Making a Splash: The Next Wave of Personal Watercraft

Innovations for personal watercraft deliver something for everyone. A new construction technique dramatically reduces weight and pricing, new engines deliver more power and the first model that has a built-in audio system might be music to your ears.

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The one rule that historically applies to personal watercraft (PWCs) is that you have to pay to play. In other words, you typically shell out a lot of money—sometimes more than you might pay for a new car—to achieve the adrenaline rush that’s associated with flying off waves at high speed and carving hairpin turns.

Fortunately, price no longer has to be a pain in 2014. The arrival of the first PWC that has an all-plastic body means that you can pay nearly 40 percent less for a PWC than has been required. However, buyers who have a bit more money to spend will be glad to know that the most expensive models have more-powerful engines than ever before. Furthermore, although the first audio system that’s on a PWC might sound like a great idea, it’ll force you to shell out an extra $2,000.

WORTH THE WEIGHT. The 2014 Sea-Doo Spark ($4,999), which was unveiled by BRP in September 2013, is the lightest and least expensive PWC that’s on the market, and it represents a significant shift for the industry. The Spark is $3,000 less than the next-least expensive PWC that’s on the market.

Rather than being made out of fiberglass, which is the industry norm, the Spark is molded with a mix of polypropylene and long-strand glass fibers. Called Polytec, the material uses a unique combination of plastics compared with all other materials that are used for PWCs, and we found it to be much lighter than are other composite materials. The Spark also has no glove boxes or stowage bins that are molded into the frame, although you can buy the features as optional attachments that clip to the PWC. Pricing for such attachments starts at $80.

As a result, the Spark’s base model tips the scale at just 405 pounds, which is 276 pounds lighter than any other PWC that was available at press time. The Spark’s significantly lighter weight requires far less power to propel the PWC across the water. It uses the industry’s least powerful engine—a 900-cc four-stroke Rotax ACE engine, which generates a mere 60 hp. (A 90-hp engine upgrade costs $700.) The second-most powerful PWC has an engine that generates 110 hp. Despite that, the Spark still maintains an impressive power-weight ratio, so its acceleration is on par with that of other economy models that have more horsepower.

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The bottom line? For the average rider—certainly the beginner—a 60-hp PWC that delivers top-end speeds in the low 40-mph range will be more than enough to get the adrenaline flowing, based on our hands-on evaluation. We also found that the light weight translates into sporty handling and the capability to make quick turns and power slides (sideways turns across water). We even were able to spin the PWC on its nose.

Experienced riders who are used to being on the most powerful PWCs might find the performance a bit disappointing at first, says marine-products journalist Jeff Hemmel, who has covered PWCs for 25 years. However, the average rider will experience plenty of power and fun, he says.

Sea-Doo spokesperson Tim McKercher says the use of Polytec for the Spark’s body also boosts a consumer’s ability to customize his/her PWC. No additional cost exists for pigmenting the material, and design elements, such as stowage compartments, easily can be molded in, he says. For instance, the Spark has five color choices, 20 graphics kits (as opposed to two or three graphics choices as are commonly available on fiberglass PWCs) and a full line of accessories, such as glove boxes, bumpers and sunshades.

McKercher says Polytec resists damage as well as does any other Sea-Doo model that uses heavier material. Hemmel believes that Polytec will hold up to everyday use, such as when it strikes rock or a dock, as well as any other material, particularly if the owner doesn’t crash the PWC against strong waves consistently, which is considered to be extreme driving conditions. Although we found that Polytec is slightly more flexible than are materials that are used on other PWCs, it appears to resist damage as well as the other materials do. We’ll know more about the long-term durability of Polytec after the models that use it have been around for at least 2 years, because any problems that are related to Polytec on such models likely will surface by then.

Reducing weight and power isn’t the only approach that manufacturers used to attract new PWC riders in 2014. Manufacturers also brought premium features to less expensive models.

For instance, Yamaha’s high-tech Nano-Xcel construction (resin, fiberglass strands, and fillers molded with heat and 3,000 tons of pressure), which produces lightweight PWCs, is available on models that cost $1,500 less than are the 2013 models that used it. Meanwhile, Sea-Doo now includes its iBR braking and reverse system, which is the only on-the-water brake system that’s available, as a standard feature on 15 of its 17 models. When iBR was introduced in 2009, it was available only on two models that cost at least $13,499, but the feature now is standard on models that cost as little as $9,499.

PEAK OUTPUT. For more-experienced PWC enthusiasts who seek more power, manufacturers delivered that. Kawasaki and Yamaha upped their power antes for 2014.

Kawasaki introduced four models that deliver 310 hp, which is 10 hp more than the most powerful model that it offered in 2013 and an industry high. You’ll pay at least $15,299 for a model that has an engine that delivers 310 hp.

Meanwhile, Yamaha’s new SVHO engine, which has a larger supercharger, intercooler (similar to a vehicle’s radiator) and jet, is billed by Yamaha as the most powerful WaveRunner engine. Yamaha says the engine can push a PWC from zero to 30 mph in as little as 1.5 seconds, which, according to independent testing that was performed by boats.com, is 0.2 seconds faster than what the SVHO engine’s predecessor, the SHO engine, produced.

Yamaha doesn’t publish horsepower for its engines, but Andrew Cullen of Yamaha Watercraft says the SVHO engine generates 20 percent more power than the SHO engine does. Historically, Yamaha rated the SHO engine at 210 hp, so we can deduce that the SVHO engine puts out about 252 hp. The least expensive WaveRunner model that has an SVHO engine is the $14,799 FX SVHO, which is $400 more than the most comparable WaveRunner that has an SHO engine.

SOUND WAVES. In 2013, Kawasaki brought the first integrated audio system for a PWC to its Jet Ski Ultra 310LX ($17,999). The Jetsound audio system is built into the PWC’s console and includes a pair of 30-watt speakers. A dock that’s in the glove box allows you to play music via an Apple iPhone or an Apple iPod. A USB port allows you to play music via a flash drive, other personal media players or other smartphones. Audio controls are built into the handlebar pad. The first PWCs that have Jetsound arrived at dealers in November 2013, Kawasaki says.

Unsurprisingly, Jetsound jacks up the PWC’s price quite a bit. The Ultra 310LX has the highest MSRP in the industry and costs $2,200 more than does the Ultra 310X SE, which is an identical model except that it doesn’t include an audio system.

No other manufacturers say they’ll add an audio system to their PWCs, and two independent experts whom we interviewed worry that audio systems have the potential to distract drivers when they operate a PWC in crowded waterways, because the music might drown out the sound of other nearby watercraft.

Although we didn’t perform a hands-on evaluation of Jetsound, we found that a similar distraction potential exists with powerboats that have audio systems, so it wouldn’t surprise us that a PWC rider might be affected similarly. Furthermore, Jetsound comes with a waterproof case that holds an iPhone or an iPod, and the USB port also has a waterproof case. The case for the iPhone or iPod isn’t secured, so the devices could move inside of the glove box when you drive the PWC. Jon Rall of Kawaski tells us that nobody has reported any damage to an iPhone or iPod that’s used as part of Jetsound.

Nonetheless, we agree with experts who say that listening to a stereo isn’t a distraction when you idle through uncongested water or if you’re parked at a beach. In other words, if you want to rock out to your favorite tunes, you might rock the boat—or in this case, the PWC.

Lenny Rudow has covered personal watercraft and other marine products for 24 years and is senior editor for boats.com. He also writes about boats for Consumers Digest.

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