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Today’s Outboards: What Are Your Choices?

September 21, 2007
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The world of outboard motors was turned on end several years back when the EPA announced stiff criteria for emissions and efficiency with graduated standards extending well into this century. At first the obvious answer to all of this seemed to be four-stroke technology, but engineers took a good hard look at improving the two-strokes to meet incremental emissions standards. Suddenly, two-stroke outboards were quickly improved in terms of efficiency and sophisticated engineering. The new two-strokes are cleaner, more efficient, quieter, and in many cases perfectly able to compete with four-strokes. Even better for the consumer, each technological advance that comes down the pike – and they are coming with increasing rapidity – provides a choice in products. No longer is there one type of outboard power. Now there are real choices based on the kind of fishing you do and your particular needs.

Each of the different technological configurations seems to have its advantages. Two-stroke, so far, has the acceleration and top-end power response that four-stroke can’t quite yet muster. Adding oil is still necessary, and two-strokes still smoke – at least a bit – which is not the case with four-strokes. The four-strokes have the edge in quiet, especially at trolling speed and idle. And, you don’t have to maintain a reservoir of two-stroke oil. Two-strokes are lighter, for the most part, and in some cases more economical on fuel. Most four-stokes cost more initially on a dollar-per-horsepower basis. There are plenty of advantages to recommend each, and there has never been such a variety of power options to meet so many different niches.

We are able to choose a power option that matches the needs of the way we run our boats and fish with them. According to Phil Dyskow, Group President of Yamaha Marine, this is the nature of today’s outboard market. And it’s the biggest reason there is room for so many different types of technology. “One engine can’t do it all in today’s market,” says Dyskow. “Inshore, offshore and bay fishing all have different requirements. This is not a broad industry. There is no plain-vanilla approach. We would prefer not to defend a particular technology, but rather promote the customer’s choice based on his needs.”

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Both two-stroke and four-stroke technologies are improving so rapidly it’s often hard to tell them apart. In fact, many of the new developments bring the two types of power closer and closer together. It makes things far more complicated when you go to fit out a transom with new power, but the engine you end up with bears little resemblance to outboards just a few years ago. As anglers and consumers we’ve never had it so good.

Here’s an overview of what is going on with the major outboard manufacturers, just prior to the 2003 model year.

Bombardier

Bombardier is in the process of making some important distinctions between the two brands it acquired in the outboard world, Evinrude and Johnson. While differences between these two in the past have been mostly a matter of a paint job, they are now becoming two separate product lines. Each has a different focus, different perceived applications and different technologies. Bombardier is standing behind direct-injection, two-stroke technology, and holding it within the Evinrude line. Touting the benefits of direct-injection, two-stroke power, the big-block V6s dominate here – 200-, 225- and 250-hp models. These, along with the rest of the Evinrude line from 75 to 175 horsepower, are being aggressively pushed in the salt water market.

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This is not to say Johnsons aren’t also built for salt water. They are supplied with the same salt-resistant metallurgy and corrosion protection. However, Bombardier has chosen to promote this market distinction. Currently there are Johnson models ranging from six to 70 horsepower available in four-stroke. As a rule of thumb, the lower-horsepower models are being built by Bombardier, while the larger sizes are being acquired through outsource supply agreements. Currently, Bombardier is in the process of formulating its introductions for the coming year, including an increased number of Johnson four-stroke models, but no details have been released. Plans include maintaining both the Evinrude FICHT direct-injection technology and the Johnson four-stroke motors in order to provide unprecedented choice for anglers. www.johnson.com; www.evinrude.com.

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Honda

There has never been any doubt as to the preferred technology in outboards from Honda. With 95 models offered, the company just keeps putting out the kind of motors that have provided a sterling reputation over the past 35 years. Honda’s Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) is the company’s answer to power demands at higher rpm. A sophisticated mechanical system engages a second rocker-arm assembly once a certain rpm level is reached; when the second rocker arm engages, it alters the power delivery to maintain efficiency at higher speeds. The 225-hp outboard introduced last year found a solid place in the offshore market, and now is making inroads into the bay-style boat market and even beginning to show up on the back of flats skiffs, too. The newest motors in the Honda lineup are 15- and 20-hp models, which weigh about the same as most 9.9-hp engines. Honda is saying nothing about the gap between 130 and 200 horses, nor are they talking about anything bigger than 225 – for the time being. www.honda-marine.com.

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Suzuki

Suzuki is moving rapidly – at least for the outboard industry -toward all-four-stroke technology. In fact, right now there are only a couple of two-strokes models still in the Suzuki line. Both the V6 EFI 150 and the 225 V6 have been extremely successful and popular motors over the years, and are understandably the last to be replaced. But other than these, there is no room for direct-injection technology in the Suzuki lineup at all. New in the four-stroke line are four- and six-horse motors, arguably of limited use to salt water anglers. But more significant is a 140-hp motor. At 410 pounds, this motor boasts the best power-to-weight ratio of any production four-stroke in its class. With this boast, the motor is being targeted at the bay- and flats-boat market, where Suzuki feels its comparative light weight will give it an edge over competitors’ somewhat heavier motors in the same power range. Suzuki is also doing a fair amount of private labeling, though no one really wants to talk about it much. Pop the cowling on another outboard and you just might find a Suzuki four-stroke underneath. www.suzukimarine.com.

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Yamaha

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At Yamaha, the list of model deletions for 2002 is the same length as the new model list, so in terms of number of products they are holding their own. Significant additions to the product line include new two-strokes featuring High Pressure Direct Injection (HPDI) technology, as well as new additions to the line of the hugely successful Yamaha four-stokes. Some of the biggest news is the HPDI 250, a monster that is astoundingly smooth and quiet for a two-stroke, not to mention powerful. Less likely to grab headlines, but in a lot of ways just as significant, is the series of high-thrust four-stokes. There are three models: an eight-, a 50- and a 60-hp. That larger one will interest shallow-water salt water anglers. Designed for non-planing hulls, this motor shows serious promise on tunnel boats designed to run in extremely shallow water – hulls that essentially are already on plane and simply need to be pushed along. The high-thrust 60 is geared lower than similar power configurations, and is propped for thrust. It’s a push motor, not a planing motor, and it likely will carve out a pretty good niche on the shallows of Florida Bay and along the Texas coast.

Additionally, new models from Yamaha will continue to fill out the line between 115 and 200 hp – the segment of the market that seems to be the last to go four-stroke, no matter which manufacturer you look at. Expect to see a larger, more powerful outboard (HPDI in particular) from Yamaha in the near future – though company spokesmen won’t ‘fess up with a hp rating, bet on it being big. www.yamaha-motor.com.

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Tohatsu

Tohatsu Outboards, which markets an identical line under a different cowling as Nissan Marine, is pushing forward with both two-stroke direct-injection and four-stroke technologies. Every model from 30 hp down will eventually be a four-stroke engine. Above that, they are all two-strokes. All two-stroke motors either have been or will be converted to the new Tohatsu Low Pressure Direct Injection (TLDI) system, including the newly introduced 40 and the current 50, 70 and 90. The Tohatsu 115 and 140 and Nissan 120 and 140 models are expected to receive TLDI treatment in the next year or two. TLDI is the great leap forward at Tohatsu that has provided the cleaner burn, reduced emissions and improved performance and speed that has brought these two-stroke motors into the 21st Century and into regulatory compliance through 2007. The Tohatsu 90 is a good case in point. Recently we had the opportunity to a spend day fishing inshore in a Tohatsu 90-powered skiff supplied by Ryan Blumberg of Omni Marine in Englewood, Florida. Notable is Blumberg’s experience with servicing Tohatsu outboards. Warranty work, he reports, has been all but nonexistent, except for an occasional cowling damaged in shipment, which speaks volumes about Tohatsu’s reliability. This particular 90-hp model has over the years carved out a stellar reputation around the world. With the recent TLDI upgrade, the performance and economy is remarkable. To say that Tohatsu has made significant inroads into sophisticated two-stroke technology is an understatement. Noise levels were noticeably improved over expectations for a two-stroke outboard. Lightweight and snappy throughout the power curve, its performance left little to be desired. For a fishing boat where response and power-to-weight ratio is critical without sacrificing economy and reliability, the Tohatsu is an obvious choice. www.tohatsu.com; www.nissanmarine.com.

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Mercury

The word at Mercury is no new announcements until later this month. For the time being, OptiMax is the favored technology. The company is offering a 225-hp four-stroke provided by an outside manufacturing agreement. Other than that, all energy is going into what the company officially calls “Project X.” This technology promises big things, but is still a big secret. Mercury does acknowledge that this is where two-stroke performance meets four-stroke technology. A dummy motor case at the Miami Boat Show last year had the narrow design consistent with the requirements of an in-line, six-cylinder configuration. Rumors of the new technology abound, such as a 400-hp motor currently being tested. This can’t be substantiated, but it’s not too unrealistic to suspect that the lack of four-stroke power at higher speeds and the apparent ceiling of 250-300 hp are being addressed with a turbine or supercharger under the cowling. Mercury officials do say the first product released will be a big motor “consistent with our heritage.” Beyond that, it’s all guesses until announcements are made to dealers later this month. The rest of the world will be treated to Project X technology in February at the Miami Boat Show. www.mercurymarine.com.

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