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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Sea Ray 350 Sundancer

When I learned that I was going to test the newest Sea Ray Sundancer, the 350, I wasn’t exactly ecstatic. Nothing against the boat, mind you. Sundancers are fine craft. But they can be journalistically challenging, as changes from year to year often appear to be--at least at first glance--more incremental than revolutionary. Such is the case with the 350, which replaces the similar 340 and joins the also-similar 330, which has been around, at least in name, since the ‘90s.

But a lack of change was not the cause of my initial indifference; it was more due to the type of power I would be testing. This 350 was powered by a pair of big-block MerCruiser Horizon gasoline stern drives. (Gasoline and diesel V-drives and diesel stern drives are also available.)

I’d tested the 330 Sundancer ("Child Ride," October 2007) powered by the same basic 8.1-liter gasoline V-8s (the 330’s 385-hp inboards are called 8.1 Horizons while the 350’s 375-hp stern drives are called 496 Mags) with V-drives and liked it just fine. I couldn’t imagine how stern drives could equal it, much less surpass it. While I recognize that I/Os offer some performance and handling advantages inherent in their fully articulated propellers, I place greater value on the inboard’s simplicity, both mechanical (no complex alloy drives submerged in salt water) and operational (you don’t have to mess with drive trim). But even more appealing to me about twin inboards--gasoline or diesel--is how they let you muscle a boat any way you like by working one against another. Trying such maneuvers with stern drives, I knew, typically results in considerably less leverage because the engines (and therefore the props) are closer together and the exhaust exits through the propellers or drives and so tends to ventilate the props in reverse and reduce their bite. So let’s just say my expectations were not high.

But all was not lost. I discovered that the MerCruisers I’d be testing featured the new Axius joystick-control system. Since I’d driven a number of other boats of roughly similar size that also featured joystick controls (but only for inboards), my interest was piqued. I knew the stern drives wouldn’t be able to compare with inboards when it came to maneuverability, but I was curious just how much better this new system would be than conventional stern drives, especially since Axius does not control thrusters as some other systems do.

When I got to the marina I had no problem identifying my test boat, and I was actually able to quickly discern major exterior differences between it and the 330. For starters, the 350 sports a large fixed window on each hull side, the better to illuminate that Sundancer trademark, the midcabin. A hardtop integrated with the standard radar arch has replaced the 330’s radar arch and its aft shade; the result is not only a nicely sheltered bridge deck but covered cockpit seating area as well. That seating area has also been reworked: A starboard walkway has replaced the 330’s port-side entrance. A large L-shape settee now occupies the entire port side replacing the 330’s starboard facing seats and a large combined starboard wet bar/grill replaces the sink behind the port-side passenger seat. All of this is to a single purpose: to accommodate the double helm and port-side passenger seats, both of which now pivot to face aft. When you spin them 180 degrees, they directly face the lounge occupants, making for a considerably more convivial area.

Below decks things are more recognizable. In fact, everything is pretty much in the same place on the 350 that it was on the 330 and 340, but some proportions have changed. The port-side galley and head are both a bit longer and the midcabin no longer extends all the way to port. For weekenders, that’s a good trade-off--especially since there’s still a good six feet in the 350’s midcabin. Perhaps more significant is the fact that electrically inclining V-berth mattress and transom seat with built-in speakers are still standard.

"Not exactly new from the keel up but nicely refreshed," thought I as I climbed into the helm seat. I noticed that the instrument panel had also been reconfigured--cleaned up is perhaps a better description. Although smaller, it’s better organized with everything important at hand--including the Axius joystick, which sits immediately aft of the electronic engine controls. I was "anxious to Axius," but first we had to get the performance numbers. When that was done I did a quick comparison with the 330 I’d tested, and to my surprise, the boats were essentially identical in top speed, and the V-drive boat actually got better fuel efficiency to 3000 rpm, where it registered 1.16 mpg compared to the 350’s 0.58. On the other hand, at WOT the 350’s mpg number was 0.68 compared to the 330’s 0.51, reflecting its ability to maximize drive trim. (Sea Ray says the 350 weighs about 2,600 pounds more than the 330.)

But that wasn’t the big surprise. Once we had our test numbers, I started playing with Axius. I was shocked at not only its intuitiveness but how well the two props work against each other. I was forced to admit that the 350 stern drive was every bit as maneuverable as the 330 inboard, and in some complex docking situations, even more so. I did find the throttle portion of the Axius joystick a bit too sensitive for my taste, although I suspect that that’s something one will get used to with time. And I couldn’t overload the system, even though I abused it pretty good. I walked away from the 350 a believer, at least in regards to the fact that Axius truly transforms stern-drive propulsion. A mere twist and point, and any amateur can put the 350 exactly where she or he want to. That’s something worth shouting about.

For more information about Sea Ray Boats ((800) SR-BOATS. www.powerandmotoryacht.com/searay.

Sea Ray is all about incorporating new technology, not only into its boats but in the way it builds them. Take these two ABB 640 robots, named after the famous bank robbers. They do all the trimming after the 35’s hull and deck come out of the mold--about 2,800 linear inches worth--plus drill all of the through-hulls and transom openings for the stern drives in about a quarter of the time it would take two humans. And they do the job far more accurately--Sea Ray says to about plus or minus 1/60,000 of an inch. The company won’t put an exact price tag on what it cost to buy the duo except to say that it was "several million dollars." No word on which robot is which bandit.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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