From the April 2023 issue of Car and Driver.
Sometime around 2005, I interviewed Spyker CEO Victor Muller and asked him why he started a car company. He replied, “Why does a dog lick [itself]? Because it can.”
He then promised I would soon drive a Spyker, which turned out to be as sound a pledge as the one he made a few years later about saving Saab. The point is, it seems to me that to start a car company, you have to be an ultraconfident maniac. I bring this up for two reasons: First, I’ve been waiting years for a chance to use that Victor Muller quote, and second, I’ve recently been proved wrong. Mate Rimac is not a maniac, ego- or other-wise, even though he’d have a right to be.
At 35 years old, he doesn’t just have a Bugatti—he has Bugatti. Period. And sometimes, he sounds as awed by that as everybody else.
“If my 20-year-old self could see a day in my life now, he’d be amazed but also think some other things would have happened,” Rimac says. Namely, he thought his main enterprise would be building cars, with maybe some technical consulting on the side. It’s turned out the opposite, though. The kid who once motor-swapped a BMW E36 to create a tire-frying EV is now working that brand of behind-the-scenes magic for OEMs. And he’s busy building the Rimac Nevera, which set a new EV production-car record of 258 mph at Germany’s Papenburg test track. I’d like to put one of his SMP_900 motors in an old Bronco—it makes 603 horsepower, has 664 pound-feet of torque, and weighs 106 pounds. That’s pretty decent power density compared with a 351 Windsor.
When, about three years ago, Volkswagen’s head of strategy proposed that Rimac take over Bugatti, he didn’t answer for three weeks. “I thought I misheard him, or there was a glitch in the matrix, so I didn’t respond,” he says. But it wasn’t a glitch, and now Mate Rimac is working on the first car from Bugatti Rimac—which will be a hybrid, not an EV.
“I know how to make a very exciting electric powertrain and a very exciting combustion powertrain,” he says. Think naturally aspirated and 2000 total horsepower. Very different from a Nevera, and intentionally so.
Rimac is a vegetarian who’s painfully aware of humanity’s ecological follies, and he’s striving to make his operations as sustainable as he can—recycling rainwater at his new factory campus in Sveta Nedelja, Croatia, and even planning to grow some food there to help feed the company’s 1900 employees. There’s no fence around the property, so that neighborhood kids can look in the windows and see cars being built. Fields and forest surround the factory—but fields and forest equipped with power outlets and Wi-Fi in case employees want to work outside. The perimeter road includes racetrack corner curbing. Decisions, he says, were informed by the question, “How can a person here have the best day ever?” I will now take a brief intermission while you Google “moving to Croatia.”
But Rimac’s idealist leanings coexist with cold realism, which is possible because he is rational and the world is complicated. He knows that he alone can’t change the trajectory of humanity. And that there are contradictions inherent in, say, owning a Porsche Carrera GT and producing gas-powered Bugattis while also worrying over consumerism’s impact on the planet. “I don’t know what the answer is,” he says. “Real change would be to own two pairs of pants, but I don’t think we’re going back to that.”
So he’s going to keep building cool cars, but he also has some ideas for energy storage and robotaxis and folding his new campus into an even bigger one. “You get here by solving problems every day,” he says. “It’s a million steps you have to take. It still doesn’t feel like we made it.”
That’s the right attitude to have. Even if he’s wrong.
Ezra Dyer is a Car and Driver senior editor and columnist. He’s now based in North Carolina but still remembers how to turn right. He owns a 2009 GEM e4 and once drove 206 mph. Those facts are mutually exclusive.