Getting to the helm of most express cruisers is like driving down a dead-end road: There's only one way in and one way out. Sea Ray's 500 Sundancer ends the necessity of U-turns with a through-traffic accommodation plan. Instead of a ho-hum bench accessed from beside the companionway, a unique revolving lounge and the deletion of the usual aft-facing bench abaft the helm combine to provide access from a wide arc. This also transforms the cockpit from the typical designated seating area into an entertainment forum par excellence.
But exterior accommodations aren't the whole story. Belowdecks, the 500 Sundancer is palatial and chic. Plus, it boasts an impressive top end, a quick cruise, and the best out-of-the-hole performance of any similar cruiser I've tested.
What's the catch? Well, there are some technical glitches. And the 500 Sundancer has a longer list of options than its competitors, albeit for a base price that costs hundreds of thousands less.
RUNNING TRIBUTE. I tested the 500 Sundancer's close-quarters capability while idling out of Sea Ray's Sykes Creek, Florida, plant. To get from the basin to the river requires negotiating a serpentine, 20'-wide channel tunneled over with mangrove and palmetto, the limbs of which reach out to scrape topsides and break antennae. Its banks are limestone. Precision handling is required. Thanks to immediate response from gears and props, I ran the gauntlet without relying on the bow thruster. Powered by electronically controlled, 635-bhp Cummins QSM-11 diesels, the 500 Sundancer lets you mete out power in increments. An inspection of the boat hanging in its lift told the story of why this beast is easy to tame when going slow-and so much fun at higher speeds.
Check out the prop tunnels. These aren't so deep that reverse thrust is thwarted. Splitting the shifters has an immediate effect. Plus, reversing both props stops the boat. Bursts of throttle are largely unnecessary to twist the boat.
The bottom inspection also hinted at its cruising performance. Check out the propellers' tip clearance. I measured 19" between the center of the shafts and the hull. With 28"- diameter wheels, that leaves 5" of tip clearance, well above the 15 percent of diameter considered the minimum to prevent vibration. Generous tip clearance also enhances water flow to the props, increasing their thrust for a given rpm. Eyeballing the rudders, I noted antiventilation plates to keep water from spilling off, aiding their efficiency. Moreover, these are foil-shaped in cross section, rather than simple bronze slabs. Foil section rudders are smaller, create less drag, and are less likely to stall at higher speeds.
My hull inspection also revealed that the boot and sheer striping is tape, which often loses adhesion and droops when temperature and humidity soar. Gel or painted graphics won't. It's otherwise impressive, sporting the signature characteristics of any boat born to run: steep deadrise, reverse chines, and three strakes per side. Does function follow form? Grab the throttles and give her a whirl.
The 500 Sundancer achieves plane on the level and provides a rush of power that got my adrenaline going. At full throttle, I barreled along at 37 mph; cruise is 32 mph. Cut the wheel, and the boat leans in and slices around, refusing to squat. Ride softness? Test day was flat calm. But with 19 degrees of transom deadrise and the ability to stay on plane at just 16 mph, the 500 Sundancer should mush, rather than slam, through most conditions.
HOME MATTERS. The cornerstone of the 500 Sundancer's accommodation plan is open, common areas with undefined traffic patterns. This negates cutting the boat into areas of specific purpose. Thus, the helm deck and cockpit meld but can be distinguished by a crescent-shaped pedestal for serving snacks. Two settees, one aft and one along the starboard side, are plush and deep, include stowage, and seat 8 to 10 people. A movable, high-low table is standard. The wetbar, stretched along the inwale leading to the companionway, is signature Sea Ray. It has a grabrail, icemaker, and the genset gauges. Boarding steps aid in gaining the sidedecks. Girded by a thigh-high railing, the otherwise wide walkways are pinched to 6" in width at the windshield. Use the sturdy grabrail provided. Forward, stick your head in the anchor locker. Note the back plating for deck hardware. Unfortunately, I also spied windlass electrical terminations that weren't sealed and in which exposed wire was visible behind the sleeve. Anchor lockers are wet, and exposed wire in them is unacceptable.
COME HITHER. Belowdecks, the 500 Sundancer sleeps seven in two staterooms and on a convertible salon sofa. (The guest stateroom features bunk berths; the lower berth is a double.) There are two heads. The galley's comma-shaped counter is big enough to please the gourmet or those who prefer a catered buffet. Its fiberglass top incorporates a deep sink and stove with solid-surface lids. Look closely when covering the stove and you'll note the switch that cuts power to the burners, a safety feature. The master berth has an innerspring mattress; the refrigerator and freezer are separate, undercounter models; and the heads each feature shower stalls with seats. Lockers are large and illuminated.
But beyond its outstanding usefulness, the big treat belowdecks is one for your eyes. Cabinets, bulkheads, even the sofa armrests share the same radius curves. Accents, including the fisheye cabinet pushbuttons, are brushed stainless steel. The headliner is a slick-looking fiberglass job with wood and upholstered inserts arranged in a pattern of geometric curves. Vent ports are nestled in black recesses-like a shadow box. Roman shades provide privacy yet allow filtered light. Vanities and dressers are trimmed with a gray stripe on which a pattern of vines has been dripped in white. It provides tactile and visual punch.
This high-end decor plus its performance and innovation make this boat a winner. But why do Tiara's 5200 Express ($1,066,200 with twin 800-bhp CAT 3406E diesels) and Viking Sport Cruisers' V-50 ($905,500 with twin 715-bhp Volvo Penta D-12 diesels) cost so much more? A review of standard equipment lists gives a clue. Though the 500 Sundancer's equipment list is lengthy and even includes the radar arch, many big-ticket items that the other boats offer standard are optional here. Central vacuum, air conditioning ducted to the helm, a bow sunpad, and an all-chain rode are some examples. This is a departure for Sea Ray, as its predecessor, the 510 Sundancer, included these and more (but it cost more). Bottom line: If you equip it equally, the 500 Sundancer becomes comparable in price to the Tiara, the Viking, or its own predecessor.
The Highs: The accommodation plan proves that a better mousetrap can be built. Great handling, sporty performance. Low base price. True designer decor.
The Lows: Sidedecks are narrow amidships. Windlass wiring looked as though it were hastily done. Tape hull striping can droop or peel in hot climates.
EXTRA POINT: A convertible sofa, rather than a filler cushion and settee, convert the salon to a sleeping area.
Displacement (lbs., approx.)..........38,500
Minimum cockpit depth..................2'5"
Max. cabin headroom..........6'10"
Fuel capacity (gal.).....560
Water capacity (gal.).....150
Price (w/test power).......$743,000
Standard power Twin 635-bhp Cummins QSM-11 diesel V-drive inboards.
Optional power None. Test boat power Twin 635-bhp Cummins QSM-11 diesel V-drive inboards with 661.1 cid, 4.92" bore x 5.79" stroke, swinging 28" x 35" four-bladed Nibral props through 1.8:1 reductions.
Standard equipment (major items) AM/FM/CD stereo w/6-disc changer, 4 speakers, amp, remote; flat-screen TV; VCR/DVD player; 2 TVs/VCRs; Smartcraft engine monitor system; 28,000-Btu reverse-cycle heat/air; icemaker; windlass; radar arch; freezer; refrigerator; 2-burner stove; microwave/convection oven; coffeemaker; heads w/showers, 2 vacuum-flush commodes; 13.5kW genset; 50a battery charger; dual battery system; 50a shorepower w/autoretract cord set; isolation transformer; oil exchange system; 20-gal. water heater; freshwater washdown; dripless shaft logs.