Let’s Go Racing

What's a racing engine doing on a pontoon, deckboat or bay boat? Creating new levels of excitement.

When Mercury jumped into the four-stroke market in 2004 (not counting re-badged Yamaha engines) with its first generation of Verado engines, I wondered if those wouldn’t be the engines that clanged the venerable Wisconsin company’s death knell. After all, using a supercharged engine with only 2.6L of displacement to produce an at-the-time max of 275 hp seemed sheer folly considering the harsh marine environment it would be operating in. But the manufacturer wisely assembled a team of engineers led by Claus Bruestle, who was formerly with Porsche and led the development of its Formula One engine and the Cayenne V-8.

After two years of development and $100 million in R&D c osts, Mercury’s Verado family became one of the most popular outboard engine lines ever. Soon, the little engine that could was able crank out up to 400 hp, which is an astounding 153 hp per liter. To put that into perspective, Mercury’s 150 FourStroke uses a 3.0L block — three times the displacement to achieve the same workload.

When people think of racing engines, they think of loud, ill-tempered engines that tend to blow up more often than a pro basketball coach. We recently tested the Mercury Verado 400R on a Playcraft XPR 2500 pontoon boat, and the first thing I thought after firing it up was how civilized it was. Like other Verado engines, it’s preternaturally quiet at idle, measuring 58 decibels, and a wine glass could stay on top of the cowling thanks to its lack of vibration. There’s nothing violent about its power curve, just a strong, press-you-back-in-the-seat linear acceleration all the way to its 7000 rpm max. Time to plane was just two seconds and the XPR 2500 reached 30 mph in 6.9 seconds. Top speed was 74 mph.

The notion of making the 400R a mainstream outboard was a wise one, and it’s been successful for a number of reasons other than its numerical superiority. While Mercury spokespeople insist the 400R isn’t a replacement for the 350 SCi, the latter — the previous Verado top dog of the racing set — is no longer available. What’s helped this crossover is a number of consumer-friendly features that weren’t previously available from the racing engines. One of its advantages over the 350 SCi is that it can run on 89 octane thanks to its knock sensor. It’s also compatible with Mercury’s Joystick Piloting system, which, in addition to making the operator look like a docking genius, features the Skyhook virtual anchor.

It also includes an integrated autopilot that has Auto Heading, which allows the driver to make jogs in the boat’s direction — to miss obstructions, for example — without canceling the set course. Waypoint Sequencing allows the driver to link together different waypoints, which comes in handy for negotiating shoalinfested areas. Active Trim, which takes care of the task of trimming the boat at speeds less than 50 mph, is available on the 400R. It helps inexperienced skippers maintain proper trim, and even experienced boaters will appreciate it while turning or running in heavy seas, or if they simply want to reduce their workload.

One of the biggest differences in the 400R compared to most other members of Mercury’s inline 2.6L family, which starts at 200 hp, is its supercharger, which is used to compress air so more fuel can be mixed with it. Unfortunately, that process creates heat, so to counter it, the 400R uses a water cooled supercharger (as does the newer, mainstream Verado 350). To further reduce heat, a vented flywheel provides additional air flow. Often, just changing the engine mapping will yield extra horsepower, but Mercury Racing also changed the cam profile and gave it new valves. The 400R comes with a recreational two-year warranty (three-year corrosion), which is a year less than other Verado engines, but buyers can purchase a Mercury administered extended warranty that extends it to five years total.

To accommodate the go-fast crowd along with the rest of us, Mercury gives owners a choice of gear cases. For boats with speeds in excess of 85 mph, the Sport Master lower unit has a lower water pickup, a more hydrodynamic torpedo and is more robust for extreme boating. The Offshore HD gear case is designed for fishing boats, deckboats and pontoons, and it offers more lift with a larger 5.44inchdiameter torpedo. The 400R comes in 20, 25and 30inch shaft lengths, but for owners racing with a boat that requires a 15inch shaft, there’s the 400ROS model. It’s true to its racing heritage … in other words, no warranty.

A racing engine deserves a little extra pizzazz and the 400R comes in either Phantom Black or Cold Fusion White. The black only comes with red graphics, but the white has seven different accent colors to choose from. Another cool package is the Carbon Edition, which has a lightweight carbon fiber composite cowling.