Sun Tracker Party Barge 24 XP3
Manitou 25 X-Plode XT SHP
Regency 254 LE3
Premier 290 Grand Entertainer PTX Twin
The summer solstice is just over the horizon, and that means it's time to plan summer boating adventures. Folks can party on a 'toon, fish from one, and ride a towline behind one if it’s a tri-toon. Bolt on a big outboard or two, and a 'toon can scoot. The four 'toons we compare this week range between 26' and 30' overall length. Compare all four in detail and you may be whistling a different toon.
Pontoon boats are versatile vessels that combine maximum deck space relative to length; spirited performance if they are tri-toons in calm or slightly choppy conditions; stability at anchor for swimming, fishing, dining and maybe even dancing; and many have as many creature comforts as the typical suburban patio. For dayboating on lakes, rivers and sheltered bays, it's hard to beat a 'toon.
There are dozens of pontoon boat brands on the market, primarily because they are easy to build and the few complicated parts can be purchased from venders. Most of them are similar, but the quality of materials, workmanship, and the chance of getting a warranty fulfilled varies from one end of the spectrum to the other. (BoatTEST never publicizes a boat that we know to have or think may have problems getting warranties honored.) Pontoon boats are not like automobiles; there are little to no government requirements nor oversight.
First, buy a brand name from a reputable dealer. Second, if the price is too good to be true, you are probably seeing a boat that is an orphan and will be hard to sell on the used boat market, to say nothing of problems along the way.
Another thing to consider is how the boat will be used. Most people we know like to occasionally anchor their pontoon boat. Yet, virtually know builder of pontoon boats makes provision for stowing or proper deploying an anchor.
All boats should have an anchor, including pontoon boats. Consumers of these kind of boats need to designate a forward locker for the anchor and rode. We would recommend a bridle be made up to fit the port and starboard foredeck cleats, as virtually no builder puts a cleat on the centerline for the anchor rode.
Most builders try to maximize the interiors deck space of their pontoon boats so they can hold more people. That is why we often see pontoon boats without a foredeck. So the question begs, how can this boat be anchored, or how can crew reach the bow cleats for mooring?
The answer is these boats are only built for dock-to-dock cruising. The builder intends that the boat be laid along the dock, then crew walk along the dock and tie up the boat. If that is how you plan to use your boat, then this design works fine (except all boats should have an anchor and a bow cleat for its rode.)
For sedate cruising around a relatively small like or on a quiet river, twin-toon pontoon boats with a small outboard engine are fine. They can putt-putt along with low operating costs and fulfill the mission of getting people on the water. However, families with kids who want to engage in watersports will need a tri-toon. These boats can get up and go with adequate power, whereas two toons just plow along no matter how much power is applied.
Most toons have a single outboard, but increasingly some carry twins. Which is better? Generally, the most efficient propulsion system on any boat gets its power from as few engines as possible, e.g., one 300-hp outboard beats twin 150s on almost all counts.
Folks who need maximum maneuverability -- maybe they back their boat into a tight slip in a crowded marina, for example -- or who like added reliability, will swap the higher efficiency and lower operating cost of a single for a nimbler, easier to handle, twin-engine boat. And if maximum horsepower is the goal, twin, or sometimes triple, outboards are the solution.
LOA is “Length Over-All” and includes engine brackets, swim platforms, maybe a few inches of pontoon that sticks out forward of the deck, and so forth. (Outboard motors are usually not included in LOA.)
The usable length of almost any boat is less than the LOA -- how much less depends on the boat. Sometimes it's only a few inches, but if the 'toon has a motor bracket, it can be a couple of feet.
Don't hesitate to contact us at BoatTEST.com if you have questions about any of these pontoon boats.
Sun Tracker's Party Barge 24 XP3 is a 'toon for all party animals: She has most of the amenities expected in a 'toon of this class, including lots of seating, plenty of stowage, a QuickLift Bimini top that can be raised easily by one person, and a padded sun lounge with pop-up changing room. Her deck is a layabout's dream, with plush lounges port and starboard, fore and aft. There's stowage under almost every cushion, and a changing curtain beneath the aft lounge.
The Party Barge 24 XP3 rides on triple 26" pontoons with welded-on lifting strakes and internal bracing, tied together by a one-piece, full-length welded M-bracket. (The XP3 package adds the third toon; a two-tube version is called the 24 DLX.) She can take up to a 200-hp Mercury OptiMax or Verado outboard. (Sun Tracker offers a number of two- and four-stroke Mercury OBs.) Hydraulic steering is standard with every engine.
Top Speed. With a 200-hp Mercury Verado outboard, the Party Barge cracked 40 mph WOT in our test. Our captain found her to be responsive to the helm, and to ride best with the motor trimmed out to lift the bow. The engine is mounted on an extended bracket that enhances performance and improves engine access for checks and maintenance.
A trailer is not included in the standard price ($33,995 with a Mercury 150 FourStroke), but almost everything else is. We'd add just the ski-tow pylon and have some fun.
Manitou's 25 X-Plode XT SHP rides on three tubes, called Manitou's V-Toon Hull. The center toon measures 27" in diameter vs. 25" for the side tubes, and is also mounted a few inches deeper. Lifting strakes run almost the full length of each tube. According to Manitou, this creates a monohull deadrise effect that makes the boat handle like a shallow-V conventional hull, banking into hard turns, adding stability and improving acceleration. Our tests indicate that she does lean into turns.
The 25 X-Plode XT SHP is designed handling at high speed and in choppy water. The SHP (Sport Handling Package) adds “Barracuda” nose cones stiffened by multiple spray knockers to increase efficiency and smooth out the ride. SeaStar power-assist hydraulic steering is standard.
Our test boat had twin 200-hp Evinrude E-TECs; twin 300s are max power. Even with the smaller Evinrudes, the 25 X-Plode ran 52.4 mph tops, and cruised most economically around 20 mph.
But who buys a 'toon like this to go 20 mph? With her aggressive styling, neon-green fiberglass sidewalls and forward-raked arch, the 25 X-Plode XT SHP begs for horsepower and throttle, in our opinion. Our captain called her a "true high-performance machine" that offers performance and handling in line with many monohull runabouts.
Regency's 254 LE3 is an upscale triple-tube toon with lots of standard features: A power up/down Bimini top with LED lights; multi-density upholstery foams under soft-touch upholstery; a raised helm station for better visibility, with a reclining helm seat; an 88" x 23" in-floor stowage compartment, with lighting; and, finally, an aft-facing camera. And, let’s not forget the powered coated hull. The only options are a rail-mounted BBQ and a trailer.
The Regency 254 LE3's triple pontoons are all the same diameter: 26". Each one has lifting strakes and wave deflectors, extruded deck supports through-bolted to full-length M brackets. The single outboard sits on a welded aluminum motor pod with a built-in fuel system; hydraulic steering is standard.
Our Test. Regency packages the 254 LE3 with a 250-hp Mercury Verado Pro four-stroke; our test captain measured 47.1 mph top speed with this engine.
The Price. With the 250 Verado, the 254 LE3 sells for $64,995, but another $2,000 buys max power, a 300-hp Mercury Verado Pro. The price includes Regency's 10+LIFE warranty: Basically 10 years bow-to-stern warranty and limited lifetime structural and deck warranty, transferable to a second owner.
Premier's 290 Grand Entertainer PTX Twin is, at 29'5" LOA, the largest 'toon in this comparison, two feet longer than the Regency 253 LE3. (All four boats are 8'6" beam standard, but the Premier can be widened to 10'.) She's also the only one of this quartet with a built-in bar, complete with four pedestal stools, a sink with pressure water, dual-voltage refrigerator, in-counter ice bucket, and bottle and stemware stowage. There are even flip-out hooks at each stool for the ladies to hang their purses.
Life's not all about beverages, though, and when it's time to throttle up the Premier 290 Grand Entertainer is no slouch: She rides on an unusual triplex of tubes, larger diameter than typical for a 'toon in this class.
The PTX package consists of a flat-bottom center tube, 30", 36" or 42" diameter, depending on the model; our test boat had the 36" center tube package. The outer tubes have lifting strakes on their inboard surfaces. Combining the added buoyancy of the bigger tubes, the flat planing surface and the lifting strakes, the result is more stability, faster planing and up to 10% more top speed, according to Premier.
Premier will fit the 290 Grand Entertainer PTX Twin with outboards from Evinrude, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki or Mercury, up to 700-hp total.