Bugatti’s New Boss Knows His Limits


From the April 2023 issue of Car and Driver.

Sometime around 2005, I interviewed Victor Muller, CEO of Spyker, 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 be driving a Spiker, which turned out to be as good a promise 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 ultra confident 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 was recently proven wrong. Mate Rimac is not a maniac, egotistical or otherwise, though he would have the right to be.

At 35 years old, he doesn’t just have a Bugatti – he has Bugatti. Period. And sometimes he sounds as enthralled by it as everyone else.

“If my 20-year-old self could see a day in my life now, he’d be surprised, but also think a few other things would have happened,” says Rimac. Namely, he thought his main business would be building cars, with maybe a bit of technical consulting on the side. However, it turned out the opposite. The kid who once swapped a BMW E36 to create a tire-frying EV now works that brand of behind-the-scenes magic for OEMs. And he’s 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 to a 351 Windsor.

When Volkswagen’s strategy chief suggested that Rimac take over Bugatti about three years ago, he did not respond for three weeks. “I thought I misheard him, or there was an error in the matrix, so I didn’t respond,” he says. But it wasn’t a mistake, 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 drive system and a very exciting combustion drive system,” he says. Think natural aspiration and 2000 total horsepower. Very different from a Nevera, and deliberately so.

A vegetarian painfully aware of humanity’s ecological follies, Rimac strives to make his operations as sustainable as possible—recycling rainwater at his new factory campus in Sveta Nedelja, Croatia, and even plans to grow food there grows around the company’s 1900 employees. There is no fence around the property, so neighborhood kids can look through the windows and see cars being built. Fields and forests surround the factory—but fields and forests equipped with power points and Wi-Fi in case employees want to work outside. The perimeter road includes raceway corner restriction. Decisions, he says, are informed by the question: “How can a person here have the best day ever?” I’ll take a short break now while you Google “move to Croatia.”

But Rimac’s idealistic tendencies coexist with cold realism, which is possible because he is rational and the world is complicated. He knows that he alone cannot change the course of humanity. And that there are contradictions inherent in, say, owning a Porsche Carrera GT and producing gas-powered Bugattis while also worrying about the impact of consumerism 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 robotics 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.”

This is the right attitude to have. Even if he is wrong.

Head shot by Ezra Dyer

Senior Editor

Ezra Dyer is a Car and Driver senior editor and columnist. He is now settled 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.