Stern drives are the overwhelming choice of propulsion for owners of small express cruisers; yet there exists a small group of boaters who prefer inboards. Is there a hard-and-fast rule as to which one is better? To find out we headed to the world headquarters of Sea Ray Boats in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, tied to the several hundred feet of company dock jutting into the French Broad River, was an identical pair of 310 Sundancers with the same power, equipment, fuel, and water that Sea Ray had provided. They were identical in every way except one: the drive train. Although both boats hid twin 300-hp MerCruiser 350 MAG MPI Horizon V-8 gasoline engines beneath their hatches, one turned its props through Bravo Three stern drives while the other used V-drive gears and shafts. We ran them, maneuvered them, and crawled through each boat's innards inspecting every limber hole, motor mount, and tiewrap. We found the distinct differences propulsion choices make possible. Now, all you have to do is figure out which one works better for you. Here's what you need to know. The 310 Sundancer is one of the most popular express cruisers. It provides sleek styling and crisp decor with expansive exterior seating and the ability to sleep six. I particularly like the foldaway transom bench that provides aft-facing seating, a covered sink and stove in the galley that help gain more counter space, and a cockpit wetbar large enough to accommodate an optional barbecue. I also like the choice it offers. The 310 Sundancer is the only express cruiser of its size that's available with either inboards or stern drives.
The choice of power has no effect on living space. You get an identical accommodation plan either way. But there is a difference in engine room space. The engines for the stern drives are mounted up against the transom. The drives' transom plate serves as a rear motor mount and the drive train is all outside the boat. That's why when you push the button to raise the electric hatch there's about 4' separating the engines and the forward bulkhead. This gives you plenty of room to climb in without fear that you'll step on something you shouldn't. And once you're down there, access to the engines is great. Since you're looking at the front, or "belt," side of the engines, servicing the water pump and alternator is easy.
Open the hatch on the V-drive installation and the view is dramatically different. The engines are farther forward. There's only about 2' of space between them and bulkhead, and that space is occupied by the V-drive's transmissions. As you step in, the only secure place to put your foot is on the diamond-plate pedestal over the port transmission. From there you have to pick your footing with care.
The V-drive engines have internal raw-water strainers and an underwater exhaust system, items that are built into a stern drive. These are excellent features, but they consume more space. Things are tight down here. Then, too, V-drive installations require engines to be installed backward. The drive shaft is at the forward end, and the belt side is aft with its water pump and alternator, which are even harder to get at because of the exhaust and mufflers. Most service checks will have to be performed while you're lying on the cockpit sole alongside the opening - if not atop the engines themselves - while reaching down. And some repairs will force you to disassemble one system to get to another.
Point: This stern drive boat offers a lot more room to work around the engines than its V-drive cousin.