The Best Boats For Your Money

By Lenny Rudow

There's a big difference between cost and value. We spotlight the boats that give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Family relaxing on boatPhoto: Thinkstock.com/Thomas Northcut

If you've been boat shopping lately, then you know it's hard to sort through the huge range of runabouts, the copious crop of center-consoles, and the plentiful packs of pontoons. It's even harder to determine the ones that are merely cheap and the gems that represent real value. Never fear, dear boater. We're here to help. In this issue, we'll break down trailer boats into four basic classes: bowriders/runabouts, watersports boats, pontoon boats, and fishing boats. Then we'll identify top values in four different price categories: those costing less than $15,000, those less than $25,000, those less than $50,000, and those less than $100,000. We'll be sure to provide some boat-shopping insights along the way as well as tease you with you some additional options to dream about, too. Ready? Let's look at some of the best buys for boaters.

Bowriders/Runabouts

These are a popular choice among family boaters, and it's no wonder. They can be used for everything from waterskiing to fishing to pulling up on a quiet sandy beach for a picnic. They're the do-everything boat for people with diverse needs and desires. Think of them as the SUVs of the modern trailer-boating family.

Less Than $15,000

It's quite difficult to find a bowrider for less than $15,000, but one that comes in under the wire and deserves recognition for its exceptional stability and interior spaciousness is the Bayliner Element. This is one of the most unusual bowriders to hit the market in recent years, because instead of riding on a common-V or semi-V hull, it rides on Bayliner's M hull, which is essentially a cross between a V and a tri-hull and helps explain the boat's extraordinary stability. It easily handles small chop, although the downside to this hull design is a bit of a bumpy ride in waves larger than a foot. Such a hull isn't very responsive to trim, either. But because this design carries the beam well forward, it also makes for a surprisingly large bow cockpit.

Bayliner Element

Bayliner Element RunaboutLOA: 16'2" | Beam: 7'5" | Weight: 1,570 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 12 gal. | Price: $14,742

When we ran the Element (with the stock 60-hp outboard, two people aboard, and half a tank of fuel), we broke 30 mph and found that a cruising speed in the mid-20s netted more than 7 miles per gallon. The Element, with seating for four in the stern and two more in the bow, comes well-equipped right out of the box. The Mercury four-stroke outboard, swim platforms on either side of the outboard (one with a telescopic ladder), multicolor hullside graphics, two-tone vinyl cushions, and a single-axle trailer are all included in the standard package. Beverages can be chilled in a 25-quart Igloo cooler that slides neatly under the aft sunpad, and you'll find stowage compartments under the bow and aft seating. What won't you find? Another competitor in this price category that's this well-equipped, much less one with comparable stability and interior volume.

Less Than $25,000

Coming in just $549 under the wire, the Four Winns H180 OB provides a relatively low-cost option with exceptional attention to detail and finish work — plus a bit of customization. While many boats in this price range have unfinished stowage compartments, in the H180 OB they're carpeted. Other competitors leave the swim ladder exposed, but Four Winns covers it with a hatch. The average inexpensive bowrider has a plain gelcoat dash, but on this model, you'll discover top-stitched vinyl accents. And if you order the boat instead of buying off the showroom floor, you even get to choose the gelcoat and interior color schemes. Few competitors give you any sort of opportunity to semi-customize a boat at this price point, yet Four Winns will go so far as to color-match the trailer to go with your boat.

Four Winns H180 OB

Four Winns H180 OBLOA: 17'11" | Beam: 7'7" | Weight: 2,150 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 24 gal. | Price: $24,451

Four Winns doesn't strip the H180 OB to keep the price low, either. Big-ticket standards include the swing-away tongue, welded-tube trailer, an Evinrude 90-hp E-TEC outboard, a full-sized walk-across swim platform, courtesy lights, a tilting steering wheel, and a Bluetooth-capable stereo with iPod/MP3 port and two speakers. The H180 OB also gets a full complement of engine gauges, which is an area in which some builders skimp to save a buck or two.

Tahoe 450 TS

Tahoe 450 TSLOA: 18'5" | Beam: 7'10" | Weight: 3,025 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 24 gal. | Price: $23,595

Close competitors include the Tahoe 450 TS Outboard, which shaves about $1,000 off the price but also cuts off your ability to choose the hull and cushion colors. The Rinker Captiva 170 OB is another price-conscious bowrider that shoppers in this category may want to consider.

Less Than $50,000

A unique construction technique that improves the boat's strength and rigidity — and thus its ride — is what propels the Larson LX 225S IO into the leading position for bowriders under $50,000. Yes, you can get more LOA at this price. Sure, you could get a boat with more power than the stock 200-hp MerCruiser 4.5 liter (although you can upgrade the LX 225S to a MerCruiser 6.2 liter with 300 horses and still squeeze in at just under $50,000). What you can't get anywhere else is Larson's VEC construction. VEC is a closed-molding system that vacuum-infuses the hull and stringers into one single piece. The net result is felt when you smash into waves; VEC-built boats simply do less smashing than the others.

Larson LX 225S IO

Larson LX 225S IOLOA: 23'1" | Beam: 8'4" | Weight: 3,100 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 36 gal. | Price: $43,267

The 225S can't top the charts based on one feature alone, of course. But its comprehensive standard features list goes well beyond the norm, including items like a Shorelander trailer with disc brakes, canvas bow and cockpit covers, an iPod/MP3-compatible stereo, and multiple gelcoat color and stripe options.

At this pricing level, we wish the stock powerplant came with a Bravo III drive, and we'd recommend upgrading to it (remember, the price tag does leave some wiggle room), because the dual counter-rotating props of the Bravo III vastly improve handling and provide a better hole shot, which make for a better boating experience.

Chaparral 223 Vortex VR

Chaparral 223 Vortex VRLOA: 22'3" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 3,500 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 52 gal. | Price: $46,895

Those considering the 225S may also want to look closely at such other stout models as the Chaparral 223 Vortex VR and the Monterey 224FSX.

Around $100,000

For $100K, you expect a lot — and the Cobalt R5 delivers. It may be a bit surprising to see a Cobalt included in a roundup of boats that are big on value because for many years, Cobalt has had a reputation as a top-shelf boat, but one that cost a lot of money for the LOA. Yet the R5, which is 25'8" long, starts off right at the $100,000 mark. Several similarly sized competitors cost notably more. The bigger surprise?

Cobalt R5

Cobalt R5LOA: 25'8" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 4,880 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 50 gal. | Price: $100,318

The R5 lives up to Cobalt's reputation, and if the company cut any corners to make this price point, we sure can't figure out where. Take a look at the some of the yacht-like details, and you'll understand why this boat delivers a bang as big as 100,000 bucks. How many bowriders include a thru-hull anchoring system with a stainless-steel scuff plate? A custom-stitched helm brow and dash perimeter detailed with Makassar grain accents? A black leather and stainless-steel steering wheel? Plus, Cobalt doesn't lowball you with a wimpy powerplant, but instead starts with a potent 6.2-liter MerCruiser.

The ski pylon, removable bow- and aft-cockpit carpets, portable MSD, and stereo are all included as base equipment. And that stock stereo provides another great example of Cobalt's quality level. It has a remote at the dash and iPod/USB/MP3 compatibility, like most, but while your average standard stereo comes with a pair of speakers, this one includes a six-speaker system. The bottom line? The Cobalt R5 delivers top-shelf quality while barely exceeding the $100,000 mark.

Formula 240 Bowrider

Formula 240 BowriderLOA: 25'4" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 5,000 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 55 gal. | Price: $105,030

If you find this model interesting, also take a good look at the Sea Ray 250 SLX, the Chaparral 257 SSX, and the Formula 240 Bowrider.

Watersports Boats

If you're young, or young at heart, it's tough to beat the thrill of being towed through the water at high speeds. But whether it's waterskiing, wakeboarding, or the newly popular wakesurfing that appeal to you, you'll be needing a new watersports-specific boat. Hang on tight — this is going to be a wet-and-wild ride.

Less Than $15,000

At this price point, you're certainly not going to be able to afford a fancy watersports boat with ballast tanks and tow towers. You can, however, get yourself an excellent tow-sports platform in the form of the Sea-Doo Wake Pro 230. This is one of the industry's few PWCs designed specifically for towing. It has must-have features like a three-position tow pylon, an aft-facing observer's seat with grab handles, and a board rack. But it also takes things a step further by incorporating modern performance perks that enhance watersports, such as multiple preprogrammed acceleration profiles for skiers and preset variable trim for fine-tuning the ride and acceleration.

Sea-Doo Wake Pro 230

Sea-Doo Wake Pro 230LOA: 11'7" | Beam: 4'0" | Weight: 894 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 15.9 gal. | Price: $14,499

True, using a PWC for watersports does create some limitations. Your crew is maxed out at three, you can't create those big ripping boat wakes for surfing, and you're probably going to be wet whether you're the tower or the towee. There are, however, some additional advantages to consider. Given its dry weight of less than 1,000 pounds, you can trailer your vessel with just about anything larger than a Smart Car. Launching and retrieving will always be a piece of cake, and the small fuel tank and low operating costs make for some seriously cheap thrills.

Waverunner VX

Yamaha Waverunner VXLOA: 11'0" | Beam: 4'0" | Weight: 707 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 18.5 gal. | Price: $9,599

A strong option to consider is Yamaha's Waverunner VX, which doesn't have a pylon or the acceleration profiles but does have a towing eye on the stern.

Less Than $25,000

The Scarab 165 is a jet-driven towing machine powered by a 150-hp Rotax 4-TEC engine. That means it has plenty of pulling oomph, and unlike most boats of this size, it also has a full-beam integrated swim platform. Most boats this inexpensive have an outboard slung on a transom and a miniscule swim platform off to one side.

Scarab 165

Scarab 165LOA: 15'9" | Beam: 7'1" | Draft: 1'0" | Weight: 1,600 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 20 gal. | Price: $21,238

Another advantage of the jet drive: the propeller, or rather, the lack thereof. Obviously, climbing in and out of small boats with exposed props can lead to problems, but it's a nonissue in this case. We also like the aft-facing seats built into the transom. While we wouldn't condone riding in them while underway at high speed, they do provide an excellent lounging spot for coving and relaxing after a long day of shredding water.

But no boat is perfect, and while the Scarab 165 is our top pick in this range, we do see room for improvement. An option to trade in the ski-tow eye for a pylon would be nice, and adding a windshield would make captaining the boat more comfortable. To make the 165 a dedicated watersports boat, you'll want to order the $2,900 tower with board racks. Luckily, there's still some room in the budget after paying this boat's MSRP of $21,238.

What about some other choices? Truth be told, there aren't many watersports-dedicated boats in this price range; you could make do by stepping back down to a large PWC or opting for a small bowrider or center-console that's designed for other waterborne activities.

Around $50,000

The 212X is Yamaha's "high-performance wakeboard edition" runabout, and although it isn't particularly large for the price point, it does represent big value. It has the features found on high-end watersports boats, many of which cost literally twice as much as the 212X, including a folding tower with wakeboard racks, a cruise-control system that maintains preset towing speeds, and, most impressively, twin ballast tanks that can be flooded to weight down the boat and kick up an enhanced wave.

Yamaha 212X

Yamaha 212XLOA: 21'3" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 3,605 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 50 gal. | Price: $57,999

Another big advantage the 212X holds over the competition is its power package. This is a twin-engine boat, with a pair of high-output 1.8-liter four-stroke jet engines. Can you think of another boat of this size, type, and price with twin engines? We didn't think so. Yet another big surprise is the stock trailer, which is a tandem-axle model. Virtually all competitors come with a single-axle trailer. Meanwhile, the Yamaha 212X enjoys those same jet-drive advantages found on our prior pick: the elimination of prop worries and the full-beam swim platform.

Other solid choices include the Scarab's 165's bigger brother, the 215, or, perhaps, the Four Winns H200RS equipped with a tower.

Less Than $100,000

We're really glad the MasterCraft X20 doesn't break the $100,000 mark because this boat deserves to make our list. For starters, it's a MasterCraft. MasterCrafts enjoy excellent resale value, and when you consider how much more you can recoup when reselling it as compared to most other boats, in the long run, it isn't as expensive as it seems. Then note that it has the inboard V-drive power system preferred by hardcore watersports jocks. At 20 feet it's not large for a watersports boat, but it does have wrap-around seating in the cockpit and bow plus a pair of aft-facing seats built into the transom with stowage underneath.

MasterCraft X20

MasterCraft X20LOA: 20'0" | Beam: 8'2" | Weight: 4,800 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 49 gal. | Price: $91,270

And the X20 also gives you the ability to customize. We're not just talking about the boat — sure you get to pick from a huge variety of interior and exterior color patterns and yes, you get to choose the graphics, but you also get to customize the watersports experience. Thanks to the wake-generating Gen 2 Surf System (which integrates hull design, surf tabs, the 2,000-lb. ballast system, and touch-screen controls to create four different wake "zones") you can make those waves rip, curl, and build as you like.

We should caution that many features you may want on the X20 are considered optional. Although you can take the boat home for under $100,000 it would be easy to add a lot of goodies and break the bank. Beyond that, you won't find much to complain about on this boat. MasterCraft has a well-deserved reputation for building top-shelf watersports boats and the X20 is no exception.

Super Air Nautique 230

Super Air Nautique 230LOA: 23'1.5" | Beam: 8'4.5" | Weight: 4,650 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 47 gal. | Price: $101,454

Those interested in the X20 will probably also take a peek at the Super Air Nautique 230 and the Supra SR.

Pontoon Boats

Pontoon boats have been one of the strongest segments of the marine market in recent years, and it's no wonder — these boats are amazingly comfortable, versatile, and easy to operate. They're equally at home on lakes, rivers, and coastal bays (with relatively small waves; many pontoon boats don't handle large waves particularly well). And though their boxy shape may look rather untraditional to the nautical eye, that same shape makes for a huge amount of deck space in comparison with V-bottom boats of the same LOA.

Less Than $15,000

The Sun Tracker Bass Buggy 16 DLX is our top pick in this category. Don't let the name fool you: This pontoon is only minimally fishy, and the only fishing feature other than rod holders is a 9-gallon livewell that will work just fine as a stowage compartment. But this model does come with a bimini top, a forward console seat, two folding chairs, an aft L-lounger, interior courtesy lighting, a 20-hp Mercury outboard, and a single-axle trailer, for the eye-opening low price of $14,390. All the other small, inexpensive pontoons we looked at that came in under the $15K mark excluded the trailer or the engine — and trailer-boating without either of these two features is extremely boring. Added bonus: The 16 DLX comes with an impressive 10-year warranty, which is far better than the warranty on many boats that cost twice as much.

Sun Tracker Bass Buggy 16 DLX

Sun Tracker Bass Buggy 16 DLXLOA: 16'0" | Beam: 7'1" | Weight: 1,090 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 6.6 gal. | Price: $14,390

There aren't many other pontoons on the market that come in below this price cutoff, but the Qwest Edge 7514 CR does make the mark. The Lowe Ultra 160 Cruise does as well, but it has a short list of standard features that excludes the trailer, stereo system, and courtesy lighting and, realistically outfitted, will cost a bit more.

Less Than $25,000

We're betting you didn't think you could get a 25-footer for under $25,000. We didn't either, until we came across the Lowe SS250 RFL. For providing a shocking size without one iota of sticker shock, the SS250 RFL is the clear winner in this category.

Pontoon boats are known as party barges, and this boat has everything needed for a waterborne shindig: 15 person capacity, two bow loungers, a chaise lounge, an L-couch (it really is a couch, not a seat), a Jensen MS30 Bluetooth stereo with two speakers, a bimini top, a pedestal table, and drink holders. Lots and lots of drink holders.

Lowe SS250 RFL

Lowe SS250 RFLLOA: 25'7" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 1,940 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 28 gal. | Price: $21,497

Note that the trailer isn't included in the MSRP, and getting one pushes its price tag close to the $25,000 cutoff, but otherwise, the SS250 RFL is fairly well equipped. One more caveat: The stock engine is a mere 25-hp. For many pontooners who do their boating on inland lakes and rivers, jogging speed is plenty fast, and this will be enough power. If you want to get up on plane and travel more than a few miles, however, you'll want to upgrade.

What other choices are out there? Boaters who can't take the slowpoke speeds of 25 horses on a 25-footer will want to trade in the LOA for more power; they should look at a boat like the Princecraft Vectra 21, which posts a similar MSRP with 150 horses on the transom. Another option would be the Cypress Cay Seabreeze 210, with a 115-hp outboard.

Less Than $50,000

In the pontoon-boat world, $50K gets you some serious juice, and we found the Bennington 22GL the juiciest. With a 140-hp Suzuki four-stroke and Bennington's Sport Performance System — which includes an under-deck wave shield, lifting strakes, full-length keels, and a third center tube — you'll see speeds in the low 40s. Yes, that engine and performance package does put us slightly over the mark, but why argue over a few bucks when spending $50,000? Besides, this model goes the distance when it comes to luxury, with such touches as pillow-top upholstery, a pop-up privacy enclosure for use with a portable MSD or as a changing room, a four-step boarding ladder, and a bimini top with a boot.

Bennington 22GL

Bennington 22GLLOA: 24'0" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 2,384/3,120 lb. (without/with Sport Performance System) | Fuel Capacity: 24.5/54 gal. (without/with Sport Performance System) | Price: $40,107/$52,097 (without/with Sport Performance System and 140-hp Suzuki outboard)

We also need to call attention to some of Bennington's construction techniques. Cross-members are on 16-inch centers, while those of many competitors are on 24-inch centers. Cleats and corner casings are stainless steel, while many other builders use aluminum or even nylon. And electrical connectors are of the waterproof, sealed Deutsch variety. You can feel the quality difference as this boat runs through the water: Many pontoons feel loose underfoot, as though one tube is trying to go to port while the other is trying to go to starboard. And quite often you hear endless rattles and vibrations from the aluminum fence, gate latches, and bimini supports. But these aren't problems on the Bennington.

Other pontoons that run in similar waters are the Harris Solstice 220 and the Manitou 23 SES.

Less Than $100,000

Spending $100,000 on a pontoon boat sounds like a lot — and it is — but there are plenty of premium pontoons that offer large sizes, rather extreme performance, and total luxury. The boat that sets itself apart from the crowd, however, is the Marker One M25. Virtually every pontoon boat has marine-plywood decks; the decks on the M25 are entirely fiberglass. Virtually every other pontoon boat has aluminum fences ringing the boat; this one has all fiberglass. Virtually every other pontoon boat has rotomolded furniture bases; this one has all fiberglass. And virtually every other pontoon boat has frame-and-fabric pop-up changing room/head compartments; this one has a rigid fiberglass swing-up head compartment with folding doors.

Marker One M25

Marker One M25LOA: 25'9" | Beam: 9'3" | Weight: 5,520 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 55 gal. | Price: $96,345

Marker One is the only builder to combine a molded fiberglass topsides with the pontoon hulls, and out on the water it makes a huge difference. There are no creaks, groans, or rattles, which are commonplace on most pontoon boats. Seat bases, the entertainment centers, and the helm console all feel more firmly fixed to the boat's structure. And though it may be mere looks, the boat's gelcoated sides are slicker and glossier than any aluminum finish. The boat's detail work lives up to the promise of its exterior visual appeal, too, with touches like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a stainless-steel framed windshield, and illuminated switch panels.

Two downsides to the fiberglass topsides: First, the interior seating arrangement is what it is, and you can't choose the placement of different loungers, chairs, and settees as you can with most pontoon boats. Second, the fiberglass is quite weighty and thus requires more power to attain the speeds of some other pontoons. With the standard F200, you'll see speeds in the 30s, which many pontoons of the same LOA can attain with 50 fewer horses. If you're willing to break our price cap by a few thousand dollars, upgrading to a 300-hp Verado will take top-end speeds into the 40s and add a lot of zing to your day on the lake.

While there aren't other fiberglass-topsides pontoons to comparison-shop against the Marker One, the Harris Crowne DL 250 is another high- end luxury pontoon with slick, unbroken sides. And some major parts on the Aqua Patio 250 WB (such as the console and furniture bases) are constructed from fiberglass.

Fishing Boats

The world of trailerable fishing boats is massive, with literally thousands of choices ranging from species-specific boats to general-purpose boats in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and construction materials. Yet for many anglers, the choice is actually made easier by the type of fishing they do. A bass aficionado, for example, doesn't need to look beyond bass boats. A dedicated redfish angler living along the Gulf Coast will almost certainly be most interested in bay boats. And offshore anglers will gravitate toward large center-consoles.

To focus on highly specified models would greatly reduce the number of trailer-boaters who would find our top picks useful, and for this reason, we're going to stick with generalists: the boats you or I could use for chasing largemouth bass on one day, then striped bass the next. Or maybe it would be trout today and sea trout tomorrow. You get the picture.

Less Than $15,000

Thanks to the popularity of simple utilitarian aluminum fishing boats, anglers have a huge number of options even at this low price point. And the field is amazingly competitive; five models within a few hundred dollars of each other vied for the pole position. But we narrowed the field down to just one: the Lund 1600 Rebel, because this boat delivers everything you need to pull away from the dealership and go directly to your favorite hotspot, all at a very low cost.

Lund 1600 Rebel

Lund 1600 RebelLOA: 16'5" | Beam: 6'5" | Weight: 710 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 6 gal. | Price: $13,225

Beyond the boat, motor, and trailer, prerequisites for most anglers are going to be rod stowage, a livewell, a bow-mounted electric trolling motor prewiring, and a fishfinder. The Lund comes outfitted with all of these must-haves, as well as features like vinyl flooring, carpeted raised decks, three fishing-seat bases, and a side console with a relatively tall windshield — all for $1,000 below our budget cap. That console is a big deal, too. Many boats in this price range are steered with tillers, which means the captain doesn't get any protection whatsoever. And many that do have consoles offer tiny wind deflectors that are almost irrelevant.

This deal also includes a 40-horse Mercury outboard, which is notably more potent than the 20-hp and 30-hp powerplants included with most packages in this price class. While 20 horses may sound like enough for a 16-foot aluminum boat weighing a mere 710 pounds, when you get a couple of husky buddies and gear aboard, it'll struggle to get on plane. No such worries with the 40 on the transom.

We note that the Lund's hatches have simple pulls and don't dog down. And we're not thrilled with the reboarding ladder, which is a two-step model of nylon strap; it should be more robust. These complaints aside, this is a turnkey fishing machine at a price virtually any trailer-boater can afford. Closely competitive is the AlumaCraft Escape 165 CS, the Tracker Pro Guide V-16 SC, and the Princecraft Resorter DLX SC.

Less Than $25,000

In this category, the Mako Pro Skiff 19 CC is a clear winner because it's small enough to fish shallows and protected lakes and bays, seaworthy enough to head out into open water, and performs well beyond its means. Mako's Inverted V hull (think of a powercat hull with a narrow tunnel and a third, smaller V running down the middle) eats up chop and also enhances stability. Like a cat, it compresses an air/water slurry to cushion the blows and help produce lift.

Mako Pro Skiff 19 CC

Mako Pro Skiff 19 CCLOA: 19'4" | Beam: 7'9" | Weight: 1,900 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 27 gal. | Price: $21,995

Although it may be difficult to quantify, when we first ran this hull we felt it reduced wave impacts by around 20 percent to 25 percent in comparison with an average monohull of a similar size and weight. Meanwhile, unlike many price-conscious packages, the Mako gives you a stock 90-hp Mercury that has more than enough juice. It'll provide top-end speeds in the neighborhood of 40 mph and will cruise in the mid- to upper 20s.

Though the Inverted V's ride and stability both exceed expectations, there are, of course, some downsides to this design. The boat turns flat instead of banking, and trim range is reduced.

But these are small prices to pay. Along with the unusual hull design and that potent 90-hp outboard, you also get a welded, tube-framed, hot-dipped galvanized trailer. The list of standard fishing features is well above par, too, including a 25-gallon livewell with a high-speed pickup, an 85-quart helm cooler seat, raised fore and aft casting decks, and six vertical flush-mounted rodholders. The one item not included that we feel is a must is the bow-mounted electric trolling motor. But you can add that for $1,625 without busting the budget. Comparison shoppers definitely will want to investigate boats like the Key Largo 180 CC and the Bayliner Element F18.

Less Than $50,000

At this price point, is it possible to get a boat that's incredibly rugged, capable of handling both inshore and offshore runs, and comes fully equipped for targeting just about any species? Robalo says yes with the R222, our top pick in this price range. Robalos are built with Kevlar reinforcement, composite cores, poured ceramic transoms, encapsulated closed-cell foam, vinylester resins, tinned-copper wiring with Deutch-style waterproof connectors, chrome-plated stainless-steel fasteners, and 36-ounce vinyl (not the standard 28-ounce vinyl). In short, these boats are built like tanks but priced like Jeeps. You can spend a lot of time looking for another 22-foot center-console that's this well built, but you'll fail to find one.

Robalo R222

Robalo R222LOA: 21'6" | Beam: 8'6" | Weight: 3,700 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 90 gal. | Price: $41,395

On this type of fishing machine, a T-top is a feature most of us will want, so add $3,622 to the MSRP. Beyond that, the boat's well equipped in stock form, including a 15-gallon livewell, hydraulic tilt steering, a four-speaker Bluetooth stereo system, six vertical rodholders, four gunwale-mounted rodholders, under-gunwale rod racks, a portable MSD for the console compartment, cockpit­coaming bolsters, a raw-water washdown, and a three-step telescopic boarding ladder.

Wait a sec. What doesn't the R222 come with? Not much; the options list is shockingly brief. You could upgrade the standard F150 Yamaha outboard to a 200-hp model, but we'd say it's not necessary. The 150 gets you a top-end speed right around 40 mph and a cruising speed of 30 mph, and the 200 only bumps these numbers up by 3 or 4 mph.

Note: The R222 doesn't come packaged with a trailer. Fortunately, even after adding a T-top, there's plenty of wiggle room left in the budget to pay for one. Close competitors include the Cobia 220CC, the Sportsman Open 212, and the Sea Born LX22-CC; check them out.

Less Than $100,000

If you spend the big bucks, you want the big capabilities, and the Pathfinder 2600 HPS delivers. Yes, it's officially marketed as a bay boat, but we spent an entire day fishing offshore on the 2600 HPS in 4-foot swells and found it eminently capable of handling open waters and large waves. Sure, it's a whopping 26 feet long, but it can still float in a mere 16 inches of water and creep into the backcountry creeks and cuts where the redfish thrive. Yes, it's a big boat to power with a single engine, but (in no small part thanks to a twin-step hull design) the stock 300-hp Yamaha F300 nets a top end of almost 60 mph and a cruising speed beyond 40 mph. Run to the canyons, run to the mangroves, or run to anything in between and the Pathfinder 2600 HPS will prove itself capable.

Pathfinder 2600 HPS

Pathfinder 2600 HPSLOA: 26'2" | Beam: 8'10" | Weight: 3,350 lb. | Fuel Capacity: 78 gal. | Price: $88,965

Most anglers will love the fact that this boat is geared 100-percent toward fishing, with a 48-gallon aft livewell and a 15-gallon well in the bow, integrated tackle-stowage trays, a cast-net locker, a raw-water washdown, and the like. But this single-minded focus does lead to one potential knock: Despite its expansive size, the 2600 HPS doesn't make room for a head inside the console. To get that — and a number of other family-friendly features — you'll have to opt for the TRS version, which costs around $10K more than the HPS. And like many other boats of this size and nature, the trailer isn't part of the package. Plan on adding several thousand dollars to the MSRP to get a road-ready rig. 

— Published: Fall 2016


Power Curve

250 hp Mercruiser sterndrive closeup

While the basic bowrider design has remained more or less the same for decades, the systems that power these boats have gone through many changes. Sterndrives continue to rule the roost in this type of boat, but outboards have been making inroads. Due to the latest EPA regulations, sterndrive manufacturers have had to add catalytic converters to their engines. That raised costs substantially, sometimes by as much as 5 percent of an average bowrider's sticker price, instantly making outboards a less expensive — and thus more attractive — alternative. As a result, in the past few years we've seen a population explosion of outboard-powered bowriders.

Sterndrives closeupSterndrives, like this one, have become less popular in recent years as owners swap to outboard power.

There are both plusses and minuses to having an outboard on a bowrider. They commonly post a higher top end, have improved slow-speed handling (single-propeller sterndrives tend to wander and require lots of course corrections), and are exceedingly reliable. On the flip side, mounting an outboard on the transom means you lose the full-beam swim platform, and fuel efficiency often drops in comparison with an identical model with a sterndrive.

 

Towing Trends

The current news in watersports boats has to do with a new propulsion system, Volvo Penta's Forward Drive. By putting a pod-like forward-facing drive unit on a sterndrive, the prop gets moved several feet forward and under the boat, tucked away from surfers and boarders. And because the drive unit can be trimmed, it can also be used to help shape the wake. This development has allowed a number of builders who produce sterndrive runabouts, like Bryant, Chaparral, Cobalt, Four Winns, Regal, and Monterey, to adapt existing platforms into watersports-specific models.

Volvo Penta forward drive

If these Forward Drive boats are so good, why didn't any win as our top picks? Hey, that's the way the cookie crumbled — we had a huge number of great boats from which to choose. And as it turns out, many of these Forward Drive boats fall into the $60,000 to $80,000 range. We noted several Forward Drive boats that, had we established a $75,000 category, might not have been overshadowed by pricier competitors.

If you like sterndrive propulsion and you want a watersports boat, you'll definitely want to further investigate Forward Drive.

 

Speedy Developments

Yamaha F350 Outboard Engine

The recent growing popularity of pontoon boats has led to some very interesting developments in the genre, and a slew of monstrous pontoons in the 28- to 32-foot size range have hit the market in the past couple of years. A 31-foot Premier Encounter with a full cabin was introduced at last year's Miami International Boat Show, and the 31-foot Dodici on display sported triple 300-hp Evinrude G2 ETEC outboards. You can find double-decker pontoons with waterslides aiming at the lake from atop 12-foot-high top decks as well as party platforms with the capacity to carry up to 24 people (yes, there are enough seats for everyone).

350-hp Mercury Verados

With size comes power, and as pontoons have grown larger, their builders have worked to beef up the structures to accommodate massive amounts of horsepower. At the same time, they've been experimenting with strakes, steps, and foils that can be welded onto the pontoon's running surfaces. The net result is increased speed, and though they're quite pricy (commonly eclipsing our self-imposed cost restrictions of this article) you can find trailerable pontoons like the Aqua Patio AP 250 XP, which can break 60 mph with a Yamaha F350 on the transom. Or the Harris Grand Mariner 250, which can blast past 63 mph thanks to a pair of 350-hp Mercury Verados.

In one documented case, a PlayCraft PowerToon Xtreme even broke the 100-mph mark, hitting 104 at the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout. True, the owner had added performance-enhancers like an 8.8-liter Dart block and twin Whipple superchargers. And no, we don't think the average pontooner should have any need or desire to go that fast. But if you do feel the need for speed, today's pontoons offer just as much capability as virtually any other type of boat.

 

Fishing Frenzy

While the range of fishing boats is so vast that it's hard to nail down specific trends or developments that affect all of the available genres, it's possible to point to one development that's had some impact on how all anglers use their fishing boats: the advancements in fishfinder technology. While fishfinders used to look only down, they now look out to the sides. While they used to make blips and blobs, they can now paint shockingly detailed pictures of the structure below; wrecks, roadbeds, submerged trees, and the like are now completely distinguishable. And most recently, 3D fishfinding has become a reality.

Lowrance HDS-7 Gen3

The real surprise, however, may be just how affordable all this fishfinding technology really is. Whether you're looking at boats in the $15K, $25K, $50K, or $100K range, it's a sure bet that the fishfinder you can afford to put on it will be surprisingly advanced. The Humminbird Helix 5 included as a standard feature on our least expensive fishing boat pick, for example, has a 5-inch color 800- by 400-pixel LCD screen and puts out 400 watts of power. Add a mere $100 to the cost, and you get a GPS/chartplotter built in. Just $50 more expands the screen from 5 inches to 7.

Even making the leap to 3D modeling is relatively inexpensive, with the Lowrance HDS-7 Gen3, a 3D module, and transducer going for about $2,250. Five short years ago, anglers paid a whole lot more to get a whole lot less.

 

Examining Price vs. Cost

Hang out long enough at a boat show, and you'll hear a tire-kicker exclaim to his or her spouse or just a random passerby, "Who pays this much for a boat?" Usually he or she is standing in the vicinity of a flashy center-console or a luxury-filled motoryacht. And the answer is, well, no one does.

When shopping for boats, some consumers fall into the trap of equating the price of a boat with its cost. But the true cost of a boat is the difference between what you pay for it, and the money you get when you sell it, plus the operational and finance costs of ownership — not what it says on the sticker.

Most of us won't ever keep a boat for anything close to its lifetime, on average trading up or in within five to seven years. And to be fair, when you're trying to buy a boat, the last thing on your mind is the day you'll sell it. But sell it you will. So it pays (literally) to think about resale value before you buy.

Price is just one factor in the cost equation, and in fact, it's easy to envision a scenario in which a boat with a lower price ends up costing you more. We'll assume for the moment you're comparing two boats of roughly equal size, so most of those operational costs are so similar as to be a wash, and you can write them off as sunk and ignore them for comparison purposes.

Imagine a $90,000 model from a well-respected builder that holds its value very well. In a few years, you might be able to get $70,000 for selling such a boat. But also consider a $74,000 model from a less-desirable builder. In a few years, you might get $50,000 for selling that boat. So if you're comparison shopping between the two, you might think you're "saving" $16,000 when, in fact, you've cost yourself $4,000 in resale value.

Of course, it's not this straightforward. Most of us finance our boats, and the monthly payment on a cheaper boat is likely to be lower. But there are also price breaks at which the interest rate available on a loan is lower for a higher dollar amount than it is for the lesser amount. In fact, one online loan calculator showed that the monthly payment on a $74,000 loan would be $566. But on a $90,000 loan, it would be $563. Confused yet? Loans on larger dollar amounts can also often be stretched over a longer time span. The second loan is a 20-year note versus a 15-year note on the first.

I hope by now you're convinced you can't tell a boat's cost by the price on the sticker. But what can you do to compare costs effectively when boat shopping? Arm yourself with these three things before you head to a show or dealership:

1. Get an idea of the depreciation rate for common models from the brands you're interested in. The easy way to do this is to use BUCValu or NADA Guides online tools and compare across several years for the same boat model. Prices that are closer together are good. A larger spread is bad.

2. Research the terms and conditions for a boat loan online, paying special attention to interest-rate breaks and the length of available terms for your price range. Once you've done that, plug some specific scenarios into an online loan-calculator tool like the one available at BoatUS.com/BoatLoans.

3. Plan to walk away. Passion often trumps reason in boat sales. Walking away allows you time to factor in costs for insurance, maintenance, and storage, and such finance quirks as whether the model you're considering can be written off as a second home on taxes; then you'll have a realistic picture of the ownership costs of each boat you're considering. Once you know the numbers, you can let passion guide your decision, but at least you'll walk in with your eyes open.

— Michael Vatalaro

 

A Word About Warranties

For most people, the biggest advantage of buying a new boat is the warranty that comes with it. Simply put, the warranty is the manufacturer's promise to stand behind its products by providing service and repairs after purchase.

Because marine warranties vary widely in their coverage, compare them before you buy. Look for multiyear warranties for hull and engines, as well as coverage for osmotic blistering — a common problem on fiberglass boats that's expensive to fix. Find out whether the warranties transfer to subsequent owners — a crucial determinant of resale value.

Written warranties must be made available to you before you buy. New boats usually come with separate warranty coverage from the engine and boat manufacturers as well as the makers of other major components. Buying from a dealer who services both the boat and the engine can save a lot of frustration down the road. Make sure you fill out warranty registrations to ensure you'll get service when you need it. Go to BoatUS.com/Warranty for more detailed information on warranties.

— Charles Fort

 

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