Sterndrives ramping up for a comeback

V8-225-Port-300x214New engine technology, improving economy point to segment’s recovery

No segment of the marine industry absorbed a body blow as severe as what hit the sterndrive category in the last decade. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, annual sterndrive sales plunged more than 76 percent between 2004 and 2011, from 71,100 units down to 16,890 — a staggering drop that stressed engine manufacturers, boat builders, dealers and aftermarket companies alike. And, while sterndrives as a whole fell the furthest, compared with outboards, jet boats, PWC and inboards, they have also been the last segment to show signs of recovery.

What’s happened to the sterndrive market isn’t as simple as declining sales, though. During the same period, average unit costs have increased approximately $17,500 ($33,306 to $50,731) as a result of diverse factors including increased government regulations, added
creature comforts and dramatically shifting market demographics.

While sterndrives have been the last major boating segment to stage a recovery, new engine technologies from Volvo Penta and Mercury Marine are set to create a new generation of products that each company hopes will turn the tide to lift sales in this still-important category.

Leveraging global resources

Volvo Penta is one of the world’s largest, most recognizable names in the marine business. Here in the United States, Volvo Penta is the second largest manufacturer of sterndrive engines — market leader Mercury is its only competitor.


In the consumer realm, the company currently offers gasoline-powered sterndrive products in the 200- to 380-horsepower ranges, V6s and V8s. The V8 380 is Volvo Penta’s newest engine, using technology like variable valve timing and lighter weight construction that was sourced from the automotive industry.

While the new 380 has more updated technology than the time-worn, automotive engine blocks used by the sterndrive makers over the last decades, Volvo Penta’s Marcia Kull, vice president for marine sales, said this engine is a sign of drastically better products to come.

“We took a lot of the weight out of the engine package, and that also delivers better fuel efficiency — so all the things that the automotive industry has been improving over the years to meet CAFE standards … we are reaping the benefits of those engines,” she said. “As we introduce new engines in the next few years, they’ll just get better and better as a result of these advances in automotive technology.”

Reinforcing the point, Kull said recent innovation in the category has been largely focused on electronics like joystick control, cruise control and autopilot systems. From here on out, however, innovations from Volvo Penta will largely focus on the actual engines themselves, as the older V8 blocks provided by General Motors are discontinued. As the auto industry shifts and moves to new engine technology, the marine industry has no choice but to follow along. For Volvo Penta, this means lighter engines with a greater power density for a given size.


“People are moving out of V8 engines into V6 engines, because these new engines are capable of so much more — that’s what we’re going to be bringing to the marine industry in the next couple of years,” she said.

Cobalt Boats, whose entire lineup is sterndrive-powered, is an independent company that’s not exclusively affiliated with any of the engine manufacturers, allowing its customers to choose their powertrain.

Gavan Hunt, Cobalt’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the category has seen a lot of recent innovation with features like power trim assist, joystick and docking controls. In terms of the engines themselves, Hunt said Cobalt has been pleased with the performance and sales of Volvo’s newest, smaller displacement engines.

“It makes the boats lighter, which makes the boats handle better [and] makes the boats much like an automobile,” Hunt said. “You used to put a big 8.2 [liter engine] in a pickup truck, and now they put a 6.2- or a 6-liter engine. That has changed the dynamics of the vehicles and the same thing is starting to happen in boats.”

An automotive shift

With GM moving away from its familiar engine platforms, Volvo Penta and Mercury are both at a technological crossroads that will impact boat builders and customers throughout the industry for decades to come.


“Did we want to embrace those old blocks through third-party vendors and continue to make the same old stuff, or did we want to take advantage of the new automotive technologies and really push the market and deliver what, frankly, consumers expect because of their experience driving cars?” Kull asked. “We opted to go with the new automotive technology; I am absolutely convinced it was the right decision. The excitement and performance that we’re getting out of the 380 is a sign of things to come, and the market reaction has been extraordinarily strong.”

While these new, upcoming engines may not necessarily substitute V6s for V8s, today’s lighter engines are designed to provide significantly improved fuel economy. To harness more power from smaller engines, most of today’s more power-dense engines typically run at higher RPMs, but are naturally quieter than previous, heavier designs.

As car companies downsize engine offerings, some sports cars now come with sound-enhancing technology that either routes the exhaust sound into the passenger cabin or artificially creates that “performance sound” through the vehicle’s speakers. A sign of the times, Volvo Penta’s Captain’s Choice feature allows end users to route the exhaust sound out of the side of the boat for those that love the sound, or it can be turned off for customers that prefer quieter operation.

Tom Kaiser, Senior Editor
June 14, 2013

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