Bang for your buck, performance for your pound, dash for your cash, wallop for your wad… whatever you want to call it, I think we can agree that this is not a high-brow concept.
Indeed, and at its heart, it is a number arrived at extremely easily for more than 40 years now, since the widespread availability of that diminutive giant of the computer age, the pocket calculator. Price divided by power.
And yet there is a certain simple honesty in the number that results. So simple, in fact, that we wondered why, as far as any of us can remember, no one has ever tried to pull out a few examples of cars that, by this charmingly crude method at least, offer a particular kind of value for money.
One horsepower. How much would you be prepared to pay for a single bhp? Perhaps more than you’d think. Down in the bargain basement of cheapo petrol-powered push-along mowers, you might pay as little as £50 for a unit of power equivalent to an ability to lift 75kg a distance of one metre in a second – which is one measurement of a single metric horsepower – but in our automotive world, you’ll have no such chance.
Cars need doors, windows, furniture, gearboxes, differentials, equipment, space and many other items not identified as traditional requirements for lawn mowers, so, in the event, it’s remarkable just how close to this mark some cars actually come.
So what follows are some examples in different categories of cars and their rating in pure bang-for-your-buck terms. The list is not and was never intended to be exhaustive, but more a collection of cars that we like or find interesting or perform notably well or badly on this scale. You may well find others you regard as worthy of note or inclusion and, if so, we look forward to hearing about them from you.
And finally, as for how to interpret what constitutes an impressive bang-for-buck ratio, we found precious few cars in our trawl whose creators charged less than £100 for each of their horsepower. So anything with a double-digit bang-for-buck ratio can be regarded, in these terms at least, as a 24-carat bargain.
I suspect that, instinctively, we all know that if you want to buy a lot of horsepower for not a lot of money, a hot hatchback is a good place to start shopping, but we did not realise just what value these cars represent until we started working on this story.
Among all groups, there is a greater density here of cars that get close to or duck under the £100/bhp than anywhere else. And it’s not just the cheap hatches, either. In fact, it’s the Ford Focus RSs and Honda Civic Type Rs of this world that offer the most for least, with hot BMW and Mercedes hatches also providing conspicuous value.
5. Suzuki Swift 1.6 Sport 3dr - £105/bhp
4. Mini Cooper S - £100/bhp
3. Honda Civic Type R - £96/bhp
2. BMW M140i 5dr - £96/bhp
Winner: Ford Focus RS - £90/bhp
Small SUVs and crossovers
Here we see the difference between compact SUVs sold for their honest, no-nonsense, rugged appeal and those sold to people on the hunt for the right look and the right badge.
Very few of the more upmarket, image-conscious kind of SUVs or crossovers get anywhere near the £100/bhp mark. On the other hand, if it’s the rough and ready type of SUV you’re after, there are still some great bargains to be had here.
5. Range Rover Evoque SE TD4 4WD - £188/bhp
4. BMW X1 20i XDrive Sport - £167/bhp
3. Ssangyong Korando 2.2 SE - £92/bhp
2. MG SE Explore - £92/bhp
Winner: Dacia Duster 1.6 SCE Access 2WD - £84/bhp
Large SUVs and crossovers
There’s probably no other category with a lower level of average expectation than this. Not even a Porsche Cayenne buyer writes the cheque primarily because he or she wants a fast car. Instead, your money gets spent on huge amounts of metal, complex all-wheel-drive systems and what might loosely be described as ‘design’.
Even so, if you’re prepared to give up the posh badge and the good looks, you can still find a few cars here that offer a reasonable amount of power for your pound. Just don’t go expecting miracles; in this part of the market and when the subject is bang for your buck, they just don’t exist.
5. Bentley Bentayga - £263/bhp
4. Volvo XC90 T8 Momentum - £151/bhp
3. Jaguar F-Pace 3.0 V6 - £139/bhp
2. Ssangyong Rexton 2.2 SE - £132/bhp
Winner: Jeep Wrangler 3.6 V6 Sahara 5dr - £120/bhp
Whereas a typical fast coupé like a BMW M2 or Audi TTS will charge you between £120 and £130 for each horsepower, a manual V8 Ford Mustang coupé asks just £85. That’s the same as a base-spec Dacia Sandero.
No wonder they’re sold out for months to come. Also, think hard about upgrades here. A base Porsche Cayman can be yours for £135/bhp, but if you’re thinking you’d quite like a 911 instead, that price jumps to a whopping £210.
5. Rolls-Royce Wraith - £381/bhp
4. BMW M4 - £134/bhp
3. Lexus RC F - £127/bhp
2. Subaru BRZ 2.0i SE - £114/bhp
Winner: Ford Mustang 5.0 V8 Fastback - £85/bhp
You’d expect that, as the smallest and simplest cars on sale, city cars would perform well on this scale just because you’re not also paying for long lists of equipment, large amounts of metal or luxury fittings. But that’s not how it turned out.
Precious few even get near the £100/bhp mark, and the moment you start thinking in terms of the pure electric cars we are meant to regard as the future of city transport, the numbers head through the roof. In the event, just one of our selected candidates charges less than £100 for a single horsepower, that car being the astonishingly cheap MG 3, the best bang-for-buck value car not just in this class, but also across them all.
5. Renault Twizy EV Expression - £406/bhp
4. Fiat 500 1.2 Pop - £165/bhp
3. Citroen C1 1.0 VTI 68 Touch - £127/bhp
2. Vauxhall Corsa Ecoflex Sting R - £103/bhp
Winner: MG 3 3Time - £79/bhp
Not a good place to go shopping for a big bang for your buck.
These are cars that charge you big money for things that have nothing to do with going fast. Indeed, the need to keep running costs under some kind of control with cars this big and heavy means that the market is dominated by 3.0-litre diesel motors noted for their exemplary fuel consumption and low CO2 outputs, and not at all for their ability to generate street-melting quantities of raw power.
Some are better than others, but none, at least among those we examined, could be described as good.
5. Bentley Flying Spur W12 - £249/bhp
4. BMW 740D - £228/bhp
3. Mercedes-Benz S500L AMG Line - £202/bhp
2. Audi A8 4.2 TDI SE Exec Quattro - £196/bhp
Winner: Jaguar XJR - £169/bhp
In a class dominated by diesel, you must manage your expectations. Diesels tend to have less power than their petrol equivalents and cost more to buy, a fatal double whammy on the bang-to-buck scale.
But although they’re in the minority, petrol-powered cars remain in most ranges and, if the current fashion for considering diesel to be the root of all evil results in a pejorative taxation environment in future, their importance and popularity seem likely only to grow further.
And looking at cars from this perspective also allows some unlikely lights to shine, as anyone who has pondered the point of the Subaru Impreza WRX STI these days will be about to find out.
5. Toyota Prius 1.8 VVT-I Excel - £229/bhp
4. Mercedes-Benz C250D SE - £163/bhp
3. Jaguar XE 2.0i 200 SE - £137/bhp
2. BMW M3 - £133/bhp
Winner: Subaru Impreza WRX STI - £98/bhp
A class of car distinguished by many things: fine ride quality, spacious interiors, long lists of standard equipment and almost no interest in providing the driver with any meaningful return on his or her investment of money for power.
That’s not to say there are not plenty of quite affordable cars in the category, and nor is there any shortage of those toting impressive engine outputs. It’s the crucial combination of the two that you’ll find sadly lacking. Thank heavens, then, for an Australian import toting Vauxhall badges to prove the shining exception to the rule.
5. Tesla 70D AWD - £209/bhp
4. Mercedes-Benz E220D SE - £188/bhp
3. Audi RS6 - £144/bhp
2. BMW M5 - £134/bhp
Winner: Vauxhall VXR8 GTS - £96/bhp
Got to be a few bargains here, right? Very few, as it turns out. You’d think cars stripped back to the bone and designed to be light and powerful would be bound to turn out a few that would challenge the best bang-for-buck ratios around, but that’s not how it appears.
It turns out that with these cars we’re paying quite a lot of money for things that have nothing to do with the provision of maximum power for minimum outlay – things like styling, a badge, scarcity value and low-volume, bespoke production.
5. Lotus Elise Sport 220 - £168/bhp
4. Caterham Seven 620R - £161/bhp
3. Jaguar F-Type 3.0 V6 - £152/bhp
2. Mazda MX-5 2.0i SE-L - £133/bhp
Winner: Ariel Atom Supercharged - £111/bhp
Forget the limos: if you’re looking for absolutely the worst value on the bang-for-buck scale, the supercars have secured the territory for themselves.
Their ability to provide vast amounts of horsepower pales into insignificance beside their creators’ ability to charge even more vast amounts of money for each and every one of them.
Even those from the more junior end of the scale that offer the best value – cars like the Mercedes-AMG GT S and Audi R8 V10 Plus – can't even hit the £200/bhp mark. Go for something more expensive and, well, see for yourself…
5. Lamborghini Aventador SV - £416/bhp
4. Ferrari 488 GTB - £279/bhp
3. McLaren 570S - £255/bhp
2. Aston Martin V12 Vantage S - £250/bhp
Winner: Mercedes-AMG GT S - £218/bhp
Although there are exceptions, there is no doubting the general rule: if you want the best bang for your buck, buy a hot hatch – the more powerful the better.
On this scale, these are the true bargains. But when it comes to the best car on a pure bang-for-buck basis, the maths says we couldn’t beat the MG 3.
If you’re looking for a true hero here, though, it has to be the Ford Mustang. And what more fitting a winner of this contest than the latest version of the original pony car, a car born over half a century ago to put big power under the right foot of enthusiasts with small budgets? It worked then and it’s working right now – better than ever, in fact.