Kicking it up another notch - Soundings Online

Kicking it up another notch

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Once again the focus this year remains fixed on big outboard power

In each of the past few years, the outboard industry has buzzed with news of ever-larger 4-stroke outboards. At this time last year, Yamaha had just unveiled a 350-hp V-8 4-stroke behemoth. The year before that, Suzuki announced its 300-hp 4-stroke, the largest at the time.

Once again the focus this year remains fixed on big outboard power, headlined by Mercury Marine’s introduction of a 350-hp supercharged 6-cylinder4-stroke. There are several reasons this should come as no surprise. Four-stroke outboard technology has matured, the engines are smooth and quiet, outboard manufacturers have targeted transoms previously dedicated to sterndrive orinboard power, and the high-horsepower segment has been least affected by an overall soft market in the boating industry.

The Yamaha F350 was introduced at last year’s Miami International Boat Show and caters to offshore fishing and cruising boats. David Meeler, product information manager for Yamaha Motor Corp. of Kennesaw, Ga., says the V-8 4-stroke has done well in its first year.

“The market reaction’s been very positive,” says Meeler. “[Owners] have been very appreciative of the level of smoothness and the level of quietness of the engine.”

The 5.3-liter displacement outboard is expanding to the bay boat market and commercial circles, too, and has had a good service record so far, he says.

Mercury Marine will now join Yamaha in the exclusive 350-hp club. The Verado 350 SCi is being designed, developed and tested by Mercury Racing, a division of the Fond du Lac, Wis., manufacturer known for custom-built high-performance engines and accessories. Despite its ties to the racing division, the 350 SCi is considered an extension of the Verado engine family. It will be assembled at Mercury Marine on the same manufacturing line as the 300-hp Verado introduced last year, and uses the same 2.6-liter displacement cylinder block as the other straight-6 Verados, so production capacity will not be an issue. John Skroski, head of outboard engineering at Mercury Racing, says durability won’t be either.

“Part of our engineering mission was to develop the required power without sacrificing durability — we still need to be comfortable offering a two-year warranty,” says Skroski. “Actually a large portion of the engineering resources were dedicated to engine durability.” He estimates half the resources were dedicated to creating more power and half to ensuring durability.

Not just 4-strokes

BRP has introduced a high-horsepower alternative to 4-stoke outboards. The Sturtevant, Wis.-based company is forging its own path by solely developing its Evinrude E-TEC direct injection 2-strokes. (In fact, 2007 was the final model year for BRP’s Johnson 4-stroke outboards.) However, BRP is following the same trends as the 4-stroke manufacturers by this year unveiling its largest E-TEC engine yet, a 300-hp V-6.

Manufacturers say they’ll build larger and larger outboards as the market demands. “Basically, if they come to us and tell us to build a V-10, we’re going to do it,” says Yamaha’s Meeler. That’s how the F350 came about, he adds. “The boatbuilders came to us and asked us to build these engines, and there’s nothing to say they won’t do it again.”

But others see a limit to the size outboard that can be built using current technology. Michael Rickey, national sales manager for Honda Marine of Alpharetta, Ga., says today’s 4-strokes will approach a threshold.

“You’ve got to look at the viability of the horsepower,” says Rickey. “How much bigger can a motor get that you’re going to put on a transom? What’s a realistic horsepower given a weight ratio and performance that a boat’s going to require?”

He says the limit might be 350 hp, 375 hp or even 400 hp. “You’d have to come up with some pretty innovative design to get past that — and then you have to look at the cost,” he says.

At the same time, Rickey admits that Honda does have development of higher-horsepower engines in the pipeline. The company’s current model line reaches 225 hp.

Innovation and growth

Meanwhile, the next generation of Honda outboards in the lower horsepower range will incorporate technologies such as those seen on the redesigned Honda BF90 4-stroke. These include the Boosted Low Speed Torque (BLAST) system that advances ignition timing for improved acceleration, Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) to provide more torque and power at higher rpm, lean burn control to adjust air/fuel mixture for fuel efficiency, three-way cooling, and improved gearcase design.

“The smaller motors are just that — they’re getting smaller,” says Brian Johnston of Honda Marine public relations.

Yamaha’s Meeler, too, says small outboards will benefit from advancements in larger engines. “You’re liable to see technology filter down,” he says, pointing out that the recently introduced Yamaha F9.9 4-stroke is enjoying success. Digital drive-by-wire technology, for example, will trickle down to smaller outboards.

“You’ll also start seeing more and more uses for outboard power,” says Meeler. “People are beginning to see that they’re easier to use, they’re easier to service, and they’re easier to replace.”

Although the marine market is fairly flat overall, says Honda’s Rickey, the outboard business as a whole is growing. One reason, he says, is that many transoms are moving from sterndrive to outboard power.

“Outboards are much more reliable than in the past,” says Rickey. “You can put a pair of outboards on the transom, and the space that was eaten up by engines can be used for storage or extra cockpit space.”

Meeler agrees that while the industry as a whole has been on the soft side, certain segments of the outboard market are growing — notably the high-

horsepower saltwater segment. “With the F350, we’re catering specifically to that market,” says Meeler.

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