The Nevera clearly is a remarkably fast car, but in an electrified time when
performance is a commodity and acceleration is just a question of how quickly a system can funnel electrons from batteries to motors, speed alone isn’t enough to make a car stand out.
When I later spoke with Mate Rimac, CEO and founder of Rimac Automobili, I asked him what makes a Rimac a Rimac. “Bending physics,” he said without hesitation. Making my phone leap out of my hand is certainly an interesting trick. But, as I would learn, Rimac is doing a lot more than raising the bar when it comes to vehicular performance.
Rimac Automobili was founded in 2009, born out of Rimac’s experience pulling the blown engine out of his E30 BMW and developing a custom electric drivetrain. After setting
multiple world acceleration records in that car, Rimac rolled that experience into the $980,000 Concept_One supercar, a 2012 release that went on to set even more records. Since then, Rimac received investments from Porsche and Hyundai, provided technology to companies like Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Koenigsegg, and perhaps most significantly, took over control of Bugatti in 2021.
Before the interview, I had a few days in Croatia to get to know the place, the people, and the startup scene. That scene is still nascent today, but over a decade ago, when Rimac was trying to build his company, the concept of a startup was culturally alien.
Part of that has to do with the recent history of Croatia, a country that shrugged off communism at the end of a brutal war for independence in the early 1990s. It is still the EU’s most recent member state, joining in 2013, and the newest country in the world to adopt the Euro, which happened just this past January.
That’s a lot of change in just 30 years, change built on top of trauma that’s still fresh in the minds of many who only ever saw leaders gain wealth and success by exploiting positions of power. Even after the war, corruption ran rampant in Croatia, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader being the most high-profile example. He resigned from that position in 2009 and, a year later, was found guilty by Croatian courts on numerous charges of corruption.
Given all of that, it’s no surprise that modern Croatia has a deep-seated distrust of anything that even has the faintest whiff of a government kickback, which includes accepting funds or grants.
Croatia’s accession to the EU has stirred up a lot of those fears, and Mate Rimac is very much at the center of it, providing an idol for young founders to emulate and an effigy for others to hate. “You either see him as a hero or the face of the problem,” Josipa Majic Predin told me. She’s co-founder and SVP of strategy and communications at Revuto, a Zagreb-based crypto subscription management service, and a longtime player in the Croatian startup scene.
Numerous people told me that Rimac lives under a magnifying glass, but the heat of public observation really came to a burning focus around a 2021 grant. Rimac received €200 million from the EU to develop robotaxis, a small part of a €6.3 billion recovery plan for Croatia. Here in the US, we think nothing of this sort of thing. SolarCity, now part of Tesla, received
$750 million from New York state alone to incentivize the creation of the Gigafactory New York. And Tesla itself got $1.3 billion in incentives from Nevada for its Gigafactory there.
For many Croatians, taking money from the government for something as intangible as autonomous cars didn’t sit well. A member of Croatian Parliament, Katarina Peović, called Mate Rimac “
the Balkan Elizabeth Holmes,” decrying him as a fraud. When pressed to provide a reason, she could only give one concrete example: Rimac Automobili filing its paperwork to the EU two weeks late.
Mate Rimac himself has always been proud of building his company in Croatia against all the odds, but it’s clear the fatigue of this attention is growing. “When I started a company, I was really stubborn. I really wanted to keep it here and, you know, show that we can do something like that in Croatia,” Rimac told me. He said there were numerous times when he could barely pay the salary of his employees and bankruptcy seemed certain. Meanwhile, investors were offering to write big checks if only he’d move the company elsewhere.
But he didn’t. He soldiered on and built a globally recognized successful company with over 2,000 employees and partnerships with some of the world’s most prestigious manufacturers. Today, facing all the public vitriol, he’s understandably asking himself why: “I’m so proud of doing this in Croatia, but to be really honest, and also really blunt, I think that was a big mistake. It would have been so much easier if I’d done this somewhere else… If I could go back in time, I would have made another choice.”
This was clearly a difficult thing for him to say, doubly so because he said it to me onstage at a Zagreb conference called Bug Future with about 1,000 Croatians in the audience, many of whom were founders working to build their own companies.
The silence in the room was heavy.
Rimac later told me that he doesn’t consider his company a success, at least not yet: “Success is still some time away for us.” That’s despite those massive investments from Porsche and others, the merger with Bugatti, and his own appointment to the head of that historic brand.
That was an appointment, by the way, that caught him completely off guard. He was giving a presentation to members of the Volkswagen Group about potentially collaborating on an electric SUV for Bugatti. In the middle of the discussion, one of the VW board members asked him, “What do you think about taking over the company?”
Rimac, believe it or not, ignored the question. “I thought I heard it wrong, or it was a glitch in the matrix. A black cat walking by twice.” So, he continued on with his presentation. It wasn’t until weeks later, when that VW board member called Rimac and asked why he hadn’t responded about the Bugatti question, that he realized they were serious.
Rimac was too focused on closing that deal to even process the dream of taking over a brand like Bugatti.
When it comes to success for Rimac Automobili, that same focus continues. Mate Rimac cares about the fundamentals far more so than many of the pie-in-the-sky EV startups with stratospheric
special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, IPOs. Rimac admitted that he was tempted to follow suit: “We didn’t want to be the only ones missing out, so we started to work on it, and then we realized what you have to do, how much you have to lie and inflate expectations beyond any reasonable measure. And we were like, ‘No way.’”
Rimac singled out
Polestar as an example of a company that did it right, but for him, SPAC was not the way. Of all the vehicular IPOs of late, Rimac praised Ferrari. “They are beating estimates quarter after quarter, delivering profitability, delivering margins that are beyond anything else in the industry,” he said. “I have always said I don’t want to bring this company to public markets based on hype, but based on reality, and we are not there yet.”
But it must be close. Rimac will produce 150 of its own $2 million Nevera hypercar over the next three years (which, so far, has set seven world performance records) and is lining up partnerships with numerous world-leading manufacturers. Signs of these partnerships are easily found on the factory floor at Rimac’s HQ outside of Zagreb, coincidentally just across the street from a large Porsche dealership. (Porsche is a major investor in Rimac and owns 45 percent of Bugatti, while Rimac Automobili owns the other 55 percent.)
Before I was allowed on the Rimac assembly line, I first had to don a pair of antistatic disposable blue booties over my shoes and a sheer cloth jacket to cover my clothes, all to keep dust, debris, and indeed, my own electrical irregularities out of what is the cleanest assembly line I’ve ever visited.
I have wandered through circuit assembly rooms with less meticulous measures to keep out contaminates, and while it’s tempting to call this overkill, the approach here has come from on high: Mate Rimac has made it clear to his employees that he wants a world-class facility that any OEM would be proud to be a part of.
Those current customers seem very glad indeed. Here, Rimac is not only building its own cars but is also crafting the
Pininfarina Battista, which is basically an Italian remix of the Nevera, plus batteries, inverters, and other components for projects from other manufacturers. That includes the battery system for the 1,160 horsepower Aston Martin Valkyrie and a different battery system for the 1,500 horsepower Koenigsegg Regera.
There’s more to come. A substantial amount of square footage at Rimac HQ has already been set aside for an upcoming hybrid battery pack for an unannounced project that, if I had to guess, will wind up in one of Rimac’s Volkswagen Group corporate cousins, perhaps something Italian.
And then there’s the new Rimac campus, set to open in June, which will include even more manufacturing space, a private racetrack, a kindergarten, and enough solar cells and garden space to make the place fully self-sustainable.
Eventually, Zrncevic, Rimac Automobili’s development driver, pulled over and let me slot in behind the seat of the outrageous Nevera. Despite my elevated expectations, so raised by this car’s status as the world’s fastest production EV, the Nevera exceeded my every hope.
I started off slow in Range mode, then moved up to Cruise, then Sport. With each click of the big knurled mode knob, the throttle pedal somehow got ever sharper, and the car found yet more speed. Meanwhile, my rearward visibility slowly faded from limited to compromised to zero as the Nevera’s giant active rear wing got taller and taller.
In time, I worked my way up to Track mode, which meant all 1,914 horsepower. I pressed my right foot down, and the Nevera surged forward with the life-altering thrust that I had expected, but there was some surprising subtlety at play. I was coming up to speed on a highway when I gave it full throttle, crossing an overpass with a set of metal separation joints, each set at a slight angle to my direction of travel.
I could actually feel the power on each of the car’s four individual motors scaling back slightly as its respective tire crossed the divide. As soon as each motor detected the increased grip of the asphalt on the other side, it ramped back up to full thrust. Only a quad-motor setup allows this sort of finesse, and then only in a car that’s checking for wheel slippage 100 times per second.
After that eye-opening demonstration, Zrncevic coolly told me that, without the traction and stability systems enabled, the car almost certainly would have spun into the barrier more quickly than I could have reacted thanks to the extreme power and the uneven grip levels on that overpass. As it was. I didn’t even have to lift off the throttle or countersteer, and most impressively, I only barely felt the intervention. This is vital functionality considering the drivers of these cars won’t need any special certifications — other than certifiable amounts of disposable income.
While that acceleration is literally eye-opening, what really impressed me about the Nevera was how good it felt when just cruising through some narrow, twisty back roads in the scenic, rustic hills to the north of Zagreb. In general, the faster and more capable a car is, the more boring it tends to feel when driven at (near) legal speeds on pedestrian roads.
The Nevera, though, had such good feedback through its steering wheel and such a quick response to every command I gave it that it was always fun to drive.
Well, except for the few minutes I spent stuck behind a lumbering truck on a tiny road. Even then, the thrill of zipping past when the road cleared more than made up for the delay.
Bending physics may be the key to the character that Mate Rimac is building into his cars, but clearly there’s a lot more at stake than that. “I have always said that we are building a company for 100 years. You know, Bugatti is 130 years old now and is part of our family. I don’t care about one or two years,” Rimac said about the legacy he hopes to build.
And what about that other brand? What makes a Bugatti a Bugatti? Here, Mate Rimac deferred to the original definition provided by Ettore Bugatti more than a century ago. “He said, ‘If it is comparable, it is no longer a Bugatti.’” Maintaining Ettore’s legacy will be no small task for Mate Rimac, but his own may have little to do with the incomparable cars he himself leaves behind.
“When we started to talk to investors 10 years ago and we said we were in Croatia they all said: ‘We will never invest in Croatia, no way,’” Rimac told me. “I think that is changing. Investors don’t ask anymore ‘What, Croatia?’ It’s fine.”
To be fair, Rimac Automobili isn’t the only company changing the country’s fortunes. Infobip, a Croatian telecom company, is another pre-IPO unicorn on the scene. “Imagine Infobit and us doing an IPO,” Rimac said. “That would open up a waterfall of money into the country. That’s what happened in Estonia with Skype and it transformed the country.”
Even without the IPO, that transformation is happening. Being a founder, launching a business — these are aspirational career paths in Croatia that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. “Kids in elementary school want to be Mate,” Revuto’s Josipa Majic Predin told me. “And that never happened before.”
Photography by Tim Stevens for The Verge