Author: Alan Jones
There was a time when jet-drive boats were something of a one-trick horsey. You took them out and whipped them around in impossibly tight circles until your passengers cried uncle. While that maneuver is still in the playbook, the 2011 incarnation of the Sea-Doo 180 Challenger SE reveals a well-rounded performer that’s priced thousands of dollars less than other boats that aren’t half as much fun to drive.
The reason the smallest member of the Challenger clan feels much larger than its 17-foot, 7-inch LOA is the compact size of the single Rotax 1.5L engine that produces a whopping 255 hp when equipped with a supercharger, as our test boat is. But with no engine hump such as those featured on inboard/outboard-powered boats, cockpit space is freed up, allowing it to seat up to eight passengers in comfort. The stern bench has grab handles for three passengers, including the often-neglected center passenger, for that time when, not if, the captain wants to show off the famous “swap-ends” maneuver Sea-Doos are famous for. Storage capacity is massive for a boat this size, with 23 cubic feet in the twin trunk storage areas, under-seat compartments and in-floor locker.
The Challenger’s helm has been totally reconfigured for 2011, with a much-lower profile for better visibility, a new sport wheel and a shift lever that has a neutral lock to help prevent starting it in gear or banging into a dock because you thought you had it out of gear. It also includes a digital depthfinder at no extra charge. Because it doesn’t have a prop or lower unit that sticks a couple of feet down, any depth figure more than 1 foot means you’re good to go, thanks to its 12-inch draft (more if you are loaded with passengers, of course).
The 255 hp supercharged version of the Rotax 1.5L three-cylinder engine also comes in a 215 hp, normally aspirated version on the 180 Challenger SE, but after experiencing the performance of the “Full Monty” on our test boat, we want the extra power. Determining the time to plane was another challenge on this boat, because the limited bowrise made it difficult to judge, but it was somewhere around 1.7 seconds. The supercharger kicks in immediately, unlike a turbocharger that has to spool up, and we went from 0 to 30 mph in just 5.8 seconds with a top speed of 48 mph.
The steering ratio is low, so hyper-aggressive maneuvers are just a flick of the wrist away, but holding your line is easy because there is no prop torque to overcome thanks to the direct-drive jet-propulsed system. This fact also helps you in turns, because there is no direction that is easier or harder to turn in, giving you very consistent steering. If you want to go thundering into a turn at high speed, your main concern is warning your passengers to hold on.
For people new to driving a jet-powered boat, docking seems to be a confusing maneuver, as it was for me until I learned “the trick.” Because boats like the 180 are so responsive, the first key is to be very subtle in your turning and not add any more than minimum power; wait for the boat to respond to your gentle input to avoid overcorrecting. But the real trick is to watch your bow, because whether you have the boat in forward or reverse, the bow will go in the direction the wheel is turning, which is not the case with an outboard or sterndrive-powered boat. Because you won’t be spinning the wheel furiously to make it turn, you can actually look cool and unflustered while maneuvering in the tightest marinas.
Although the 180 Challenger SE doesn’t have as many of the bells and whistles as its 3-foot-larger sibling, the twin-engine 210 Challenger SE – cruise control and docking mode, to name a couple – it’s also up to $13,000 less expensive. And because you can roll the power on smoothly and progressively, the 180 makes a good ski boat, especially when you add the forward-swept collapsible tower that’s new this year. For ski storage, there’s a lockable in-floor compartment, or you can get optional wakeboard racks with your tower. With a seat on the transom, booting up for a ski run is easy, and thanks to the low swim platform, getting back aboard after a marathon set isn’t a problem.
The 180 Challenger is well suited to salt water, because it has a closed cooling system and makes liberal use of stainless steel. Sea-Doo makes sure passengers have an easy time entering the cockpit with a centerline walk-through. And although it doesn’t have a bow boarding ladder like the 210 Challenger SE, it has a low flat area up front that’s conducive to the sit-and-spin method of beach boarding.
Sea-Doo takes most of the decision making away from buyers by giving them everything they would probably order. The SE version’s standard feature list includes items such as bow filler cushions, canvas cockpit and bow covers, snap-in carpet, a four-speaker stereo, stainless steel cupholders and pull-up cleats. The option list is shorter than an Amish phone book, with only a handful of entries, such as the foldable wakeboard tower with racks, a galvanized trailer and a B.E.S.T. warranty that takes coverage from the standard one year to up to three additional years.
Probably your most important decision is power. While going with a normally aspirated engine that puts out 215 hp saves you $2,600, bumping it up to a supercharged 255 hp version of the 1.5L Rotax 4-TEC engine seems like a no-brainer to me.