Buyers willing to give up some features can save $500 to $900 on the price of a new personal watercraft by purchasing a model intended for fleet and commercial use. Kawasaki, Sea-Doo, and Yamaha each offer a version of an entry-level, three-passenger model that has been "de-contented," to use a term from the automotive industry, to a rock-bottom price by deleting items like reverse thrust, mirrors, the speedometer and complex graphics. Usually relegated to the back page of the catalog, the bottom of the web page, and never appearing at media events, these "rental specials" are available from dealers for sale to the general public, and if you are pinching pennies in this down economy, they deserve your consideration.
Kawasaki is the latest to join this market segment with the quiet introduction this spring of its new Jet Ski STX model. Priced at $7,899, the STX is $500 cheaper than the STX-15F model upon which it's based. Deleted from the Jet Ski STX are the rear-view mirrors, reverse thrust and flip-down boarding step found on the STX-15F. The STX also has a one-piece seat instead of the two-piece seat found on the STX-15F, although the seat has the same shape. Everything else, from the 160-hp, 1.5-liter fuel-injected engine to the digital instrument display to the ski-eye on the transom, is the same on these two models.
The other contenders in the rock-bottom derby are the Yamaha WaveRunner VX and the Sea-Doo GTI 130. Priced at $7,699, the WaveRunner VX is the lowest-priced multi-passenger PWC on the market today and costs $200 less than the WaveRunner VX Sport. The only difference between the VX and the VX Sport is the hull color - the VX has a white hull, deck and seat with a blue cowl, while the VX Sport has a black hull, white deck, gray seat and red cowl. So the Sport looks a little snappier, and Yamaha points out that the black hull won't show scuffs as readily as the white hull. Neither the VX or the VX Sport has mirrors or reverse. Move up to the all-blue $8,299 VX Deluxe, and you get those features plus a security system and low-speed mode controlled by a key-fob remote. All VX models have the same hull and the same 110-hp fuel-injected engine.
Reverse is included on the $7,799 Sea-Doo GTI 130, the base model in the three-boat GTI series. The GTI 130 does not come with the mirrors, speedometer, two-tone seat upholstery, ski eye, boarding step and footwell mats included on the $8,699 GTI SE 130, which also has a sporty blue deck and some extra chrome trim. Both are powered by the 130-hp version of the fuel-injected Rotax 1.5-liter engine used in all Sea-Doo models.
The fact that the GTI 130 has reverse might make it the best bargain of the three price-busters. If, like me, you've been riding PWC for a while you'll remember when reverse was simply not available. We still had fun, though having the added control offered by reverse is sure convenient when maneuvering around a dock. You'll always want to make sure you are pointed at open water before you start the engine, but if you are attracted to the Kawasaki or Yamaha, I think you can learn to live without reverse. With its 160-hp engine, the Kawasaki STX offers the most performance bang for the buck, with a top speed of 60 mph. The Sea-Doo and Yamaha will go about 53 mph, but have plenty of power for pulling a tube or wakeboarder.
What about mirrors? Rental operators don't want mirrors because they are prone to damage on boats handled by ham-fisted customers, and deleting them saves a few dollars on the initial price. However, a mirror is required in some states if you want to use the PWC for tow-sports. A quick check of the boating law data base of the National Association of Boating Law Administrators shows that mirrors are always required for tow sports in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and D.C., while you have the option of using mirrors or a rear-facing observer in 14 other states. Thirty-six states require an observer even if the craft has mirrors. Check your current state regs, as this info is a few years old. You can always add mirrors to any of these low-priced models. Sea-Doo offers a set of accessory mirrors for the GTI for $100.
The only real down-side to buying one of these stripped-down models might be diminished resale value. But unless your dealer is discounting the higher-priced model, the cash you'll save buying the most-basic version might pay for all your gas this season.