By David Gee
The boat buying public is fully on board for outboards. Retail sales increased for the eighth consecutive year in 2019, nearly reaching pre-recession levels with a 13-year high.
“We’re seeing the trend in consumer demand for higher performance engines continue with outboard engine sales growth in 2019 led by engines 200hp-plus, accounting for 27% of sales, and sales of 300hp-plus engines up 18%,” said Vicky Yu, director of business intelligence for NMMA. “We expect another growth year for outboard engines sales in 2020.”
“A strong economy over an extended period of time certainly has a lot to do with strong motor and boat sales,” said Gus Blakely, vice president marine sales, Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. “The repower market is also important as people get back into boating, and want to take advantage of the latest advancements in engine technology by replacing their old, low-tech outboards with today’s reliable, fuel efficient models. The growing popularity of large center console and express boat models designed for twin, triple or quad outboard motors is also obviously helping to boost overall sales numbers.”
“Today’s boats are bigger, longer, heavier and they need bigger horsepower motors, and more of them,” added Brian Meyer, category director, outboard propulsion, Mercury Marine. “However, the escalation in horsepower is not unique to the center consoles. They are running bigger motors in pontoons, fishing boats and other types as well. The outboard sales growth has been magnified by a unit growth in several categories. So it just has a multiplying effect.”
Tracy Crocker, president of BRP Marine Group, said he feels the outboard industry really created a value proposition for the boating consumer that has been hard to beat.
“The outboards on the market today are not incrementally better, they are exponentially better than what you saw in the past,” said Crocker. “Quality, durability, performance, aesthetics, have all improved dramatically. Every outboard engine manufacturer has been investing in their products and I really think we have all made each other better.”
Another thing that is also improving is the collaboration and cooperation between boat builders and outboard engine manufacturers.
“There has to be a working partnership there from the outset to take into account center of gravity, and certification of the boat and on and on,” Crocker explained. “So there isn’t a scenario where anyone is just bolting four big engines on the back of the boat at the end of the production process and calling it good. There is a lot more collaboration between boat builder and engine builder these days.”
Mercury Marine’s Meyer said they also have a very strong product integration team working closely with the OEMs during the design process.
That could mean assisting boat builders with structural reviews, sea trials and recommendations on proper boat setup and changes to improve stability, drivability, and performance.
Honda Marine recently had the opportunity to help design what the engine builder describes as “an entirely new boat from the waterline up” when they worked with the planners and builders at SanJuanYachts to develop the all-new SJ32 center console.
Powered by Honda Marine BF250 intelligent shift and throttle electronically controlled outboard motors as original equipment, the SJ32 prototype can support speeds as high as 55 mph.
The boat debuted at IBEX in Tampa last October, and then hull No. 1 was in the water at the Miami International Boat Show.
At Miami, Boating Industry had the chance to ride in – and drive – the boat. And though we didn’t go 55 mph, at 35 in the chop outside of Biscayne Bay the ride was smooth and dry.
“Our partnership with Honda Marine began on day one, and we designed the SJ32 exclusively for the Honda BF250 ist engines, said Gilbert Villareal, CEO of SanJuanYachts. “SanJuanYachts had been interested in entering the sportfishing market for some time but didn’t have total confidence to be successful until we collaborated with Honda Marine.”
Speaking of interesting collaborations, Mercedes-AMG and Cigarette Racing Team unveiled its newest partnership project at Miami: a special edition 59-foot Tirranna AMG boat and a Cigarette Edition of the Mercedes-AMG 63 SUV.
Cigarette says the new Tirranna, powered by no less than six Mercury Racing 450R outboards, is a cross between a “luxury yacht and a performance-oriented super console” and is meant to reflect Mercedes-AMG’s “Performance Luxury” ideology.
In South Florida these days, center consoles are king, both at the boat show(s), and among the general boating public.
And we saw Yamaha’s 425hp XTO Offshore motor powering a lot of them.
“This engine is designed to take us to the next level of what we can possibly do with outboard motors within the industry,” Yamaha Marine Group President Ben Speciale said of the XTO Offshore when they introduced it. “We are answering the call for bigger boats with a different platform, a big-block 5.6L V8. It’s all about integrating power systems into much larger boats.”
Not long ago a 40-foot center console might have once been a bit of an oddity. However, the number of them at that size, and bigger, that have appeared on the market over the past few years underscores the growing trend toward larger and more powerful boats with more motors hanging off the transom.
Gus Blakely of Suzuki says multi-engine installations were a primary factor in the development of their new 350hp and 300hp outboards with contra-rotating propellers.
“This design excels at pushing today’s large, heavy, center console fishing boats, especially when they’re loaded down with people, gear, ice and the day’s catch,” said Blakely. “Twin contra-rotating propellers also minimize the effects of steering torque, translate more of the engine’s power to forward movement and increase fuel efficiency. They also provide exceptional vessel control on close-quarter maneuvering situations like docking and launching/retrieving.”
Meet in the middle
Not all of the outboard growth has been centered on the big boys though. Although the sales of 300hp-plus motors are up 18%, the 200hp – 300hp category now accounts for one-third of all outboard sales.
And about 90% of the market is 250hp and under.
That’s why several of the engine manufacturers we spoke to said they aren’t concerning themselves with the horsepower “arms race.”
“We’ve instead focused on bringing our best innovations and technologies from the top of our line down through our entire horsepower range,” Blakely said. “There are a whole lot of boats out there that don’t run big V6 outboards, and we want to capture as many of those sales as possible.”
BRP’s Tracy Crocker also said he’s not concerned Evinrude is behind some of the competition in terms of pure horsepower output.
He said they are more focused on things such as improving performance, power-to-weight ratios, fuel economy, reliability and ease of maintenance.
Crocker also said the next boating generation is more interested in finding boats that meet their needs, rather than on big motors.
Honda Marine’s outboard offerings top out at 250hp, and they say they are also concentrating on “the core of the market,” and improving and refreshing their products, though they are also paying attention to what they call the “extra-large outboards.”
Easy does it
I’ll tell you what else everyone is paying attention to, and that is improving and simplifying the boating experience.
That includes everything from digital shifting, to single throttle controls, power steering, joysticks, systems integration and apps linking boats and motors to smartphones.
Meyers says, “It’s all about creating the best experience on the water, right?”
Volvo Penta has integrated all Seven Marine outboards with the company’s electronic vessel control (EVC) and associated easy boating solutions such as DuoProp, joystick docking and driving, glass cockpit and more.
The Volvo Penta Integrated Outboard Experience debuted first on a Tiara Sport 38LS and also earned an NMMA Innovation Award in the outboard category at the Miami Boat Show.
Boating Industry recently spent some time on the docks in Miami with Honda engineer and strategic planning department head Jim Loftus, who says that to attract more people to the boating lifestyle above all it has to be fun.
“Our primary vision at Honda Marine is simply concentrating on providing a safe, reliable, comfortable boating experience.”
BRP’s Tracy Crocker said a boat is a boat, and a motor is a motor, and to a certain extent some things may never fundamentally change.
However, he says the industry can work to change some of the paradigms around that.
“I think all of us are working on big things such as making it easier to get into boating, as well as easier to drive a boat, maintain a boat, and own a boat. We are constantly trying to improve the overall boating lifestyle experience. And outboards can certainly play an important role in that.”