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The smart buyer: How many horses do you need?

One of the most important decisions a new-boat buyer faces is choosing the engine, and boatbuilders increasingly are offering several options when it comes to outboard propulsion.

The Whaler 230 Vantage is offered with several power options.

The Boston Whaler 230 Vantage in our dual consoles package can be powered with a 225-, 250- or 300-hp Mercury Verado 4-stroke. That’s quite a range, so how many horses is enough? That depends on how you’re going to use the boat and how long you anticipate owning it, says Soundings technical consultant Erik Klockars.

A higher-horsepower engine makes more sense if you plan to run offshore 10 to 20 miles every weekend, sometimes in rough conditions, says Klockars. “With a more powerful engine, you won’t need to push the engine as hard to get to the speed you want, which will help with its durability and longevity,” says Klockars.

Also, the extra power and acceleration in the midrange will help when operating in rough seas, which often calls for constant throttle adjustments. And if you’re fishing offshore, you’ve probably loaded the boat with ice, food, bait and a buddy or two — perhaps three. You’ll need the horsepower to compensate for that weight, says Klockars.

If you plan to use the boat primarily for day trips, the lower-horsepower engine should suffice, says Klockars. “You won’t be racking up so many hours and beating on the engine like an offshore fisherman would,” he says. However, if you plan to use the boat for water sports towing, the bigger outboard will provide the power you need.

“It’s like if you went to buy a pickup truck,” says Klockars. “If you plan to haul and tow, you would want the big V-8 engine and the tow package. If the vehicle will function only for transporting people, save the money and get the V-6 or the smaller engine.”

Cost, of course, is another factor in the decision. The 230 Vantage with a single 225-hp Verado retails for $92,537. With a 250- or 300-hp Verado, the price increases $1,337 and $4,596, respectively.

If you plan to sell the boat in a couple of years, the higher-horsepower outboard will likely hold a better resale value, says Klockars. “And you’ll want to find out which engine has been the most popular with this boat, so when it comes time to sell, it’s powered with what people want,” he says.

You should also consider the fuel economy of each engine package. Ask the salesperson to provide performance data for each engine, and pay particular attention to mileage at cruising speeds. The smaller outboard doesn’t necessarily get better mileage than the bigger one when you compare the numbers at the same speeds.

For instance, the 230 Vantage with the 225-hp engine at 42.3 mph gets 1.8 mpg; with the 300 it gets 1.9 mpg at 43 mph. Plus, the 300 needs 5,500 rpm to achieve that speed, compared to 6,300 rpm (WOT) for the 225. Cruising at 28.5 mph, the Vantage with the 225 gets 2.5 mpg. The 300 gets about the same mileage but does it at 4,500 rpm compared to 5,000.

To make the decision even more challenging, the boat you’re considering might be offered with a single or twins. A pair of engines gives you redundancy for get-home power if one fails. And twins deliver better low-speed maneuverability. In addition, a single engine has to be pushed harder to achieve the same speed as two engines, so power plant longevity factors into the equation. Of course, two engines consume more fuel than one, and maintenance and repair costs double.

The decision boils down to your mission. In general, long-term users should lean toward the higher-horsepower engine or twin-screw setup, while lighter users can save on the purchase price by going with the smaller outboard.

See related article:

- Split decision

April 2013 issue