Which Sterndrive is Best: MerCruiser or Volvo Penta? - 03/16/2018

???Ask A Question???

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
The Formula 37 Performance Cruiser is available with a selection of MerCruiser and Volvo Penta sterndrives.

A BoatTEST Member who happens to own a Formula boat and is in the market for a new one has asked us which sterndrive brand he should choose – MerCruiser or Volvo Penta? To answer this question, we have asked the folks at Formula Boats – which has extensive experience of installing both brands in its boats – to give us their perspective on the answer to this question.

Here is Formula Boats’ In-Depth answer to and often-asked question…

The power behind your boat is one of the most important things to consider when you’re contemplating a new boat purchase. Get an engine that falls short, and you are sure to be left disappointed. Modern sterndrive motors have been around for almost 60 years — and are defined by the innovative, yet different builds of Volvo Penta and Mercury. But how do you choose? Formula Boats put together a buyer’s guide to help its customers to choose the right sterndrive setup for their needs. Get the lowdown on what’s available and make an informed decision.

If you’re interested in purchasing a new boat powered by a sterndrive motor, there’s a good chance it’s going to be either a Volvo Penta or Mercury® MerCruiser®. You may be wondering — which is better, Mercury MerCruiser or Volvo Penta? Or, what’s the difference between Volvo Penta and Mercury MerCruiser?

The competition between these two companies is nothing new — they have been competing for the sterndrive market share since the modern sterndrive was introduced. That’s why we’re delving into their history, as well as similarities and differences between these two sterndrive brands, plus giving you some factors to consider as you decide how to choose between a MerCruiser and a Volvo.

Evolution of Sterndrives: Volvo vs. MerCruiser Boat Motors

Johnson Motor Company introduced the first sterndrive in 1930, but the initial design required most boats to be redesigned to accommodate the motor. As a result, sales suffered, and it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that the modern sterndrive of today was created.

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
These MerCruiser sterndrives are fitted with contra-rotating props.

Modern Sterndrives

The inspiration for the modern sterndrive began in 1948 when a young man, Charlie Strang, wanted to beat the outboard speed record. At the time, he was an MIT engineering student who had a vision for a design that he thought could give him the power he needed.

It consisted of a lightweight car engine and a lower outboard unit — what we know today as the modern sterndrive. To use this new design in his boat racing, he had to get the American Power Boat Association (APBA) to recognize and approve it as an outboard motor. They declined the design.

Ten years later, in 1958, Strang was working for Mercury, while it was being led by its founder, Carl Kiekhaefer. Stang was an engineer at the time and worked alongside Jim Wynne. The design resurfaced, and Strang and Wynne presented the plan to Kiekhaefer, but he rejected it. Rather than abandoning the idea again, Wynne left Mercury and filed a patent for the design after a falling out with Kiekhaefer. He then sold the rights to — you guessed it — Volvo Penta.

One year later, Volvo Penta released the first sterndrive of its kind, the “Aquamatic,” at the New York Motor Boat Show. The announcement by Volvo motivated Kiekhaefer to embrace the new sterndrive model, and so he asked Strang, who was still with Mercury, to develop a Mercury version of the sterndrive. From that day forward, the two companies, Volvo Penta and Mercury, would compete for the sterndrive market share.

The foundation of the MerCruiser and Volvo Penta have remained the same over time, beginning with the skeleton of an auto engine and then making changes to repurpose it for the boating industry — what’s known as “marinizing.” While the automotive and boating industries do share some similar fundamental needs, relying on auto engines comes with its share of pros and cons.

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
MerCruiser 8.2 HO 430-hp engines put a lot of power in a compact space on the Formula 370 SS.

Sterndrives Today

One of the advantages of relying on auto engines is the auto industry’s technological advances. New, lightweight high-tech engine blocks have had an impact on the auto industry, and now, sterndrives are bringing these same benefits to the boating industry. What are the benefits that come with these new and improved sterndrives? Quite a few:

Light Weight

A lightweight build is ideal for sterndrives. Power-to-weight ratio is crucial in the boating industry — and it’s an area that outboards have been outdoing sterndrives in for a while. Sterndrives, however, are closing the gap with lightweight aluminum motors that offer all the perks of a sterndrive. They also come with a never-before-seen weight. Its lightweight build also opens the doors for diesel sterndrives, which get the ultimate gas mileage.

Gas Mileage

All sterndrives are seeing an improvement in their gas mileage. Advances in fuel efficiency in the auto industry have enabled sterndrive manufacturers to add technology that improves gas mileage — sometimes even outdoing outboards at cruising speeds.


For better or worse, the catalytic converter requirement is a bonus for the eco-friendliness that sterndrives offer. They produce fewer emissions than outboards, and with the continuous developments in reducing carbon footprints, the eco-friendly advantage of sterndrives is here to stay.

While the benefits from the auto industry are significant, at the end of the day these engines weren’t built for a boat. While marinizing the engines is feasible, Mercury and Volvo Penta have differing opinions of whether following the auto industry is in the sterndrive’s best interest, leading them to take different manufacturing approaches.

Mercury MerCruiser

Over time, Mercury has become a firm believer that the disadvantages of marinizing auto engines outweigh the advantages, leading them to build marine sterndrive engines from scratch — this is a significant difference between Volvo Penta and MerCruiser.

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
This Formula 400 FX8 shows off a pair of 565-hp Mercury racing engines matched to Bravo I XR lower units.

Some of the cons of choosing to marinize an auto engine include:

Corrosion Prevention: Boat motors have different requirements when it comes to corrosion prevention, given that boat motors are exposed to water, unlike an auto engine.

Torque and Horsepower: Boat motors have a non-stop need for all their torque and power, whereas a car or truck uses a fraction of its horsepower when cruising at 70 miles per hour.

Client Cost: As auto manufacturers continue to embrace new technologies to keep up with consumer demands and meet evolving regulations, new engine models are being released in shorter amounts of time. That’s led to auto engines being marinized more often, which results in higher costs for customers.

These disadvantages have been present for a while, but technology is why Mercury decided to craft their sterndrive engines from scratch, instead of converting their auto engines. Moving away from auto engines avoids not only the constraints of auto engines but also provides the opportunity to control when they’re released and their cost.

Mercury MerCruiser Boat Motors

Let’s talk specifics. If you’re interested in MerCruiser engines, you have five categories of sterndrives to choose from, many of them with a couple of options when it comes to horsepower. Each of them works with a specific drive system, with some offering you a choice of different drives.

Here’s What you Need to Know:

0L, Inline 4-Cylinder Engine, 135 HP — This motor is a favorite for runabouts and other small boats, as its 19’ (5.79 m) and under in length. It’s got plenty of power for small boats, plus is fuel efficient and low maintenance.

3L, V-6 Engine, 180-220 HP — If your boat is a little too big for the inline 4-cylinder engine, this motor takes displacement up a notch. You also get to choose between Alpha or Bravo drives to match.

5L, V-6 Engine, 200-250 HP — Mercury markets this sterndrive as the power of a V-8 in a V-6 engine. Get a boost in performance, speed and acceleration, all while reducing sound and vibration.

2L, V-8 Engine, 300-350 HP — This V-8 was engineered and built for marine use. Mercury claims the torque and acceleration with this sterndrive are unparalleled. An intake resonator and aft-facing throttle body dramatically reduce noise.

2L, V-8 Engine, 380-430 HP — Mercury’s largest sterndrive combines a big block with large displacement. The Multi-Port Fuel Injection (MPI) ensures that no fuel is wasted, which maximizes performance without high fuel consumption.

When it comes to drive systems, your decision depends on what’s compatible with the engine you’ve chosen. Mercury has four drive systems — the Alpha One, Bravo One, Bravo Two, and Bravo Three. We’ve included some insight into each of these drive systems below:

Boat Motor Drive Systems

Alpha One® — This drive system is the most popular in the world. It produces very little drag, which boosts performance and fuel economy.

Bravo One® — If your focus is speed, this is the drive system for you. Extended-length torpedoes reduce drag — Mercury boasts it has best-in-class shifting, too.

Bravo Two® — If you want to combine speed with a large boat or a heavy load, the Bravo Two gives you a higher thrust at lower speeds.

Bravo Three® — This drive system features dual counter-rotating props and is also noted for its efficiency and agile handling.

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
Some sterndrive installations, such as this Volvo Penta setup on a Formula 270, leave ample room for service.

Volvo Penta

Volvo remains 100% committed to marinizing auto engines. The company cites leveraging the auto industry, and its continual advances in fuel efficiency, performance, torque, and reliability, as the primary reason for its decision.

Volvo’s focus is creating lighter, more fuel-efficient sterndrives — their lightweight all-aluminum gas engines use General Motors’ Gen V technology as their inspiration. As General Motors continues to develop innovative engines, Volvo continues to marinize them, introducing many of those cutting-edge technologies to the boating industry. These advancements can continue to be found in the Aquamatic sterndrive and the drive systems offered by Volvo.


This name should sound familiar — Aquamatic was the name Volvo gave to its first modern sterndrive when it was released back in 1959. While a lot has changed since then, this sterndrive continues to cater to the same crowd of boaters that want reliability and performance.

Aquamatic is an excellent choice for watersport enthusiasts and those looking for a leisure cruise on the water. Volvo insists that all Aquamatics come with robust, low-end torque, exhilarating high-end power, and superior mid-range response.

The Aquamatic is available in:

3L, V-6 Engine, 240-280 HP

3L, V-8 Engine, 300-350 HP

2L, V-8 Engine, 380-430 HP

Volvo’s Aquamatic is also available in the following diesel motors:

4L, Inline 5-Cylinder Engine, 140-220 HP

7L, Inline 4-Cylinder Engine, 224-301 HP

5L, Inline 6-Cylinder Engine, 330-400 HP

Forward Drive

In this motor, Volvo rotated the design 180-degrees, causing the counter-rotating props to pull the boat through the water. This design results in a few fundamental differences, especially for those who enjoy watersports. You have the potential to go faster, without losing maneuverability. Plus, the movement of the props under the boat makes it safer for your rider as the exhaust is pushed out underneath the boat and not into your rider’s face.

Forward Drive is available for the following engines:

3L, V-6 Engine, 240-280 HP

3L, V-8 Engine, 300-350 HP

2L, V-8 Engine, 380-430 HP

While Forward Drive is the latest and most innovative drive system Volvo Penta has introduced, there are three others to choose from once you’ve chosen your engine — the SX, DPS, and OCEANX. We’ve included some brief information about each of them below.

    SX — This drive system is lightweight and designed for fun. It’s known for its superior handling at any RPM.

    DPS — With a dual-prop, this system is built for sports boats, providing improved performance and fun.

    OCEANX —

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
Volvo Penta’s Forward Drive places the props on the front of the lower unit, for added safety during watersports.

How to Choose Between a MerCruiser and a Volvo

The good news is that both MerCruiser and Volvo are putting out superior sterndrive motors. Don’t stress over how to choose between a MerCruiser and Volvo, because in the end, it’s less about the brand you select and more about getting the right engine for your boat.

When you’re trying to decide which sterndrive is best for you, consider the following:

  • • Size of your boat
  • • Number of riders
  • • Fuel efficiency
  • • Maintenance and parts
  • • Boat use
  • • Warranties

To help you make your decision, we’ve broken down each of these factors below, as well as included some highlights of MerCruiser and Volvo to help you make your decision:

Size of Boat

The size of your boat, from the length to the weight, determines your engine size and the approximate amount of horsepower you need. Once you’ve decided on the size of your boat, you can narrow down your options. You can then dive into the details and determine which manufacturer is best for you. Don’t forget that while the engine is your primary focus, the drive system can also make a big difference.

Number of People

How many people do you expect to be joining you on your boating adventures? You don’t want to skimp on an engine, only to find that it’s struggling to haul your crew through the water. Considering the number of people in your boating crew may not be something you think about in advance, but weight does play a role in determining the horsepower you need, which is why it is worth considering as you decide on a sterndrive engine.

Fuel Efficiency

If you anticipate using your boat often, savings from fuel efficiency will add up. On the other hand, if you aren’t expecting to use your boat as much, this factor won’t have as much of an impact on you. When it comes to comparing the Mercury MerCruiser to Volvo Penta, there isn’t a clear front-runner for fuel efficiency — instead, it depends on the specific sterndrive engine you choose.


Before you decide on a boat engine, it’s essential to know when it will need routine maintenance or even the cost of potential repairs. You’ll also want to make sure you have a mechanic familiar with the engine. While MerCruiser tends to have better availability when it comes to mechanics and parts, it depends on where you live. Your boat dealer should be able to help by giving some insight into the MerCruiser and Volvo marine mechanics in your area.

Boat Use

If you’re going to use your boat for watersports, Volvo’s Forward Drive comes with an undeniable edge that you have to consider. This forward-facing drive takes the prop and turns it 180-degrees so that it’s underneath the boat and away from your watersport rider. Because of this position shift, the exhaust is pushed out into the water and underneath your cruiser, rather than behind it and into your rider’s face.

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
The Formula 370 SS makes the most of a day on the water with power from a pair of MerCruiser 8.2 HO 430-hp sterndrives.

Regardless of whether you choose Volvo’s Forward Drive or a drive built by Mercury, when you’re using your boat for watersports, other factors to consider are engine weight and horsepower. If you have an engine weighing you down and it doesn’t have the power to back it up, your ride may be cut short.

Aside from water sports, if you’ll be using your boat to entertain, you should consider the electrical output at idle and low speeds. Think about it, if you’ve got a crew and you’re taking a cruise, chances are you’ll want to have drinks in the refrigerator, the stereo on and your navigation system leading the way. If your inboard block doesn’t come with enough amps to support all of that, your cruise may not be all you envisioned.


If you’ve explored your options, and narrowed your selection down to one or two motors from Mercury and Volvo, compare the warranties. When you’re looking at a warranty, its length is a priority, but remember to revisit mechanic and parts availability. If you have an extended warranty coverage with one company, but don’t have a dealer or certified marine mechanic nearby to do the repairs, the length may not matter.

You may want to consider asking about the warranty process too — would you go to your dealer? Or directly through the engine manufacturer? Is there an average repair time turnaround? When it comes to warranties, having the coverage is important, but the end goal is to get back on the water.

Which Is Better: Mercury Mercruiser or Volvo Penta?

If you’ve been wondering which is better, Mercury MerCruiser or Volvo Penta, the answer depends on your unique situation. Consider the size of your boat, the number of people you haul, fuel efficiency, maintenance and parts and your boat use are all decision-making factors that should be used to make your purchasing decision.

Formula Boats: Volvo Penta vs. MerCruiser Boat Motors

At Formula Boats, we offer both Volvo and MerCruiser sterndrive options on most of our custom boats, from the smallest Sun Sport to the superlative 45 Yacht. Throughout our 60 years of marine manufacturing, we’ve witnessed the evolution of sterndrive motors.

As Volvo and MerCruiser continue to come up with new innovative sterndrive models, our custom boat offerings continue to evolve. For example, the introduction of Volvo’s Forward Drive inspired our two new Extreme Sport (XS) models that are built to accommodate this new sterndrive.

Buyer’s Guide to Volvo vs. MerCruiser Sterndrive
Whatever sterndrive you choose, proper maintenance is key to making the most of your time on the water.

Formula Boats is owned and operated by a boating family. We have the knowledge and expertise to help you decided which works for you — the Mercury MerCruiser or the Volvo Penta? If you already have a boat in mind, you can begin by building your custom boat on our website, complete with your choice of sterndrive. We’ll provide you with an immediate price, as well as information on discounts our dealers may be offering.

If you’re just getting started on your search for a new boat and the perfect sterndrive to match, contact us — we’d love to put our years of experience to good use by helping you choose a boat model and engine that fits your wants and needs.

This article appears on BoatTEST.com courtesy of Formula Boats and may also be read at https://www.formulaboats.com/blog/guide-volvo-vs-mercruiser-boat-motors/