Before launching into the Gulf of Mexico, we weighed Chaparral's new Signature 350 on a certified scale and subtracted the weight of the trailer. With 120 gallons of fuel aboard, full water, safety gear, spare props, tools, and test gear, our test boat weighed 15,770 pounds outfitted with twin 315-hp Volvo Penta 5.7 GXi engines ($7,813). We topped off the twin 125-gallon fuel tanks, which added 875 pounds, and slid the Signature 350 off the trailer and into the water. Then the five of us, at roughly 200 pounds each, jumped aboard.
Although the bottom was not painted, this cruiser's "wet" weight of 17,645 pounds provided us with a platform for real-world testing. At almost nine tons with fuel, crew, and gear, the Signature 350 posted a top speed just one mile per hour slower than it did lightly loaded. Just for the record, whenever you test drive any boat, bring along your crew, note the top rpm, and try to mirror as best you can the conditions in which you'll do most of your boating.
Put the Signature 350's throttles in the corner, and it rises up fast - and level. Its performance is a tribute to the lift provided by the boat's wide chines and moderate-V hullform, as well as the bite delivered by Volvo Penta's twin, stainless-steel DuoProps. Cut some turns. The Signature 350 responds well without leaning too much. Throttle back to 4000 rpm, or 35 mph, and settle in for a long cruise. All in all, this is one fine-running boat.
THE HIGHS: What a great athlete! And the helm is a party zone! Engine access, belowdecks comfort, and fit and finish are top of the line. Even the wetbar shows attention to detail.
THE LOWS: A low bolster makes standing at the helm uncomfortable. Galley drawers are a letdown. Check the wiring on the central vac option for chafe protection.
IN THE HOT SEAT. The split, flip-bolster helm seat provides good visibility whether you prefer to sit or stand while driving. Because the bolsters can be flipped individually, your mate can also choose the position more comfortable for him or her. I noticed while I stood at the helm seat that the bolster was too low for me to lean against; so if you like to stand and run, you may agree that a redesign of the seat is in order.
I was impressed with the helm layout overall. Aboard most express cruisers, the companionway bisects the helm. Not on the Signature 350. The cabin entry is positioned to port, taking up about a third of the boat's interior width. The remaining space - the helm proper - is located one step up from the cockpit and features a crescent-shaped lounge that allows three additional companions to join the skipper and mate at the helm. And instead of those little ledges some builders call steps, there are three deep steps leading up through the strut-reinforced split windshield. This makes getting to and from the broad, fully nonslip-surfaced bow safe. Also, guests in the transom lounge - a slick piece of engineering that hides inside the aft inwale when not in use - won't have to disturb those sitting at the helm as they transition forward to the cabin. Finally, the granite-finished wetbar, which includes a standard icemaker, is well aft of the companionway where it won't create a choke point. Boarding steps, a full-height transom door, and the standard oversize swim platform further enhance the Signature 350's extensive amenities.
DETAILS, DETAILS. Indications of the Signature 350's top quality abound. Lift the aft coaming bolster. See that white board with the holes bored through it? Instead of wood, the bolsters are backed by a no-rot composite called Kelron. The holes allow moisture to drain from the multidensity foam Chaparral uses. These bolsters won't foster the growth of mold and mildew.
Now run your fingers along the bottom edge of the wetbar stowage doors. Feel that recessed edge? It provides ventilation for the icemaker - an often overlooked detail aboard express cruisers - and allows you to plug a blender into the 110-volt outlet hidden there without having to keep the door ajar. Lift the helm lounge's cushion. You won't find soggy gear stowed in a puddle. The stowage below drains onto the Signature 350's self-bailing cockpit liner.
Now hit the switch to open the engine hatch. See the deep gutter around its rim? Wash water and spray are prevented from corroding your engines. Climb down. There's plenty of room around, between, and in front of the engines. Look up. See that white hose coming off the cockpit drains? That's the sanitation hose. It's expensive, but much more durable than the corrugated bilge hose most builders use in this application. And the ones aboard the Signature 350 are double clamped to chrome-on-bronze through-hull fittings, not brittle plastic ones. Batteries? The nonslip work platform you're squatting on hinges up to reveal three of them, including one for the standard 7.3kW Kohler genset that comes with a sound shield. Chaparral didn't end?run quality in the Signature 350's engine compartment.
There are some questionable calls belowdecks, however. The galley, nicely arranged and with the rare safety feature of potholders for the dual-burner electric stove, has stowage drawers I consider rather flimsy. Slide one open. There are no metal tracks and rollers. Rap on its sides and bottom. Thin plastic. I prefer to see rugged, dovetail-joined wooden drawers that slide on powder-coated tracks, like those found aboard Cruisers Yachts 3470 ($174,430 powered by twin 320-hp 6.2L MPI MerCruisers). Why? Anything aboard a boat that can be grabbed will be grabbed, so it needs to be weight bearing. Also, the power lead to the central vacuum unit, located below a false floor in the aft berth's cedar-lined, illuminated hanging locker, lacked the chafe protection through the locker's bulkhead that's recommended by the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC). Chaparral assures us that this oversight will be rectified, but check to make sure.
Otherwise, the Signature 350's cabin provides outstanding possibilities for both entertaining and weekending. The aft berth is full size and can be concealed by drawing an accordion door from a bulkhead pocket. Open the door, erect the table, and you've created a cozy alcove that expands the salon's sociability. This is similar to the aft berth arrangement aboard the Cruisers Yachts 3470 and Sea Ray's 340 Sundancer ($195,451 powered by twin 310?hp MerCruiser 7.4L MPI V-drives).
The forward island berth can also be made into a private area by the use of a pocket door and cantilevers that open to reveal dedicated stowage for both the dinette and aft berth tables. A changing stool-cum-step helps you climb up into the berth. Bracketed by dual, illuminated hanging lockers, and with well-positioned reading lamps, it's as desirable a location as a 50-yard-line seat on Super Bowl Sunday.
LAST WORD. This exceptionally well-detailed cruiser carries its weight - and yours.
Displacement (lbs., approx.) ..........14,000
Minimum cockpit depth ..........2'8 1/2"
Max. cabin headroom..6'8"
Fuel capacity (gal.)..250
Water capacity (gal.) ..........35
Price (w/standard power) ..........$111,450
Price (w/test power) ..........$195,778
STANDARD POWER: Twin 250-hp Volvo Penta GS DuoProp V-8 gasoline stern drives.
OPTIONAL POWER: Twin MerCruiser or Volvo Penta gasoline stern drives to 640 hp total.
TEST BOAT POWER: Twin 315-hp Volvo Penta 5.7 GXi DP V-8 gasoline stern drives with 350 cid, 4.00" bore x 3.48" stroke, swinging F5 DuoProp ss propsets through 1.95:1 reductions.
STANDARD EQUIPMENT (major items): Battery charger; CO detector; depthsounder; VHF; engine synchronizer; high water alarm; jumper posts; dual 30-amp shorepower w/50' cables; 12,000-Btu a/c/heat; remote spotlight; AM/FM/cassette/12-disc CD w/remote and 6 speakers; windlass w/line and 30' chain; windshield wiper; icemaker; hideaway transom bench; electric engine hatch; hot/cold transom shower; full canvas enclosure; water heater; TV/VCR; vacuum-flush commode; coffeemaker; microwave; AC/DC refrigerator; 2-burner electric cooktop; trash bin.