Three New Boats Under $30K

By Lenny Rudow

Can you buy a new boat for less than most new cars? You bet you can!

$100 billsPhoto: Thinkstockphotos.com/NosUA

Looking at the prices of many new boats on the market today, you'd be forgiven if you had a slight case of sticker shock. Actually, you'd be forgiven if your head spun around 360 degrees a few times as you dug a hole to bury your checkbook and clutched at your wallet. Yes, boats can get expensive — very expensive.

Much like cars, there's a world of difference between an econobox and a luxury machine. However, you still have the ability to find and buy a simple, yet high-quality, well-constructed choice.

If you're shopping for a modest but sweet boat and your budget tops out at about $30,000, we'd suggest you spend a good deal of time looking at the many options out there, visit a few boat shows, and make sure you include these three top picks on your must-see list.

Basic Bowrider

If you want a basic bowrider that's well-built, offers snazzy performance, and comes complete with everything from a stereo system to a trailer, you'll have trouble topping the Yamaha SX190. With an MSRP of $28,299, this boat has a rather stellar list of standard features. Start with that stereo we mentioned, which includes Bluetooth USB/AUX input and four speakers. Then take a gander at the tilt steering, locking glove box, snap-in carpet, courtesy lighting, and digital-control features like no-wake mode, cruise assist, and digital speedometer. Even a bimini top is included in the list price, which is often a cost-adding option on a boat of this size and price.

Yamaha SX190LOA: 19'2" | Beam: 8'0" | Weight: 2,121 lbs. | Fuel capacity: 30 gal.

The most unusual feature of the SX190 is its power system. This is a jet boat, propelled by a single 1.8L 1812 cc Yamaha engine producing thrust via a 155 mm axial flow jet pump with a three-blade stainless-steel impeller. And that brings us to the performance I referenced earlier. How many boats that cost less than $30,000 have a top end over 40 mph? This boat not only shreds the water with speed, it also has the phenomenal handling provided by a jet drive with an articulating keel — crank the wheel hard over, and the SX190 whips around like a roller coaster.

As with all boats, there are a few downsides. Most notable is the rather loud whine of the jet drive, which isn't exactly endearing to your ears. Bow seating is on the tight side and is better sized for kids than adults. The boat's stated maximum capacity is eight, but truth be told, four or five people is more of a reasonable load.

And although the SX190 has a tow hook for pulling water skis, wakeboards, and the like, water sports lovers may find themselves pining for the AR version of the 190. That model comes with a wakeboard tower, but it also just barely busts our price cap, coming in $299 over budget. Darn.

No-Frills Fishing Boat

The Bayliner Element F21 is one of the largest fiberglass center-consoles you'll find on the market today with a price tag under $30,000. Its advertised MSRP is $26,599, with a 115-hp Mercury four-stroke outboard and trailer included.

Bayliner Element F21LOA: 20'8" | Beam: 7'9" | Weight: 2,645 lbs. | Fuel capacity: 44 gal.

That's a great starting point, but it doesn't have some features many of us would consider must-haves, like a T-top ($1,430), compass ($60), and automatic bilge pump ($45 — really, Bayliner?). That takes the price up to $29,776, a number that includes destination charges and with no money down, translates into a payment of barely $300 a month on a 10-year loan.

In past years, one might have argued that a brand's quality was reflected by its price, but with the Element F21 you're going to discover some surprising construction touches that are a departure from older Bayliner methods. First off, this is a self-bailing boat. Secondly, it's a 100-percent composite, wood-free structure with a stringer grid that's foam-filled. In fact, Bayliner now backs the Element F21 with a lifetime limited structural hull warranty.

However, you get what you pay for, and costs have to be cut somewhere to sell a boat with this much LOA for this low a price. Inspect this model closely, and you'll find that the good-looking fit and finish is limited to visible topsides areas. The undersides of the hatches are a bit rough, and they lean open against a strap, instead of sporting the gas-assist struts found on more expensive boats. There are also more plastic pieces and parts (such as cup holders, the horn vent, and the fuel-fill cap) than one might want, although this issue can be mitigated by spending an additional $360 on the stainless-steel upgrade package. All of that said, none of these issues are what we'd call deal-killers. In fact, these are rather minor items to trade off, considering that some 21-footers on the market today sell for literally three times the cost.

The M-hull design that the F21 runs on has both pluses and minuses. It's far more stable than a deep-V hull bottom, but it doesn't cleave open the waves quite as smoothly. It also runs very flat and tends not to respond very much to engine trim. With the standard 115 outboard you won't set any speed records, but cruising in the mid-20 mph range is plenty of pep for a 21-footer. Put all of these factors together with years to come filled with fishing fun, and the Element F21 makes for quite a bargain at the $30,000 price point.

Penny-Pinching Pontoon

If you want to maximize the relaxation value of your dollar when buying a new boat, at $29,936 the Lowe SS250 might be just the type of ride you need. Wait a sec — this pontoon boat actually bases at $24,358. But that's with a 25-horse outboard, which will have you plodding across the lake at a fast jogging speed ... if there's a tail wind. We're thinking that just about everyone will want to upsize that engine, and a 90-horsepower Mercury 90ELPT four-stroke is much more realistic. That will have you cruising at speeds in the upper teens to low 20s, and into the mid 20s at WOT.

Lowe SS250LOA: 25'7" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 1,940 lbs. | Fuel capacity: 24 gal.

If slow and mellow is what you like in the first place, or if you keep a boat on a lake with horsepower restrictions, sticking with the little powerplant does mean you can pocket the difference in cash or splurge on other optional upgrades. A full camper enclosure to go with your bimini top or a more potent stereo can all be in the mix. We do need to mention that unlike our other two picks the SS250 doesn't come packaged with a trailer (which runs around $4,000). That said, however, many pontoon owners don't need a trailer, so in your case, this may be a non-issue.

Any way you cut it, coming in under the $30,000 mark is pretty incredible for a boat with 25'7" of LOA and seating for 15. Like most pontoons, the SS250 is built with aluminum logs (25 inches in diameter) and a plywood deck (covered with 22-ounce marine-grade carpet, which can be upgraded or replaced with vinyl). The console is fiberglass-reinforced acrylic, which isn't quite as nice as having a full fiberglass console but is a step up from the rotomolded or plastic consoles seen on some value-priced pontoons. And the standard features list is healthy, with a bimini top with boot, a Jensen MS30A Bluetooth USB/MP3 stereo, lighted toggle switches at the helm, and a removable dinette table. We'll gripe about the wiggly nature of the table while also noting that the pedestal tables on most of the pontoon boats we've been aboard are unstable at best. We also want to point out that the boat doesn't get anodes unless you get the Saltwater Package ($186), and if the boat's headed for the brine, we'd consider this a rather imperative must-have.

Well there you have it: three rather attractive boats for under $30,000, ranging from 18 all the way up to 25 feet. We do want to remind you that these represent a small sampling of all the boats out there on the market today, and you have plenty of options — even within this budget — to choose from. But these three struck us as particularly good values. And even better, the only sticker shock you'll get from them is the pleasant kind, when you realize just how big a bang for the buck they deliver. 

— Published: April/May 2018


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