Most boaters probably missed the news that three major outboard manufacturers - Mercury Marine, Yamaha and Honda - have stopped the practice of designating model years for their products. So far Suzuki and BRP-Evinrude remain hold-outs to a tradition that goes back more than 100 years, but the change make sense for a number of reasons. It has also created a few issues for dealers and consumers.
The elimination of model years solves a number of problems for outboard manufacturers, boat builders and dealers. Because so many new outboards are sold directly through boat builders, rather than as a retail sale directly to the public, there is a constant struggle to match outboard inventory with boat inventory - it's a real trick to use up all of the 2007-model outboards just before production of the 2008-model boats begin, especially when each boat builder is on a different model change-over schedule. Dealers are reluctant to stock a lot of new outboard inventory because they don't want to have to discount motors from the previous model year that don't get sold before the "new motors" appear. Which means if you want to buy a new motor to repower your boat, you could end up waiting some time for an outboard that has to be ordered from the factory.
Mercury, Yamaha and Honda have solved the inventory issue by simply eliminating the model year. This should make the business more efficient for everyone. Outboard manufacturers can match production to demand, not to an artificial "model year," and can roll out the really new hardware at any time during the calendar year instead of rushing a product to market just to make a new "model year" deadline. Boat builders and dealers no longer have to scramble to use up outboard inventory before the model year changes over. If a Brand X 150 built in 2006 is the same as a Brand X 150 built in 2007, what difference does it make which motor ends up on your new boat?
It doesn't make any difference, if those two motors really are the same. And some dealers and consumers are saying that's the issue. They point out that without the model-year change, it may be very difficult for the consumer to know if he's getting latest outboard technology. This is especially true in this age of computer-controlled outboards, where updated software can make a real difference in performance or fuel economy.
Mercury (www.mercurymarine.com) says that any significant change to a model will be noted by a change in the letter designator at the end of the motor's serial number. In the past this letter was used as a code to signify the model year. Now it will identify the "production era" of the motor. All models sharing the same code are physically the same, whether they were built in December 2005 or February 2007. According to Mercury, a dealer can identify the model codes and insure you are getting the latest product. Mercury adds that this is important when repowering a boat with multiple outboards - each of the motors should have the same code. Honda (www.honda-marine.com) is following a similar plan. The model designation of all current Honda motors ends with the letters "AK." If there is a significant change made to a model, say the BF225 gets BLAST technology, that designator will change from BF225AK to BF225AK1.
Yamaha will be renaming new models as they appear. For example, when the 323cc F15 was replaced by a new 362cc 15-hp model, it was named the F15C so that it was clear it was a new model. That same powerhead is also used for the new F20, but because there was no F20 preceding that motor, it doesn't get a letter designator. Yamaha is also changing the model code when a significant change is made, and publishes a list of all current model codes on its website (www.yamaha-motor.com).
Of course it's up the outboard builder to decided when a running change is "significant." I asked Mercury, for example, if the new EFI program it's installing on its Verado outboards to improve fuel economy would result is a change in the model code. The answer is unclear, because Merc has also made some very obvious changes to the Verado cowl and graphics that coincide with the software change, and resulted in a change in the model designator. Note that the fine print on just about any catalog or ad has always included a disclaimer to the effect "we reserve the right to make any changes at any time"¦".
It's easy for a consumer to tell when an outboard was manufactured. There's a permanent sticker on the transom bracket, often part of the serial number sticker, that gives the month and year of manufacture. This has become an issue in the handful of states that issue a title for an outboard motor that's separate from the title for the boat. The Manufacturers Statement of Origin (MSO) that comes with every outboard used to state the model year. Now for a Honda, Mercury or Yamaha it will state the date of manufacture, and that date will appear on the title. That means you could buy a new boat titled as a 2008 model powered by a motor titled as a 2007 or 2006 model, even though the boat and motor were commissioned together. This has upset some consumers, who feel they've taken a huge depreciation hit on a motor that appears older than it really is. These states need to adjust their title forms to reflect the fact that some new motors just won't have a model year.
Editor's note: Charles Plueddeman is the editor at large for Boating, the nation's largest boating magazine.