Centers Of Attention

Five mini battlewagons duke it out

Let's put a stop to the nonsense. You want a boat that you can use and use often. You want one that's affordable, somewhere around the 20K mark. Oh, and it should be trailerable, too, so it can go where you want to go, when you want to go. You want it to be small so you can launch it solo, clean it up quickly, and easily maintain it. Yet it needs to be big enough to be safe when the weather turns. If this is hitting all the right notes, you'll find that almost nothing beats a 17' center console.

The 17' center console is an idea that has been around for decades. Which is good news, because it means almost every builder offers one. Of course, that leads to the bad news-the choices are overwhelming. How do you sort through the slew out there? You don't-we do it for you. We've taken a sampling of the best and most interesting 17' center consoles on the market-the Aquasport 175 Osprey, Boston Whaler 170 Montauk, Mako 171, Polar 1700, and Trophy 1703- cracked open our test gear, poked, prodded, took measurements, ran numbers-and had a kickass time doing it. If only we had a tool to measure fun, which, as it turns out, is a major factor in a 17CC's appeal. The parameters we set were simple: Which one fishes the best, is built the toughest, performs like a sportboat, and gives you the most for the least. Want the answers? Read on.

Shopping Centers

Using a 90-hp outboard as the standard power package, the comparison chart tells the whole story-almost. What it doesn't reveal is which combination of the standard features gives you the best bang for your buck. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. But from our experience, the one item most people want is a galvanized trailer, something only Whaler and Aquasport include. For the rest, you'll have to tack on about $2,000.

At $22,690, the Aquasport is the most expensive boat in our fleet. But you get a trailer and a boat stocked with lots of standard goodies. The 40th-anniversary package for $460 includes teal graphics, stainless-steel through-hull fittings, an aluminum steering wheel, and a tacklebox. Better yet, opt for the $225 package that includes a tacklebox, vertical rodholders, and a Bimini top.

People expect Boston Whalers to be expensive. They typically cost more because of their construction process. Yet, to our surprise, this Whaler was the least expensive of the group at $17,949, including a trailer. The optional fish package, which you'll need, gives you four console-mounted rodholders, tackle drawers, a compass, and a 72-quart cooler seat with a backrest for $700. Even at $18,649, it's the least expensive by a few hundred dollars. On the other hand, it also has the fewest fishing features.

At first, the Mako looks like the least expensive boat here, going for only $16,760. But add in a trailer and you're at $18,760, which isn't bad and right in Whaler territory. You'll probably want to rid yourself of the pedestal seats and go for the optional leaning post for $810 and under-gunwale rodracks for $610.

The Polar starts at $18,699, but adding a trailer ups the ante to $20,699-pretty close to the Aquasport. Still, the Polar is the only boat to offer a raw-water washdown standard. In fact, it has the best standards list of the group. The livewell is the second largest, behind the Mako at 28 gallons. Even with the standards list as long as it is, there are tons of factory options-from trim tabs to a bicycle-style fishing seat with adjustable pole height.

Our Trophy was in the center of the financial bell curve. The base price is $16,806 and includes lots of usable standards. Add in a trailer and you're up to $18,806-right in there with the Mako and Whaler. Unlike the Mako, it doesn't have console-mounted rodholders and doesn't offer them as an option. Buy them aftermarket for about $40 for four holders. A factory option that you may want is the raw-water washdown for $171. Hydraulic steering is offered at $464, but we don't think it's necessary. A green hull, like the one pictured, will cost you an additional $286. But isn't it pretty?

In the Center Ring

Any of these boats can serve as an everyday flats and bay fish-fighting machine. We'd add them all to our fleet. But that's not going to happen for us and, most likely, won't happen for you either. So we have to choose.

The Boston Whaler 170 Montauk's fans are legion and with good reason. If you want to fish from a bare-bones, unencumbered platform, it will suit you well. Surprisingly, it came in as the least expensive boat. You can add what you want, where you want, but add you must-the standards list is breathtakingly short. There's no livewell, little stowage, and only 13 gallons of gas.

The Mako 171 is legendary-it's been around forever. We loved its new tweaked hull. It's longer than all but the Aquasport, and on-water performance is commendable. The bow-casting platform is just what the fly-fisherman ordered with its ability to site cast. Pricewise, with a trailer, it's squarely in the middle. It's also in the middle featurewise. So it's not our first choice.

The Polar 1700 is a big boat in a 17'2" body. It's beamy, heavy, and a little bit slow. As with the Trophy, you'll appreciate its high sides and cockpit depth when bad weather approaches, but until then, that freeboard may be overkill. In our tests the sides caught the wind while drifting and made poling on the flats difficult.

The Trophy 1703 leans a little more toward family than fishing values. You'll appreciate the security of this boat's closed transom and high freeboard, not to mention the aft seats and built-in swim platform. But for the hard-core fisherman, the reach over the motor and the 1'1" draft with the motor up may be too much.

Then there's the Aquasport 175 Osprey. Little has changed in the 40 years since its introduction. It's an all-around hard-core angling boat with a decent list of standards. The low sides won't catch much wind, and the 10" minimum draft should get you over almost any flat. It's the longest of the group and ran the fastest with a 90-hp engine. Interior space is ample, and we liked the large 72-quart insulated fishbox. You'll pay a bit more for the Aquasport than the other boats here, but from what we've seen, it's worth it. If they would just move the grabrails up on the forward console seat so we don't go flying next time, we'd be happier.

AQUASPORT 175 OSPREY, 941/751-7886 www.aquasport.com

FISHABILITY: Tops. Raised bow casting platform is clutterlessly sublime. Disturbed only slightly by the lid hinges of the huge 76-quart fishbox. Aft, the wide-open stern leaves space around the motor to work a fish, and plastic hatch covers make convenient cutting boards. The insulated, lighted, standard 36-quart livewell resides under the console seat. There are two gunwale-mounted stainless-steel rodholders.

PERFORMANCE: Hold a straight course and this hull slices through the bay chop without shutters or spray. On one of our hard turns, there was just the slightest bit of ventilation. Maneuverability is a breeze; it's a fun boat to throw around. It gets out of the hole in a hurry and reaches 42 mph-fastest by a fin's width-with the 90-hp Yamaha. Cruising was most comfortable at about 20 mph in the slop.

CONSTRUCTION: Fiberglass stringers are attached to the hull with Plexus adhesive, then filled with high-density foam. All hardware is bolted and backed. Aft hatch covers are made of Starboard plastic. The sole and gunwales are a grippy diamond nonslip. There's a comfy, molded-in toe recess in the console.

HIGHS: It's okay to fish from there-there being anywhere. Thanks for the standard compass and roomy console stowage. A+ for the plastic hatch covers/cutting boards. People have been buying this model for 40 years for a reason.

LOWS: Grabrails for forward console seat are out of reach when sitting. Rodracks on the console are optional. How 'bout a lip on the top of the console to keep small bits in place?

STANDARDS: $22,690 (w/90-hp outboard). Includes: 12v receptacle; anchor locker; ss bow and stern eyes; 4 ss cleats; compass; 2 gunwale-mounted rodholders; 4 inwale rodracks; insulated fishbox; ss console grabrail; 9-gal. console livewell; swing-down ladder; 54-qt. cooler; galvanized trailer.

BOSTON WHALER 170 MONTAUK, 800/942-5379 www.whaler.com

FISHABILITY: Short on standards, long on space. Plenty of room to wield a rod in the unobstructed cockpit. The small multilevel bow platform creates tricky footing, but it boasts a locker with an overboard drain. Stability while moving from side to side was impressive. Even with the optional fishing package, there's not much in the way of fishy features. We like the 72-quart cooler-seat option. But place it forward of the console, and the space around it becomes tight. Plenty of room for electronics on the console.

PERFORMANCE: Gets into the skinny water without a scrape with a mere 9" of draft (engine up). We took some spray, but all in all the hull gave a predictable ride with no surprises. The ride was neither the hardest nor softest-just fine for a boat this size. Does this stable hull have giddyup? Plenty. Its top end of 40.1 mph is what it should be for any respectable 17-footer being pushed by 90 horses.

CONSTRUCTION: Construction is done the Whaler way. The hull and the deckliner are bonded together and filled with foam under pressure. Anvil solid, but you give up a lot of stowage for all that foam. There's a thick, heavy-duty rubrail for the docking challenged. Wiring is impressively neat and well loomed. Backing plates are preinstalled to provide solid anchors for future fittings.

HIGHS: Huge rubrail. Obstruction-free, stable fishing platform. Standard trailer-thank you. The reversible pilot seat with locking backrest scores big points for comfort.

LOWS: Bring your own rodholders, portable livewell, and extra fuel. Short on stowage. Not the prettiest belle at the ball. Not impressed with the hardware on the backrest of the pilot seat. See for yourself.

STANDARDS: $17,949 (w/90-hp outboard). Includes: ss bow and stern eyes; ss bow cleat; ss console grabrail; ss bowrail; anchor locker; galvanized trailer.

MAKO 171, 888/434-7487 www.mako-boats.com

FISHABILITY: The bow's the thing. Fly-fishers will love the open bow casting platform-if they can keep clear of the clever cleat/lifting ring up forward. There are eight vertical rodholders mounted on the sides of the console and six under-gunwale racks-three on each side. There are also two chrome-over-bronze gunwale-mounted rodholders and a small six-gallon insulated transom livewell, plus a 32-gallon livewell in the console seat. Huge electronics flush-mount area on the console dash.

PERFORMANCE: We didn't quite hit the 40-mph mark with a 90-hp Mercury two-stroke. It rode dry and was easy to fling around with its 12 degrees of deadrise, which may have contributed to its bumpier ride in the chop. It acts as expected in turns. Older models were often fitted with trim tabs, but this new version of the classic Mako 17 has a reworked hull and shows no need for flaps at the back.

CONSTRUCTION: Fiberglass stringers are glassed to the hull and filled with foam. Wiring connections are sealed with heat-shrink tubing. There's diamond nonslip in the cockpit and on the bow platform. Molded-in steps to go forward. Orderly wiring no matter where you look is a sign that details count. Bolted hardware held with locking nuts. Toggle switches are waterproof and lighted. Not a rattle to be heard.

HIGHS: An abundance of under-console stowage. Console lip to keep gear from falling. Sturdy console grabrail.

LOWS: Pedestal seats? We'd rather have a post to lean on. Console is low for a full-size person.

STANDARDS: $16,760 (w/90-hp outboard). Includes: 2 gunwale-mounted rodholders; 8 vertical rodholders; 6-gal. and 32-gal. livewells; 3 ss cleats; ss console grabrail; ss bow and stern eyes.

POLAR 1700, 800/839-4182 www.polarboats.com

FISHABILITY: Got the goodies. And there's plenty of room to dance-if that's your thing-on the 5'-wide bow casting platform. Room around the lighted console is also plentiful. The long standards list includes a fishbox with overboard drain, lockable tackleboxes, a raw-water washdown, and livewell. You won't be short on rod space either, with no fewer than 14 holders.

PERFORMANCE: It's the heaviest boat here-and felt it. It did some solid wave squashing and bit into the turns. The view from the helm was unobstructed even as we got on plane, which took longer than the other boats. Top end was 38.2 mph-you might want to consider upping the power to bring it into the 40s. We took some water over the transom coming off plane, so watch for weight issues if you do go with more power.

CONSTRUCTION: Fiberglass foam-filled stringers glassed in place. Chase tubes run fore and aft to support and protect cables and wiring. The gel coat work looks fantastic. Hull and deck are bonded together with "death-grip" Plexus adhesive. Vertical rodholders are molded into the console, not a bolted-on afterthought.

HIGHS: Solid riding, and good looking. High freeboard makes you feel safe. Quick-release windshield. Standards leave you wanting for almost nothing.

LOWS: Almost nothing-except, that is, for a compass. Ride wasn't rattlefree. A little sluggish out of the hole.

STANDARDS: $18,699 (w/90-hp outboard). Includes: 28-gal. livewell; 90-qt. cooler w/cushion seat; 6 under-gunwale rodracks; 2 gunwale-mounted rodholders; 6 vertical rodholders; lockable tacklebox; 4 ss cleats; ss bowrail; ss console grabrail; anchor locker; ss pull-up bow cleat; insulated fishbox; raw-water washdown; ss bow and stern eyes.

TROPHY 1703, 800/544-6220 www.trophyfishing.com

FISHABILITY: Wide open. The absence of vertical rodholders on the console lets three stand shoulder to shoulder without fear of wayward hooks but could limit the arsenal you bring along. There are three rodracks under each gunwale and two rodholders in the gunwales. Cockpit coaming pads let your legs rest easy, and the 13-gallon livewell holds plenty of bait. The closed-off transom means fishing from the stern isn't as convenient as it is on the others.

PERFORMANCE: This one won the award for being Mister Light, Short, and Deep (14 degrees at the transom). We thought it would be the fastest, but with a 90-hp Mercury two-stroke, it reached only 37.2 mph, although it would never be called sluggish. No spray found its way aboard thanks to the high bow flare. Turns were crisp and the results were as expected.

CONSTRUCTION: Extra-wide diamond-pattern nonslip gunwales are the first things you notice. The fuel tank mounting is integrated into the stringers, protecting the polyethylene tank. The foam-filled fiberglass stringer system is laminated to the bottom and to the sides. Cleats as well as bow and transom eyes are stainless steel and fastened with backing plates, locking nuts, and large washers.

HIGHS: A round twist-off hatch in the console top to stow small dry stuff-sweet. Oodles of dash space for electronics. Love those rugged latches. 25-mph cruise is as comfortable as could be.

LOWS: Aft seats and outboard well take up valuable fish-fighting space. No console rodholders.

STANDARDS: $16,806 (w/90-hp outboard). Includes: 12v receptacle; 13-gal. livewell; 54-qt. cooler; insulated fishbox; 2 gunwale-mounted rodholders; 6 horizontal rodracks; ss console grabrail; ss bow and stern eyes; 4 ss mooring cleats; 2-step swim ladder; anchor locker.