We're just like you. We boat for fun. We pay bills to stay afloat. Both factors are at the heart of our selections for the year's best boats. Of the 100-plus boat models we've had our hands on, some have stood out for their departure from the norm. Others stayed with us because of their solid feel at the wheel. Another group heightened our interest when we found out how much they cost. The chosen few on the following pages grabbed us for doing all of the above.
Coincidence or not, the timing could not have been better when Boston Whaler's engineers decided to "cool-ify" their brand with two all-new models known as the 130 Super Sport and 150 Super Sport. As we see it, these boats fall right in step with the sudden penny pincher known as the American consumer.
This is why we fawned over what was the smallest boat at our test roundup of 2009 models. It was different. It was well built. It was … a Boston Whaler?
Whaler called on a fresh mind in 24-year-old Charlie Foss, an associate designer who went to the drawing board to develop something his friends would want to own — and could afford. The solid-color hull wrap grabbed our attention as non-Whaler-esque (normally white on white), as did the full range of a la cart accessorizing — buy only what you want. This immediately proves that Whaler is not too tied to its past accomplishments to reach out to young would-be boaters.
Solidifying this as one of the year's best is that Whaler made the boat affordable without trimming back on quality. The handrails and hardware on the boat we tested were solid, as was the ride on mostly calm water. This is not the case on some price-point boats we drive. But in attracting budget-minded boaters, Whaler refused to roll the dice on quality. Good for them.
MSRP: $13,995 (w/ 60 hp Mercury)
In our Best Boats issue one year ago, we unanimously voted Chaparral's Sunesta Wide Tech into the top 10. The boat was inspired by a newly released Lamborghini, and it brought that type of appeal to deck boats.
Then a few months ago, Chaparral delivered to us its SSi, or bowrider version of the Wide Tech. We've tested few, if any, boats with this much innovative style from bow to stern, windshield to deck and all spots in between for a list price of barely over $30,000 (expect a street price well under that number).
In designing for ooh-la-la, Chaparral's tech guys obviously paid attention to the potential drawbacks of a 19.5-foot boat: space. They intelligently use a wide hatch for easy access to a deeper-than-expected in-floor storage compartment. Under the sun pad, which lifts on two gas shocks, is a molded-in recess for a carry-on cooler — keeping it out of the cockpit. There's also a deep and long storage compartment under the walkthrough to the edgy swim platform.
Look at that last sentence again. Those three features (deep compartment, walkthrough and edgy swim platform) are not conventional in a boat under 20 feet that sells in this price range. Best of all, these features, like the boat, are built beyond the industry standard for quality, as a top 5 finish in the latest J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey proves.
MSRP: $31,330 (w/ 4.3L MerCruiser)
We literally thought the Raptor at our test dock belonged to a professional fishing guide who just stopped in to pick up some customers from the adjacent resort. It wasn't just the hull wrap with the Crestliner logo that got our attention. The boat was so loaded that, when we realized it was for us to test, we wondered if it might be overpriced for recreational fishing families (this was before we saw the retail price, which was a good $5,000 less than we anticipated).
In the TE (trolling edition), the consoles are positioned farther forward to free up more space in the deepest part of the boat, and to give the family breathing room. It was a good move to attract recreational boaters who like to fish, instead of catering the design entirely to tournament anglers. Yet the Raptor is up to buddy fishing events, with its tackle drawers, dual rod lockers, two livewells and a baitwell. Our ride followed several tests of fiberglass boats, and the instinctive bias toward aluminum after such tests was nonexistent. Only at our minimum planing speed could we feel the four-stroke weight, as compared with a lighter OptiMax.
Crestliner's traveling team told us at the start of the day that the Raptor might be the best fishing rig they've built and tested. By the end of the day, we were on board.
MSRP: $34,151 (w/ optional hull wrap and 150 hp Mercury Verado)
It's hard to peg Glastron boats; they're spiffy for a value-priced brand and comfortably priced for a luxury brand. That's what lured Michelle Thompson of LTD Motors in High Springs, Florida, to add Glastron to her family's marine-dealership line.
"We went looking for a brand to compete against a value brand down the street," said Thompson. "The Glastron GLS 215 stepped way above our expectation from a value boat." After our test and two separate walkthroughs, we couldn't have agreed more.
We noted the enormous interior playpen seating area and realized sun worshippers were going to love this boat. Then, during one of our inspections, we swung the center seating section to the portside to convert the playpen to an L-shaped lounge. That's impressive enough, but Glastron added a transom rumble seat that flipped out from under the sun pad — a super-comfortable lounger to be enjoyed at anchor. Both are options, but affordable ones.
Beneath it all is a VEC hull, scientifically molded to reduce harmful styrene emissions while creating a stronger, more reliable boat. If the lifetime warranty isn't enticement enough, there are practical advantages as well, like smooth surfaces in the compartments and bilge for easy cleanup, and great handling and acceleration — also partially due to the lightweight VEC hull. Luxury and quality are well priced in Glastron's GLS 215.
MSRP: $39,193 (w/ 5.0 GL Volvo Penta and deluxe seating)
Many attempt the "fish and ski" concept, but most fall short of the mark in one or more areas. This is certainly not the case with Ranger's 1850 RS, as it meets all the needs of serious fishermen and also transitions into a darn good family boat.
We've used this boat while wearing both our fishing hats and our ski vests, and in neither case did we feel compromised. With the decks cleared and the fishing chairs in place, anglers have everything needed to enter into the ranks of local tournament fishing. The boat is stable at rest, quick on plane and has the storage capacity and range needed for all-day outings.
Flip a few cushions and raise the ski pylon, and this same hull provides a darned good pull. We thought the 150 Evinrude E-TEC offers plenty of horsepower and crisp handling that can be appreciated whether you are towing skiers at 30 mph, launching wakeboarders at 18 mph or just out for a cruise.
For 2009, Ranger has added a few subtle styling tweaks, including a new console that accommodates built-in electronics, and the list of standard features includes everything from a trolling motor and fish finder to a premium sound system. For those who will always live to fish, but also know the importance of family time, this boat should be at the top of their list.
MSRP: $34,429 (w/ Evinrude 150 E-TEC)
The laziest way to describe the 2100 would be to say it's just another 21-foot bowrider. But you don't know what it's like to own a boat by giving it a 30-second once-over with the eyes. After the better part of a day with the 2100, we concluded it is in no way just another 21-foot bowrider.
Early during our test, we twice got it confused with Regal's much larger 25-foot bowrider. Clearing up the confusion led us to understand the ideas behind the 2100. In an effort to reduce waste, Regal decided to weigh the scraps from the early prototypes. That led them to ration the resins more closely, using closed vacuum mold on the hull. The new green, lower-polluting process removes air and excess resin for a tighter bond and lighter hull. As a result, the 2100 actually weighs 150 pounds less than its smaller brother, the Regal 2000, yet industry experience indicates the process makes this model stronger.
As for the larger cockpit, the engineers stretched it out by scaling down the consoles and sun pad and shortening the bow. Why? Boaters most often use the cockpit and transom area, so adding space to those spots made the most sense. Use the 2100 over the course of a day, as we did, and you realize how different it is the moment you tie it up and step back into just another 21-foot bowrider from someone else.
MSRP: $37,728 (w/ 5.0L MerCruiser, no tower)
Does a personal watercraft belong on a list of the top 10 boats of the year? It's a valid question, and one we debated. But the evidence fell heavy on the "yes" side. Sea-Doo could have trickled in the four pillars of its "Intelligent" technology over the past five to 10 years. But instead, the company waited for the 2009 model year to release all of them as "the iControl package," highlighted in the smashing debut of the RXT iS 255 and GTX Limited iS.
First, the system renders moot the old saying that a boat doesn't have brakes. On a trial run, one of our testers squeezed the iBR (Intelligent Brake and Reverse) hand lever so hard at 45 mph that water rolled over the bow as the craft came to a stop. Sea-Doo also made it easier to shift into reverse — just pull the trigger on the handlebar instead of reaching for a lever on the hood, where it's found on other watercraft.
Another primary feature of iControl is Intelligent Suspension. This suspends the saddle, handlebars and footrest for comfort in chop — it's all computerized and adjustable. Adding yet one more level of ease is Intelligent Throttle Control, which brings cruise control, slow mode and (applause) neutral to the 60-plus mph RXT. It all rides on what Sea-Doo calls the S3 hull, the first stepped hull in the PWC market.
Sea Ray is a consistent leader in customer-satisfaction surveys. So when it came time to put together our top 10 list, the only question was "Which boat?"
The answer — especially in this era of downsizing and economic sensibility — is the 185 Sport. We also chose the 185 because its style and performance do not suggest a budget boat. It's also easy to tow and stow, thanks to a folding-tongue, single-axle trailer and sub-3,000-pound dry weight.
Not only does this boat occupy a sweet spot in terms of size, it also offers a tremendous degree of versatility. It's sleek enough to blend in at the yacht club, yet underneath the removable cockpit carpet is a tough, hose-it-clean interior that will stand up to years of swim parties and ski runs. Yes, the 185 has been in the Sea Ray line for a few years, but it is the durability factor, proven over those years, that solidifies the 185 as a top choice.
We've found that the standard 3-liter power plant provides enough power for casual cruising, something we rarely say. However, we'd still strongly consider upgrading to the 4.3-liter engine and adding the wakeboarding package with tower. Bill Yingling of Parker Boats in Orlando, Florida, tells us that about one-third of the 185s the dealership sells goes out tower-equipped with the midrange 4.3-liter motor.
The 185 Sport is very much a Sea Ray, a brand that always garners respect at the dock.
MSRP: $26,902 (w/ 4.3, 190 hp motor and trailer; add $3,654 for a wakeboard tower)
Stingray has been on a steady march to bring quality to boaters while keeping its boat firmly in the value-price range of its target customer. The philosophy? You buy a Lexus for opulent luxury, but quality should also come standard with a Toyota. Stingray is on the right track.
We noted the two-tone gelcoat and the polished stainless-steel trim. We pressed our finger deep into the upholstery, felt its firm support and watched as it instantly sprung back to its original shape. Under the sun pad was an easy-access transom walkway to protect the vinyl.
A 2-inch fuel-fill line, a simple upgrade, makes fueling a Stingray easy, clean and green by eliminating blow-back from the fuel-fill line. We cranked the Volvo Penta engine and popped it into gear. Conical shifting is smooth, and standard — we know why boaters pay extra when other boat and motor brands make it optional. The silky-smooth throttle comes from premium Teleflex cables that are so slick that we were able to slide them fore and aft easily even after knotting them — far more torture than they receive winding from helm to engine. We idled to open water and listened to the splash of the water on the hull. The bilge fan blower and the engine were both mounted to the hull using rubber bushings so the sound of nature — the reason we boat — could better be experienced.
MSRP: $34,858 (w/ 5.0 engine)
It's no surprise to us that the bass-boat market remains strong, and for that reason, we pushed the edge with our choice for a tournament-ready bass boat that barely makes the $40,000 ceiling in our top 10. At a base price of $39,999, we think it's on the value side with a big nod to the stuff bass anglers want.
Stuff like an Al Stinson-designed hull. Few boatbuilders hold more patents in hull-and-deck design and few bass boats have the reputation of achieving higher speeds per horsepower than Stinson's designs. We knew we'd carry more weight in the hull, but we wanted to retain the speed. We actually improved that. Our first one out of the box with 15 seconds on the motor hit 79 mph.
But, when the livewells are wet and tackle is on board, speed steps aside for fishability. Yet, the Evolution steps aside for no one in fishability, thanks to the organized tackle storage we found.
"Getting our rod storage on the centerline was important," said Stinson. "Doing it without losing tackle-box storage was the challenge." When it was finished, the Evolution's center rod locker held more and longer rods than the port and starboard locker, and the utility tackle-box storage was increased too. All of it was accomplished while keeping the hull balanced and nimble for blistering runs reaching 79 mph.
MSRP: $39,999 (w/ Yamaha 150)