Outboard innovation

Five engine manufacturers offer new technologies to sustain consumer interest

The past year has seen a number of new outboard products entering the market. Manufacturers want to provide existing consumers with the option to repower or add power to their vessels, which is an unsurprising emphasis considering that nearly half, or 7.9 million, of recreational boats in use are outboard-power motor boats, according to our 2014 Market Data Book.

We spoke with five outboard engine manufacturers to discuss what motivated their new products and the reasoning behind the technologies in which they chose to invest.

A clean sheet of paper

When Evinrude looked at its current ETEC engines, as well as other direct injection two-cycle engines within the industry, the company found that the products were all originally carbureted engines that were converted to direct injection.

“We have a really good lineup of ETEC engines today but ... we were limited in what we could accomplish because we were using blocks that had been around, in some cases, for several decades,” said Jason Eckman, product marketing manager of the marine propulsion systems division at BRP.

Selective gear rotation in Suzuki engines helps dealers make an instant sale, the company says.

Selective gear rotation in Suzuki engines helps dealers make an instant sale, the company says.

With the new ETEC G2 model, Evinrude developed direct injection technology from the ground up.  The product development team at Evinrude spent years learning about direct injection technology and found that using older block technology inhibited their design goals.

Eckman says the new ETEC G2 engine provides customers a 15 percent improvement in fuel economy, 20 percent more torque and 75 percent fewer emissions. Advancements in computer modeling allowed the company to conduct simulation ahead of prototype creation. The G2 also won a MIBS innovation award for outboard engines.

“It all comes down to perfecting the combustion inside that cylinder. When you do that right … fuel economy, power and emissions are the byproduct,” said Eckman. “A lot of the energy in the project was focused on designing an engine block that allowed for good combustion.”

Eckman compared a two-cycle engine to a musical instrument: every component affects the other. The intake/air flowing into the cylinder, the cylinder head and the fuel and air mixture, the location of the fuel injector and the exhaust manifold as the exhaust is flowing out of the cylinder.

“You have the get all of those things right in order to have good combustion. It’s never just one element,” said Eckman. “You have to have all the parts well-tuned.”

Evinrude also added fully-integrated digital controls to the G2 engines because it improves reliability, said Eckman. Removing mechanical linkages from prior generations reduces routine servicing on the engines as the digital controls do not require as much adjustment, and it improves the boater experience by providing smooth shift and throttle. Digital controls also allowed Evinrude to integrate its I-Trim function, which allows the engine to trim itself once the customer turns it on. Eckman says this was originally targeted at new boaters but has received praise from existing customers as well.

Eckman says customers have also told Evinrude that the clean rigging of the engine is a huge improvement and that they hope to see it used on other platforms. All of the hoses for steering, battery cables, fuel lines and more in the G2 engine run through a single rigging tube, which does not move when the engine is turned. Eckman says this provides a cleaner back of the boat and increased space, in some cases as much as two feet.

“I’ve heard a lot of consumers say, when they see it for the first time,” Eckman said, “‘Of course, why aren’t they all that way?’”

Additionally, in order to meet consumer expectations, Evinrude focused on customization with the G2 engine. Eckman said that in many cases, customers were paying $3,000 per engine to add a custom paint job to integrate the engine with the boat.

“Each of the brands have always had their brand colors … but consumers don’t care about that. That’s almost more of an industry thing. We’ve seen year after year, especially in the saltwater markets, that when a customer is paying $500,000-plus for a boat, it’s not acceptable for the engine not to match the boat,” said Eckman.

The G2 engine thus comes with five side, top and front panel color options and 14 accent color choices.

“Why wouldn’t everybody want to have that same feature that the guy buying [an expensive] boat would? By designing the engine so that it’s easily customized, we brought that feature down to a level that anybody can afford,” said Eckman. “When you ask people how important the style of their engine is, they will often tell you that it doesn’t matter at all. They talk about reliability, fuel economy and performance, but design certainly plays an aspect in all of our lives and it’s sometimes hard to quantify.”

Honda is focusing on expanding the number of boaters through value products in the midrange category.

Honda is focusing on expanding the number of boaters through value products in the midrange category.

One challenge Evinrude chose to undertake was extending its warranty, which Eckman says the company was able to accomplish by increasing the size of the water pump and adding a gear oil reservoir bottle. The reservoir bottle allows customers to ensure the quality and quantity of gear oil in the gear case is top-notch, according to Eckman, and these features allowed Evinrude to guarantee a five-year, 500-hour no-dealer scheduled maintenance interval.

“That’s also core to the technology. Because it’s a two-cycle engine, it doesn’t need an oil change. If you’ve ever had your boat hauled out of the marina just to have an oil change done, and in many cases you’re spending $1,000 or more for the maintenance, that’s something that we know is not supporting the consumer experience and we wanted to improve that,” said Eckman.

Eckman says it was a key decision to reinvest in two-cycle technology because Evinrude believes it is better for the consumer, despite how different it is from the four-stroke models in which most of the outboard segment has invested.

“While BRP makes a lot of four-stroke motors, they typically go on vehicles that have a transmission, like an ATV or even on a Sea-Doo watercraft with the jet pump, the difference being with the transmission or the jet pump. A four-cycle engine is able to get up to the peak RPM quickly either through the transmission or the slipping of the jet pump,” said Eckman. “With an outboard, you have a propeller, which is basically like having one gear in your car. In order to get to the peak horsepower, you need a lot of torque. Nothing makes better torque than a two-cycle engine because you’re getting combustion with each rotation of the crank shot.”

Midrange product brings in new boaters

While Honda Marine produces outboard engines from 2.3 to 250 horsepower, much of its focus is in midrange products. Without giving away too many details, Mark DiPietro, senior manager of Honda Marine, said this is where the company will be focusing the development of new products and that the company will be able to leverage the strengths of the brand from the automotive side.

“We’re trying to utilize the strength of our brand name and try to do a lot of different things, instead of just upgrade a current boater to a larger boat, to bring new and diverse people into boating,” said DiPietro. “We want to make sure we have lots of good options for customers [as well as] well-priced options that bring all of the features that Honda has available. … I think people are going to be excited about what they’re going to see from Honda.”

DiPietro is confident the midrange category of outboards will be the most effective way to attract new boaters to the recreation. While the outboard market is very healthy right now, DiPietro believes it is important to continue to grow boating through value products.

“You’ve got some people who will only have a portable and it’s good to have a very stable base … but I really think the 40 through 115 [range] … is really where there’s the biggest opportunity for growth,” said DiPietro. “We should all enjoy where we are now and look to expand the base of boaters, as opposed to just sell the biggest stuff we can.”

Honda also believes its BF 2.3 hp four-stroke engine, which launched in 2013, is another entry point option for new boaters. The portable engine features environmental improvements that include a multi-layer fuel tank and a vented fuel cap, all of which protect the environment for evaporative emissions.

“It’s a good seller for us. A lot of that has to do with the price point on [the engine]. It’s a great gateway [or] entry into the marine world, but it’s just 2.3 horsepower. People will buy it to use the jon boat or for a canoe, but they’ll move quickly up into the 5 or 9.9, or other products we have,” said DiPietro.

Mercury says the cold air induction system in the new Verado series outboards makes a big difference in the power Mercury is able to generate.

Mercury says the cold air induction system in the new Verado series outboards makes a big difference in the power Mercury is able to generate.

DiPietro says Honda Marine is the best-known brand in the industry because, while the market is dominated by several of its competitors, the Honda name resonates most with customers, particularly first-time buyers.

“We can really leverage our strengths, the recognition we have on the auto side and the powersports side to really make a push in the marine world,” said DiPietro. “We really think that the Honda name is the strongest brand in the industry and it’s something we can leverage. … We think it’s a real opportunity for us to help the entire industry to bring new and more diverse customers into the marketplace and then leverage the technologies that we bring.”

Honda’s VTEC system is something the company is able to leverage across all of its engines, said DiPietro, which he says gives customers extra power and allows for great fuel economy in the cruising range above a certain RPM. VTEC moved throughout Honda’s automotive lineup through the 1990s and entered the marine segment in the 2000s.

VTEC works to vary the lift and duration of the intake valve opening to deliver performance at both low and high RPM. The technology provides a broad, flat torque curve and smooth power delivery throughout the engine’s operating range.

The manufacturer is also able to add automotive features to its engines. For instance, just as cars have maintenance reminders, Honda includes maintenance reminders on its entire NEMA product, which is more or less anything outside of portable outboards, said DiPietro.

Honda focuses on products that are easy to maintain, as its data shows that 25 percent of boaters do their own maintenance, and the company wants its customers to have the confidence to perform service themselves.

In Honda engine castings, molds hold and direct the wires. Customers can take off small pieces of the side covers so they do not have to remove the entire side cover, which allows them to access the spark plugs on the V6s. Oil filters are also placed in such a way to make it easy to change the gear oil or to replace the water pump propeller.

“Ease of maintenance is one of our hallmarks for what we bring to the table when we design a product,” said DiPietro. “It’s great when the customer has the option to do the maintenance themselves. … It is very helpful to point out [ease of maintenance in Honda outboards] to customers, and it can bring new people in.”

Power ahead

With the new additions of the 350 and 400R hp engines to the Verado series, which Mercury introduced at the Miami International Boat Show this year, Mercury underwent what David Foulkes, vice president of engineering at Mercury and Brunswick Corporation, called a “systems engineering exercise.” The goal was to increase the power and torque levels in the engines, all with the purpose of retaining good top speed, acceleration and midrange performance. 

In the process of this exercise, Mercury added a whole new induction system. The engines include a cold air induction system that takes air from outside the cowl and ducts it directly into the intake system. Mercury also upgraded the supercharger on the engine and the fuel system to complement the changes to the induction system.

“Verado has always been supercharged but now we have a water-cooled supercharger and that makes the charger more effective and more efficient,” said Foulkes.

Both of these make a big difference in the power the engines are able to generate, said Foulkes. He added that in order to handle that increased torque and power level, Mercury made a lot of changes to make the overall engine more robust.

“We wanted to deliver new levels of performance without compromising the durability and reliability of the Verado product,” said Foulkes. “It’s nice to get that good combination of a power increase while also being able to help with fuel economy.”

The 350 and 400R include several design upgrades to the base engine, particularly the cylinder head. Mercury changed the design of the midsection of the outboard to accommodate higher loads and modified the gear cases to reduce friction in the engine.

Mercury’s new products are reflective of a market that demands more and more power, most notably in the offshore saltwater fishing market, which Boating Industry highlighted in its February issue. Foulkes noted that offshore fishing has been one of the strongest rebounding segments in the industry.

Mercury chose to offer its Verado series in cold fusion and warm fusion white to better match its engines to the varying gel coat colors available from boat OEMs.

Mercury chose to offer its Verado series in cold fusion and warm fusion white to better match its engines to the varying gel coat colors available from boat OEMs.

“The boats in that segment are getting larger and larger. They cross from 35 feet up above 40 feet, and now some manufacturers are even above 50 feet with outboard-powered offshore fishing boats. In order to facilitate those increases, we need to put more power on the back of the boat. That whole segment is driving towards increasing power, both increasing power from each individual engine and then putting more and more engines on the back of the boat,” said Foulkes. “I think people are coming to expect, from their cars and other transportation, that they’re going to get increased power and performance, and they’re going to get increased refinement and smoothness … at the same time. Verado is really the only product that delivers that combination in the market place, that’s what differentiates it.”

The Verado series is further differentiated through its flexibility, said Foulkes. Wherever customers may have a 300 hp Verado they will be able to replace it with a 350 or 400R, as long as the transom is rated for it.

Foulkes also says the 350 hp Verado is an industry leader in weight. Coming in at 668 pounds, Foulkes claims it is 95 pounds lighter than the nearest competing 350 model, adding that the engine is also more compact and that it will fit on 26-inch center spacing, whereas competition requires 29.5 inches.

“That’s a large amount if you have one engine on the back, but if you have three or four, that’s a huge benefit,” said Foulkes. “We can get more steering angle and more engines on a narrow-beam boat than the competition.”

While Mercury is offering several technological advancements, the company continues to provide products that are just as easy for the operator to service as a dealer.

“We put a huge effort into making service and maintenance procedures very easy to understand and conduct,” said Foulkes. “[We have a] very comprehensive view and a thoughtful view on how to make these outboards as unintimidating, intuitive and easy to service and maintain as possible.”

The Verado series does come in customizable colors – traditional phantom black, cold fusion white and wall fusion white – but customization is not the manufacturer’s main focus. The new colors were largely in response to customers who were painting their black outboards, and they wanted a factory option for a white outboard that came with the normal quality and warranty.

“It’s always a bit of a balance in terms of customization. We want to offer as broad a capability for customization as we can, but we always want to offer something that meets our quality requirements and doesn’t, in any way, compromise the overall reliability or aesthetics of the outboard.”

Automotive drives marine

If there is anyone who feels optimistic about the outboard market’s potential, it’s Suzuki. The company reported that it finished its last fiscal year at its best levels since 2008 and has already exceeded its goals for 2015.

“We’re on track to have another record year in marine,” said Gus Blakely, general manager of national sales, planning and development at Suzuki Marine. “The American economy is on the rebound right now and I feel like our products are poised for our consumers in the United States.”

Blakely said there is a good opportunity for Suzuki in the outboard segment going forward, particularly with the introduction of its DF200AP engine at the Miami International Boat Show this year. Blakely called the DF200AP Suzuki’s flagship in the four-cylinder AP line.

The DF200AP, like all Suzuki outboards, comes with electronic fuel injection but is different from the DF200A in that it is a four-cylinder engine versus a V6.

“This product delivers the same kind of performance, it’s about 100 pounds lighter and fuel economy in the upper-mid range level is about a 32.6 percent increase against our V6,” said Blakely. “We want to be able to replace older, lighter weight, two-stroke engines when we can.”

Blakely said Suzuki believes in four-stroke technology and thinks this shift will continue to sustain outboards as a leader in the industry.

Evinrude says customers are looking for engines that integrate with their hulls.

Evinrude says customers are looking for engines that integrate with their hulls.

“I think that outboard power is the best solution in boating. … An outboard is easy to work on because it’s outside the boat. Today’s boats have a 25-year life span so I think outboards tend to lend themselves to being easier to repower. In areas where there are shallow water concerns, outboards tend to perform better because of the ability to be trimmed up and out of the water,” said Blakely. “There are lots of merits to outboard engines and I think as outboards have moved to four-stroke technology, we’ve taken away all of the advantages that [I/Os] had.”

The DF200AP introduces Suzuki’s selective gear rotation system, a simple plug that allows Suzuki to provide gear rotation from the left and right in the same product. The DF200AP requires a different gear case than the DF200A as a result.

“From a boat builder standpoint or a dealer standpoint, he doesn’t have to order a left-hand rotation or right-hand rotation. The same engine can go left or right with a simple plug,” said Blakely. “If a guy came in for twin engines, [dealers] had to make sure they had a left engine or right-hand rotation engine. Now we’ve taken that out of the boat builder’s or the dealer’s concern because he [now has] both engines with one engine.”

The DF200AP, as a four-stroke engine, will also have greater trade-in value with its selective gear rotation, said Blakely. It also reduces parts for dealers, boat OEMs, customers and Suzuki itself, as the engine only requires one kind of propeller instead of a right-hand and left-hand and requires less equipment to be carried. Suzuki expects selective rotation to be expanded further down its product line as it is a key feature to the brand.

The DF200AP also introduced Suzuki Precision Control, which allows the engine to come with electronic shift and throttle and to work with Suzuki Precision Maneuvering, which is the manufacturer’s joystick control system. Suzuki is now able to put joystick control on twin-engine applications from 150 to 300 horsepower.

“That’s something we previously had on our 250 and 300 [horsepower engines]. We now have that on our 200 with select rotation,” said Blakely. “We have one of the largest lineups of outboards that can take and use joystick control.”

However, the true highlight of the DF200AP is the new keyless start system, which Blakely calls a first in the marine industry. Suzuki uses a floating key fob with push button starting, acting as a theft deterrent and utilizing technologies Suzuki has available through automotive and motorcycle products.

“This system is a theft deterrent but it was also designed to be more in tune with automobile technology where you’re getting used to … ease of operation,” said Blakely.

Easy-to-use technology is a focus point for Suzuki’s engineering department, and the easy-to-use technology and reliability consumers have become accustomed to in the automotive industry has driven design in marine, according to Blakely.

“As a society, we’ve come to expect that [ease of use] as the norm. … We want to move away from those days when people couldn’t enjoy their outboard because it didn’t start or something was broken,” said Blakely. “We’ve gotten to a point that there is a really high expectation with today’s consumer, and maybe ‘ease of use’ is not the best term but it’s an easy way for our engineers to encompass everything. No matter what we do, there’s more to the design than just the design – it’s making it easy to use and to make sure it works every single time.”

Technology access for all

Yamaha Marine introduced six new V6 models to the V MAX SHO line of engines, which launched at the Minneapolis Boat Show this year.

The manufacturer sought to reduce weight in its engines and was able to accomplish this through plasma fusion, which is a process by which a heavy steel coating is applied to the inside of the cylinder walls. It takes the place of a heavier steel liner and creates a low friction surface that allows the pistons and the cylinders to move up and down easily – thereby saving on fuel consumption.

“It’s a technology that, as far as we know, isn’t being used by anybody else in the industry,” said Martin Peters, communication and dealer education manager of Yamaha Marine.

For smaller models, such as the VF 175, Yamaha uses four valves per cylinder and Variable Camshaft Timing (VCT), which Peters says allows a four-stroke engine to produce a tremendous amount of low- and mid-range torque.

Yamaha expanded its V MAX SHO line in order for more consumers to benefit from four-stroke technology.

Yamaha expanded its V MAX SHO line in order for more consumers to benefit from four-stroke technology.

“It’s about having that kind of mid-range punch, which leads the boat coming out of the hole quicker and coming to plane quicker,” said Peters.

These improvements were significant to Yamaha when designing its four-stroke engines, as the manufacturer wanted to ensure its four-stroke lineup included the few benefits of a two-stroke engine, which tend to have better acceleration. Peters says Yamaha optimized the power potential of the four-strokes and at the same time lightened them to match the weight of a two-stroke.

“We have reduced the weight of the four-strokes to equal that of the two-strokes and at the same time provided the power potential and all of the benefits of a four-stroke,” said Peters. “That’s something consumers want. We’ve combined the best of all possible worlds, particularly in the V MAX SHO lineup.”

Another new feature is Yamaha’s increased shaft length with its V MAX SHO 250 and 150 X-shaft engines, up from 20 inches to 25.

“It allows more and more consumers to avail themselves of that particular technology. The 25-inch shaft length means Midwestern boaters, in particular, can now have that technology for their multi-species boats,” said Peters. “That outboard is appropriate for a lot of applications in the way of bay boats and intraboats.”

Customers who have praised the new V MAX SHO lineup have expressed excitement about the engines with variable trolling RPM, said Peters, which allows the user – either through a command link gauge or through a utility belt, depending upon the outboard – to adjust the RPM in 15 RPM increments so it makes trolling easier.

Technological advancements are what outboard consumers desire most, said Peters. With the expansion of the V MAX SHO line, Peters says Yamaha is offering the opportunity for more and more consumers to benefit from the manufacturer’s technologies.

“Consumers always want more. They always want something that’s better than what they currently have, so there has to be continuous improvement. There always has to be an increase in the technologies that are applied,” said Peters. “There are a tremendous number of two-stroke outboards currently in the [segment] and those outboards, we could argue, aren’t as efficient from a fuel standpoint [and] they aren’t as clean from an emission standpoint. We are giving folks more and more reason to switch to a cleaner, quieter, more fuel-efficient four-stroke.”


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