These four bowriders are nearly identical in length, varying by only 7 inches, from the Sea Ray SLX 280 at 28'6" to the Regal 29 OBX at 29'1". The Cruisers 298 is narrowest, at 8'6" beam; the others are all 9'. But the Formula 290 weighs 8,950 lbs. according to the company specs, compared to the svelte Cruisers 298's 6,285 lbs. (The other two boats are closer in weight to the Cruisers.) Weight, or displacement, is a predictor of ride comfort, so we'd expect the Formula to feel bigger underway than the other three boats.
Conversely, it takes more horsepower to move a heavier boat, and the Formula 290 is the only boat in this group to offer twin sterndrive power: a pair of 300- or 320-hp MerCruiser or Volvo-Pentas, linked to Bravo IIIx or Duoprop sterndrives, respectively. The Formula's base power is a single 380-hp MerCruiser or Volvo Penta. The lighter-weight Cruisers runs fine with just 300 horses in her engine room. (We tested an earlier model of this boat in 2013; with a single 320-hp MerCruiser, she ran faster than 40 knots.)
Regal powers the 29 OBX with twin 200- or 250-hp Yamahas, the only boat in this group with outboards, a power choice that's becoming very popular in boats this size, and larger. Outboards are usually lighter than sterndrives, so produce a bit more speed relative to horsepower; they move the center of gravity aft, which makes the boat feel more sporty; they're easier, and therefore less expensive, to maintain; and they open up more stowage space in the boat. Modern four-stroke OBs are as fuel-efficient as sterndrives, too.
Single or twin engines, outboards or sterndrives: Buyers can have it their way in this foursome of fine 29s. Each boat can also be biased toward watersports or day cruising with a wide selection of options on top of the long list of standard equipment each boat comes with. Read on, and contact us at BoatTEST.com with questions; we'll do our best to answer them.
The Sea Ray SLX 280 is designed for boaters with lots of friends, or families whose kids have lots of friends: Sea Ray claims she'll handle up to 15 people and all their gear. We'd prefer to carry fewer folks in more comfort, and the SLX 280 should excel at that.
The mid-ships cockpit is essentially all seating, with an L-lounge wrapped around the port side, a double-wide helm and single companion seat, and a fore-and-aft lounge to starboard that we think most buyers will replace with the optional cockpit wet bar, or at least add the 12v. drawer-type refrigerator that fits under the seat. A head compartment with a sink is standard, tucked into the portside console; a pump-out portable toilet is standard, but can be upgraded to a VacuFlush. A hot water system with a 6-gal. tank is also optional.
The bow cockpit is a padded playpen, long enough for two adults to stretch out, with backrests, drink holders, 12v. power points and stereo speakers. There's stowage under all the seating, and a removable table. Forward, the anchor locker can be fitted with an electric windlass.
The SLX 280's stern platform is overlooked by a wide lounge with adjustable backrests. The platform has a four-step swim ladder, but serious watersports enthusiasts might upgrade to a submersible platform, a big-boat feature that puts the Sea Ray SLX 280 at the top of her class.
Regal's 29 OBX carries a pair of Yamaha outboards on her transom, a power choice that works: Our test captain pushed the 29 OBX to 45.7 kts. with the standard engines, twin 200s. Cruise speed was an economical 23.7 kts. at better than 2 nmpg. Folks needing more power can upgrade to a pair of 250 Yamahas. A bow thruster is also optional.
Typically, a downside of outboards is loss of the swim platform, thanks to a couple of big motors sitting in the middle of it. Regal addressed this by creating mini-platforms to port and starboard of the motors. Each side has room to sit and don snorkeling gear, stand and fish, or jump overboard well clear of the propellers. There's a wide passage forward of the motors, and a stainless-steel boarding ladder. Non-skid fiberglass is standard, but Regal offers an upgrade to SeaDek mat or Flexiteek pseudo-teak.
Passage to the platform is via a centerline path between what look like industry-standard seats with reversible backs. Not so fast: The seats sit on a platform that moves fore and aft more than 10". Aft, there's more room for moving around in the cockpit; shift them forward, and they join the rest of the mid-cockpit seats to create a cozy conversation pit. The double-wide companion seat next the helm has a reversible back; flip it and the folks in that seat can face the crowd in the cockpit, too. And yes, there's a head: It's under the port console, and has a sink and an opening port. An electric toilet is optional, to replace the portable one that's standard.
The Formula 290 Bowrider was one of BoatTEST's most researched boats in 2016, and with good reason: Formula has been building this model for a while, but in 2016 the company improved her with some small, but effective, refinements. Combined with Formula's tradition of building fast, tough, classy boats, the improved 290 Bowrider is worth a second look even for folks who think they know her.
The 290 Bowrider comes well-equipped as standard, but the magic happens on the options list. For example, the already large swim platform can be extended almost two feet, and fitted with either a centerline swim ladder or with a swim seat with a boarding step. Unfold it and it creates an ersatz submersible swim platform, a place to sit in the water, but still within reach of the drink holders on the platform edges. Blue and white LED courtesy lights illuminate the platform and cockpit at night; they are standard.
The 290 comes with a head in the portside console, like the other boats in this roundup. But rather than a portable toilet, Formula installs a porcelain throne with manual pump, plumbed to a 22-gallon holding tank. But there are three options: A Y-valve for overboard discharge where legal; a VacuFlush head without Y-valve; or a VacuFlush head with Y-valve. Boaters who frequently operate offshore, or in foreign waters will appreciate the Y-valve.
There are three arch options (with or without wakeboard racks), two cockpit wetbar options (refrigerator or not), several decking options, etc. In short, anybody should be able to set up the Formula 290 Bowrider just the way he/she wants it. And don't forget -- she can have single or twin sterndrives, too: Our test boat ran 46.1 kts. with twin 320-hp MerCruisers; twin 350s are also available, as well as a number of single-engine options.
The Cruisers Sport Series 298 Bow Rider impressed our test captain with her comfortable ride, easy motion in a chop, surefooted handling and quick helm response. With a single 380-hp MerCruiser Bravo IIIx sterndrive, the 298 Bow Rider ran 42.6 kts., cruised at 26.3 kts. with impressive 2.2 nmpg. fuel economy. That's the advantage of combining light weight with a single big engine: Putting all the horsepower in one motor is always more economical, thanks to the lower weight and lower drag from a single propeller vs. a pair. (Cruisers will install a single 430-hp MerCruiser for folks who are really in a hurry.) Cruisers Yachts Sure-Trac hull helps, too: It introduces air onto the running surface to reduce drag.
Cruisers Sport Series builds the 298 Bow Rider using the same materials and techniques employed in their larger boats. Her hull laminate has seven hand-laid layers of mat, roving and chop, finished with a vinylester barrier coat below the waterline. Cruisers covers the boat with a three-year warranty against hull blisters, and a limited ten-year hull and deck structural warranty.
Although Cruisers Sport Series is an all-American company, located in Oconto, WI, the 298 Bow Rider has Euro-styled design touches. Her helm has an Italian leather Gussi tilt wheel mounted in a console with a stitched-vinyl brow to reduce glare. Toggle switches are arrayed on either side of the wheel, the white-faced gauges are easy to read at a glance, and there's a place just above the wheel for an optional 4" LCD nav display. The helm seat has a bolster for stand-up steering and adjusts up and down and fore and aft to fit almost any helmsperson.
A cockpit wet bar is with sink, stowage and a cooler is standard, but can be upgraded with a solid-surface countertop. The head comes with a sink and faucet, but it's buyer's choice of toilet: Porta-Potti or electric. A Bimini top is standard, but there's a camper canvas option. An optional sport arch with tow point comes in black or white.