good quality products,” he explains.
“They are asking where does the material come from, what are the working conditions, do the companies have, in terms of the environment, the right attitudes? So many things right now have to be looked at.”
Mauer says customers also ask if the product is worth the price. “I would say there are two groups of very rich or rich people and one group, I would say, is less interested if they harm the environment,” he says.
“But most definitely, on the other side, the growing number of people that can afford a more expensive product want to know that they are spending their money on vehicles and products that are trustworthy and sustainable.”
Clearly the company has got the balance right in the rarefied air of the prestige sports car segment, because Porsche sales have been roaring along of late.
Last year, in a difficult market fraught with the COVID-19 pandemic, semiconductor shortages and supply chain upheavals, the company sold a record 309,000 cars worldwide, which was up three percent over 2021.
The latest corporate revenue data for the calendar year is yet to land, but mid-2022 was tracking growth at 8.5 percent, with operating profit up 24.6 percent.
The Cayenne (95,604) and Macan (86,724) SUVs were far and away the company’s most popular products globally last year, and 40,410 of the evergreen 911 were also delivered. The only notable glitch was a 16 percent fall in sales of the Taycan electric vehicle (EV), largely because component shortages slowed its production.
Mauer believes a key advantage for Porsche is that customers know what the brand stands for. “If you buy a Porsche, no matter if it is a 911, or a Cayenne or Taycan, you basically know what you get and that, I think, is very important,” he says with pride.
“Looking at the whole industry, I see the potential for companies like Porsche to find their own way, to be different, and therefore to be attractive for customers and be a cool brand.”
Being a ‘cool’ brand also carries a social responsibility and, as a company with its roots deeply embedded in innovative engineering solutions, Mauer says Porsche must look both to the future and respect the past.
One of those key projects is synthetic fuels known as eFuel. It’s an expensive and complicated process that uses green energy to create methanol, then uses ExxonMobil-licensed technology to turn the methanol into petrol.
For sports car fans, it vitally holds out the possibility of a future where not all Porsches will be EVs, and where at least some of them will make the fantastic noises you get when a fuel explodes to create energy under the hood.
Having shelved hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative – at least for the time being – the company sees synthetic fuel as a way of keeping combustion processes sustainable and socially relevant amid the incoming tide of EVs, while throwing its legion of fiercely loyal owners a bone so they can keep their old cars on the road and fossil-fuel free.
Of the many impressive aspects to Porsche, one extraordinary fact is that 70 percent of the cars it has ever built are still on the road – and there’s a corporate obligation to help them on their continued journeys. Driving into the future, its synthetic fuel project offers that tantalizing, critical prospect.
“It was always part of the discussion that our customers not just have their cars in collections or parked up, but to also drive and enjoy them,” Mauer says.
“We have old-timers, young-timers, they have combustion engines and I think that people who can afford to have old-timers and these cars, they are interested in knowing that while burning fuel is not optimum for the environment, there is an option to do it less harmfully.
“I think this is extremely important, especially for luxury brands.”