The Formula 280 Sun Sport handled well and ran nearly 60 mph. (All photos by Tom Newby)

The Formula 280 Sun Sport handled well and ran nearly 60 mph. (All photos by Tom Newby)

Question: How do you know when a boat is truly great? Answer: When you forget you're on one. Great ride, plush cabin, all the comforts of home—another-worldly experience. You could be anywhere, even be on a boat if, in fact, it happened to be a Formula 280 Sun Sport. The 28'-long, 9'2''-wide model offered all of the above and more.

It's no mystery how the people at Thunderbird Products manage to produce winning Formula products year after year. They sweat the details. Of course, that kind of quality doesn't come cheap. Base price for the 280 SS with a single MerCruiser 7.4-liter engine is $85,300. Our test model came with twin MerCruiser 6.2-liter MX MPI small-block engines with Bravo Three drives and several other goodies that upped the ante to $117,865.


Twin-engine setups do up fuel consumption and maintenance costs, and you do pay a price in power-to-weight trade-offs, but they offer security in the event one motor fails.

Thanks to the compact stature of the motors and the boat's wide-beam (hence engine-compartment space), they were a perfect match for the 6,300 pounder. To put the engines' combined 640 hp to the water, they were mated to 2:1 Bravo THREE drives spinning 15" x 28" and 13 3/4" x.28" stainless-steel propellers.

The propulsion package also was a great "fit" for the boat's 21-degree, conventional deep-V bottom. The hull had slightly reversed chines, a notched transom and four strakes, the outer set of which ran full length, whereas the inner set terminated approximately 5 feet forward of the transom.

Top speed for the 280 SS was 59.6 mph at 5100 rpm—almost 2 mph above what the manufacturer predicted and not too shabby for a beamy boat weighing better than three tons. Ditto for the blistering time to plane of 3.5 seconds with the Bennett trim tabs engaged. Plus, the boat shot from dead in the water to 50 mph in 10 seconds. The 280 SS was also quick in the midrange—4.9 seconds to run from 30 to 50 mph.

During agility drills, the 280 SS only felt hefty in maneuvers at lower speeds, such as 30-mph slalom turns. Going through the same routine at 40 and 50 mph, however, the boat felt nimble and responsive. The results were the same for circle turns—good at cruising speed, great at full speed. Regardless of velocity, however, tracking was tops.


Imron paint work over the boat's brilliant gelcoat and spectacular mold work was crisp. We looked hard to find flaws and simply couldn't. The manufacturer installed a plastic rubrail with a stainless-steel insert with the kind of care that made it as much an aesthetically pleasing element as one for hullside protection.

For lamination materials, Formula went with AME 5000 resin and chopped 'glass for a skin coat, followed by layers of 1 1/2-ounce mat and woven roving with more AME 5000. Coremat was added to ingredients in the deck and hullsides, as was Divinycell coring.

Hardware included a nav light, anchor locker and two cleats on the nose. A stainless-steel handrail ran down each side of the deck. For secure and easy foredeck access, the center of the deck was surfaced with nonskid, the Taylor Made windshield had a large walk-through section and the port side of the dash boasted molded steps.

The rear section of the lounge, as well as a section of the sole, raised on an electric screw jack for access to the engines. The twin small-blocks were installed on aluminum L-angle blocks with gussets that were through-bolted to the stringers, as well as the standard transom assemblies.


The cockpit seating layout featured a double-wide helm, a copilot-side bench and a U-shaped lounge.

The cockpit seating layout featured a double-wide helm, a copilot-side bench and a U-shaped lounge.

One of our inspectors compared the UltraLeather HP upholstery inside the cabin to chamois—that's how soft it felt on the horseshoe-shape lounge, which converted to a berth with filler cushions. Perfectly installed lights in the padded headliner, as well as two deck hatches created excellent interior illumination. It didn't have a sink, but the galley did have a microwave.

Across the way was a private head locker with a porcelain commode, a sink and a porthole for ventilation.

Gray panels on the dash reduced glare.

Gray panels on the dash reduced glare.

The helm seat in the 280 SS was double-wide and featured a flip-up bottom for the driver. VDO gauges complemented the dash, however, a few of the gauges were obscured from view by the tilt steering wheel. Rocker switches activated all the accessories, as well as the drives and tabs.

The observer's lounge to port had an angled backrest that made it comfortable to ride facing rearward. Aft of that was the entertainment center stocked with a stove, sink and a refrigerator.

The 280 Sun Sport's cabin was surprisingly spacious for that of a 28-footer.

The 280 Sun Sport's cabin was surprisingly spacious for that of a 28-footer.

We found stowage space for small items under the U-shape bench aft. The bench bottom flipped forward on dual-action hinges for access. Wakeboards and skis would go in the in-sole locker.


Our skier and wakeboarder gave the Formula 280 SS passing marks as a recreational tow boat. The high point, was the yank out of the hole and the tracking. The low was the wakes. They were too large for serious slalom runs, and our boarder never got comfortable with them. Bottom line: Even as a recreational tow boat, the 280 SS was merely adequate.


How smooth is the Formula 280 Sun Sport? We almost forgot we were on a boat. Now we can't forget it.

Test Results

Hull and Propulsion Information
Deadrise at transom21 degrees
Hull weight6,300 pounds
EngineMerCruiser 6.2-liter MX MPI
Cylinder typeV-8
Cubic-inch displacement/horsepower377/320
Lower-unit gear ratio2:1
PropellerMercury Bravo Three 15 1/4" x 28"

Base retail$85,300
Price as tested$117,865

Standard Equipment

Electric engine lift, engine-room lighting, automatic fire extinguisher, thru-bolted engine mounts, remote oil filters, alternator noise filters, automatic bilge pump, bilge blowers, sliding, locking cabin door, entertainment center, hanging locker, private head, one-piece fiberglass deck and cockpit liner, Dino steering wheel, VDO Vanguard instrumentation, depthsounder, Ritchie compass, swim platform with ladder, stainless steel grab rail and ski tow eye.


Upgrade to twin MerCruiser 6.2 MX MPI engines ($20,430), Bimini top with side curtains ($2,945), porcelain head with holding tank and Y-valve for macerator ($1,620), 120-Volt shore power with 40-amp battery charger ($1,470), cockpit cover ($1,125), VHF radio with antenna ($1,020), refrigerator ($1,000), two cockpit tables ($725), Bennett hydraulic trim tabs ($650), Berber cockpit carpet ($540), stove ($365), microwave oven ($350), shower ($325).

5 seconds34 mph
10 seconds50 mph
15 seconds56 mph
20 seconds58 mph

Midrange Acceleration
30-50 mph4.9 seconds
40-60 mphNA
40-70 mphNA

Rpm vs. Mph
10007 mph
150010 mph
200015 mph
250023 mph
300032 mph
350038 mph
400048 mph
450052 mph
500057 mph

Top Speed
Radar59.6 mph at 5100 rpm
Nordskog Performance Products GPS58.9 mph at 5100 rpm

Time to plane3.5 seconds
Minimum planing speed15.3 mph

Fuel Economy
At 45 mph1.7 mpg
At 55 mph1.3 mpg
At WOT1.3 mpg
Fuel capacity120 gallons


Formula by Thunderbird Products
Dept. PB
P.O. Box 1003
2200 W. Monroe St., Decatur, IN 46733
(219) 724-9111