Here are four cool boats that should stoke anyone's interest in the boating lifestyle. Technically these are "entry-level" boats, but entry-level doesn't mean second-rate, and the attractive price tags don't mean the builders skimped, just that they want to get you hooked on boating: There's nothing lacking in the construction, styling, equipment or performance of any of these four boats, and we'd be proud to tow any one of them to the launch ramp.
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The Sea Ray SPX 190 is the smallest of four boats in the company's new SPX line of sporty, affordable runabouts, but the biggest boat in this comparison. She's built with the same attention to design, construction and detail as all Sea Rays, and the standard boat comes nearly complete, including a trailer. Power is a single 200-hp MerCruiser Alpha sterndrive; our test boat ran 47.5 mph with this engine. Option packages let each owner customize the SPX 190 for watersports (including a tower with wakeboard racks) or fishing (adding a livewell, casting chairs and a trolling motor), and a Select package makes everything a little fancier.
Sea Ray builds the SPX 190 using 21st-century technology: Robots ensure precision in fiberglass parts. (The SPX 190 is also available with outboard power; it's called the SPX 190 OB.) The hull and stringer system are joined together with adhesive, not fiberglass tabbing, to ensure a strong, permanent bond, the same technique used on bigger, more expensive boats. The result is a pocket-sized sportboat with true Sea Ray DNA.
Tahoe's 450 TS Outboard is an entry-level sportboat sold as a turn-key package – including boat, engine and trailer. Tahoe rigs the 450 TS with a 90-hp Mercury outboard as standard, but optional power up to 150 hp is available. With a 115-hp Mercury four-stroke, our test boat ran 37.8 knots; the 115 adds only about $1,000 to the $23,595 base price, so it's an option we recommend. (The 150-hp Merc is $5,000 over base.)
Other than the bigger motors, the 450 TS has few major options; there's a folding wakeboard tower, with or without racks -- it includes a Bimini top, which is also available separately -- and hydraulic steering, another option we'd select. The 450 TS comes with a folding-tongue trailer; storage length is 20'3", so the boat will fit in most garages. (Towing weight is about 3,025 lbs.) For those who want an easy way to get started in boating at a reasonable price, the Tahoe 450 TS Outboard is worth a serious look.
Chaparral 18 H2O Sport, like the Tahoe, is sold as a package with a nationally-advertised price tag: Base boat and trailer start at $22,495, with a 135-hp MerCruiser sterndrive, the only engine choice. Like many Chaparral models, the 18 H2O Sport rides on the builder's Extended V-Plane hull, a design that carries the running bottom "aft of the transom." We describe it as having the sterndrive mounted in a niche in the transom, with the hull extending past the drive on either side. This design adds lift aft, reducing time-to-plane, lowering planing speeds and reducing bow rise on acceleration. Our captains have tested a number of Chaparral boats, and can attest to the efficacy of this hard-to-describe design.
We tested the 18 H2O Sport at 39.1 mph WOT with standard power; best cruise was 22.8 mph knots, with a range at that speed of 110 statute miles. Despite her entry-level price, the 18 H2O Sport comes with standard features usually optional on boats in her class, things like an automatic bilge pump, stain-resistant vinyl upholstery, a built-in cooler, a stainless-steel rubrail insert and tilt-wheel steering. She has a distinctive Chaparral exterior style that takes its cue from the premium-priced boats in the builder’s line.
The Glastron GTS 180 is the smallest boat in the company's GTS series, and the smallest and lightest boat in this roundup. One of the first runabout builders to take advantage of newfangled fiberglass, Glastron has always been known for boats that make a design statement, and the GTS 180 keeps up the tradition. To most folks, her swooping rubrail suggests the sheerline of a sportfisherman – but it actual origin is the finned Glastrons of the 1950s and 60s. The retro but cool styling of the helm gauges, helm and companion seats with optional flip-up bolsters and a full-beam bench seat aft, all reflect that long heritage.
For those BoatTEST Members that have specific questions about any of the boats we have provided a link to our Captains for you to ask a question.
There's generally more storage space in outboard models vs. sterndrives because the engine compartment is eliminated. With a 150-hp Evinrude E-TEC outboard, our test boat ran 47.6 mph, tied with the sterndrive Sea Ray for fastest boat in this foursome. For those who prefer sterndrive power, the Glastron GTS 185 is very similar, has optional power up to 250 horses, but costs more; the sterndrive creates a full-beam swim platform, which can be made even bigger with an optional extension – something that can’t be done on an outboard. The GTS 180 rides on Glastron's Super Stable V (SSV) hull that's sharp at the entry for a smooth ride, flatter than a classic deep-V aft for better speed and stability, and faster planing. Glastrons are famous for having low bow rise.
Again, don’t hesitate to drop BoatTEST.com a note if you have a question about any of these boats.