Winterkorn studied metallurgy and metal physics at the University of Stuttgart from 1966 to 1973. From 1973 to 1977 he was a PhD student at the Max-Planck-Institute for Metal Research and Metal Physics, where he received his doctorate in 1977. He played football as a goalkeeper.
Winterkorn embarked on his career in 1977, as a specialist assistant in the research division "Process Engineering" at Robert Bosch GmbH. From 1978 to 1981, he headed the refrigerant compressor development group "Substances and Processes" at Robert Bosch and Bosch-Siemens-Hausgeräte GmbH.
In 1993 Winterkorn became head of Group Quality Assurance at Volkswagen AG, and was appointed General Manager of Volkswagen AG with power of attorney in March 1994. He was additionally responsible for the VW Group Product Management from June 1995. In January 1996, Winterkorn took over from Herbert Schuster as Member of the Brand Board of Management for "Technical Development" for the Volkswagen brand. From July 2000, he was Member of the VW Group Board of Management for Technical Development. Winterkorn was instrumental in getting Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piëch to approve the production of the New Beetle.
Winterkorn had been chairman of the board of management of Audi AG since 1 March 2002. He headed the Audi brand group, including the brands SEAT and Lamborghini, which was formed on 1 January 2002. Winterkorn also assumed responsibility for Technical Development at Audi AG with effect from 1 January 2003. In his capacity as CEO of the Board of Management of Audi AG, Winterkorn was also Member of the Board of Management of Volkswagen AG.
Since June 2003, Winterkorn has served as an honorary professor of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, in recognition of his Service to the promotion of research at the establishment. He was featured both in the 2007 and the 2008 Power List of American Automotive magazine Motor Trend.
After he succeeded Pischetsrieder in 2007, Winterkorn embarked on the "Strategie 2018" with the goal to bypass General Motors and Toyota by the year 2018, to become the world's largest automaker, "not just in units, but in profitability, innovation, customer satisfaction, everything."
Winterkorn additionally resigned as Audi chairman on November 11, 2015. The resignation came a week after additional revelations were made public regarding further vehicle emission test rigging, this time in gasoline-powered vehicles, in amounts approaching one million.