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MIAMI 2015: Mercury and Volvo debut new products

MIAMI — Two heavyweights in the marine industry’s propulsion segment introduced new products Wednesday at the Miami International Boat Show.

Mercury Marine debuted two high-horsepower 4-strokes — the Mercury Verado 350 and the Mercury Racing Verado 400R — and the Mercury Racing 1550 gasoline sterndrive engine.

“We take a bit of pride at Mercury in being about high performance and with these engines we have the fastest, lightest most fuel-efficient, quietest and highest-performing products on the market,” Mercury Marine president John Pfeifer said of the new outboards at a special evening presentation at Sea Isle Marina.

The 350 and 400 become the most powerful recreational outboards ever for the engine maker, now in its 76th year.

Meanwhile, Volvo Penta unveiled its Forward Drive system for gasoline sterndrive applications at the Rusty Pelican restaurant in Key Biscayne.

The drive, with its twin forward-facing propellers, resembles the Volvo Penta IPS, a diesel application, and can be paired with all of Volvo Penta’s V8 gasoline sterndrive engines from 300 to 430 hp.

“We believe it will be one of those transformative technologies that comes along every 10 years or so,” Volvo Penta of the Americas president Ron Huibers told the crowd of 80, which included journalists and representatives from Volvo Penta — including Volvo Penta global president Bjorn Ingemanson — and boat companies.

Volvo Penta is targeting water sports-oriented boats — those that pull water skiers, wakeboarders, and most recently wakesurfers. Huibers showed a slide of himself on a wakesurfing board to make his point.

“Wakesurfing is the biggest thing since water skiing,” he said.

The Forward Drive has underwater exhaust for quieter and cleaner operation, a feature that is highly attractive to the water sports crowd. The Forward Drive systems were installed in a handful of sportboats from partner boat companies such as Cobalt, Four Winns, Regal and Bryant.

The boats were available for testing, and I had the opportunity to drive a 22-foot Four Winns with a 300-hp V8 sterndrive engine. Reduced noise and an absence of exhaust backdraft were immediately noticeable.

The forward-facing, counter-rotating wheels allowed the boat to maintain its bite in hard turns at 25 to 30 mph. The props sit 27 inches farther forward than a conventional Volvo Penta drive’s wheels, increasing the overall safety factor. The system has two mechanisms to guard the drive against damage during an accidental impact.

Volvo Penta will begin shipping the new drives to dealers in March. Mercury’s new engines also will hit the market in March.

For both the 350 and 400, Mercury has re-engineered the 2.6-liter Verado engine that it uses in its 225-, 250- and 300-hp Verados. (The Verado first hit the market in 2007.)

Although the 400R falls under the Mercury Racing segment of the engine maker’s business, it can be used to power high-performance recreational boats, including single-engine flats boats, catamaran sportboats and multi-outboard offshore center consoles. Mercury had all of these types of boats with 350s or 400s at the Sea Isle in-water display.

The engine, equipped with a new water-cooled supercharger that reduces intake temperatures, allows the engine to spin as fast as 7,000 rpm. Other features include a “Sport Master” gearcase with low-water pickup and stainless steel guide plates for better engine stability at high speeds. Mercury recommends 91 octane gas for the 350 and 400, but they run fine on 89 octane, the company said.

The 350, which also uses a water-cooled supercharger, generates 16 percent more peak power than the Verado 300.

Mercury representatives stressed that the 350 and 400 are far different from the original 2.6-liter Verados. They have new induction systems, superchargers, camshafts and fuel systems. The powerhead has been upgraded and engineered for reduced friction.

“From the midsection and up this is a very different engine,” said Larry Teeling, category manager for Mercury outboards. “Most of the development and engineering focused on what’s under the cowling. When you take off this cowling, it looks significantly different.”

The 400 is different from the 350 in two main ways: Its calibration allows the engine to reach a higher rpm and generate more power (the 350’s peak rpm is 6,400) and the gearcase is designed more for speed, with a slimmer torpedo-shaped section and leading edge.

For both engines, the internal changes revolve around managing engine frictional loss and temperature, Teeling said.

The Verado 350 and 400’s new cold-air intake system collects cool air from outside the cowling and delivers it to the supercharger. Engineers created a larger, straighter path for less turbulent airflow. The water-cooled supercharger delivers greater boost by using water from the engine cooling system to provide a cooling jacket around the supercharger.

The other big selling point is the weight of the 350 and 400 — 668 pounds, which is just 33 pounds more than the current 2.6-liter Verado 300 and significantly lighter than the 5.3-liter Yamaha V8 F350.

Several weeks ago in a sneak-peek press event in Edgewater, Fla., I had a chance to test the 350. Three of them were mounted on a Boston Whaler 370 Outrage center console. The boat had plenty of punch out of the hole (low-end torque) and the engines at wide-open throttle comfortably pushed the Whaler to speeds above 50 mph.

The 350s will thrive on the big 40-plus-foot center consoles of today (the new 53-foot Hydra-Sports will offer five of them), but a high number of these engines will be outfitted for the thriving 22- to 32-foot center console market and high-speed pontoon boats.

Mercury had nine boats rigged with the new engines, including a 40-foot Nor-Tech that does close to 100 mph.

The engine maker also is debuting two new sterndrives. The Mercury Racing 1550 is a dual-calibration power plant that can switch from racing mode (1,550 hp) to leisure mode (1,350 hp) with an electronic key fob. The MerCruiser 4.5L sterndrive engine that debuted last year is now available in a 200-hp version.