There’s a rumor floating around that boating is expensive. The builders of the half-dozen boats that follow would beg to differ. Offering a surprising list of amenities, yet never going beyond the $30,000 threshold, they represent some of the best values in the runabout, pontoon, personal-watercraft and fish-boat categories. Want to get in with the 30-and-under crowd? We’ve got some cost-conscious contenders.
Runabout: Bayliner VR5
About This Boat: The classic bowrider has long been the go-to boat for families with multiple interests, but, historically, the bow that gives the boat its iconic name has often been a crowded compartment intended only for kids. Bayliner’s VR5 opens things up by carrying its 8-foot beam as far forward as possible, widening the bow rather than pinching it to a point. The boat gets a similar treatment aft, with the swim platform pushed back to reclaim additional space in the main cockpit and make room for a versatile L-shaped bench with a flip-over passenger backrest and a generous sun pad. Add the boat’s high freeboard and you’ve got a roomy, secure feel, all for a similar price you’d pay for a more cramped alternative.
Fun Factor: With a 200 hp MerCruiser 4.5L under the sun pad, expect a 4.5-second time to plane and a top speed in excess of 46 mph. The 20-degree deadrise hull also predictably handles aggressive turns while not feeling over its head in the chop.
You Get: Trailer with disc brakes and a swing-away tongue, a swivel helm seat, in-floor ski locker, AM/FM stereo with auxiliary inputs, a transom walk-through and seating capacity for nine passengers.
Pontoon: Princecraft Jazz 180
About This Boat: Pontoons don’t have to be the size of a barge to party. Princecraft’s Jazz 180 measures in at only 19 feet 6 inches, yet still offers room for eight passengers on its parallel bow couches, welcoming aft lounge and swivel captain’s chair. Personalize your ’toon with an optional high-back helm seat, upgraded upholstery with piping, sporty fence graphics, a deep swim ladder and a cockpit table that’s generous in size. While you’re at it, don’t forget the Jensen stereo; it’s part of a Concert package that includes a smoke-tinted helm windscreen, and a speedometer, tach, horn and LED docking lights. Add it all, plus a galvanized trailer, and you will still have money left for a season’s worth of fuel.
Fun Factor: Our test boat’s economical Mercury 60 FourStroke burned a mere 5.5 gph at its 21 mph top speed, enough to not only get you where you want to go but also haul the kids around on a tube. Engine options for this boat go as low as 9.9 hp.
You Get: Full-length aluminum skirting, a roto-molded helm console with a molded dash panel, swivel helm seat, aft storage pod, convertible Bimini top and a canvas camper enclosure.
Fish and Ski: Chaparral 18 H20 Ski & Fish
About This Boat: Fish-and-ski boats combine two of boaters’ all-time favorite passions, but they don’t all nail the execution. Chaparral’s 18 H2O Ski & Fish succeeds by offering family buyers flexibility and convenience with minimal hassle. In everyday mode, enjoy a comfortable bow cockpit, dual captain’s chairs, and an aft bench flanked by two jump seats and a comfy sun pad. Open the in-floor ski locker, select the plank of your choice, and you’ll be cutting the wake in no time. Are you ready to fish? Remove the bow cushions and one of those jump seats becomes a bow fishing chair with the standard trolling motor at the ready. Aft, the sun pad reveals an elevated casting platform ready for the remaining seat and that offers quick access to the 70-quart cooler/aerated livewell.
Fun Factor: Chaparral’s Extended V-Plane hull extends the running surface, increasing stability, shortening planing times, softening the ride and sharpening the handling. With a 135 hp MerCruiser sterndrive, expect enough acceleration for tow sports and a top speed just south of 40 mph.
You Get: Wrap-around walk-through windshield, AM/FM Bluetooth sound system, gunwale rod storage, removable navigation lights and a trailer with a swing-away tongue.
PWC: Yamaha VX Limited
About This Boat: It’s no surprise you can buy a PWC for less than $30,000. But we didn’t want to ignore the category and the VX Limited is value-packed. The VX Limited pairs a more powerful engine with a higher level of trim. Additions include unique colors and graphics, a storage cover with built-in solar panel battery charger, pull-up cleats, and two accessory packages designed to appeal to active families. Contents include a color-matched inflatable and a tow rope, 12-volt inflator and tube holder for watersports fans, in addition to a ski tow eye, rope bag, dry bag and 12-volt plug. The boat’s standout feature, however, continues to be RiDE, a dual-throttle concept that uses the reverse bucket for enhanced control. Squeeze the reverse throttle at speed and the craft rapidly slows while maintaining steerage. The system also delivers exceptional control during tight, low-speed maneuvering.
Fun Factor: The lighter, more compact 1,049 cc TR-1 engine offers 13 percent more power than the engine it replaced, but truly stands out for its crisp acceleration en route to the craft’s 50 mph top speed.
You Get: Seating for one to three on a tiered, cruising-friendly seat, digital instruments, dual mirrors, watertight storage and also a remote security transmitter.
Freshwater Fish Boat: Ranger Z175
About This Boat: Ranger is a premium fishing brand, but the Z175 makes ownership more affordable than one might expect. And you don’t have to scrimp on features to join the club. Forward, tournament-ready rod storage includes secure, dedicated lockers for rods and tackle. A Minn Kota foot-operated trolling motor is at the ready; onboard Dual-Pro chargers keep batteries topped off. What about the signature Ranger fish ruler? It’s located amidships for convenience. Retractable tie-downs offer quick access to stow and retrieve rods on the fly; nest rod tips in the gap between the helm console and gunwale. Rounding things out are a recirculating aerated livewell and baitwell with filter screens and automatic timers.
Fun Factor: Evinrude’s E-TEC 115 boasts a great power-to-weight ratio and is notoriously stingy on fuel. To wit, we zipped along at wide-open-throttle at 45 mph while burning just over 13 gph.
You Get: Lowrance Mark-5x Pro GPS fish finder, SRS Soft Ride seating, power trim, premium upholstery, LED navigation lights and a Ranger premium trailer.
Pontoon: Lowe Ultra 180 Cruise
About This Boat: Pontoons lost their senior-citizen-only image long ago. Lowe’s Ultra 180 Cruise is as equally suited to the stately cruiser as it is to the active young family. Our test boat’s 40 hp Mercury outboard handled the evening cruise with fuel-sipping finesse. The versatile layout carries up to nine passengers, split between the parallel lounges forward, twin swiveling folding fishing seats amidships and the aft bench. A standard 9-foot Bimini keeps most in the shade on a hot day. Ample stowage with perimeter drainage gutters swallows up the gear passengers bring aboard while keeping moisture at bay. But if the kids get antsy with the sightseeing cruise, take ’em for a spin on a tube. The engine has enough oomph to get the job done.
Fun Factor: A 40 hp Mercury outboard will absolutely purr on that cocktail cruise, sipping a miserly 2 gph at 10 mph while barely nudging the decibel meter. The peak speed during our test ride was 18 mph.
You Get: Gelcoated fiberglass console, a tinted windscreen, speedo, tack and trim, vinyl-wrapped seat bases, four-step boarding ladder and a 9-foot Bimini top.