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Mercury shows off new propulsion

The media event included a look at the Apollo system, a compact sterndrive and two new outboards

The media event included a look at the Apollo system, a compact sterndrive and two new outboards

With a small contingent of media representatives in the cockpit, looking on in anticipation, the captain touches the joystick slightly, making the Sea Ray 290 Sundancer spin on its axis. Without uttering a word everyone looks at each other, eyebrows raised.

“Now that, my friends, is the Apollo system for sterndrives,” says Reinhard Burk, director of Mercury MerCruiser product engineering. “Apollo will take the intimidation factor out of steering and docking sterndrive-powered boats.”

The system uses a joystick control like Cummins MerCruiser Diesel’s Zeus pod drive system, but it uses gas engines rather than diesel and is designed specifically for sterndrive boats from 28 to 38 feet. It was one of a number of new engine systems on display at Mercury’s “Media X-Cursion,” June 11 to 13 in Sarasota, Fla., which also offered a look at a new compact sterndrive for smaller boats traditionally powered by outboards and two new OptiMax outboards.

“Like Zeus for larger boats, this system does exactly what you want,” Burk says of Apollo. “It makes the boat stay exactly where you want it to.”

Mercury has released only limited details about the Apollo system until it is officially introduced to the public later this year, according to Mercury spokesperson Erik Pope. (The manufacturer hopes to have the system in limited production next year and full production by 2009.) What is known about Apollo — the working, preliminary name of the project, which Mercury planned to change — is that it is a twin-engine setup that uses the joystick to control independently steerable drives that move the boat forward, astern and sideways without the use of bow or stern thrusters. “The engines can independently articulate. It gives your boat more lateral control than other sterndrives,” explains Apollo program manager Gary Schnacke.

Although the concept behind Apollo is modeled closely after the Zeus system (see Page 51), it doesn’t have all of the same standard features. For instance, the station-keeping capability and autopilot function that are standard on Zeus likely will be an option with Apollo. Mercury also is working to integrate an automatic trimming function into the system.

Also making its in-water debut was Mercury MerCruiser’s Vazer, a compact sterndrive for smaller boats that typically would be powered by an outboard. Vazer is said to improve handling, plane faster and provide more space for passengers and gear.

“It’s not as squirrelly as an outboard; it handles smooth and planes easy,” says senior project manager Matthew Jaeger, pulling back the throttle on a Vazer-powered 18-foot Angler.

Vazer was designed to take up less room, reduce noise and vibration, and require less maintenance than most sterndrives, according to MerCruiser project director Robert Grantham. The system comprises a 100-hp GM Vortec 1600 4-cylinder SOHC engine and a compact outdrive. The engine has been tilted 50 degrees so it will fit under the seats or casting platforms of boats smaller than 19 feet, or under the deck of pontoon boats smaller than 25 feet.

“We locked in on a key element that would become the Vazer mantra: low package height,” says Grantham. “By developing the engine and drive around a low-profile approach, we felt that we could enable boat manufacturers the opportunity to employ a sterndrive in applications that were currently almost exclusively outboard powered or were in some way hindered by the package size of our current offerings.”

Mercury says the Vazer engine includes such features as a scrolled, low-profile composite intake manifold with a long intake runner design for better torque and horsepower; a composite shell heat exchanger and heater connection ports that allow the addition of cockpit or cabin heat; and a closed-loop cooling system — including the block, aluminum exhaust header and cylinder head — that allows operation in both fresh and salt water. It also includes a freshwater flush port and a self-draining seawater system.

“When you pull it from the water, the water drains out completely just like an outboard,” Grantham says.

Mercury also unveiled two new direct-injection 2-stroke outboards at the press event: the 250 OptiMax and 175 OptiMax Pro XS. Marketed to the saltwater and aluminum boat markets, the Mercury 250 OptiMax has the same gearcase as the Verado line of supercharged 4-strokes. The patented gearcase has dual water pickups and is designed for durability, corrosion resistance and performance, according to the company. The 250-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 is Mercury’s most powerful conventional OptiMax outboard.

The new 175 Pro XS is the first 2.5-liter engine in the company’s high-performance OptiMax Pro XS lineup. At 153 cubic inches and 431 pounds, it follows in the footsteps of a pair of 3.0-liter predecessors, the 225 and 250 Pro XS. Like the others, the 175 has a 60-degree V-6 engine block.

“We’re certainly excited about all that’s going on here at Mercury,” spokesperson Pope says. “We hope the consumers will be, too.”