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Survey says: You get what you pay for

One illuminating period of my life was the five years I spent as director of the marine division at J.D. Power and Associates. The customer satisfaction research firm had just gotten started in the marine sector, apparently figuring the time was ripe to branch out from its comparatively boring automotive, travel, insurance and electronics practice areas into something fun, like boats.

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I’d always been fascinated by the boats themselves — for instance, how they interacted with waves, preferably short of capsizing. But this feet-first jump into marine market research helped me see how an intelligently crafted marine study could actually help manufacturers build better boats and help consumers end up with a boat they like a lot more — in other words, a more satisfying boat ownership experience.

Here’s how it works: Every year, J.D. Power and Associates conducts its Boat Competitive Information Study, along with a derivative Marine Engine Study. The data and analysis from the study is sold to boat and engine manufacturers so they can prioritize product improvement efforts. (The annual results are issued in February at the Miami International Boat Show.) The study is based on a survey of thousands of people who bought a new boat in the last 12 months in one of seven different segments: small runabouts (16- to 19-foot bowriders and cuddies, but not deckboats), large runabouts (20 to 29 feet), express cruisers (24 to 33 feet), pontoon boats, fiberglass bass boats, ski and wakeboard boats, and coastal fishing boats (17- to 30-foot center consoles, dual consoles and walkarounds).

The survey is long and detailed, taking a good 45 minutes to fill out and running eight pages with more than 200 questions. It generates a lot of data and analysis. In the survey, buyers are asked about their level of satisfaction with their boat and engine, and their dealer’s sales and service experience. Owners also are asked what problems they experienced with their boats and engines, and their replies form the basis of the study’s quality ratings; the more problems reported, the lower the quality.

From these survey results, boatbuilders who pay for the information — they get all the data on all the brands, not just their own, a huge help competitively — learn a lot about what really makes a boater satisfied or dissatisfied with a purchase. Since most people who buy similar boats use them for like purposes, the experiences of these survey respondents can be an extremely useful prism through which to view your own boat needs and your decisions on basic equipment, options and where to do business.

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If you’re wondering why your favorite brand isn’t included, it’s because there weren’t enough boats from that builder built in the previous year to yield 500 valid owner names and addresses and, therefore, 100 survey returns, assuming a 20 percent response rate. Every boat brand meeting those criteria is included automatically, whether or not manufacturers pay for the reports.

For each of the seven segments covered in the study, the market survey sections on those boats will have additional information to consider regarding what appears to be most important to the customer. These attributes will vary from one segment to another. For example, styling is more important to runabout owners, fishability to coastal fishing-boat owners, and storage space to wakeboard-boat owners. Even if you are shopping for a boat that isn’t in one of these seven segments, you can gain insight into what is important to boaters in general, and perhaps adjust your own boat selection priorities accordingly.

Let’s take a look at what the study has to offer you as a boat buyer. Within the study, there are three fundamental categories of useful information for the buyer: product satisfaction, product quality and dealer satisfaction.

Product satisfaction
On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being outstanding and 1 being unacceptable), customers are asked how satisfied they are with more than 60 different attributes within eight different boat categories: cabin, engine, ride and handling, helm and instrument panel, design and styling, sound system, water sports and fishing. For example, questions in the design and styling category include exterior appearance, cleat functionality, fuel fill accessibility, fuel capacity, and ease of boarding from the water. Satisfaction is a completely subjective rating, but it’s surprising how consistently owners of certain brands rate their boats using the 1-to-10 scale from year to year. Therein lies the usefulness of the data.

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Among all the boat segments, as an average, some are consistently rated higher than others. The ski and wakeboard segment is rated the highest, as it has been for every year of the study, and it is also the fastest growing. Small runabouts and express cruisers, in contrast, consistently appear near the bottom of the list. Chances are if you buy an inboard-powered wakeboard boat that’s included in the study, you will be satisfied with it.

Within this segment, inline-drive competition ski boats make up a small part of the boats covered in the survey; most are V-drive wakeboard boats. Bass boats are also highly rated each year. Ski boats, wakeboard boats and bass boats are, by no coincidence, also rated high in quality. These are specialized boat types (wakeboard and bass), though wakeboard boats can also be considered inboard-powered, open-bow runabouts in many cases.

At the other end of the scale, there are a number of likely reasons why owners rate their boats lower. Small runabouts, the lowest-rated segment, have a greater tendency to be underpowered, since dealers are anxious to make a sale on these relatively low-priced boats. Once owners have had a chance to use their boats when they’re loaded up with passengers, gear and fuel, they find they don’t have enough power to tow skiers and boarders, and they don’t cruise as fast as they had expected.

Small-runabout owners also tend to include more first-time boat buyers, who as a group rate their boats lower than experienced owners. Express cruisers, also a relatively low-rated segment, have more-experienced owners, but these boats are more complex, so there are more things that can go wrong. And they do go wrong, apparently to a greater extent than many owners expected.

There are two key elements driving owner satisfaction: the design and quality of the product, and the owner’s expectations for the product. Therefore, it’s important for the dealer to make clear to the customer, especially the inexperienced boater, the capabilities and limitations of the boat. Express cruisers are also more expensive boats, and it is natural for an owner to expect more from their bigger investment. But the boats frequently don’t measure up to ski boats, wakeboard boats and bass boats.

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It’s interesting that the higher rated, more expensive boat brands (like Cobalt, Grady-White and MasterCraft) almost always are also rated much higher in value than entry-level, budget-priced boats. In fact, many of the low-priced boats are rated very low in value (and customer loyalty). This is just one of many clues the data reveals, telling all of us as boat owners that, to a large extent, you get what you pay for.

Even though you’d expect that anyone who pays a lot less for a boat of a given size would expect less performance, quality and features, these entry-level boats are still only marginally satisfying. This is aggravated by very low satisfaction with dealer service for these boats after the sale. (There are always exceptions, of course.) The net result is owners are much less satisfied with the boat and the boating experience. The solution is to either lower expectations or spend more money for a boat.

This brings us to a very important concept, the halo effect. When you take a very good boat, install a very good engine, and buy it from a very good dealer, the whole package is better than very good — it’s fantastic. Customer loyalty to the brand is very strong, they rate the boat as a great value, the boats tend to have good resale value, and everyone’s happy. On the other hand, put a small, low-tech engine on a mediocre boat with an uninvolved dealer, and the synergy works in the opposite direction; these owners do not love their boats or their dealers.

And, of course, everyone likes to talk, especially the ones who are upset. Think of it this way. J.D. Power is asking people, not computers, what they think of their boats and their overall boating experience, and dealer performance has a lot to do with satisfaction with the boat. I’m pretty technical, but I’d buy the boat that’s No. 2 or 3 on my list from the superior dealer rather than purchasing my No. 1 selection from a mediocre dealer. The lesson here is to consider the whole package.

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Product quality
Owners are also asked to report any problems they’ve experienced with their boats, and this tally determines the boat’s quality. There are more than 100 possible problems listed in five quality categories: engine and propulsion, ride and handling, exterior, cockpit and interior, and features. Ride and handling problems that might be reported include stiff steering systems, boats pulling to starboard, rides that are too rough, and insufficient power. Five of the 10 most frequently reported problems are engine-related, and three of the 10 are cosmetic. Because of its importance, we’ll look more deeply at engine-related satisfaction below.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that quality impacts owner satisfaction; the more things that go wrong on a boat, the less satisfied the owner will be with it. In the most recent study, for example, 47 percent of the people who reported having no problems rated their boats a 10, while only 17 percent reporting three problems did so. People reporting more than three problems rated their boats even lower. Now consider that the average boat had more than three problems reported. Most of the problems reported involved the engine, emphasizing why it’s important to get a high-tech, high-quality engine.

Higher-quality boats tend to be ranked higher in satisfaction, and higher-quality boats tend to cost more, though that is not always the case. You usually get what you pay for; buy a budget-priced boat, and you likely won’t be as satisfied as someone who buys a more expensive boat. In fact, quality and reliability are among the most frequently cited reasons customers give for buying a new boat.

This leads us to the conclusion that it is almost always better to initially pay more for a higher quality boat with higher quality components and power. You also may well be better off getting the smaller, higher-quality boat than the larger price-point model, or by buying used. The corollary to this is that the bigger and more complex the boat, the more things there are to go wrong, and wrong they do go.

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Marine engines
The power you choose for your boat (or that someone else chose for it) is a key factor in the customer satisfaction calculus. Certainly one of the worst decisions you could make would be to save money by buying a boat with too little power. You might be tempted to buy a leftover model with standard power off the dealer’s lot at a big discount, but it’s just not worth it.

The fact is, getting the biggest engine available, or one of the biggest, is almost always a good idea. It’s one of the reasons leading brands like Regal and CorrectCraft do so well — they just don’t put small engines in their boats, which come factory-rigged with power, by the way. That’s simply because there are so many things you can’t do with a small engine, and this includes the (too-small) standard engine in many boats.

Don’t be fooled when the salesperson takes you out for a spin with a quarter tank of gas and two or three people on board. There will be a big difference in the speed of the new, light boat and one that has a painted bottom, full canvas, full fuel and water tanks, hundreds of pounds of gear, and a full load of passengers — especially with a small boat, less than 30 feet. The small boat’s cargo (fuel, water, passengers, gear) is just a much bigger percentage of the boat’s dry weight.

Keep in mind that dealers want to be able to make the sale, and sometimes the only way they can be competitive is by being able to make a certain price point. But the dealer’s quarterly financial numbers are not your problem. The ability to pull a boarder or skier up quickly; to plane easily with a full load of fuel, passengers and gear; to make it to the fishing grounds at the head of the pack; to get home quickly to beat the weather — these are the important things to the boat owner. Get the high-horsepower, optional power.

Besides having plenty of power in reserve, it’s important not to skimp when selecting fuel delivery technology. There are basically three kinds: carbureted, found in outboards and inboards; electronically fuel-injected (EFI), also found in outboards and inboards; and direct-injected (DI), found in three outboard brands.

While the carbureted outboard, gas inboard, or gas sterndrive engine may be initially cheaper, they can cause a lot of long-term aggravation. These engines are less reliable, harder to start, smoke more, and burn more fuel than an EFI or a DI engine. My recommendation is to get the highest technology engine available. For inboards and sterndrives (the engines are the same; just the drivetrain is different), this means getting the high-horsepower EFI engine. For outboards, this means limiting your choice to either EFI 4-strokes from Honda, Mercury, Yamaha and Suzuki, or DI (or DFI) 2-strokes: Evinrude E-TEC, Yamaha HPDI, and Mercury Optimax.

Again, if you want to be happy with your boat, power it with a big, high-tech engine. Most outboards sold today are EFI 4-strokes, which is a big change from just a few years ago, when most were carbureted and EFI 2-strokes. EFI 4-strokes are also the highest-rated outboards (they all score well), followed by DI 2-strokes (Evinrude E-TEC, Mercury Optimax, and Yamaha HPDI), carbureted 4-strokes and EFI 2-strokes, and, in dead last, carbureted 2-strokes.

Another reason to buy the higher-tech engines is that they have fewer problems. Among coastal fishing boats, for example, 4-stroke EFI outboards have about 0.6 reported problems per boat, while carbureted 2-strokes have 1.6 problems — about three times as many. Horsepower also makes a difference in quality, with larger engines tending to have fewer reported problems. Bottom line: You’ll be happier with the bigger, high-tech engine. You’ll get more use out of the boat and have fewer problems with it.

In the sterndrive arena, the same thing applies — that is, bigger EFI engines are the way to go. The other thing with sterndrives is that counter-rotating-propeller drives — MerCruiser’s Bravo 3 and Volvo’s DuoProp — deliver higher satisfaction than single props, since they handle better both at speed and around the dock. (They’ll back to either port or starboard since there is no side force, or walking effect.) Counter-rotating props hold their heading better at low speed and accelerate strongly. They are also typically found more on bigger, higher-quality, more highly rated boats, so there is likely some halo effect here, with the boat and engine combining to get a better score than either would on their own.

Of course, some boats aren’t suited to these dual-prop drives, such as  boats less than 20 feet, heavy cruisers (they need larger-diameter, slower-turning props), and 80-mph raceboats.

If you have a feeling that a heavily discounted boat in the dealer’s yard is underpowered, it may well be. People who buy the boat with the engine they choose tend to be more satisfied than those who don’t. This often includes having a choice of engine by brand, horsepower and technology. Stick to your guns, in other words, and get the bigger power, with high-tech fuel injection, and, in a sterndrive application, with counter-rotating props.

PowerCircle Ratings
If you want to find out how the 70-odd boat brands in the study performed, look up their PowerCircle Ratings at the J.D. Power Web site ( You can also learn how each brand performs with regard to customer satisfaction by category by reviewing the PowerCircle Ratings that accompany each of the pertinent category write-ups. Boats are assigned from two to five circles in the major satisfaction categories and in overall satisfaction, depending on how customers rated them.

You’ll find that a good number of the brands are rated pretty much in line with their pricing. Some are rated higher or lower than you might expect, and this might be due in part to a dealer network that does a great or a lousy job selling and servicing the boats. But the most rewarding thing is using these PowerCircles to find a boat brand that is clearly superior to its direct price-point competitors in terms of customer satisfaction. Those are the jewels worth finding.

While there’s no substitute for understanding how boats work, it helps a lot to appreciate all the elements that make up the whole boating experience. At the end of the day (and the season) you’ll be a happier boater, and that’s what it’s all about.

Eric Sorensen was the founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.