Maintenance and Practicality
As to engine access, the outboard is the obvious winner. Pop off the cowl and you’ve got 360-degree access. The larger stern-drive engine is often sandwiched into tight confines, although basic maintenance points are generally within reach. But for any form of serious maintenance, the outboard is superior. We’ve seen stern-drive engines pulled completely from the boat for serious repairs, requiring time that significantly adds to the repair bill.
Also, an outboard can be used through winter’s cold without fear of freezing, since its cooling system drains completely after every use. Even basic winterization is different. A quick survey of northern dealers revealed an outboard winterization with gear lube change costs roughly $65, while the comparable stern-drive bill is around $120. An outboard’s simplicity also prompts more owners to do the job themselves. (The E-TEC we tested can even “self-winterize” at a turn of the key.)
Other considerations? Stern-drives must be removed from the boat to service bellows gaskets and u-joints; outboards are self-contained with fewer parts. Unlike an outboard, a stern-drive can’t be tilted fully out of the water, a particular concern if you keep your boat in salt water. Outboards are built to self-drain the raw water used in cooling them, meaning an outboard is typically less prone to internal corrosion. An outboard also offers one big advantage over time. It’s easy to repower an existing boat by simply hanging a new engine on the transom. Even trailering favors the lighter-weight outboard, because it effectively allows you to haul more horsepower should your tow vehicle have limited capacity.
On the flip side, stern-drives provide a clear transom. The view aft is free of obstruction, and there’s less worry of snags when fishing or swimming off the stern. The full-width swim platform also makes for easier gearing up and reboarding. Stern-drives tuck the motor away in an enclosed housing, which dampens much of its noise, although this was more of an advantage in the old days than it is with today’s quiet outboards. Horsepower for horsepower, stern-drives remain the less expensive engines to buy. On the Ebbtides we tested, the 190 hp stern-drive can be had for about $600 less than the 115 hp outboard.
And the Winner Is...
Obviously, there’s no clear favorite. Each power option offers strengths that apply to individual buyers, and each features drawbacks that will do the same. One thing is certain. As emissions laws tighten, you may need to bone up to choose between outboard or stern-drive on your new runabout.