By Andreas Cremer and Jan Schwartz
BERLIN (Reuters) - Volkswagen's Audi unit will swap development chiefs for a second time in less than a year, causing a stir at the luxury carmaker as it fights to close the gap with rival BMW.
Wolfgang Duerheimer, previously CEO of ultra-luxury brands Bentley and Bugatti, will be sacked 10 months after becoming Audi development chief and replaced by VW brand research head Ulrich Hackenberg, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday.
German magazine Spiegel Online reported the latest reshuffle earlier in the day.
The departure of Duerheimer, a former Porsche executive, follows growing criticism by top managers at VW group who think their premium brand's surge is losing momentum.
Audi, which touts "advancement through technology", has become a follower of technology trends too often set by luxury-market leader BMW and is too dependent on China, a senior VW group executive said in a recent interview.
"Audi doesn't uncover new market segments and too often borrows VW group technology," said Ferdinand Dudenhoefer, head of the CAR think tank at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. "Their sales slogan doesn't meet the requirements."
A spokesman for parent VW declined to comment. Audi did not return calls seeking comment.
Duerheimer's dismissal comes only 10 months after the last management shake-up at Audi forced three executives out of their jobs.
While Duerheimer stopped the planned electric versions of the two-seater R8 supercar and the diminutive A1 hatchback, BMW is preparing to launch this year its i3 electric vehicle that sports a lightweight carbon-fiber skeleton.
The i3's arrival throws Audi further behind its main rival on an alternative powertrain technology that may drive future growth and ends the brand's pioneering role in lightweight construction, said Dudenhoefer, noting Audi in 1994 launched the first premium car worldwide with a body fully made of aluminum.
Still, Audi is making good progress in sales after eclipsing Daimler's Mercedes as the world's second-biggest luxury carmaker two years ago, shrinking the gap with BMW to no more than 11,000 cars after five months this year.
Hackenberg, Duerheimer's successor, has pioneered VW's modular platform strategy that may help the German multi-brand group to hit the top of the global sales chart several years ahead of its 2018 target.
The modularity enables VW to design, engineer and build a variety of vehicle size and shapes - from a subcompact Polo hatchback to a full-size, seven-passenger crossover - at lower cost and in shorter time.
Hackenberg, a close confidante of Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn, served at Audi before in various development-related positions between 2002 and 2007, assisting Winterkorn, who was then still head of the brand.
(Additional reporting by Christiaan Hetzner; Editing by Marilyn Gerlach, Elaine Hardcastle and Dale Hudson)