By Jeff Hemmel
PWC Show-Down: Our Top 10 Personal Watercraft Picks
If you’re thinking about buying a PWC, make sure you check out these top 10 models; all personal watercraft are not created equal.
The responsibility of a Top 10 list always makes me cringe, but when the subject is personal watercraft, the effect is magnified tenfold. The reason? Well, a PWC is personal. Both driver and passengers have a more intimate experience with these smaller, more agile craft. And as we all well know, people are different. We like different speeds, we prefer different cornering styles, we even have different definitions of comfort. Trying to say what is “best” is like trying to tell someone what child should be their favorite, or which politician to vote for. Still, I’ve been a personal watercraft enthusiast and tester long enough to recognize the cream when it rises to the top. And while this may not be a definitive list, I think it captures some of the best of what’s currently on the market. Feel free to agree, disagree, or even outright heckle – I won’t take it personal.
Sea-Doo RXP-X 260
What separates the RXP-X from the pack? Certainly speed is part of the equation — the RXP-X is powered by a supercharged, 1,494cc Rotax engine easily capable of pushing it beyond 65 mph. It’s the craft’s handling ability, however, that truly stands out. Sea-Doo gave the RXP-X hull a unique running surface. Viewed from aft, a central running pad is dropped below the outer edges of the hull in a T-like fashion, allowing the craft to run on a smaller surface at speed. Rounded chines give the craft a pronounced inside lean when cornering. Add in user-adjustable sponsons that feature 90-degree winglets to keep the craft hooked in place when leaned over aggressively, and you’ve got a PWC that corners harder than anything now in production.
But don’t worry about the upper-body strain typical of the most agile craft. Sea-Doo opted for an hourglass-shaped saddle for the RXP-X that incorporates extended bolsters that wrap over the thigh. The design takes much of the strain off the upper body, and allows riders to use their stronger leg muscles to keep themselves in place.
In the world of personal watercraft, 65 mph has become the magic number when it comes to top speed. Attaining that speed usually required a supercharger and intercooler, add-ons that tacked on thousands of dollars to a craft’s price tag. Yamaha shook up that conventional wisdom in 2011 with the introduction of the VXR, a PWC that brought the company’s lightweight NanoXcel hull construction to the formerly entry-level VX-series hull, and combined it with the 1.8-liter displacement of the brand’s biggest engine — sans the supercharger. The result was a craft that fully exploited that time-honored ratio of horsepower to weight, and made that 65 mph mark attainable for about $2,000 less than the brand’s flagships.
Speed, however, isn’t the craft’s sole compelling feature. Thanks to some subtle tweaks made to the VX hull — including modifications to the pump inlet, deck, and sponson position — the VXR corners with absolute aggression. Yes, it can be a little wild if you don’t get your weight just right. But spend a little time in the seat and you’ll be rewarded with one radical ride.
Kawasaki Ultra 300X
Kawasaki’s Ultra 300X has a well-deserved reputation as a big-water monster, capable of taming large ocean waters with a solid, secure ride that has been frequently relied upon by offshore racers. Its engine is also currently the highest horsepower powerplant in the industry. In short, it’s a big, bad machine that will get you from Point A to Point B, wherever you happen to ride.
This big behemoth, however, is also surprisingly agile. Sure, it’s thrilling to punch the throttle of the craft’s 1,498 cc, supercharged engine, feel the yank on your forearms as it leaps out of the hole, and catch your eyes watering as you flirt with speeds beyond the 65 mph mark. But find a glassy cove and you’ll be surprised at the Ultra’s agility. Credit the recent addition of electric trim. With it, riders can now put more of that bow in the water when desired, while still trimming it up for top speed runs. Add in an enlarged pump for increased thrust and a shortened steering nozzle for quicker response, and you’ve got a big dude that can display the manners of a much-smaller craft.
Read our full review, Kawasaki Ultra 300X: Expected New Power, Surprising New Handling, or visit Kawasaki.
Yamaha FX Cruiser SHO
Yamaha’s FX Cruiser SHO is one big-daddy of a touring machine. It’s plush, comfortable, ready to handle nearly any water condition, and features all the necessary bells and whistles. Examples? Cruise control and a no-wake mode are a given, but don’t overlook something as simple as the saddle. Yamaha’s is bolstered to provide good lower-back support for those extended journeys, but also tiered movie-theater style to give each successive passenger a better view of the action. Those tiers and bolsters also keep everyone in their own spot, and avoid the crammed feeling you get on some three-ups.
Yamaha designers also gave thought to just how all those passengers board the craft. The FX’s spring-loaded boarding step is flat to be easier on bare feet, and a generous aft platform and multiple handholds allow you to more easily climb up the stern.
My favorite traits, however, still come down to the ride. For handling around the dock, Yamaha has given the FX a mechanical neutral, a detent incorporated into the throw of the reverse lever to hold the craft in a stationary position. And for handling away from the dock, designers tweaked both the hull length and sponson design in 2012 so that the boat now offers a much more confident inside lean. Combined with a supercharged 1.8-liter engine, it gives this Cruiser a decidedly sporty feel…you know, for those times when you’d just rather leave all those passengers at the dock.
Sea-Doo RXT-X 260
When Sea-Doo retooled its top-of-the-line GTX/RXT models to include suspension, they also came up with a great hull — one that could be fun on calm and rough water alike — and a modern, edgy-looking upper deck. It was certainly cool, but performance-minded types soon began to wonder what would happen if the company took that same hull and deck and put them together without the weighty suspension. That’s exactly what the company later did, and the result is arguably Sea-Doo’s most fun three-passenger watercraft.
Without the suspension’s weight, the performance side of this hull truly shines. Yes, it’s great in rough water, something the former RXT-X line was not always the best at. But it’s also surprisingly nimble in calmer conditions. Lean into a corner, jam the throttle full, and the RXT-X hooks up with tenacity. It’s another big craft that, when ridden solo, can feel like a much smaller machine. Power, of course, plays a role. At the driver’s disposal is an estimated 260 horses, boosted by a supercharger and intercooler. That engine drives the boat to 30 mph well under two seconds, and doesn’t stop till the electronic governor kicks in at 67 mph.
Yes, the RXT-X has practical additions, like Sea-Doo’s Intelligent Brake and Reverse. But it’s also got those subtle tweaks that reveal its race-oriented heritage, including fully adjustable handlebars, user-adjustable sponsons, a gripper seat and traction mat material, and a fast-responding electric trim that allows the user to program favorite settings.
Yamaha VX Cruiser
Yamaha was the first to introduce an affordable four-stroke, and some variation of its VX model has been the best-selling watercraft in the industry ever since. The reason is simple. VX models combine an ultra-reliable engine with a stable, predictable, fun hull and package it at a reasonable price. It’s not difficult to understand that math.
Perhaps the true secret to the VX’s success, however, is that it has found an audience beyond the entry-level. Yamaha has upped the craft’s looks and fit and finish to rival many higher-end offerings. The current best-seller, the VX Cruiser, even borrows some of the touring-oriented features from the FX Cruiser, including a sculpted, tiered seat with excellent back support. Combined with the Hydro-Turf traction mats and well-placed handlebars, the trio makes for a more comfortable long-distance cruise.
Expect about 54 mph from the VX’s 1,052 cc engine, and about a three second time from 0-30 mph. Handling, however, rivals the bigger craft at times. There’s enough V in the hull to part waves and tame rougher conditions, while gently rounded chines help the boat lean nicely into a turn. The craft also includes some nice features, including Yamaha’s keyfob-like security remote. It locks the craft against unauthorized use, while also functioning as a speed governor for those times you want to keep speeds low for a newbie, or even to save fuel.
Sea-Doo GTI SE 130
Sea-Doo shook up the entry-level market when it remade the iconic GTI in 2011. And they did it by targeting good old-fashioned “bang for the buck.” Rather than a stripped-down model, the GTI SE 130 offers many of the same technologies found on the brand’s most expensive models.
The most obvious example is the Intelligent Brake and Reverse (iBR). By reworking the reverse bucket, and linking it to both a port handlegrip lever and the craft’s onboard ECU, drivers now have access to braking power on the water that can stop the craft in far shorter a distance than if the throttle was simply released. Braking can be relatively abrupt, or feathered, much like you would do in a car. The same system controls reverse, allowing the driver to keep their hands on the handlebars and their eyes on the water, as well as allowing the GTI to start in a neutral mode. Combined, it gives the craft a level of control around the dock or launch ramp that is unparalleled. The GTI also offers electronic throttle, making possible benefits like cruise control (great for distance rides or towing watersports enthusiasts) and no-wake mode, as well as a fuel-conscious ECO mode.
With a playful yet predictable hull, the looks and fit and finish that hide the fact this is a price-conscious model, and a 130hp Rotax engine that pushes it to 55 mph, the GTI 130 is a formidable contender at this end of the price scale. The SE version adds a touring-style saddle, additional gauge functions, and a fold-down reboarding step.
Kawasaki Ultra LX
Though the 300hp version of the Ultra platform steals most of the spotlight, it’s the LX model — the same basic package without the supercharger — that just may be the more versatile of the two craft. For starters, it’s got that same great Ultra hull, a large, 22.5-degree deadrise design that can handle nearly any type of water you throw its way. It’s comfortable, confident, and utterly predictable. It’s also, however, surprisingly agile, and at times, even downright sporty. A shortened steering nozzle quickens the boat’s reaction times, and gives it a lively feel that belies the size of the craft.
Without the supercharger it’s also far less expensive, both to purchase and to keep topped off at the gas pump. Estimates put the base 1,494cc engine’s horsepower at 160. That equates to a top speed around 54 mph and, with its 1000 pounds of thrust, enough bottom-end power to pull the skiers and wakeboarders in your crowd. It also means far greater range for touring purposes.
And speaking of touring, consider for a moment the boat’s comfortably bolstered seat, and class-leading capacities. The Ultra LX can swallow up nearly anything you care to bring aboard in its massive 60 gallons of storage space. An equally impressive 20 gallon fuel capacity also means you’ll spend more time cruising and less looking for a gas stop. Practical, maybe. But a big-water king that sips fuel and has room for both passengers and plenty of gear? That’s a craft worth considering.
For more information, visit Kawasaki.
Believe it or not, a standup PWC does still exist — Yamaha’s SuperJet. Obtaining one, however, has gotten a little more difficult. For starters, you have to be a licensed racer to buy one. Even then, the craft are limited to private closed-course use, meaning you can’t — at least legally — just go and ride them on your local public waterway. But for those that fit the bill and have a spot to ride, the SuperJet is one heck of a lot of fun.
SuperJets have always appealed to me for their smaller, agile feel. You feel like you can flick one into a corner, hop it off a wave, or submarine it under the water if desired. The craft’s turning ability is also top-notch. A widened hull forward, slimmed aft, sharp chines, and pushed-back ride plate result in more hull surface in the water at the hull’s pivot point for turning, a more intuitive lean-in style, and a departure from the craft’s onetime “flat” turning style.
Power is definitely old-school. Below the hood is a 701cc two-stroke, an almost archaic engine by today’s standards. But it’s quick to accelerate and capable of a 45 mph top speed. And, there’s a long list of performance parts ready to push the boat to greater heights.
For more information, visit Yamaha Waverunners.
Sea-Doo GTX Limited iS 260
Go ahead, criticize its almost ridiculous price tag. Sure, take a stab at its list of “extras,” many of which you could assemble yourself at the local marine supply for much less. Call its suspension system a gimmick. Still, Sea-Doo’s GTX Limited iS 260 is arguably the most plush, most comfortable personal watercraft currently produced.
The Limited was the first craft to introduce Sea-Doo’s Intelligent Suspension concept. In simple terms, it separates the hull and rider area (seat/handlebars/footwells) into two distinct entities, and links them via a twin-arm suspension, complete with spring and gas shock at the center. When passengers board the craft, its computer sets the amount of preload based on the weight in the saddle. Riders can also choose to override the setting manually to soften or stiffen the ride. I’ve said before, it’s far from a magic carpet. Suspension does, however, dramatically soften the blows of rough water, taking the pounding out of a tough crossing and keeping both driver and passengers fresher in the saddle.
Suspension is just one small part of the Limited package. You also get Sea-Doo’s functional Intelligent Brake and Reverse, multiple acceleration profiles, cruise control, no-wake mode, and a soft, cushy saddle guaranteed to please the buttisimo. And yes, a lot of extras you may or may not see as adding value. But you also get a great hull and Sea-Doo’s most potent supercharged engine. Because after all, beneath all the extras it still comes down to the ride.
For more information, visit Sea-Doo.
- Jeff Hemmel writes for boats.com, Boating, PersonalWatercraft.com, and Powersports Business. The former Senior Editor at Watercraft World, Jeff is a multi-time award winner as well as a 2008 inductee into the IJSBA Hall of Fame. His first book, "The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon...and 101 Other Things For Young Mariners To Try, Do, & Build On the Water," received a bronze medal in the 2010 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards. For more info, visit Jeff Hemmel's website.