Just a few model years ago, Bennington, highly acclaimed for top-notch pontoon boats, stepped up with a sport-boat line it calls Azure. We first noticed the latest, a 298 bowrider, when we stood across the dock from it, taking in its sleek profile and aerodynamics of the radar arch. Stainless-steel trim, rails and cleats gleamed in the sun, and even the extended platform reached from the sloping transom like the forked tail of a falcon (not like the jutting planks of midpriced boats). Inside, the seating was carved in equally graceful curves.
But style without function doesn't turn a big bowrider into a luxury boat. The features and overall design have to work together to pamper the passengers and perform in all conditions. Put it this way, after our initial test on a Midwestern lake, we asked for another one along the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the bow, it wasn't just the complete wraparound lounges that grabbed us. It was the comfortable angles of the seats that called for sprawling out. One of the benefits of the Azure's size, besides big-water capability, is the airy feeling up front, even when the cocktail table is in place. When we hit some wind-driven waves during our Gulf test, the bow passengers didn't have to scramble into the cockpit.
We could sit at the controls with a mate in the bucket helm seats, and swivel around in tandem to face the cockpit seating group. This makes the boat ideal for what day boats are for - hanging out and enjoying the company.
Performance in our test boat came from a new Volvo Penta 8.1-liter engine and dual-prop drive. The system features smooth, positive shifting and crisp tracking. A single-prop drive has a tendency to move to the side in reverse, as the prop pulls almost as much sideways as in reverse. Counter-rotating props eliminate much of that tendency and help ease the awkward job of steering a backing boat. More noticeable, though, and probably of stronger note, is the ability of a dual-prop drive to hold its bite in hard turns. The Azure 298 carved around S-turns like a slalom skier with no slip or cavitation. Should boaters use a tube or even a wakeboard behind this big-party day cruiser, they'll appreciate the nimbleness as they turn to recover riders. In acceleration tests, we noted a bit of bow rise, but with a 4-second time to plane, we felt Azure had done a nice job of mitigating the effect with fast acceleration.
After riding the tube, drop a hook. The aft seat flips down, making a cozy sun pad. Or flip it partway back, making a reclining lounge that faces the water over the stern. This is the hallmark of a luxury boat, no matter if you're in fresh or salt water. You just have to double your admiration when a boat can entertain in both.
• Head is easy to duck into for changing into a swimsuit or from a suit to dry clothes.
• Dual-prop system features counter-rotating props that enhance slow-speed and midrange handling.
• Boarding ladder is positioned on the port-side of the transom platform - clear of the props.
• Large anchor locker also can be equipped with a bow boarding ladder.
• Custom cleats are embossed with Azure's logo.
At A Glance...
This extra-large entertainer is deep enough to impress big crews on big waters, where we'd opt for some electronics to go with the sport arch.
Length Overall: 29'3"
Dry Weight: 5,885 lb.
People/Weight Capacity: 16/2,800 lb.
Fuel Capacity: 70 gal.
Maximum HP: 425
MSRP (w/ volvo 8.1 GI and sport arch): $79,085
Test Engine: Volvo 8.1 Gi DuoProp
Test Prop: F5
Test Load: People (400 lb.), Fuel (35 gal.)
Top Speed: 49.8 mph @ 4,700 rpm
Time to Plane: 3.9 sec.
Time to 30 MPH: 6.7 sec.
Minimum Planing Speed: 21.5 mph @ 2,500 rpm