Manitou’s X-Plode XT 23 SRS blows up the notion that pontoons are for the right lane.
Few pontoon builders are more responsible for changing the image of these pleasure platforms than Manitou. For years, buying a pontoon was the ego-depleting equivalent of trading in your sports car for a minivan. But when Manitou unveiled its Sport Handling Package (SHP) in 2005, pontoon handling changed from Winnebago to Lambo. For its 30th anniversary, that technology and more are on full display with the new X-Plode XT 23 SRS.
Running parallel with improved performance has been heightened styling. Pontoons have gone from flat tops to purple Mohawks, and Manitou upped its edginess for 2016 with an all-new fiberglass upper that serves as a rail-free blank canvas to splash a little attitude on. And our test pontoon pushed the boundary with a high-gloss clear-coat titanium black and orange palate that’s more treat than trick. For rigidity, it’s double-walled, and rails, which can sometimes rattle against the fence like a bag of bones, are absent. The bow gate — something unique for a pontoon — surprised me with its heft. That’s because it’s made of solid billet aluminum and looks like a miniature wrought-iron mansion gate. At the stern, gaining freedom is easier thanks to stainless steel turnstile-like bars that make it legal to stern-sit without resorting to the usual token chain solution. These two bars are merely the tip of a stainless steel iceberg that includes a stylish soccer goal–type ski tow, a four-step boarding ladder and grabrails.
Powering our test pontoon was Evinrude’s new-gen G2 250 H.O. It is mapped to exceed its 250 hp rating by about 10 percent (allowable in the U.S.), which pushes the X-Plode’s 250 max horsepower rating to the limit. When I hammered the throttle, there was the briefest hesitation before all the thoroughbreds burst forth from the starting gate. Then there was a rush of acceleration, accompanied by the classic two-stroke sound o’ power as the Manitou got on plane in 2.4 seconds. Time to 30 mph was 5.8 seconds, and after I trimmed the G2 out, the boat achieved its top speed of 52.9 mph while reaching 6000 rpm. The only knock on the Evinrude is that it’s still louder than comparable four-strokes, by a fair amount, which explains why they are not as popular on pontoons.
Although Manitou seems to have a special affinity for Evinrude, the builder will accommodate a buyer’s hankering for any major outboard brand. I would prefer a four-stroke, mainly for the quiet. What’s great about the SHP package is it can come with a 25-inch transom, which opens all propulsion doors.
Manitou began building three-tube pontoons back in 2001, but it wasn’t until its engineers came up with the SHP tube innovation in 2005 that the arrangement really exploded. Not only is the 27-inch center tube surrounded by 23-inch outers, but it is one and a quarter inches lower, which doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it proved to be the magic number. The arrangement makes the center tube a total of five and a quarter inches lower than the outers — a special enough difference that the U.S. Patent Office granted this V-Toon technology a patent. Here was the first pontoon that mimicked the handling of a fiberglass V-hull. The most curious aspect of the Manitou’s tube arrangement is that all three tubes have lifting strakes on both sides, a configuration we’ve seen on other pontoons. But when all three tubes are the same diameter, the outer strakes on the outer tubes tend to “push back” in hard corners, which keeps the pontoon level or even leaning a bit to the outside. That’s exactly what doesn’t happen with the X-Plode XT. In fact, it heels far enough inward to lift the high-side tube completely out of the water — popping a “tubie.”
The optional Titanium black aluminum Sport Arch ($9,000) is the setup to get if watersports are at the top of the activity list. For an extra wow factor, it lowers electronically with the push of a button. There’s a black Bimini top that can be deployed during wakeboarding. It comes standard with a less fancy tower for buyers watching the bottom line. Our boat had the optional centerline locker for ski storage ($1,500).
The X-Plode XT is not just a hair-on-fire performance ’toon; it handles entertainment like a pro. Its rear loungers have two different configurations: rear-facing chaise loungers or opposable club chairs on each side (converted in one second by flipping the middle cushion backwards to form a backrest). And stored underneath the seat bottom of the port and starboard rear-facing chair is a side-mounted table for gaming or dining. The only feature I didn’t like about these and the bowrider lounges was the excessively large decorative piping. They also have headrest bulges that moderately tall people can feel poking them in the back.
There is little I would change in the way our test boat was set up. It’s a premium boat, so it won’t be hard to crack six figures if you check too many option boxes, but the off-the-rack model comes nicely equipped with features, as exemplified by the helm station. There, you’ll find a 7-inch Smart Touch touchscreen display that does away with almost all buttons and switches, since it takes charge of virtually every boat system. The Gussi Evo wheel is unique and is paired with standard power steering on SeaStar-equipped boats. Evinrude-powered boats can get a power steering system that remains invisible within the really clean integrated steering system; it even allows the outboard to be tilted up 81 degrees to get the lower unit completely out of the water. A master switch allows everything to be shut off with one flick. The GPS is standard and even controls the analog speedometer, for dialing in precise ski speeds.
Our boat had the optional grey teak vinyl decking ($1,950), which was set at an angle for a different look. Although it comes with an upscale six-speaker Kicker stereo, the upgrade ($1,800) includes an 800-watt speaker, six LED-lit speakers and a subwoofer.