Family-Boat Shootout | Boating Magazine

Family-Boat Shootout

No more Mr. Entry-Level. Time to take the next step up.

Your first boat was an entry-level bowrider that had seemed so appealing with its inviting price and size. It was great…for a while. The little 17-footer with a 3-liter stern drive got you hooked on boating. But now it's not enough. The kids are growing bigger and want to do more on the water, and that little engine struggles to get them up on skis. You've also begun to understand about how a good boat is built-and now know why yours cost so little.

• So it's time to upgrade. You have your eye on an 18' bowrider with a beefier 4.3-liter engine that puts a little more pep inside your hull and has the extra features to keep everyone happy. Plus, this one will be built to last.

• Which boat brings the most fun per foot? There are dozens of boats in this range to choose from, so we decided to give you a hand, putting four top contenders head-to-head to see which one will best satisfy your needs.

BAYLINER 185, 800/233-3327 www.baylinerboats.com

PERFORMANCE: Armed with the 190-hp carbureted MerCruiser stern drive, it jumped onto plane in roughly 3.5 seconds, the fastest of the group. It also exhibited the most bowrise and loss of visibility out of the hole, touching six on our inclinometer. The ride feels stable and secure throughout the rpm range. It proved predictable in turns and handling. Comfortable to operate with plenty of juice to handle board sports.

LAYOUT: The most spartan cockpit here, with a transom bench and two swivel-bucket seats. One other cockpit configuration is available. It has a 6'2"-by-1'4" integrated swim platform with a recessed swim ladder. A 6'2"-by-2'10" sunpad sits on top of the motorbox. An in-sole ski locker is supported by a gas-assisted strut. There is no protective mat for your toys. The glovebox/cooler isn't insulated. Inwale stowage is skimpier than other boats. The bow cockpit is tight for two adults to sit, and there's no anchor locker.

CONSTRUCTION: Frames and stringers are conventional fiberglass-encapsulated plywood. The hull and deck are joined with rivets and an adhesive. The deck, transom, and seat bases are reinforced with rot-resistant plywood panels. Bayliner is confident in its construction and offers a limited lifetime warranty. All deck hardware is bolted to backing plates with locking nuts. However, the grabrails are flimsy plastic.

HIGHS: The best engine maintenance access of the group. Telescoping swim ladder has a recessed stowage spot molded into the swim platform. Comes with a limited lifetime hull warranty.

LOWS: The glovebox hatch hits the windshield, preventing full opening. Adults will be cramped sitting in the bow cockpit. Ski locker hatch not guttered, gasketed, or padded. No anchor locker.

STANDARDS: $14,924 (w/190-hp engine). Includes: 3-step telescoping swim ladder; lockable glovebox; JVC AM/FM/CD stereo w/2 speakers; 12v outlet; tilt steering wheel; single-axle trailer.

FOUR WINNS, 190 HORIZON 800/368-7946 www.fourwinns.com

PERFORMANCE: It took four seconds to plane with a 225-hp engine. Its hull design incorporates afterplanes that extend the running surface, helping it plane and enhancing stability. With the extra power, it reached 52.1 mph, the second-fastest time of the four. This is another stable, predictable boat, executing 30-mph turns with no ventilation and exhibiting no squirreliness at top end. At idle speeds, the bow tended to hunt a bit, but not enough to be a major concern.

LAYOUT: Kudos for top-quality vinyl upholstery, which is cross-stitched for tear resistance. The swim platform measures 6'6"-by-1'. The transom sunpad is 6'4"-by-2'9". The forward seating consists of two adjustable back-to-back seats that convert to lounges. Other cockpit configurations are available. The helm has a compass and depthsounder, but the wheel gets in the way of the gauges. The bow cockpit has enough room for two adults and wraparound stainless-steel grabrails.

CONSTRUCTION: There's a preformed fiberglass stringer grid and a full fiberglass cockpit liner. The transom is cored with rot-resistant plywood. The hull is screwed to the deck and bonded with an adhesive. The rubrail has a stainless-steel insert. Vinylester resin skin coat reduces the risk of blistering. Fittings are bolted and backed. Hatches are finished on both sides. The engine compartment and anchor locker are gel coated. This is the only boat with a nonslip fiberglass cockpit sole and snap-in carpet.

HIGHS: Cockpit sole is molded-in nonslip fiberglass with a standard snap-in carpet. Stainless-steel ski-tow-eye on the swim platform is part of a 3' grabhandle. Only boat with stainless-steel grabrails around the bow.

LOWS: Steering wheel positioning obscures gauges on dash, even with tilt steering. Engine access is tight, and hatch needs to be disassembled for serious engine work. Windshield on test boat felt weak.

STANDARDS: $28,669 (w/190-hp engine). Includes: 3-step telescoping swim ladder; snap-in cockpit carpet; Sony AM/FM/CD stereo w/4 speakers and remote; compass; depthsounder; 12v outlet; tilt steering wheel; Bimini top; single-axle trailer w/brakes.

REGAL 1800 BOWRIDER, 800/877-3425 www.regalboats.com

PERFORMANCE: This boat is unique, having the only stepped hull in our fleet. As is typical for this type, the boat ran flatter and had more zip as it sped past the others at 55 mph. Powered with 220 horses, it was 3 mph faster than the Four Winns, which had 5 hp more. The Regal had the least amount of bowrise out of the hole but, surprisingly, took four seconds to plane. Because it's a stepped-hull boat, you have to treat it differently in turns-leaving the engine trimmed up to prevent too much bite. But once you learn the tricks, it handles well.

LAYOUT: This boat's 6'4"-by-2'6" sunpad gets cut off to port to accommodate a jump seat. There's a narrow transom bench. The helm seat has a flip-up bolster, and there's a back-to-back adjustable seat to port. The swim platform is shorter and narrower than the others. Unfortunately, the cockpit sole and inwales are carpeted. The ski locker hatch lifts on and off without hinges or struts, making it a little unwieldy, and the locker is carpeted. The bow cockpit is cramped compared to the Sea Ray and Four Winns. The cushions lift out for stowage.

CONSTRUCTION: Frames and stringers are built from conventional fiberglass-encapsulated plywood. The deck is joined to the hull with screws, bolts, and an adhesive. The rubrail has a stainless-steel insert. All hardware is bolted and backed. All hoses are double clamped, the wiring is orderly, and connections are sealed with heat-shrink tubing. Wires are run through plastic looms and are color-coded. This boat has a gel-coated engine compartment and a vinylester resin skin coat.

HIGHS: Stepped hull helps it go faster with equal power. Stainless-steel bolts and adhesive bond give it a sturdy hull-to-deck joint. Side-mounted mirror allows driver to keep an eye on skiers. Limited lifetime hull warranty.

LOWS: Anchor locker on test boat had exposed wiring that could catch on the anchor. In-sole ski locker hatch lifts on and off-there's no strut or hinges. Cockpit sole has glued-down carpet.

STANDARDS: $20,224 (w/190-hp engine). Includes: 3-step telescoping swim ladder; Kenwood AM/FM/CD stereo w/2 speakers; power-assisted steering; 12v outlet; 25-qt. removable cooler; convertible top; transom trailering lights.

SEA RAY 185 BOWRIDER, 800/772-6287 www.searay.com

PERFORMANCE: On this boat, everything felt dialed in. Like the Bayliner, the Sea Ray had a 190-hp carbureted MerCruiser. It posted similar speeds, hitting just over 46 mph. Getting onto plane took about four seconds. It had the most responsive handling of our competitors and was smooth at the throttle. It also felt the most comfortable through tight turns at 30 mph and at idle around the dock.

LAYOUT: Though it doesn't have wraparound bow cockpit grabrails, there's plush cushioning. Plus, it has the most legroom. The seat cushions lift to reveal gel-coated lockers and have gutters to channel water away. The main cockpit has an adjustable helm seat, a back-to-back lounge to port, and jump seats on either side of the motorbox. Other cockpit configurations are available. The jump seats raise to fill in a 6'2"-by-2'8" sunpad. The sole is carpeted, but the inwales are vinyl.

CONSTRUCTION: Vinylester resin skin coat reduces the risk of blistering. All fittings are bolted and backed. The hull is screwed and bonded with an adhesive to the deck, and the rubrail is fitted with a stainless-steel insert. There is a preformed fiberglass stringer grid and an unfinished fiberglass sole. The windshield is the sturdiest of the group, with one-piece tempered glass sections and a hardy aluminum frame and struts. Wiring and rigging are excellent.

HIGHS: Strong windshield. Aft jump seats raise to make the sunpad larger. Bow cockpit stowage bins have finished glass liner and a molded gutter to channel away water.

LOWS: Anchor locker has no clips to secure anchor. Unscrew a panel behind the jump seats to access the battery and engine fluids. Swim ladder isn't recessed. Cockpit sole has glued-down carpet.

STANDARDS: $19,122 (w/190-hp engine). Includes: 3-step telescoping swim ladder; lockable glovebox; Clarion AM/FM/CD stereo w/2 speakers; power-assisted steering; 12v outlet; tilt steering wheel; single-axle trailer w/brakes.

Money...Money...Money

As you can see from the comparison chart, all of these boats are built in a similar fashion, each using proven techniques to make good-quality boats that-with reasonable care-should last. So the real separation factor is what you get in terms of performance and comfort for your dollar. To make this fair, we compared the cost of each boat when equipped with a 190-hp, 4.3-liter, carbureted stern drive. Three of the boats offer a 135-hp, 3.0-liter option, but we assume you want to move up from a minimally powered boat. That's why we're calling the 190-hp engine the base power.

At $14,924, the Bayliner comes in at the lowest price, but you still get a lot, especially considering the standard trailer. You also get a solid ride and a decent, if unspectacular, layout.

The Four Winns is the most expensive boat here at $28,669. But with that you get, among other things, a trailer with brakes, a nonslip fiberglass cockpit liner with snap-in carpet, a Bimini top, and two extra stereo speakers.

The Regal comes close to the Sea Ray in price, at $20,224. But it's the only boat that doesn't have a standard trailer, so add in an extra $1,800. Nor do you get a Bimini or convertible top. But you do get power-assisted steering.

The Sea Ray has the surprisingly reasonable price of $19,122 for all the amenities it provides. With that you get the trailer with brakes, a high level of construction and comfort, and power-assisted steering.

And the Winner Is... No boat here was head and shoulders above any of the others. But to be honest and fair, there were some combinations of features that we liked.

The Bayliner 185 is a strong value with dependable construction. But even though we think the boat is built to last, some of its included amenities are second tier compared to the other boats here. We feel that they might lose their luster over time. All in all, it's a good boat at a great price, but it's not as tricked out as the competition.

The Four Winns 190 Horizon screams top quality any way you look at it, but it has the highest sticker price of those reviewed. It gets good marks for its fiberglass deck and cockpit with molded nonslip. But you're paying several thousand dollars more for it compared to the other boats here.

The Regal 1800 Bowrider is the lone stepped-hull boat in the group. Its performance and reasonable price make it a strong temptation. But there are a few things, such as the flimsy ski locker hatch and glued-down carpet, that are out of place on a boat with so many other high-quality features, costing it points.

That leaves the Sea Ray 185 Bow Rider. It boasts a bargain price for what it delivers and has the best combination of quality and performance. Plus, it looks like it will hold up well over the years. This runabout is a keeper. If Sea Ray would just change the cockpit sole to molded-in nonslip and add a snap-in carpet, you'd be set.

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