Sun Tracker Party Barge 254 XP3

Posted: May 1, 2013

Sun Tracker unveils its first rear-facing lounger pontoon in a sporty, luxurious package.

By: Alan Jones

Ever since 1978, when Johnny Morris sold the first Bass Tracker fishing boat package, with a nationally advertised price of $2,995, the folks at Bass Pro Shops have been getting boaters on the water for the least amount of money possible. And 35 years later, Sun Tracker continues that tradition with the Party Barge 254 XP3, its first rear-facing lounger pontoon.

Unique Factor
For 2013, Sun Tracker ups the ante for its flagship Regency line with the triple-tube Party Barge 254 XP3, which features a double-wide-plus rear lounger. Although rear-facing stern loungers have been red hot for a few years, Sun Tracker — to paraphrase the old Gallo wine commercial — will sell no pontoon with a rear lounger before its time. The upside to waiting is that when the engineers delivered one, they got it right the first time. First, the comfort factor is there, thanks to a pillowtop backrest that features a generous amount of recline with plenty of legroom, even for your friends who can dunk a basketball. Instead of separate twin recliners, this one is an oversized solo lounger that can accommodate three good friends or two people who don’t want to touch. The 254’s setup puts the entry on the starboard side, where the rear deck is at its widest thanks to the beveled fencing at the entry gate. What makes this rear lounger special is the flip-up changing room in its middle section. To access it, you just flip up the large center section from the side, and you have a changing room/head compartment that is far larger than most others.

When paired with the Mercury 200 Verado, this three-tube pontoon is still offered with a “No Hassle No Haggle” price of less than $40,000, excluding tax, freight and prep. Although many Tracker packages come standard with a trailer, it’s an option on this one.

Performance
Out test boat is equipped with Mercury’s 250 OptiMax Pro XS, which is a direct-injected two-stroke. Although it delivers plenty of power, as evidenced by our performance numbers, it’s also quite a bit louder than its four-stroke Mercury Verado counterpart, which employs supercharging to boost performance. At idle, we registered 62 decibels, which is about 5 decibels louder than most pontoons with Verados we’ve tested. The upcharge for the 250 Verado over the 250 OptiMax isn’t huge, at $2,200, and would be our choice for the perfect balance of performance and quietude. Having a quieter engine is especially important on this model, since the rear lounger seat is going to be the most cherished seat on the boat. Another huge advantage of the Verado is that it comes with Mercury’s DTS Digital Throttle and Shift drive-by-wire system, which gives you incredibly smooth shifts and speed control.

Tracker uses three 26-inch tubes (most others are 25 inches), and the center tube is set slightly back and modified to form an engine bracket. Assisting it out of the hole are lifting strakes on both sides of all the tubes, which helped get it on plane in just 2.6 seconds. The OptiMax pushed the Sun Tracker to 30 mph in 6.7 seconds, and our top speed was an outstanding 47.5 mph.

Handling
The combination of lifting strakes all around and slightly oversized tubes means the Party Barge 254 rides high in the water, which is a useful trait when the wind kicks up a chop. It also allows the driver to run the engine at a lower rpm while still holding a decent econo-cruise speed. Loafing along at 3500 rpm, it clocked 23.5 mph.

The other effect of lifting strakes on both sides of all the tubes is flat cornering. Many other pontoon builders leave off the outside strakes of the outer tubes and mount the center tube lower or use a larger-diameter tube to allow it to bank into corners like a V-hull boat. But with its setup, the Party Barge 254 really sticks the turn well, and standard power steering makes it easy to do a 180 to pick up downed skiers. Because the 254 rides so high in the water, it produces a flat wake that is ideal for slalom skiers. Wakeboarders, however, will have to use their own thigh power to develop some pop off the wake.

Best Uses
Sun Tracker has designed the Party Barge 254 XP3 to be a cruiser, entertainer and watersports pontoon. Although it doesn’t have much in the way of fishing amenities or options, you know the fisherman in the family is going to bring a rod anyway. The best bass fisherman on the planet, Kevin VanDam, owns a Party Barge XP3 model for relaxing with his family on off-tournament weeks — and you know he sneaks a rod aboard.

With the 254’s outstanding performance, no watersports are off the table. The tournament-style ski pylon comes standard, and the wide walk-through into the cockpit from the vinyl swim platform makes a great place to store oversized tubes when heading to your favorite tow zone. Although there’s no centerline ski storage compartment like you usually see on three-tube pontoons, there’s plenty of under-seat storage for skis. An added bonus is that all under-seat lockers on this boat are just that: lockers. They can be locked for security. And one of the best attributes of the rear-lounger seat is that it makes the perfect place for spotters to relax and watch the ski show.

The 254 XP3 comes ready for entertaining, with a passenger capacity of 15 and plenty of seating on the rear lounger, the amidships lounge next to the captain and twin recliner settees in the bow. While the starboard settee in front of the helm is far longer, the port-side lounge still has plenty of legroom. Just behind the couch on the port side is a wheelchair-accessible entryway. Behind the raised helm, which is often an option on many other pontoon brands, is an entertainment center that features a sink with a pull-out sprayer fed by a generous 13.5-gallon tank that can double as a freshwater shower. An ample working surface and plenty of storage make it an ideal food prep area. A removable cockpit table can be positioned fore or aft and includes a short and long pedestal as well as a rubberized surface to keep items from sliding around.

Preferred Setup
Sun Tracker couldn’t have made it easier to equip the Party Barge 254, because the option list contains a scant three items. The trailer is the first no-brainer, and a dual-axle model with twin brakes is available for $3,895. The other must-have item is the mooring cover, which comes in three different flavors. For owners with a family prone to spilling things, a vinyl floor is available to replace the plush 28-ounce carpeting.

The reason for the short options list is the standard feature list is so expansive, comprising 54 items. Among the notable extras that are usually options are the stainless steel prop, the Lowrance GPS
chartplotter/depthfinder, fold-down mooring cleats, LED courtesy lighting, a trash receptacle and an MP3 stereo with four Kicker speakers. The helm is laid out well with full instrumentation, and it features an awesome captain’s chair that has armrests and reclines. About the only thing we’re missing that would put more party in this Party Barge is a stereo upgrade that includes a subwoofer.

Specifications

LOA 27 ft., 5 in.
Beam 8 ft., 6 in.
Fuel 35 gals.
Engines Mercury OptiMax Pro XS
Base Price As Tested - $41,395
Standard Equipment Ski tow, fold-down cleats, LED courtesy lighting, power hydraulic steering, Lowrance GPS chartplotter/depthfinder, 28-oz. carpeting, raised helm
Optional Equipment Choice of three fence colors, vinyl cockpit floor, dual-axle trailer w/twin brakes, color-coordinated mooring cover
Builder Tracker Marine

Sun Tracker Party Barge 254 XP3 Owner Review

Purchased By: Bill Hood , Amite, La.

Purchased At: Boat City, Hammond, La.


What we liked

- Rear-facing stern chaise lounge
- Value
- Fit and finish
- Storage
- Performance and ride
- Master power switch so the grandkids don’t accidentally run the battery down


What we would change

I wish it had more than one battery, so I can run the stereo while on the beach without running the cranking battery down.


Why we bought it

I have three adult daughters and four grandkids who range in age from 5 to 10 years old, and I wanted something stable with lots of storage that could hold at least 10 people in comfort. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a pontoon guy — I have a 42-foot Formula — but I was looking for something to keep at my Destin home in the Florida panhandle that I could use to pull up on beaches like at Crab Island or tow the grandkids on tubes. When I saw the Sun Tracker 254 and drove it during a test ride, I was really impressed with its comfort and performance. I have the Mercury 200 OptiMax, and it really gets the 254 on top of the water fast. Having the three-tube XP3 package makes all the difference as far as seaworthiness goes, and on Choctawhatchee Bay it can sometimes get “upside down,” so seaworthiness was important. The value of the Sun Tracker is outstanding. It has everything I wanted, and the fit and finish is better than I expected on a boat with this price tag.

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