Power Progression

Outboard manufacturers have made vast improvements to their power plants, and boat owners have benefitted from these eight.

Honda Marine BF60.

Honda Marine BF60.


Manufacturers have made some wonderful strides with outboards in the last quarter-century. Some innovations were brought on by customer request, some by “build it and they will come,” some by healthy international competition and some were encouraged by three-letter government agencies.

Throughout that time, and no matter the innovation, outboard builders had to keep in mind there is a fine line that has to be trod when dealing with discretionary income. In my case, it’s the line between a ginger ale and a shake with a cherry at Chick-fil-a. It’s only a few cents, but they’re discretionary cents.

If the two-strokes were being encouraged to disappear because their HC emissions were too great, it would certainly be easy enough for the manufacturers to emulate Homelite’s Crosley power of the early 1960s and stand a four-stroke block atop an intermediate section. But there had to be more to draw the customer, to show him the performance of four-strokes nearly equaled comparable two-strokes, for not much more expense, and definitely more reliability. To earn the discretionary dollars, engineers and manufacturers had to be innovative and smart.Honda BF250 technical view.

I often imagine this scenario in a think-tank boardroom: “Our outboards are behind the times. We’re still using a 6v system.”

“Interface it and add $72.65 to the dealer cost.”
“What does interfacing have to do with it?”
“You’re dealing with guys! If you said boneless pork chops for $300 a pound interfaced with Garmin products, pigs would shake in fear, and our wealth managers would be up all night trying to invest the money.”
As a group, “Ahhhhh!”
As fun as that might be to imagine, it still wasn’t the solution. In 1999 the EPA laid down the law. “The atmosphere must be protected,” it mandated. “Exhaust emissions need to be reduced — now!” The most expedient fashion was to drop “dirty” engines from the sales line in order to reduce the average emissions, but manufacturers got busy with real solutions.

Honda had been producing four-stroke engines — albeit small transportation (scooter) engines — since the turn of the 20th century. While the fledgling marine industry followed the path of least resistance (the simple two-stroke), Honda evolved the four-stroke from lawnmower to automobile, eventually using base engines from its automobile line as outboard engine power. There are production cost benefits to doing things that way, but the learning curve regarding what auto engines to use has been vertical. Other manufacturers have benefitted from Honda’s lessons. Yamaha and Suzuki expanded on Honda’s success by blending the performance from their motorcycle engines with the reliability of their small-car blocks.

But if you thought the manufacturers were going to be allowed to rest on their laurels while their dealers made the transition, you failed to consider The Great Equalizer: testosterone. In a matter of hours, gearheads on injectable caffeine made a mockery of the base carbureted four-stroke engines.Mercury Racing Verado 400R Starboard Side copy

No engine, however, can achieve its full potential utilizing carburetion. There is just too much sloppiness equated with the fuel distribution. The last time they appeared on U.S. production cars was 1990. Enter electronic fuel injection. Wow! An engine that starts and runs like your BMW. Whether the injector is mounted to the side of the block, the front of the intake or atop the spark plug, fuel injection increases horsepower output by delivering precise amounts of fuel to the combustion chamber.

More, and larger, valves helped introduce more fuel and extract more exhaust to boost compression; exhaust tuning made possible with computers was a cheap way of adding power. Supercharging the Mercury Verado jammed more air into the combustion chambers of a tiny 2.6L block, generating up to 400 hp, and sotto-voce conversation has it 200 more reliable horsepower are standing by. Yamaha aims big-blocks at big boats with a 5.3L V-8 pumping out 350 hp. Suzuki has blended a lightweight 300 hp V-6 of 4.0L displacement with an under-powerhead secondary gearing system that allows — and encourages — massive props that parallel performance with higherdisplacement engines.

Kudos, though, go to Seven Marine, which took a 6.2L GM block, mounted it horizontally on an intermediate housing, and yanked an amazing 627 hp out of it. Kudos also for remembering that “big toys go to the big boys’ (wallets).” Ninety grand for one is equal to three of the Yamaha or Suzuki models.

None of these advancements in incremental power could be possible without sensors to tell the ECU/ECM/EMM where all engine functions are at any given millisecond. This circuitry — Integrated Circuitry, or IC — became part of the Suzuki lineup in the mid-1980s and vastly improved performance and reduced powerhead repairs. A gimmick that came with the top-of-the-line V-6 was a tiny AM/FM radio tied into the system, which, when the ignition was turned to ON, reported in a lovely, sultry voice, that the fuel was at X level, the oil level was Y, the engine temperature was Z; all systems go. Have a nice day.

OXE Diesel copyWe received one of the earlier engines. It had a teething problem unrelated to the vocals. We couldn’t figure it out, so the only thing to do was to get the factory guy (from South Carolina) to come help. He came to our tiny burg and spent an entire day trying to locate the problem, but to no avail. Each time he performed a test, he had to turn the ignition on, and the voice would intone the liquids check, and tell the operator to have a nice day. By day’s end, with nothing cured, we asked the tech what he thought it was, and we’d go back at it. In that wonderful Carolina marshland drawl, he said, “Well … I ain’t sure exactly what it is that’s wrong, but she sure has a nice attitude, don’t she?” Every time I get bogged down by a repair, I remember that and laugh.

Ok, satisfied with the four-stroke offerings? No? Good. How about OXE’s 200 hp diesel outboard, designed for both military and commercial use? Because its race-car engine creator used his high-speed knowledge to design the engine, it’s light as well as powerful, and touts three times the longevity of comparable gasoline engines.

Wait. We forgot two-stroke engines. BRP was at the forefront of ensuring compliance with the EPA and built a wonderfully “clean” two-stroke direct-injection with fewer damaging emissions than any four-stroke anything on the market. The two-stage combustion system makes the engine exhaust almost clean air at the EPA’s testing level, while dumping the throttle makes it light up like my 302 Ford with the 750 Holley double-pumper. Unlike the E-TEC, the Ford has bad manners at idle. While we’re on direct injection, Mercury has, for Department of Defense use only, a direct-injection diesel outboard of 175 hp based on the two-stroke Optimax.

All these engines point to propelling larger and larger boats efficiently, quietly and reliably.

Remember the interfacing? Not with the pork chops, fool! It was only a matter of time before the pride of airplane operation, “fly by wire,” slid gracefully into the tube connecting the helm with the outboard. From a guy who’s done his share of trying to jam “10 pounds of cables into a five-pound tube,” this is nothing short of astounding. No more multitudes of harnesses for multiple engines. No more hoping the shift and throttle cables don’t break transducer wires as they’re routed through from console to transom. No more dealing with ever-stiffening shifting and throttle cables as corrosion builds. “Click,” ahead. “Click,” reverse. Tiny movements of the joystick steering ease the boat into the space afforded between the two mega-yachts. Pick your GPS location, your autopilot utilizes the joystick and electronic throttle and shift to keep you right on top of Moby Dick. I don’t care if the only captain’s chair you sit in is as the CEO of a huge company. This is so easy you’ll exercise your stock options, retire and take your buddies fishing.SZ_LowerUnitGearDrive copy

Tie this together with gearcase development. BRP (Evinrude) calls for changing the gear oil every three years. The improvement here is based on the fact yearly oil changes expose the gear oil, gaskets and threads to possible mistakes by the changer. Fewer changes, fewer errors. Even more eye-opening is being able to change the gearcase rotation of the big Suzukis electronically. Because of that feature, Suzuki dealers no longer have to carry right and left engines and boat owners only need to carry one spare prop, since the rotation can be changed while on the water in about 60 seconds. If you didn’t see that one coming, you’re ready to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.

There you have it: innovations that make the most of your discretionary dollars and time. I just had a flashback from seven decades ago, curled up with my grandfather while he read the Sunday comics to me. Dick Tracy had a walkie-talkie wristwatch. Impossible, we agreed — that’s just foolishness. Today, I suppose, the Garmin will interface nicely with it.