There are vagaries even with this simple formula, of course: MSRP for vehicles can change at a moment's notice, to say nothing of the bottom-line shifting that happens with local deals or showroom negotiation. For this list we're running with the straight MSRP wherever possible, and as recently reported as we can get it. All the vehicles on this list are 2017 models, and all trims are reported where the lowest price and differing power levels intersect. Some choices were made for personal preference and some for sanity, avoiding things like all 48 trim levels of the Ford Transit, all with the same horsepower).
If this list were a simple top ten, or even a top fifty, you'd be bored to tears with all the red, white and blue that is represented. Following perfectly with conventional wisdom, American cars really do lead the world where hp/$ is concerned. So, for the sake of variety (and the sheer joy of seeing a minivan 'win' one round of this thing) I've sorted out some top five and bottom five lists for broad power categories. Let's dive in.
Less Than 100 Horsepower
Okay, okay, this is hardly a category we'll grant you. But we've often tried to click off all the sub-100-hp cars on sale in the US, and making this list gave us an excuse. It also illustrates that none of these smallish vehicles bring cheap horsepower to the table - for that you'll need a motorcycle. The segment-leading Chevy Spark (above) asks just over $139 for each hp, and that Smart Fortwo Electric Drive has hp on sale for about the same price as its very distant family cousin, the Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG (insert your favorite Smart joke here... we know you want to).
- Chevrolet Spark –98 hp, $13,600, $139/hp
- Smart Fortwo – 89 hp, $15,500, $174/hp
- Mitsubishi Mirage – 78 hp, $13,830, $177/hp
- Toyota Prius C – 99 hp, $21,000, $212/hp
- Smart Fortwo Convertible – 89 hp, $18,900, $212/hp
100 – 200 Horsepower
With everything from compact and midsize sedans to light trucks to crossovers and SUVs falling into the 100- to 200-hp range, this category is a huge one for cars the Average Joe actually buys. And, as you can see, the top of it is dominated by US products. GM's new midsize truck twins (Chevy Colorado pictured) practically bookend the top five, where the very reasonable $100/hp range is the order of the day.
The bottom of this horsepower range starts a trend you'll see throughout this piece: categories dominated by very similar cars. Electric propulsion for the masses has come a long way, but it's still tough to make cheaply.
- Chevrolet Colorado 2.5L – 200 hp, $21,500, $107/hp
- Chevrolet Sonic – 138 hp, $15,500, $112/hp
- Ford Focus 2.0L – 160 hp, $18,100, $113/hp
- GMC Canyon 2.5L – 200 hp, $23,500, $117/hp
- Buick Verano 2.4L – 180 hp, $22,500, $125/hp
- Kia Soul EV – 109 hp, $33,950, $311/hp
- Fiat 500e – 111 hp, $31,800, $286/hp
- Nissan Leaf – 107 hp, $30,000, $280/hp
- Volkswagen e-Golf – 115 hp, $28,995, $252/hp
- Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric – 177 hp, $42,500, $240/hp
From over 200 to up to 300 ponies, some real performance cars can start to be had. The trouble is that most of them still charge a bit of a premium for the very best versions. So, while the V6-powered Mustang comes in third here, it's our unlikely hero, the Dodge Grand Caravan in its very cheapest SE trim that takes the cake. Not surprisingly, the minivan and the Jeep Wrangler (above) both make good use of the Pentastar V6 that FCA US uses so well and so liberally across its product lines.
And for the bottom five, I'd like to show you something in a luxury diesel, and M-B's GLS350 is it. In a torque-based list these would do much better, but here in hp/$ land, they're screwed.
- Dodge Grand Caravan SE – 283 hp, $24,990, $88/hp
- Jeep Wrangler – 285 hp, $23,895, $84/hp
- Ford Mustang 3.7L – 300 hp, $25,545, $85/hp
- Chevrolet Silverado 1500 4.3L – 285 hp, $28,000, $98/hp
- GMC Sierra 1500 4.3L – 285 hp, $29,000, $101/hp
- BMW Z5 – 248 hp, $50,000, $202/hp
- BMW 535d – 255 hp, $57350, $225/hp
- Alfa Romeo 4C – 237 hp, $57,500, $242/hp
- BMW i3 – 170 hp, $44,595, $262/hp
- Mercedes-Benz GLS350d BlueTEC – 255 hp, $67,975, $266/hp
Ladies and gentlemen, with an absurdly low $76 asked for each of its 390 horsepower the Nissan Titan S (pictured above, in upscale trim) is your bang-per-buck champ. If your star is hooked to a car, the Ford Mustang EcoBoost is your power-per-buck champ. This group represents the heavy hitters overall, with the Nissan, Toyota Tundra and Ford ranking one, two and three, respectively.
As for the priciest participants from 301 to 400 hp? Say "hi" to the Porsche 911 range, along with Volvo's XC90, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 640i xDrive. Specifically (and somewhat satisfyingly) it's the two variants of the 911 that get dissed the hardest, even by Porsche enthusiasts, the Targa and Cabriolet. Do the right thing: buy a 911 coupe, or a Boxster, or move on.
- Nissan Titan S – 390 hp, $29,580, $76/hp
- Toyota Tundra 5.7L – 381 hp, $31,290, $82/hp
- Ford Mustang EcoBoost – 310 hp, $25,920, $84/hp
- Ram 2500 Tradesman 5.7L – 383 hp, $32,145, $84/hp
- Dodge Challenger R/T – 375 hp, $32,890, $88/hp
- Volvo XC90 Hybrid – 313 hp, $104,900, $355/hp
- Mercedes-Benz S-Class – 329 hp, $96,600, $294/hp
- Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Targa – 370 hp, $108,600, $293/hp
- BMW 640i xDrive – 315 hp, $88,100, $280/hp
- Porsche 911 Carrera 4 – 370 hp, $101,700, $275/hp
With outputs up to 500 hp, we're starting to get into some really serious performance territory. But the cars and truck making up the top five of this segment stay under $100/hp, except the truck. That's impressive. The Mustang GT (above, in yellow) ranks number one on the overall list, followed by Challenger, Camaro and Charger.
The bottom tier in this power range has the widest delta yet from the top five. The Maserati GranTurismo is both stylistically dynamic and ready to roll, with a $182,000 window sticker and 454 horsepower. Mercedes-Benz, the Acura NSX and Porsche fill out the top five.
- Ford Mustang GT – 435 hp, $32,920, $76/hp
- Dodge Challenger R/T 392 – 485 hp, $37,995, $78/hp
- Chevy Camaro SS – 455 hp, $36,905, $81/hp
- Dodge Charger R/T 392 – 485 hp, $39,995, $82/hp
- Ford F-150 Raptor – 450 hp, $48,325, $107/hp
- Maserati GranTurismo – 454 hp, $182,000, $401/hp
- Mercedes-Benz Maybach – 449 hp $166,200, $370/hp
- Acura NSX* – 500 hp, $156,000, $312/hp (*Total hybrid hp is 573)
- Mercedes-Benz G-Class – 416 hp, $122,400, $294/hp
- Porsche 911 Carrera 4S – 420 hp, $122,600, $292/hp
Nearly the tippy-top of this exercise are the vehicles shoving out between 501 and 600 horsepower, where you'd think power would start to be fairly expensive across the board. But you have to go to the fourth spot – the Range Rover Sport – to exceed $150/horsepower, and even the BMW X5 M – at $174/hp – is comfortably under the not-so-magic $200 figure.
On the bottom, the $496/hp figure thrown up by the Bentley Bentayga tops the list, Alfa Romeo's new Giulia Quadrifoglio (pictured) is introduced and (once again) Mercedes-Benz makes an appearance!
- Ford Shelby GT350 – 526 hp, $54,570, $104/hp
- Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – 505 hp, $72,000, $143/hp
- Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 – 503 hp, $72,800, $145/hp
- Range Rover Sport – 510 hp, $80,650, $158/hp
- BMW X5 M – 567 hp, $98,800, $174/hp
- Bentley Bentayga W12 – 600 hp, $297,400, $496/hp
- Mercedes-Benz Maybach S600 – 523 hp, $191,300, $366/
- Range Rover Autobriography – 550 hp, $199,950, $364/hp
- Porsche 911 Turbo S – 580 hp, $200,400, $345/hp
- Mercedes-Benz S-Class – 523 hp, $170,750, $326/hp
At the very highest output levels, the performance bargains are so well known - and expected - that you probably didn't even have to glance down. The Hellcat-powered Dodges (a Hennessy-modified Challenger Hellcat is pictured above) that have filled your news feeds are the unquestioned champs here, with less than $100 asked for each of their mighty 707 galloping ponies. General Motors tops out the Top (or Bottom...) Five, with Camaro, Corvette and Cadillac all delivering in excess of 600 horsepower for roughly $120 (on average) per horsepower.
Finally, the Autobahn continues to strongly influence our bottom five, with Mercedes-Benz and Audi vying for 'top' honors and the CTS-V – notably – appearing and both the top and bottom lists. Despite their financial 'heft', all come in under $400/horsepower – and most are below $250. In uncertain financial times it pays to be prudent.
- Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat – 707 hp, $62,485, $88/hp
- Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat – 707 hp, $65,945, $93/hp
- Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 – 650 hp, $61,140, $94/hp
- Chevrolet Corvette Z06 – 650 hp, $79,450, $122/hp
- Cadillac CTS-V – 640 hp, $85,595, $134/hp
- Mercedes-Benz AMG S65 – 621 hp, $247,900, $399/hp
- Audi R8 V10 – 610 hp, $189,900, $311/hp
- Audi RS7 – 605 hp, $129,500, $214/hp
- Dodge Viper ACR – 645 hp, $118,795, $184/hp
- Cadillac CTS-V – 640 hp, $85,595, $134/hp