But, for the sheer joy of talking about cars and playing with a big spreadsheet, there's always the horsepower-per-dollar index, which is more straightforward, if hilariously flawed.
There are vagaries even with this simple formula, of course: MSRP for vehicles can change at a moments notice, to say nothing of the bottom-line shifting that happens with local deals or showroom haggling. For my list, I'm running with the straight MSRP wherever possible, and as recently reported as I can get it. All the vehicles on my list are 2015 models (with the exception of a few exotics that seem to shun formal model year designation), and all trims are reported where the lowest price and differing power levels intersect. Some choices were made for personal preference (I listed models with a coupe/convertible variant separately), and some for my sanity (I avoided things like all 48 trim levels of the same Ford Transit, all with the same horsepower).
In any case, my full spreadsheet is public here, so feel free to look, grouse and point out where my 633-car list should have been 634.
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. The Toyota Tundra ($76.43/hp) and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe ($76.87/hp) rank third and fourth on the list, but you'll scroll down to rank 26 before you find another import brand.
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 I'll grant you. But I've often tried to click off all the sub-100-hp cars on sale in the US, and making this list gave me an excuse to know that there are seven total, or five if you insist on lumping all the Smarts together.
It also illustrates that none of the tiny tikes bring cheap horsepower to the table. The segment-leading Chevy Spark asks just over $146 for each hp, good for just 283rd place in the total population. Oh, 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... I know you want to).
- Chevrolet Spark – 84 hp, $12,270, $146.07/hp
- Scion iQ – 94 hp, $15,665, $166.65/hp
- Mitsubishi Mirage – 74 hp, $12,995, $175.61/hp
- Smart Fortwo – 70 hp, $13,270, $189.57/hp
- Toyota Prius C – 99 hp, $19,540, $197.37/hp
- Smart Fortwo Convertible – 70 hp, $256.14/hp
- Smart Fortwo Electric Drive – 74 hp, $25,000, $337.84/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 bookend the top five, where the very reasonable $100/hp range is the order of the day.
The bottom of this hp range starts a trend you'll see throughout this piece: categories dominated by very similar cars. Here, only the E250 BlueTEC stands out, with small, electric vehicles making up the rest of the bottom five. Electric propulsion for the masses has come a long way, but it's still tough to make cheaply.
- Chevrolet Colorado 2.5L – 200 hp, $20,120, $100.60/hp
- Dodge Dart SXT 2.4L – 184 hp, $18,895, $102.69/hp
- Dodge Dart SE 2.0L – 160 hp, $16,495, $103.09/hp
- Chevrolet Sonic – 138 hp, $14,245, $103.22/hp
- GMC Canyon 2.5L – 200 hp, $20,995, $104.98/hp
- Kia Soul EV – 109 hp, $33,700, $309.17/hp
- Volkswagen e-Golf – 115 hp, $35,445, $308.22/hp
- Fiat 500e – 111 hp, $31,800, $286.49/hp
- Nissan Leaf – 107 hp, $29,010, $271.12/hp
- Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTEC – 195 hp, $51,800, $265.64
201 – 300 Horsepower
From over 200 to up to 300 ponies, some real performance cars can start to be had. The trouble is that most of them still charge a bit of a premium for the very best versions. So, while the V6-powered Mustang comes in third here, it's our unlikely heroes, the Dodge Grand Caravan in its very cheapest American Value trim, and the blue-collar Ram Cargo Van, that take the cake. Not surprisingly, the two minivans and the Jeep Wrangler, all make good use of the Pentastar V6 that FCA US uses so well and so liberally across its product lines.
And for the bottom five, I'd like to show you something in a luxury diesel. In a torque-based list these five would do much better, but here in hp/$ land, they're screwed.
- Dodge Grand Caravan American Value – 283 hp, $21,395, $75.60/hp
- Ram Cargo Van – 283 hp, $22,000, $77.74/hp
- Ford Mustang 3.7L – 300 hp, $23,600, $78.67/hp
- Jeep Wrangler – 285 hp, $22,705, $79.67/hp
- Chevrolet Silvarado 1500 4.3L – 297 hp, $26,105, $87.90/hp
- Audi A8 TDI – 240 hp, $85,100, $354.58/hp
- BMW 740Ld xDrive – 255 hp, $82,500, $323.53/hp
- Audi A7 TDI – 240 hp, $68,300, $284.58/hp
- Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC – 240 hp, $63,600, $265.00/hp
- Porsche Cayenne Diesel – 240 hp, $61,700, $257.08/hp
301 – 400 Horsepower
Ladies and gentlemen, with an absurdly low $73.39 asked for each of its 323 horsepower the Chevy Camaro V6 is your power-per-buck champ. This group represents the heavy hitters overall, with the Camaro, Tundra and Genesis ranking one, four and five, respectively.
It's also worth noting at this point that GM in general and Chevy in particular do very well with this metric. The Bowtie bags four top spots for the categories as you see them here.
As for the priciest participants from 301 to 400 hp? Say "hi" to the Porsche 911 range. Specifically (and somewhat satisfyingly) it's the two variants of the 911 that get dissed the hardest, even by Porsche enthusiasts, the Targa and a couple of Cabriolets. Do the right thing: buy a 911 coupe, or a Boxster, or move on.
- Chevrolet Camaro 3.6L – 323 hp, $23,705, $73.39/hp
- Toyota Tundra 5.7L – 381 hp, $29,120, $76.43/hp
- Hyundai Genesis Coupe – 348 hp, $26,750, $76.87/hp
- Dodge Ram 2500 5.7L – 383 hp, $30,685, $80.12/hp
- Ford F-250 6.2L – 385 hp, $31,235, $81.13/hp
- Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Cabriolet – 350 hp, $107,010, $305.74/hp
- Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet – 400 hp, $121,610, $304.03/hp
- Mercedes-Benz G550 – 382 hp, $115,400, $302.09/hp
- Porsche 911 Targa 4S – 400 hp, $116,200, $290.50/hp
- Porsche 911 Targa 4 – 350 hp, $101,600, $290.29/hp
401 – 500 Horsepower
With outputs up to 500 hp, we're starting to get into some really serious performance territory. But the cars making up the top five of this segment stay under $100/hp, to a one. That's impressive.
The Mustang GT ranks number two on the overall list, in fact, and that bruiser of an F-250 cracks the top 12.
The bottom tier in this power range has the widest delta yet from the top five. The Rolls-Royce Phantom is a massively posh outlier at $407k asked for 'just' 435 horsepower, it's nearly $900/hp figure more than doubling the next closest Bentley Flying Spur V8. Standard of the world, indeed.
- Ford Mustang GT – 435 hp, $32,100, $73.79/hp
- Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack – 485 hp, $37,495, $77.31/hp
- Chevy Camaro SS – 426 hp, $33,505, $78.65/hp
- Ford Mustang GT Convertible – 420 hp, $36,210, $86.21/hp
- Ford F-250 6.7L – 440 hp, $39,715, $90.26/hp
- Rolls-Royce Phantom – 453 hp, $407,400, $899.34/hp
- Bentley Flying Spur V8 – 500 hp, $195,100, $390.20/hp
- Bentley Continental V8 – 500 hp, $187,900, $375.80/hp
- Maserati GranTurismo Convertible – 444 hp, $145,740, $328.24/hp
- Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS Cabriolet – 430 hp, $133,795, $311.15/hp
501 – 600 Horsepower
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 the fact is that average car on this list rates about $186/hp (or $175/hp if you take out the curve-wrecking hypercars), which every one of these top-five beasties surpasses.
GM V8s reign supreme at the top here, and that's discounting the 2016 CTS-V that's been left off this all model-year-2015 list. Jaguar Land Rover clearly has a good thing going with its widely used 5.0-liter V8, too.
On the bottom, not even the $601/hp figure thrown up by the Bentley Mulsanne can top the outrageous Rolls figure we saw above, but by and large things get spendy in the rare air over 500 hp.
- Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 – 580 hp, $55,505, $95.70/hp
- Cadillac CTS-V Coupe – 556 hp, $71,200, $128.06/hp
- Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 – 505 hp, $72,305, $143.18/hp
- Land Rover Range Rover Supercharged – 510 hp, $79,995, $156.85/hp
- Jaguar XFR – 510 hp, $83,550, $163.82/hp
- Bentley Mulsanne – 505 hp, $303,700, $601.39
- Rolls-Royce Ghost – 563 hp, $286,750, $509.33/hp
- Aston Martin Vanquish – 565 hp, $283,295, $501.41/hp
- Ferrari 458 Speciale – 597 hp, $291,744, $488.68/hp
- Ferrari 458 Spider – 562 hp, $263,553, $468.96/hp
More Than 600 Horsepower
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 that filled your news feeds this past summer are the unquestioned champs here, with less than $100 asked for each of their mighty 707 galloping ponies.
Tesla points out that not all electric cars have to charge a mint for their power. The P85D version of Tesla's Model S asks a very reasonable $151 for its massive output, and really does point to the future of green performance value.
I'm going exhibit some bias here, too, and point out that the Nissan GT-R Nismo (which I love) boasts a figure of just $250/hp, making it just one horsepower shy of ranking sixth here.
Finally, has the bottom five of any list, ever, looked this good (hence the photo up top)? The lesson, really, is that if you're going to buy a car that makes over 800 horsepower, you're going to have to expect to pay thru the nose for it. Even though the MSRPs for most of that bottom five are pretty soft (getting a firm "base" price for a Pagani is like trying to catch a rainbow in your hand), the estimated horsepower prices are far enough spaced that the ranking is almost certainly accurate.
- Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat – 707 hp, $57,895, $81.89/hp
- Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat – 707 hp, $63,995, $90.52/hp
- Chevrolet Corvette Z06 – 650 hp, $78,000, $120.00/hp
- Dodge Viper SRT - 645 hp, $84,995, $131.78/hp
- Tesla Model S P85D – 691 hp, $104,500, $151.23/hp
- Pagani Huayra – 720 hp, $1,450,000 (est), $2,013.89/hp
- Bugatti Veyron 16.4 – 1001 hp, $1,900,000 (est), $1,898.10/hp
- Ferrari LaFerrari – 949 hp, $1,416,362, $1,492.48/hp
- McLaren P1 – 903 hp, $1,150,000, $1,273.53/hp
- Porsche 918 Spyder – 887 hp, $845,000, $952.65/hp
UPDATE: The Dodge Viper SRT is indeed the number four car on the list of least expensive hp/$ from 600 horsepower and over. Thanks to all that caught the mistake in comments.