As soon as I heard Rinker Boats was about to launch a couple of new Fiesta Vee 342s, one with twin I/Os and the other with V-drive inboards, I was on the case lining up one of each for an all-day, head-to-head wring-out. From the standpoint of doing a fair, even-handed comparison, it sounded like a perfect setup: two midrange cruisers with identical interiors, dry weights, and powerplants, but with radically different running-gear configurations.
The folks at Rinker were down with the plan. We needed to shoot for the same fuel, water, and equipage loads, the same test crew, the same test venue, and the same sea conditions. Allan Waggoner, the head honcho on the 342 project and a stern-drive maven with a burgeoning penchant for inboards, responded with characteristic enthusiasm, "No sweat, Bill. I'd love to do an apples-to-apples comparo."
Waggoner and I met at 7:00 a.m. at the little marina behind the Hyatt Hotel on Sarasota Bay, our testing venue. Except for boot and style stripes, the two test boats were indistinguishable. Weather conditions were superb: hot and humid with a flat-calm sea, a scenario that would prevail throughout the rest of the day. In addition to the intense curiosity I ordinarily feel prior to any especially squared-away shootout, I harbored a few preconceptions.
For starters, I expected only a slight difference in top-end performance—maybe 4 or 5 mph. Certainly, the stern drive would be faster; its underwater componentry was less obtrusive, more streamlined, and trimmable. But lots faster? Nah! Not with pricey inboard power configurations selling like hotcakes all over the country these days. I also expected only a slight difference in running efficiency—an extra couple of tenths of fuel burn for the inboard, if that—although I was fairly sure the stern drive would out-corner the other boat in open water due to its steerable props.
Then there was dockside-maneuvering. Because of my long association with inboard vessels while working as a Merchant Marine officer, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of that kind of power, especially on the boathandling front. Inboards are wonderfully simple: You just center the rudder and stick to three basic precepts. Back down on the starboard engine, and the starboard quarter goes right; back down on the port engine, and the port quarter goes left; back down on both engines, and the whole shebang moves straight aft. Stern-drive powerplants? Having to steer my propellers backwards, while keeping in mind the aforementioned stuff, causes my synapses to overheat and steam to emanate from my ears.
Ever had all your cherished preconceptions blown slam out of the water? Although the inboard version carried an extra 25 gallons of gasoline, which added 155 pounds to her load (6.2 pounds per gallon of gasoline x 25=155 pounds), she ran a full 10.5 mph slower, way slower than the extra fuel could possibly account for. Moreover, although the inboard boat uniformly consumed less gasoline from the standpoint of fuel burn alone, it was significantly less efficient when speeds were factored in. The most dramatic example of this occurred at 4000 rpm. While the fuel burn was slightly less than the stern-drive version's, it was approximately 20 percent less efficient all-told.
Open-water performance was a bit surprising, too. Besides the stern-drive 342's ability to cut sharper, more responsive turns in open water (an anticipated development wholly attributable to the side-to-side articulation of her I/Os), I noted a bigger-than-expected plus: The stern drive evinced considerably less bow rise coming out of the hole, and it also manifested a much shallower, more efficient running attitude on plane. All this was due to the substantial lift double-prop Bravo Three drives are famed for, I'd say. Tucking them in against the transom while throttling out of the hole produced extra lift at the transom, thus levering the bow down. On plane, extra lift accomplished much the same thing.
But docking was the real mindblower. Several times I eased the stern-drive version of the 342 into her slip like she was a little ol' pickup truck—the steerable Bravo Threes displayed incredible traction and tracking. Trying to dock the inboard version, on the other hand, was challenging on two counts: 1) Although our test boat's 320-hp, gasoline-fired MerCruiser Horizons are excellent engines, they simply didn't have enough bottom-end maneuvering torque to be authoritative; 2) Our single-lever Mercury engine control functioned poorly, with dtentes so faint I found it hard to know where I was—reverse, forward, or neutral.
Late-afternoon showers started to loom just about the time we finished up on the bay. As Waggoner and I eased on back to the marina, him driving one 342 and me the other, I felt just a tad conflicted. The performance-type advantages of the stern-drive version were undeniable and significant, especially considering the fact that Rinker is selling it for $1,700 less. But the real-world virtues of the inboard were undeniable too, at least for those of us who keep our boats in salt water. Stern-drives are prone to corrosion in such an environment and they generally require more maintenance, repairs, and haul-outs.
A compromise snuck up on me, at last. If I were shopping modern, midrange, midcabin cruisers for use on the Great Lakes, I'd go with the stern drive—no question. If I were shopping modern, midrange, midcabin cruisers for use on the coastal Atlantic (and I had a little extra cash for incidentals), I'd go with the stern drive again, believe it or not.
But hey, I'd stow this stout little cruiser on a great, big, whopping, corrosion-thwarting lift!
Standard Horizon Elipse + VHF; Lowrance GlobalMap 2400 GPS/plotter; Lowrance 3500 dash-mount depthsounder; Kenwood AM/FM stereo/cassette w/amplifier, subwoofer, 6 cockpit speakers, 6-disc CD changer, and 2 remotes; cockpit wet bar w/Waring Pro blender, Tundra refrigerator; Kenyon 2-burner cooktop; Emerson microwave oven; ITT Jabsco Quiet Flush MSD; General Electric TV/VCR; 5-kW Kohler genset; 16,000-Btu Marine Air A/C system; 60-amp. Intelli-Power battery charger
Optional Equipment:dinghy package (Mercury 270 RIB, 3.3-hp outboard, Weaver snap davit, and mounting hardware) Conditions: temperature: 94; humidity: 82%; wind: variable to light; seas: calm; load: 75 gal. fuel, 0 gal. water, 2 persons, 20 lbs. gear. Speeds are two-way averages measured w/Stalker radar gun. GPH measured with Rhinda Technologies fuel-monitoring system. Range: 90% of advertised fuel capacity. Decibels measured on A scale. 65 dB is the level of normal conversation. All measurements taken with trim tabs fully retracted.
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/320-hp MerCruiser MX 6.2 MPI Horizons
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.