There’s no replacement for displacement... or is there?

Back in the day, if you wanted more power, you had to have an engine with a big volumetric capacity. Take, for instance, Malcolm Campbell’s Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird record-breaking car of 1931 that was a 25-foot-long behemoth powered by a 23.9-liter airplane engine developing 1,450 horsepower.

Nowadays, however, with the advent of turbocharging as well as other clever mechanical solutions, we no longer need engines the size of a bedroom to get the oomph we want. Point in case? Each and every car on this list.

Everything gets downsized nowadays but not the power

Remember that ’Top Gear’ special where James May and Jeremy Clarkson joke around about the woefully underwhelming outputs of their "V-8 motors"? In that material covering the worst cars in history, Clarkson claims that his Lincoln Continental Mk. IV’s seven-liter V-8 engine puts out just 200 horsepower, merely 40 more than May’s Buick LeSabre Custom that comes with a 5.7-liter engine. Sure, we can forgive those malaise queens since they were born in the post-fuel crisis era when catalytic converters nurtured everything in order to give glaciers a higher chance of survival. Or something like that.

Anyway, those days are way behind us now and, since the world hasn’t exactly become ’green’, we still desperately need to reduce our carbon footprint and that also means having more economical cars that don’t harm the environment as much, despite being powered by fossil fuels. Since we can’t go back to the ’70s when it didn’t matter if you reached 60 mph from a standstill in a fortnight, automakers have come up with ways to extract more and more power from small-capacity engines. Here, today, we celebrate those small engines with big power and those that are behind these real feats of auto engineering in a list that prizes the often forgotten horsepower-per-liter value.

10. Ferrari 488 Pista - 182 hp/liter

2018 Ferrari 488 Pista
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It’s weird to see a Ferrari rounding out a top 10 list focused on a performance parameter. Having said this, the 488 Pista is an impressive car in all areas including horsepower-per-liter and, as the lighter, stiffer, and more track-focused version of the also amazing 488, the Pista is powered by an upgraded 3.9-liter, twin-turbocharged engine which, at the time of the car’s launch, was the most powerful V-8 engine in the Maranello marque’s history. It produces 710 horsepower and revs all the way to 8,000 rpm making it more powerful than stuff like Bentley’s ultra-limited GT Supersports.

With that much power coming from an engine that displaces less than five liters, the 488 boasts with 182 hp/liter, besting Porsche's 911 GT2 RS by just 0.4 hp/liter (Stuttgart's rocket is powered by a 3.8-liter turbo flat-six developing 690 ponies).
2018 Ferrari 488 Pista Exterior
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Ferrari 488 Pista specifications
Engine 3902cc twin-turbo V8
Power 710bhp @ 8000rpm
Torque 568lb ft @ 3000rpm
Length 4605mm
Width 1975mm
Height 1206mm
Dry weight 1280kg
0-62mph 2.85sec
0-124mph 7.6 sec
Top speed ’Over 211mph’

Read our full review on the Ferrari 488 Pista

9. Volvo V60 Polestar - 183.3 hp/liter

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter High Resolution Exterior
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It wouldn’t be particularly bad that Ferrari came tenth in this list if, for instance, it would’ve been beaten by some ludicrous hypercars but, lo and behold, we’ve got a Volvo in ninth and it’s a wagon too. The car we’re talking about is the improved V60 Polestar that was on the market in Europe between 2016 and 2018.

At the time, Volvo decided the 3.0-liter six-pot engine originally offered in the V60 (and the S60 sedan) had to go and, as such, the Swedes brought in a 2.0-liter (1,969 cmc, to be precise) unit that develops 362 horsepower thanks to a meaty supercharger.

Doing the math reveals a hp/liter figure of 183.3 almost 10 hp/liter better than the next best practical car out there, the Giulia Quadrifoglio with 174 hp/liter.

Having said that, the Alfa Romeo is still in production while Volvo has yet to offer a souped-up version of the latest S60/V60 generation.

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter High Resolution Exterior
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Volvo V60 Polestar specifications
Drivetrain Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door wagon
Engine 2.0L/362-hp/347-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Curb weight (F/R DIST) 3,953 lb (60/40%)
Wheelbase 109.3 in
Length x Width x Height 182.5 x 73.4 x 58.4 in
0-60 MPH 4.9 sec
Quarter mile 13.5 sec @ 102.4 mph

Read our full review on the Volvo V60 Polestar

8. Bugatti Chiron - 185 hp/liter

2018 Bugatti Chiron High Resolution Exterior
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Since its revival, Bugatti has aimed to break all sorts of automotive boundaries and records and, currently, the Chiron is the most powerful car on the market powered by a 16-cylinder engine. That, however, isn’t a particularly impressive feat in and of itself since nobody is in the business of making cars powered by 16-cylinder engines but, still, the eight-liter (7,993 cc), quad-turbocharged W-16 in the middle of the standard Chiron makes an eye-watering 1,479 horsepower while the Super Sport 300+ ups the ante with 1,578 horsepower.

That's the most powerful engine in Bugatti's yard (which also makes it one of the most powerful car engines period) and with it, the Super Sport 300+ achieves 197.4 horsepower-per-liter, bettering the Chiron by 12.4 hp/liter.
2018 Bugatti Chiron High Resolution Exterior
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However, we decided to include the ’normal’ Chiron in this listicle since the Super Sport 300+ is sold out and we thought there may be some of you out there reading this that will proceed to go out and buy a car you see here and getting your hands on the Super Sport 300+ would be quite tricky.

What we can say, without giving it away, is that even in Super Sport 300+, the Chiron wouldn’t have topped the list because, well, you can’t with an eight-liter engine. A good example of that is the Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye. Powered by arguably the most powerful muscle car engine, the uber-Challenger’s supercharged V-8 puts out almost 800 horsepower but the caveat is the size of the engine: 6.2-liter (the supercharger itself displaces 2.7-liters!). This means that the Dodge can do no better than 128.5 hp/liter. To put it in perspective, that figure is worse than, say, what a Ford Fiesta 1.0-liter EcoBoost can do. Its water bottle-sized engine cranks out 138 horsepower making the tiny Fiesta the most powerful three-cylinder car in the world.

2018 Bugatti Chiron High Resolution Exterior Wallpaper quality
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Bugatti Chiron specifications
Engine 8.0-liter quad-turbocharged W-16
Horsepower: 1479 hp.
Torque: 1,180 lb-ft.
0-60 MPH: 2.5 Seconds.
0-250 MPH: 32.6 Seconds.
60-0 Braking: 103 ft.
Top Speed: 261 mph.

Read our full review on the Bugatti Chiron

7. Ford GT - 185.1 hp/liter

2017 Ford GT High Resolution Exterior Wallpaper quality
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There was a time when the Honda S2000 with its marvellous N/A engine was the queen in the horsepower-per-liter chart by beating its stablemate, the Integra Type R.

The S2000 made 200 horsepower out of a two-liter engine but, nowadays, that's not even enough to put it at the sharp end of the N/A-only list which is headed by a pair of Mazdas, namely the Wankel-engined RX-8 in two different guises.

In its last iteration, the now-retired RX-8 delivered 231 horsepower out of the 1.3-liter Renesys rotary which equates to 174 hp/liter. By anyone’s standards, that’s an impressive figure but it pales to insignificance next to the Ford GT’s 185.1 hp/liter.

Sure, we moaned when Ford announced that the 2017 Ford GT would feature a turbo V-6 instead of a naturally aspirated V-8 but, hey, look at it this way: while the 2005 Ford GT’s SVT-built V-8 barely edged over 100 hp/liter, the twin-turbo 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6 produces 647 horsepower to almost double the hp/liter value of the ’05 model. Oh, and it’s also fast. Really fast as attested by a sub-3.0-second 0-60 mph time and a top speed of 216 mph.

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter High Resolution Exterior Wallpaper quality
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Ford GT specifications
Vehicle layout Mid-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe
Engine 3.5L/647-hp*/550-lb-ft* twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 7-speed twin-clutch auto
Curb weight 3,300 lb (est)
Wheelbase 106.7 in
Length x Width x Height 187.5 x 78.9 x 41.7-43.7 in
0-60 MPH 2.9 sec

Read our full review on the Ford GT

6. Nissan GT-R50 - 186.9 hp/liter

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter
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This is arguably the odd one on the list because it's more of a styling exercise than anything else but it does run and drive and it {is} ludicrously powerful so here we are.

The Nissan GT-R R35 has been around for a decade and, more recently, Nissan decided something had to be done to revive people’s interest in its flagship sports car. Luckily, Italdesign had already done the heavy lifting by creating a futuristic body for the GT-R platform.

The First $1 Million Nissan GT-R50 Arrives With a Completely New Look
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It was decided that the ’Italian’ GT-R will be made in a limited run of just 50 units to mark the GT-R’s 50th anniversary. Probably as a way to justify the insane $1.1 million price tag, Nissan got to work and upgraded the familiar VR38DETT 3.8-liter, twin-turbo V-6.

While 710 horsepower is enough for 186.9 hp/liter, we all know the VR38DETT can be tuned to make much more, much, much more, in fact. Think some 2,800 horsepower over what the GT-R50 already makes...

The First $1 Million Nissan GT-R50 Arrives With a Completely New Look
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Nissan GT-R50 specifications
Performance And Drivetrain Nissan GT-R50
Engine Twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6
Horsepower 710 hp @ 7,100 rpm
Torque 575 pound-feet @ 3,600 rpm
Drivetrain Layout Front-/mid-engine, AWD
Transmission Reinforced dual-clutch sequential 6-speed

Read our full review on the Nissan GT-R50

5. McLaren Senna - 197.5 hp/liter

2019 McLaren Senna Exterior
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The McLaren Senna is quite ugly, isn’t it? Certainly not as good looking as the Honda NSX from the ’90s, a car that wasn’t named after the dearly missed Brazilian three-time F1 World Champion but one that Ayrton actually helped develop. On the flip side, however, the Senna honors its name by being good around a track, just like Senna the man.

All the ugliness is, actually, form following function in a car that chases lap times more than anything else.
2019 McLaren Senna Exterior
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That’s why you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it on a list of hp/liter since we all know brute power isn’t the no. 1 most important thing you need when you’re out breaking records on the world’s most famous tracks.

Having said that, you still need power because those you’re up against have loads of it already and McLaren knows it. The solution is simple: take the 4.0-liter (3,994 cc) V-8 off the 720S, add 79 horsepower to its already impressive tally to come out with 789 horsepower, and call it a day. 197.5 hp/liter is impressive but a car 10 years its senior humiliates the Senna in this area.

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter Exterior
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McLaren Senna specifications
Engine 4.0-liter V-8
Horsepower 789 HP
Torque 590 LB-FT
Top speed 208mph
0-62mph 2.8s
0-124mph 6.8s
Braking 62-0mph 97 ft
124-0 mph 328 ft

Read our full review on the McLaren Senna

4. SSC Ultimate Aero TT - 202.8hp/liter

2007 SSC Ultimate Aero TT
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Remember the SSC Ultimate Aero TT? The car that stole Bugatti’s laurels by becoming the world’s fastest production car back in 2007 with a two-way average of 256.15 mph.

With 1,183 horsepower, the TT also featured the most powerful engine of any car available for sale 13 years ago.

And whilst others came and beat the SSC Ultimate Aero TT since that bright, sunny September day in Washington, America’s ludicrous mid-engine hypercar remains a performance stalwart with 202.8 hp/liter as the updated SSC had its 6.3-liter, twin-turbo V-8 engine modified to produce 1287 horsepower.

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter
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SSC Ultimate Aero TT specifications
Engine Twin-turbocharged 6.3 L SSC V8
Horsepower 1,287 hp 6075 rpm
Torque 1,112 lb⋅ft 6150 rpm
Redline 7200 rpm
Max Speed 257.41 mph

Read our full review on the SSC Ultimate Aero TT

3. Mercedes-AMG A45 - 208.4 hp/liter

2020 Mercedes-AMG A45 Exterior
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You’ll be happy to find out that you’ll get bragging rights over any SSC Ultimate Aero TT simply by getting a $64,000 Mercedes hatchback. Well, actually, let us be more specific. We’re talking precisely about the range-topping Mercedes-AMG A45 S which, in any case, won’t be available Stateside as a hatchback but the sedan (named CLA S) will be and that too will be powered by the more-than-peppy 415 horsepower 2.0-liter four-pot.

With so much grunt, the AMG A45 S is the most powerful four-cylinder car in production today.

Wonder what the most powerful engine with half the amount of cylinders is? You’ll have to look for the Fiat 500 TwinAir, then. Powered by a 0.9-liter (875 cc) Multi-Air inline-two, the 500 TwinAir buzzes along thanks to a max output of 104 horsepower or 118.9hp/liter for the purposes of this list.

2020 Mercedes-AMG A45 Exterior
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Mercedes-AMG A45 specifications
Engine 2.0-liter turbo
Output 416 horsepower (S trim)
Gearbox: Dual-clutch eight-speed
Top speed 168 mph
0-60 mph: 3.9 sec

Read our full review on the Mercedes-AMG A45

2. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X FQ-440 MR - 220.2 hp/liter

10 Cars With the Best Power Output Per Liter High Resolution Exterior
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We’re in rarified air now, just one spot behind the car with the highest horsepower-per-liter number so you’d expect to find something cool and exotic in P2 but, as it’s been the case before in this list, ordinary sedans and even hatches and wagons have a place in this arena too. So, remember how we previously stated that the A45 S is the most powerful four-pot you can but today? That’s because the most-powerful four-pot ever can be found under the hood of the company with the three-diamond badge, Mitsubishi. While its constant nemesis, Subaru’s Impreza, tried to come close to it but failed miserably with the WRX STI Diamond Edition (missing two diamonds, eh?) that could do no better than 141.6 hp/liter.

That's because the engine in the UK-only FQ-440 MR runs circles around Subaru's 348 horsepower boxer.

As the name suggests, the most powerful production Evo ever makes 440 horsepower. Only 40 were made six years ago and, to everyone’s dismay, it could’ve only been the beginning. Mitsubishi showed that the 2.0-liter engine can take even more punishment in early 2015 when it unveiled the Evo X Final Concept at the Tokyo Auto Show. With 473 horsepower thanks to an engine bay overflowing with HKS parts, the Final Concept would’ve been the most powerful Evo ever but it remained a concept. But, for the sake of the argument, try to wrap your mind around this figure: 236.5 hp/liter.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X FQ-440 MR specifications
Engine type Turbo Inline-4, DOHC, 16v
Displacement 2.0 l (122 ci)
Power 440 hp at 6,800 rpm
Torque 412 lb-ft 3,100 rpm
Gearbox six-speed twin-clutch

Read our full review on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X FQ-440 MR

1. Koenigsegg Jesko - 313.6 hp/liter

2020 Koenigsegg Jesko Packs More than 1,500 HP and could hit 300 mph Exterior
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The Final Concept would’ve certainly made for a mind-bogglingly quick sedan and it would’ve meant that Mitsubishi had the car with the highest power-per-liter figure ever. At least until the Jesko came along. Looking just like you’d expect the car with the highest hp/liter number to do, the Jesko is a technical marvel. From the intricate nine-speed gearbox, to the engine, it’s all been engineered to the extreme.

You are already aware that, for years, the most powerful V-8s out there are in the middle of Christian von Koenigsegg's creations so it comes as no surprise that the Jesko too is powered by a V-8, albeit by a heavily modified one.

With a displacement of five liters (5,032 cc), the Jesko puts out 1,578 horsepower when fed with an E85 ethanol/gas mix.

2020 Koenigsegg Jesko Packs More than 1,500 HP and could hit 300 mph Exterior
- image 827821
Koenigsegg Jesko specifications
Engine 5.0-liter twin-turbo V-8
Power 1,578 horsepower.
Torque 1,106 pound-feet.
0 to 60 mph 2.5 seconds.
Top speed 300+ mph
Gearbox nine-speed multi-clutch

Read our full review on the Koenigsegg Jesko

What car has the most powerful four-cylinder engine

The AMG A45 S is the most powerful car with a four-pot that you can buy today but its 415 horsepower output is surpassed by the 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X FQ 440-MR powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder developing 440 horsepower

What is the most powerful car engine?

If we take into account gas-powered cars only, then it’s the 1,578 horsepower Koenigsegg Jesko (when fuelled with E85)

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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