Author: Alan Jones
Back in 1978, Bass Pro Shops’ founder Johnny Morris earned his first retail location in his dad’s liquor store — 8 feet of shelf space for fishing tackle. The store was later rebadged Brown Derby’s Bass Pro Shop Discount Tackle and Liquor, featuring a sign with a giant bass wearing a derby. Bait and booze: Now there’s a combination destined for success with the bassin’ crowd. Although his subsequent locations were “dry,” Morris added the ‘s’ to Shops, and the rest is history. Today, the company grosses $3.6 billion a year and mails 200 million catalogs annually. Inside the latest edition, you’ll find the newest member of the Party Barge family, the all-new Sun Tracker 24 DLX XP3, a performance pontoon with style that also lives up to the Tracker Marine value mantra.
Although the first pontoon boat dates back to 1952, the Party Barge, introduced in 1983, was largely responsible for bringing pontooning to the masses. One of Tracker Marine’s first innovations was the nationally advertised “No Haggle, No Hassle” price, which gave boat buyers the insider deal no matter where they lived. And that tradition is carried forward with the Sun Tracker Party Barge 24 DLX XP3, a triple-tubed 26-footer that packs a 150 hp Mercury outboard. But no matter how much Sun Tracker has upped the quality and luxury factor over the years, the price for this model remains affordable at $29,995 when powered with a 150 hp Mercury OptiMax.
The greatest area of improvement over early spartan models is the interior appointments, such as the furniture, which features premium 26-ounce vinyl over multidensity foam for greater support. On the port side are twin layback couches that have the perfect amount of recline. On the starboard side, in front of the helm station, is another abbreviated lounger with a backrest that is a bit more upright but increases the amount of stretching-out space. In front of this lounger is a rare fourth gate for total passenger access that gives the driver more flexibility when docking. The gate is narrower than its port-side companion, which is wheelchair-wide to be all-inclusive. One clever feature is the lockable “safety deposit box,” located under a flip-up panel beneath the seat in front of the driver’s console. Unlike traditional gloveboxes, which telegraph where you keep your valuables, this one is hidden. This year, high-gloss corrugated fencing adds to the flash factor, and interior LED lighting has been increased for nighttime ambiance.
Typically, Sun Tracker pontoons have a wide range of engine sizes to accommodate different budgets, but the engineers designed the 24 DLX XP3 specifically for 150 hp, a wise call, as evidenced by its excellent performance. Your only power option is choosing between a Mercury OptiMax two-stroke outboard or the new Mercury FourStroke, which powers our test boat. Although the Opti is reliable and powerful, it’s louder than its four-stroke counterpart, and you have to top off the oil reservoir periodically. Previously, getting a 150 hp Mercury four-stroke meant going with the supercharged Verado, which is a $2,900 upcharge over the 150 OptiMax on other Sun Tracker models. But the all-new non-supercharged Mercury 150 FourStroke is just $800 more and is my choice for its quietude and performance.
The Sun Tracker 24 DLX XP3 features three tubes. The center tube is offset rearward, and the back of it is modified to be an engine bracket, for better performance. The slightly oversized 26-inch-diameter tubes (most are 25 inches) give extra lift, and when they’re paired with lifting strakes on all three tubes, they get the boat up and running as soon as you hammer the throttle. On plane in just 3.3 seconds with zilch for bowrise, the boat reached a cruising speed of 25.5 mph in 6.5 seconds. Top speed was 37.4 mph, which is excellent considering this is a 26-foot, 2-inch boat that weighs 2,880 pounds. Once fully broken in, the fresh-out-of-the-crate Mercury should push this rig to around 40 mph.
Because this boat has so much lift, it rides high in the water, making it a good choice for larger lakes that get choppy, such as Table Rock Lake, near Branson, Mo., where we tested the 24 DLX XP3. Not much trim is needed to lift the bow to reduce wetted surface, and increased engine pitch and a quick drop-off in speed let you know when you’ve trimmed it too far.
Thanks to the standard hydraulic steering, it’s a pleasure to drive and tracks in a straight line when cruising. Because the 24 DLX XP3 has lifting strakes on the inside and outside of all three tubes, it corners extremely flat. Often, pontoons with three tubes lean to the inside, but most don’t have strakes on the outside of the outermost tubes, which push back in turns.
There’s not much you can’t do aboard the 24 DLX XP3. Adding a tall, screw-in ski pylon to the rear deck ($178) brings skiing and tubing to the mix. And thanks to the XP3 performance tubes, you can run at virtually any speed without plowing, so gingerly towing young kids on tubes at 15 mph is as easy as towing an adult at 30 mph when slaloming. We would love to see a centerline storage compartment or at least an under-storage compartment that doesn’t have bulkheads, for storing skis. The only compartment large enough to hold them is under the rear sunpad, but that’s where the new changing room with a bench seat is located and is also where most people put a Porta Potti.
As a cruiser/entertainer, the 24 DLX XP3 is ideal, with an extra-large standard cockpit table that can be positioned either fore or aft. There’s a medium-sized cooler in the captain’s console to hold refreshments, and there are standard movable cupholders to keep your drinks handy. Although there are other models specifically designed for fishing, they aren’t available in this three-tube configuration, but this model will work fine, especially for casual angling.
Sun Tracker gives you a turnkey setup, so you won’t have to perform triage to decide what features will fit in your budget. Because lots of pontoon owners live on lakes, a trailer is not included in the price, unlike most other Tracker packages. For hose-it-and-go cleaning, an all-vinyl floor is available for people living in a coastal environment, and there’s a full mooring cover available that matches the blueberry-colored fencing. For upping the entertainment quotient, Sirius satellite can be added to the two-speaker Jensen MP3/CD stereo. Here’s a no-brainer: the rail-mounted propane grill for taking your Party Barge’s parties to the next level.