Get a Grip

Stern drive buyers rejoice! Your joystick is here.

Its official launch isn't scheduled until early 2008, and chances are you won't see it in significant numbers until 2009. But make no mistake, Axius is here. A joystick-controlled, low-speed maneuvering system similar to MerCruiser's Zeus pod drive or Volvo Penta's IPS, Axius promises to bring the same unprecedented ease of handling to dual stern drive applications.

All three systems share the same basic idea of two individually articulating drives, linked by clever software to a single joystick at the helm. Only Axius, however, will bring the concept away from the highly maneuverable pods and into the less agile stern drive market. Volvo Penta's version is coming down the pike, so who's first is moot. What's certain is that boat handling as we know it will never be the same.

Axius is based on the same software originally developed by Cummins MerCruiser Diesel (CMD) for the Zeus pod drive system. As with Zeus, a single intuitive joystick allows a captain to move an Axius-equipped boat along three separate axes: left to right, forward or back, or fully sideways. Push, pull, or twist the joystick knob and the boat responds in kind. Exaggerating those same movements will bump up rpm (limited to just under 2000), enabling the driver a little more speed. Turn and face backward to ease into a slip, and the controls retain their same intuitive operation.

The key to the system is that each drive operates independently, rather than being linked by a conventional tie rod. One challenge: A stern drive toes at only a 35-degree arc, but a pod can toe out as much as 45 degrees.

Still, the system impressed me during my time at the stick. I easily slid my test boat into an open spot at the dock and was able to back in and crab sideways without a hiccup. Twist the knob and you can practically spin the boat within its own length. Drives are standard issue Bravo Threes; only the steering actuator is changed to accommodate electronic feedback control. No hull modifications are required.

If there's a downside to Axius, it's that a stern drive's clutch mechanism is awkward. You can hear and feel the clunks as the drives continuously shift in and out of gear. Still, it's nothing you can't live with. MerCruiser continues to work on the GPS-linked SkyHook position feature that promises to hold your spot while waiting at a crowded fuel dock. I'm not supposed to talk about it, but if I could, I'd tell you it works surprisingly well. Expect the system to be more dialed in by production time.

Price: NA • WWW.MERCURYMARINE.COM, 405/743-6566