Four Winns has rediscovered the outboard-powered runabout. Its new H180 OB model is the first the company has offered since 2005. This is good news, because in my opinion an outboard always made more sense for a small runabout – it’s lighter, more fuel efficient, leaves more space in the boat and in most cases will out-perform the ancient 3.0-liter sterndrive we usually find in these boats. And this new Four Winns proves all those points.

A Fish & Ski Package ($4,000) includes a livewell, two fishing seats, a Minn Kota electric motor, Humminbird fish locator, rod holders, a bow insert with cushions, and a tall ski pylon.

It’s ironic that outboard runabouts went away due to exhaust emissions controls, and now they are coming back for the same reason. Once a staple of every builder’s runabout line, these models fell out of favor as outboard motors become more expensive due to emissions regulations, at least relative to the dirt-cheap 3.0-liter sterndrive that powers most entry-level bowriders. But now the regulatory spotlight is on sterndrive emissions. In 2011 most of those engines will have to be equipped with an exhaust catalyst, which in the case of the iconic 3.0-liter, will add approximately $2,500 to the retail cost of the boat. That’s a significant up-charge on a boat that is designed to sell for a little more than $20,000. And all of the sudden, the outboard is getting popular again.

Four Winns H180 OB puts the motor on the transom, so there’s more room in the boat.

To get back in the outboard game, Four Winns has essentially re-tooled the back end of its sterndrive-powered, 17-foot five-inch long H180 bowrider. The boat will be offered with up to 130 horsepower, but Four Winns expects a 90 to be the most-popular choice. Base price with the Mercury 90 four-stroke will be $22,333 including a trailer with brakes. The 2011 H180 with a 130-hp 3.0-liter MerCruiser has a base price of $22,487 on the same trailer. You get 40 more horsepower with the sterndrive, but I think the outboard is still the better deal. Here’s why.

Instrument display is basic and tidy. Snazzy sport wheel is located rather low on the console.

The outboard-powered boat is up to 175 pounds lighter (depending on the motor) and gets 13 to 23 percent better fuel economy than the sterndrive at mid-range speeds and at full throttle. For all that extra power, the sterndrive model is only 2 mph faster, at about 40 mph. The outboard offers some other advantages. It can be tilted clear of the water, and because it’s self-draining, it’s easier and less-expensive to prepare for off-season storage.

The outboard is also not taking up space in the boat. Eliminating the motor box, Four Winns was able to add eight inches of floor space between the forward bucket seats and the rear seat, which makes a big difference in a compact boat like this.

Passageway forward of the outboard makes it possible to walk across the transom. Soft matting is easy on the feet.

The one feature you do give up with an outboard is the full-width swim platform, but Four Winns sought to mitigate that issue by designing the H180 Outboard with a transom for a 25-inch outboard, rather than a 20-inch motor. This adds a little to the cost of the outboard, but it allows the boat to have a higher splashwell, which in turn creates space for a 12-inch-wide passage forward of the motor. This makes it easy to walk across the transom when boarding and handling dock or ski lines. The platform is a full 30 inches wide either side of the motor – compared to just 11 inches on the sterndrive model – so in some ways there’s more room here with the outboard. And the port and starboard sections of the aft seat fold down for an easy walk-through from the platform to the cockpit.

Going forward, the H180 OB is identical to the sterndrive version of the boat. This is a runabout that’s obviously built to a price point but never looks cheap. The grab handles are stainless steel, there’s some LED cockpit lighting and a stereo in the glove box, and the full glass windshield has glass side panels. The bucket seats swivel and adjust fore and aft, but do not have flip-up bottom bolsters (that’s $308 extra). The helm features an OEM control to match the engine, and a combo speedo, fuel and voltmeter gauge in the center of the dash is flanked by a digital depth gauge and a brace of warning lights. No tach, and no trim gauge. In fact, the only sign of cheapness I spotted was the plastic fuel fill cap, which doesn’t match the stainless handles.

I went to Cadillac, Mich., to demo an H180 OB with a 90-hp Mercury four-stroke. The boat planed off smartly with a light load and I saw 41 mph, better than the official tech notes. On a very rough day, I was impressed with the ride and the way the boat tracked true and felt solid as we charged across two-foot chop to get to the lee shore. The 21-degree deadrise was doing its thing.

The SS Series option package ($1,531) includes a low-profile dark windshield, sporty graphics, and pull-up cleats.

The motor was very quiet, and certainly smoother than the old 3.0-liter sterndrive, but if there’s an issue with this package it’s the amount of noise that filters through the cockpit at speed – harmonics from engine vibration that are amplified under the consoles. These were pre-production examples, and Four Winns says it’s working to dampen this sound before full production starts.

So it’s back to the future for runabouts. Four Winns and other builders that rediscover the virtues of outboard power will have to convince buyers the outboard is a better way to go boating. The H180 OB is a good start on that mission.

plueddeman-head-shotCharles Plueddeman is's outboard, trailer, and PWC expert. He is a former editor at Boating Magazine and contributor to many national publications since 1986.