Outboard and Sterndrive Powered Bowriders For Sale, Which is Best

Which is better…an outboard bowrider powered by a Mercury Outboard? Or a stern drive bowrider powered by a Mercruiser or Volvo Penta engine?  Its not a simple answer!

Are you planning to purchase a bowrider boat at The Boat Show Toronto?  Does your family want a Mercrusier powered bowrider boat this summer?  Is the outboard bowrider less expensive to buy and easier to maintain?  Lets take a stroll though history and the family bowrider then and now marketplace in Ontario.

Welcome to Boater’s Chat! Today we’ll tackle a question that never seems to go away:  Which is best: A Mercruiser sterndrive or a Mercury /Yamaha outboard powered bowrider boat?

Let’s focus on fiberglass bowriders. The choice of power and brand has never been easier.  Why is that?  There are only two Tier 1 boat builders that make an outboard powered bowrider under 20′.

Apparently boat builders cannot make money building small fiberglass bowriders anymore. Tooling up a brand new bowrider costs in excess of $250,000 US + development costs.  A builders gross profit, in many cases, is under $700 on this type of boat…..we may actually get to Mars before some boat builders renter the small boat segment.  

The only real place to find small outboard powered boats is on aluminum fishing boat packages from builders like Crestliner Boats, Lund Boats and even Legend Boats.  While aluminum boats can be appealing to the fishing crowd, they do not have the same comfort as a standard bowrider.  Aluminum fishing boat packages will be handled in a separate series of articles.

Present Market Conditions Rule

Boater’s Chat has been a witness of retail boat operations for 30 years in Ontario.  In the late 80’s, 90’s and even in to the early 2000’s, small outboard powered bowriders were plentiful and relatively cheap to purchase and maintain.  Why? It was cheaper to build 2 stroke outboards that produced gobs of horsepower at low cost.

So what happened? Emission standards – Four stroke outboards with required emission equipment came into force and for the most part the old smoking bleaching fuel gobbling 2 stroke was history.

—-What else happened?  The industry standard GM Iron Duke 4 cylinder 120 HP or 140 HP sterndrive was with us from the early 80’s to the present day in various configurations.  Thousands were built and sold. In many cases due to production volume, they had sticker pricing less than their competitors. —-

Many would say that the 4 cylinder sterndrive was not a great boat motor, but that it was tough and had a long lifespan.  What happened here?  Well two things: The 4 cylinder Iron Duke was actually designed back in the 70’s and had a reputation as a bone rattling engine that was dirty in terms of emissions and not really fuel friendly.  The other thing emission rating changes by the EPA out of the US condemned this engine to the scrap heap of history.  One of the last nails in the coffin was that 2 stroke outboards and the Iron Duke sterndrive 4 cylinder were carbureted.  That means priming and choking of the engine to start. Boat buyers would no longer put up with that, and so operator friendly fuel injection was required.  A main preferences boat builders and buyers is cost. The cast iron block engines ( 3.0 L, 4.3L, 5.0L and 5.7L) were useable in salt water conditions without heat exchangers saving considerable costs….again the  money thing.  You cannot run direct salt water cooling through an aluminum block engine and all newly designed automotive engines are aluminum block.  Witness the end of the good old days as the 3.0L engine is gone this year and the 4.3L and 5.0L are on its way out being replaced by the new 4.5L block.

The first real four stroke outboards came out in the early 2000’s and we will call these beasts “Generation One”.  Very heavy…plus terrible power to weight ratios.  From the early 2000’s to today the 6 cylinder fuel injected sterndrive or for some the carbureted V6 was the standard family powered bowrider boat.  Price was an important driver of family boat sales and the 18′ bowrider powered by a V6 sterndrive became king of the boat retail landscape.  A similar horse powered 18′ outboard bowrider was way more money.  Why?  Economy of scale!  Why? GM was building millions of V6 and V4 engines with iron blocks and world wide outboard production did not make it to 500,000 units annually.

Unfortunately most markets go to least cost over quality so…in our case sterndrives ruled on price and the hull is another story !  All of this is market driven not product driven.  GM converted to aluminum engine blocks over a decade ago.  GM was limited building cast iron block engines for the marine industry only.  The end was near and a new generation of aluminum block replacement marine engines meant big price increases.  With retail margins too thin boat builders stopped making small bowriders and in many cases no longer even attempt a small bowrider boat under 20′.

Grew/Northstar went out of business selling small outboard powered bowriders. Tempest also threw in the towel. These are Tier 3 quality level boat brands. In 2015, Rinker bought a 20 year old Doral Boat mould and started making $20,000 outboard bowriders and did not survive the year.

Monterey Boats have one model, Larson has 3 models including a new 19′ bowrider.  Crownline, Regal, and Sea Ray boats do not make an outboard model.  Chaparral and Four Winns/Glastron bought out the old Seadoo Jet Boat Drive power systems even though Seadoo could not make money selling these. They wanted to try and stay in the entry level boat market and chose jets instead of proven outboard technology.  Did not work for Seadoo boats we will see about these new builders of jet powered boats and what the market accepts going forward.  What outboard powered bowriders are out there to consider?

To summarize… emission standards, time and fuel economy meant big changes for the boat building business by the 2008 model year.  Boat builders just like any corporation have to earn a profit on selling a boat into the marketplace or they cannot continue to provide that unit.  Most boat builders fled the marketplace on outboard bowriders.

Today’s Small Bowrider Market

What is the only major player in the small outboard powered bowrider market?  The answer is a Canadian boat builder Campion Boats out of Kelowna BC with 13 models. Monterey also a Tier 1 builder has one model to consider and Larson a Tier 2 builder has 3 models.  Who else is in the game…Four Winns/Glastron Boats.  So as of today we have two Tier 1 builders Campion and Monterey.  Two Tier 2 builders Four Winns/Glastron (same ownership out of the same plant) and Larson Boats plus one Tier 3 builder Stingray.

Campion Boats 13 outboard powered models from 16 to 20′

Monterey Boats: 2 outboard powered models 20′ and 22′

Larson Boats: 3 outboard powered models 16′, 18′ and 19′

Four Winns: 2 outboard powered models 18′ and 27′

Stingray Boats; 8 outboard powered deck boats 20+’

Glastron Boats: 3 outboard powered models 18′, 20′, 24′

Okay so there are some outboard models for the family to consider.  Back to the original question of which one is best…outboard powered or sterndrive powered for the new family bowrider.  Deck boats are a different category and have never been a big seller in Ontario so lets leave the Stingray models by themselves.  Looking above at available models Campion Boats provides the highest number of models and also the smallest units available.  The other builders are all US based and pricing is and continues to rise right now due to the dollar exchange rate Canadian versus US.

Advantages of an Outboard Powered Bowrider

  • Weight:  Outboards weigh less than sterndrives and as such those who are weight sensitive…mostly those trailering up and down the highway this is an advantage.  Total package weight is reduced so it is possible to purchase less horsepower to achieve the same performance standards as a sterndrive.
  • Cockpit Space: Outboards are not installed in the stern cockpit like a sterndrive so interior rear cockpit space can be increased.
  • Less Operational Water Levels Required: Outboard boats require less water to operate in at trim. The propeller stays at the same level under the water in sterndrive and outboard boats under load.  At rest with less overall weight the outboard bowrider will require less water at the dock as long as the outboard is fully trimmed up out of the water.
  • Launch Ramps: In marginal launch ramps outboard powered boats may be easier to launch and can required depending on the trailer utilized less water depth.
  • On Plane Quicker: Properly powered outboard boats can be faster on plane.
  • Low Speed Coarse:  Many sterndrives suffer from left right drift at low speeds.  This can be reduced with outboards propulsion systems.
  • Easier to winterize: although with the new high tech outboard engine it must be done correctly.  Outboard are self draining when removed from the water and as such are more forgiving when that unexpected cold snap occurs.
  • Longer Season: Outboards can be used earlier and latter in the boating season due to the ability to handle low water temperatures.
  • Salt Water Operation: Able to handle the harsh salt water environment and increased longevity in this situation.

Advantage of a Sterndrive Powered Bowrider

  • Cost:  Frequently when comparing apples to apples, sterndrives offer less initial cost.
  • Ease of Steering: Essentially all sterndrives come with a form of power steering which makes a significant difference with handling.
  • Lifespan: Very low expected life span normally longer than and outboard.
  • Quietness:  Depending on the brand and configuration a sterndrive powered boat is frequently quieter as the engine is lower in the boat and surround by increased levels of sound deadening materials.
  • Choice:  Substantially more models and configurations by more builder to choose from in the retail marketplace.
  • Higher Resale Value:  The family sterndrive powered bowrider is a very high demand item.
  • Style:  The aspect of the engine being hidden from view can make for more pleasing visual lines.
  • Ethanol:  Marginally handle the negative effects of ethanol fuels on internal engine parts.  As sterndrives have an internal gas tank there tends to be less contamination of fuel systems.

Service Requirements Outboard versus Sterndrive 

Essentially there is no difference in the service interval requirements of a sterndrive versus a high tech outboard. Essentially yearly requirements are an oil change lubrication of key components, filter changes both for the oil an fuel.  Each unit must be properly winterized before storage.  Sterndrives do require a more complex spring start-up procedure.  Most engine builders require and impeller change in an outboard or sterndrive every 3 years with the exception of Volvo which is annual.

A sterndrive should have professional maintenance and winterization and does not lend itself well to home mechanics.  A potential miss on winterization requirements can mean a new engine or expensive complete engine rebuild.  Sterndrives trap water internally the moment they are started and this internal water must be completely removed prior to freeze up.  Outboards do self drain when removed from the water however like the sterndrive the complex internal components must be protected from corrosion during the winter months particularly with Ethanol fuels. 

Please note that no fuel injected engine should be winterized using old school fogging out oil systems or significant engine damage can occur.

Please note that all fuel injected marine engines are essentially computer managed.  As such the brain has the ability to record all use hours in very small increments for power delivery, RPMs, over revving, overheating and just general operation.  For some brands and you can expect all brands shortly this will include maintenance.  In a case of a warranty issue the engine builder can and frequently does require reading of the use hours by a dealer and/or presentation of maintenance records. 

While not required yet by most engine builders the option of self service or non dealer engine service does still exist but records should be maintained including what parts were utilized.  There is no longer any courtesy or good will warranty.  Engine builders now see service and the choice by the purchaser of how often, by who, non OEM or OEM parts utilized and what storage procedures used as reflective of the care the engine has or is going to receive.

The aspect of choosing outboard or sterndrive power today for your new family boat is not so much about the ability for self service as it is about boat sizing that may in fact be available for sale at or near your place of boatingIf you are not comfortable with detailed service requirements for new marine engines and with most new marine engines having at least 3 years of required warranty maintenance then dealer service is required and the buyer must be prepared to take the boat for scheduled required service at what ever the distance.  While it is true that any engine dealer outboard or sterndrive can do the required maintenance on the engine, they cannot complete any warranty service on the boat.

A word about ETEC outboards.  There are claims that these engines do not require any service for 3 years and can self winterize.  Speaking with actual dealers they tell me that this is not recommended plus there are real problems and surprising high costs indexing spark plugs on these engines.