In our annual review of the outboard motor scene, Colin Jones reports keen pricing by dealers
Outboard motors for dive boats become quieter, smoother and more fuel efficient each year. During the past year, research into controlling noise and gas emissions has been at fever pitch, but the physical shape of engines has not altered, and there has been little shift in engine specifications.
The good news is that there is a much keener, competitive edge to prices. An anecdote from London Boat Show sums up the situation: "The engine's priced at £22,000, but one of our dealers is knocking them out for £11,750".
In spite of the weak state of the pound in Europe, and the yo-yo relationship between the dollar and the yen, prices have been kept stable. Most Yamahas, Suzukis and OMCs are the same price this year as last, while some of the other manufacturers have increased the prices of some models and dropped the prices of others.
An interesting general trend is towards 4-stroke motors. Mercury, Mariner and Yamaha all have them, and Honda do nothing else. Five years ago, 4-stroke motors and the sea were a very poor combination. The rocker box covers were inadequately sealed, corrosion was a huge problem and the sheer weight and poor top-end performance (in relation to 2-strokes) also detracted from their popularity.
This is changing. Many of the problems have been solved. They still cannot match the top speeds of good 2-strokes, but 4-strokes are quieter, less smoky, start better, run smoother and are much more economical, in spite of their 4 cylinders. There is not much to choose between servicing costs, but not having to feed the beastie with gallons of hyper-expensive 2-stroke oil is certainly one very big bonus. One day, most outboards will look like car engines stood up on end to get the drive in the correct place.
There is also a trend for outboard motor dealers to talk in European Kilowatts of power, rather than British (and French) horses. This is not a problem where both are quoted in the catalogue but, if not, multiply the HP by 0.75.
Force is still recovering from frequent switches of importer, and it must be wondering why its engines are not more popular. The company claims to have a new model this year. In fact, the 75hp model has been much improved by using more Mariner and Mercury components. It is a relatively unsophisticated engine, but if you compare the 90hp version, at £3995, with its competitors at £5949, £6599 and £7542, you are paying an unsophisticated price too.
Honda is quite happy to stay with its limited range of five models. These are increasingly being chosen by organisations such as harbour authorities, whose dory engines are running long hours each day and often at the 'tick-over' speeds at which 2-strokes die. Fuel economy and quietness are big plusses, so buyers will put up with the extra weight. Typically, the 2-stroke/4-stroke weigh-in goes 40hp - 77/190kg, 90hp - 140/158kg.
This year Honda is offering an excellent warranty extension package for all non-commercial users. A one-off 50 payment covers parts and labour for a 40hp or 50hp engine for 5 years. A Honda spokesman says that the company is confident that its engines are "sufficiently rugged and reliable to take such an extended, long-term warranty risk".
Mariner has joined the 4-stroke league with its, now proven, version of the 50hp jointly developed by Mercury and Yamaha. The company's 6-cylinder engines have re-designed cowls - meaning a better air intake and a much improved clamping and closing mechanism. If you have a manual start machine, have a look at the new outboard security lock, which is shaped like a starter rope toggle. The rope is threaded in and the new handle sits flush with the cowl and is secured by a key. Very ingenious, and £20 well spent.
Mercury introduced the improved cowls and air induction used by Mariner. Like all the other major manufacturers, it is researching a number of new engines, but is biding its time for a release date. The company is also reporting good sales for its new jet outboards.
The chief advantage of a jet drive is its ability to run in very shallow water. Inboard engines are the best jet drivers, but they still suffer from clogging on the intake side. Some divers have toyed with jets because of the safety of unexposed propellers. Unfortunately, a jet system requires considerably more power than a conventional prop to achieve a similar performance.
OMC has, sensibly, become more dealer-orientated. The company's strong dealership chain will be pleased to tell you that there have been almost no price increases in either the OMC or the Evinrude and Johnson ranges this year. New for 1996 are improved instrumentation and ignition, modifications at the top end of the ranges, with probably bigger ones to come next year, and some 4-stroke motors at the lower powers.
Seagull engines are now wearing new bonnets! It was a revolution for the company to move away from the rowdy, rufty-tufty oil guzzlers of 20 years ago - most of which are still running - into more sporty engines. These are unashamedly re-badged Selvas. The liaison still continues with both Seagull and Selva under the same management.
Selva has also re-designed its cowls. Its catalogue has always been a bit confusing, with S650 being 40hp and S1350 meaning 66 kilowatts. This year, the company has added to the chaos by naming its engines Elba, Capri, Antibes, Mallorca and Tenerife.
A combination to watch out for is the Selva 100s with contra-rotating props. These do not give much extra manoeuvrability, but they balance out the RIB when driven hard, and take away the arm ache from a long drive.
Suzuki is among the companies making no changes to its price list this year. The model range remains the same except that the 85hp has been replaced by a 90hp - which is itself a slightly modified 100hp. I shed a personal tear about this news, because the 85hp was by far my favourite Suzie. Fortunately, the 90hp is just as good - but faster, and will run more easily (and probably more economically).
If you run a compressor, the Suzuki range of 2-stroke generators is worth a look. They give 240v and 12v for running lights and recharging batteries. Moves are also afoot to bring out a revolutionary new generator which will run on petrol or on any liquid gas.
Tohatsu is sporting a couple of jazzy cowls with a bright yellow XS logo in 1996. These are modified high performance 90hp and 140hp motors. They boast a 5-port-per-cylinder induction system, low drag pistons, tougher and smoother reed valves and a new range of high performance stainless steel props.
The new engines will probably burn more fuel, but will get you there more quickly, so you save on fuel. This equation does actually make sense if you think about it.
Yamaha prices are also unchanged and poised for the launch of a whole new range of motors when the time is ripe. The company obviously suffers from the problems of the yen-sterling fluctuations, but still reports an increasing share of a very competitive market. And why? Exceedingly high standards of engineering and super electronics.
In visible terms, there are 4 new Proline Yamahas in the 50-200 hp range, including new 50hp and 75hp 3-cylinder models. Top of the list is the 2.6 litre, 6 cylinder V200. The new F50A 4-stroke has been further improved since its introduction last year and now has higher thrust in both ahead and reverse.
Bigger engines seem to be the trend, necessitating bigger muscles for drivers. Fortunately, the price of hydraulic steering is coming down. It is also easy to fit. Normally, the task is no more than fitting a steering wheel boss pump, then threading some thin, flexible tubes through to the ride guide on the engine steering arm. This threads more easily than a steering cable, and can be made to turn round much sharper corners. It is also not vulnerable to corrosion and salt jamming. Prices start from about £300. But beware! Once you have driven on hydraulics, nothing else is ever as good - except, perhaps, piloting a diesel-engined RIB - and these are coming very soon.
EVINRUDE, JOHNSON Outboard Marine (UK) Ltd, Moulton Park Business Centre, Redhouse Road, Moulton Park, Northampton NN13 1AQ (tel. 01604 497641)
FORCE, MARINER E P Barrus Ltd, Launton Road, Bicester, Oxon OX6 OUR (tel. 01869 363636)
HONDA Honda UK Ltd, 4 Power Road, Chiswick, London W4 5YT (tel. 0181-747 1400)
MERCURY Sowester Ltd, Stinsford Road, Nuffield Estate, Poole, Dorset BH17 7SW (tel. 01202 667700)
SEAGULL, SELVA Chillington Marine Ltd, Unit 1, Newtown Business Park, Ringwood Road, Poole, Dorset BH12 3LJ (tel. 01202 747400)
SUZUKI Heron Suzuki, 46 Gatwick Road, Crawley, W Sussex HR10 2XF (tel. 01293 518000)
TOHATSU Tohatsu Marine, Portmore, Lymington, Hants SO41 5RF (tel. 01590 670787)
YAMAHA Mitsui Machinery Sales (UK) Ltd, Sopwith Drive, Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey KT13 0UZ (tel. 01932 358000)