Fifteen or 20 years ago, choosing the engine or engines to power a boat with an LOA under 35 feet was a pretty cut-and-dried decision. It depended mainly on the type of boat you purchased – pontoon boats, bass boats, bay boats, and center consoles all had outboards on their transoms, for example, while most runabouts, smaller cruisers and performance boats were equipped with sterndrives or “IOs” (Inboard/Outboards).
Today, advances in propulsion technology have blurred those lines. In the past, boaters looking for higher-horsepower engine packages with more torque to help them achieve better acceleration, faster top speeds, or to get heavier boats on plane could only consider a high-displacement sterndrive package. Now, there are outboards on the market ranging all the way up to 700 horsepower, and multi-engine installations are common. Northern boaters wanting to extend the boating season in the spring and fall used to have only one power option: self-draining outboards. That is, until Mercury engineered its sterndrive “Season Extender,” a lever that lets you drain the water out of the engine’s low points so it won’t freeze. Across-the-board improvements to power-to-weight ratio, fuel economy, NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), ease of maintenance, and anti-corrosion protection for both outboards and sterndrives have made them much more comparable as power choices. In fact, today more and more boat manufacturers are designing new models that can be packaged with either type of propulsion.
So, how do you pick the engine that’s right for you?
“New boaters often come in with a preconceived notion, especially in our neck of the woods where Mercury is so strong, that they need an outboard,” said Tom Free, vice president of Lakeside Marina in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “When you really ask the question, ‘What are you going to use this boat for?’ it’s very seldom that the reason they want an outboard is what they are going to use the boat for.”
However, how and where you plan to use your boat, and the type of lifestyle you desire on the water is precisely what you should consider when selecting a boat propulsion package.
If you are an angler and will use your boat primarily for fishing, then hanging one or more outboards on its transom is probably your best choice. If you fish in the flats or other “skinny water,” you can trim an outboard up higher than you can the outdrive of a sterndrive. In addition, an outboard, which is entirely external to the boat, will give you more space inside the cockpit to fight a fish than a sterndrive, which requires an engine compartment.
If on the other hand, you and your family and/or friends are going to use your boat for water sports, a sterndrive(s) probably is the way to go.
“When it comes to tubing, water skiing and wakeboarding behind their boat in freshwater, we sell 10 to one sterndrives over outboards to the family boater,” said Free.
The ability to install a full swim platform over the outdrives on a sterndrive boat, rather than the partial platform or bracket found on most outboard-powered vessels, is the main reason behind this. The full platform makes it easier for skiers, boarders, and riders to put on their gear and get into and out of the water from the boat. In addition, the engine compartment, topped with a comfortable cushion makes a great sun pad and offers more storage space for gear inside.
Pontoon boats, which are growing in popularity across the country, are an interesting case. While some pontoon manufacturers do offer sterndrive models, outboard-powered pontoons far outnumber them.
“We have about 40 lakes and ponds within 30 minutes of us, and pontoons dominate,” said Rob Brown, owner and general manager of Clark Marine in Manchester, Maine. “I sell Avalon pontoons, and they offer a sterndrive package; I sold one about 10 to 12 years ago and haven’t sold one since.”
Why outboards and pontoon boats go together like bread and butter is not as easy to figure out. Jeff Becker, category manager for MerCruiser engines, hypothesizes that pontoon boaters may prefer a single-level deck. “A pontoon boat with a sterndrive engine installed in a third ‘toon’ usually has a step up in the aft part of the boat,” he said. In addition, it’s easy to repower your pontoon with a new outboard or outboards, while upgrading to higher horsepower in a sterndrive-powered pontoon typically would require you to purchase a whole new boat.
In the past, where you did your boating – whether in salt or freshwater – also helped to determine what type of power was best for your boat. The ability to store an outboard with its drive leg trimmed up entirely out of the water was a strong incentive to put that type of engine on the transom. But that was before marine engine manufacturers made huge strides in marinization and anti-corrosion technology for sterndrives as well as outboards. MerCruiser’s SeaCore system, which increases the number of stainless steel parts inside its sterndrives, is a good example of this trend. Thanks to these advances in the battle against saltwater corrosion, if you run your boat in salty or brackish water, sterndrives now compete with outboards as a reliable power choice.
Aesthetics also come into play when choosing your preferred propulsion. Do you like a sleek automotive look, with the engine hidden in the engine compartment, or do you want to show off your boat’s motor muscle? With the wide variety of boats and engines available on the market today, the choice is up to you.