Choosing the Right Pontoon Engine

Pontoon boats are loads of fun, but make sure yours has the best engine and sufficient power for the activities you enjoy.
Vanderbilt 500S engine
Selecting the right engine for your pontoon boat will ensure maximum fun on the water. Bill Doster

What’s better than racing around the lake on a pontoon boat? Some people would rather peacefully idle through a cove, while others might prefer shutting off that pontoon engine completely and casting a fishing line. Still others would rather break out kneeboards or water skis. What everyone should be able to agree on, however, is that a day spent aboard a pontoon boat is a day of unmitigated fun—that is, if the pontoon boat has an engine that fits your favored activity.

Article at a Glance:

Selecting the Right Horsepower

Most pontoon boats come with a wide range of horsepower options, and many aren’t even rigged with an outboard until a buyer chooses the boat and specifies what they want. However, most people choose a pontoon engine at or close to the maximum size available (as long as they find it affordable) for one or more of several reasons. First, more horsepower means more options; you can always pull back the throttle and slow down, but you can’t push the throttle down and go faster with less horsepower. Second, having a lot of horsepower tends to make it easier to resell the pontoon boat down the road. And third, well, who doesn’t enjoy zipping across the water at high speeds?


The vast majority of the pontoon boats sold today have outboard engines. Modern four-stroke outboards are much cleaner, quieter and more reliable than outboards were a couple of decades ago. They’re also easier to maintain.


Inboard/outboards (I/O), also called sterndrives, appear on a handful of modern models. Some pontooners prefer the unbroken swim platform and large motor-box sun pad they provide. A unique power choice that still provides that huge swim platform is the Rotax S system. It has a horizontal powerhead like a sterndrive but sits entirely outside of the boat like an outboard. Another one-of-a-kind boat is the Sea-Doo Switch jet drive, which marries a personal watercraft’s jet drive with a pontoon’s hull.

Electric Motors

As is true with all sorts of powerboats, going electric is all the rage—at least, it’s all the news. In truth, the number of electric-powered pontoon boats is still limited, and they can’t match gasoline-powered pontoon boats for power or range. That said, this segment is evolving by leaps and bounds. And it can be an excellent option for boaters who don’t need to go very fast or far.

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Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

How Boating Location Affects Your Pontoon Power Choice

In some cases, choosing the best pontoon engine will come down to where you do your boating. There are many lakes that don’t allow gasoline motors, and in those cases, electric is the only way to go. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some coastal areas with ripping currents, where a certain amount of power is necessary to make any real headway. And there are also large bodies of water with miles and miles in between marinas, where most people will want an engine that provides serious speed and range.

Factoring in Your Favorite Boating Activities

Be sure to consider how you use your pontoon boat when choosing an engine. Some activities require more sheer power than others, and everyone likes using their boat differently. Here are a few top options that might come into play:

  • Family boating – Pulling the kids around on tow toys, pulling up to the beach for a swim, and having lunch on the hook don’t require gobs of horsepower, so a moderate engine size will do the trick.
  • Cruising and exploring – Range will likely be as big a consideration as speed, so consider a power choice that provides the best efficiency.
  • Watersports – It takes power to pull boarders and skiers, so think big.
  • Fishing – Speed and range are important considerations for anglers. While the biggest engine might not be necessary, you’ll probably want the upper end of the range.
  • High performance – If high-performance boating is how you get your thrills, this one’s a no-brainer. You’ll want the most horsepower possible, and then some.
  • Relaxing – When peace and quiet is what you’re after, the question is less about horsepower and more about gasoline versus electric. And in this case, electric wins.

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Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

Other Considerations

Up to now, we’ve mostly talked about pontoon engine size and type, but there are some other factors to consider. Control style is a big one because you might want digital throttle and shift or possibly a joystick. There are some engines that offer Bluetooth links and apps to connect with your dealer, which can make monitoring maintenance schedules and troubleshooting problems far easier. And it’s critical you work with a dealership that’s reliable and close to home, which can also influence the final decision.

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Safety Tip Provided by the U.S. Coast Guard

Closing Remarks & FAQ

Choosing the ideal pontoon engine for your personal needs isn’t easy, but making the right call will go a long way in ensuring your satisfaction and, just as importantly, your fun. So consider the options carefully before pulling that trigger—but do give it a pull because once you and your family jump aboard, you’ll never want to stop boating.

1. How does the size and layout of a pontoon boat affect the power choice?

Layout isn’t a big factor, but size and weight certainly are. The bigger and heavier the boat, the bigger the engine you’ll need to push it.

2. Besides outboard power, what other engine options are available?

Sterndrives, jets, and unique systems like the Rotax S are available. That said, outboards power far more pontoon boats than all the other options combined.

3. How should boating location factor into choosing an engine?

In some cases, such as lakes that don’t allow gasoline engines, location will be the defining factor. In others, the distances traveled and currents encountered are the items to consider.

4. What should a boater consider when choosing an engine for different boating activities?

Different activities have different requirements, so you should rank the things you and your family enjoy by importance. Then place a priority on getting enough power to cover all the bases.

5. Do pontoon boats need special propellers?

Generally speaking, no. That said, choosing a prop with the maximum blade area can help with dockside maneuvering (at the possible cost of top-end speed).

6. What else should a boater consider when selecting the right pontoon engine?

In addition to everything we’ve covered, you need to factor in the warranty provided by the manufacturer, cost considerations, and which brand(s) are offered by different pontoon boat manufacturers or dealers.