Look at the image above. It looks like a new generation of sportboat, flexing its muscles for the first time. But it’s actually a Bennington QX Sport—a pontoon boat. Five years ago, Robb Report would never have considered a review on boating’s most utilitarian boats.
But times have changed, and the once-humble float-boat—the provenance of small Midwestern lakes—has come of age. Some prices are approaching a half-million dollars. And speeds up to 78 mph, joystick docking, ocean coastal running, towsports packages, smart-phone controls and full galleys have made the pontoon one of boating’s hottest sellers.
Besides instant access to the water, the pontoon’s wide, stable decks have given designers fresh ways to configure these boats, using more creative seating, luxe features and amenities like fridges and portable heads.
Bennington 25 QX Sport
In a sea of cool-kid contenders, Bennington’s 25 QX Sport stands out like a futuristic rendering ripped from some designer’s sketch pad. It’s the epitome of cutting-edge, with aggressive exterior contours, a designer color palette and interior that rivals the finest luxury automobile. A deeply tinted, raked windshield spans the consoles, adding to the visual appeal.
Overhead, an almost robotic Roswell tower blends seamlessly with the design while adding a true, functional tow point for water-sports fans. Details abound. The bow gate is billet aluminum, a larger-than-average sink is hidden within the port console, and a built-in commercial-grade refrigerator is revealed below portside bench seating. Power options max out at 425 hp. $392,271 with Yamaha 425 outboards.
Manitou 27 XT SRW
Manitou’s flagship is well prepared should an impromptu drag race break out on the way back to the dock. Powered by a pair of potent 450 hp Mercury Racing outboards, this luxurious speedster is capable of just under 78 mph.
Besides the hair-clipping speed, Manitou’s triple V-Toon give the XT impressive overall stability and the cornering of a V-hull. Other highlights include joystick control, digital switching and the ability to control many onboard functions via remote transmitter, app or Garmin smartwatch. $330,914 with twin Mercury 450R outboards.
Barletta’s Corsa eschews the fiberglass trend but still manages to exude an upscale personality. Exterior lines are sports-car sleek, color choices contrasting and simple, and interior seating less pillow-top plush but more contemporary and angular. Add a clutter-free helm, accent lighting and speaker grilles that could be arty accent pieces, and the Corsa exudes a subtle, sexy vibe. Features include Barletta’s trademark Ultra Lounge, which morphs into five total positions, including couches, recliners and sunbed.
Unique touches include standard pull-out doggie dish and unique perforated aluminum skin on the side gate so that the captain can have a better view of water. Engine options extend to 450 hp. $140,443 with Mercury 400 Verado outboard.
Harris Crowne SL270
Credit Harris for the current trend of pontoons swapping out conventional aluminum fencing in favor of stylish, sculpted fiberglass topsides. The original Crowne won an NMMA Innovation Award for the design, which moved away from the boxy look that previously defined pontoon boats in favor of sloping bows and sleek exteriors.
The current 29-foot Crowne SL 270 still has every bit of the last generation’s cutting-edge innovations, with a raked bow, overhead sport arch and rear-facing seating on the aft platform. An elegant helm features gauges and controls integrated into a touchscreen display. Twin Mercury Verado outboards are available up to a whopping 900 hp, with joystick control providing intuitive low-speed maneuvering. $549,631 with Powered Sport Arch, twin Mercury 450R outboards and joystick piloting.
Avalon Catalina Entertainer
The Entertainer is aptly named. Adjacent to the helm it features a bistro bar, with solid-surface tabletop, a pair of swiveling stools awaiting those who belly up to each side and attractive accent lighting built into the recess around its perimeter. Keep drinks chilled in the cooler below.
A galley behind gives the bartender or hors d’oeuvres master a spot to prep drinks and food. When you’re ready to chill, couches await opposite the bar as well as forward. Outside, the Catalina stands out not with fiberglass but with aluminum, in Avalon’s case welded to form a sleek, smooth exterior sure to capture attention both under way and at the dock. $118,000 with Mercury 400, WaveGlider package.
Premier Escalante 350
With a waterslide waiting to whisk passengers off its second-story top deck and 19-passenger capacity, the Escalante 350 is equal parts luxury pontoon and thrill-ready waterpark. The massive 36’ 4” main deck is set up for socializing, with couch space galore and a sizable starboard galley equipped with refrigerator and sink. A hard-sided changing room includes porta-potti, sink and shower. Behind, a curving staircase brings passengers topside.
Chill out one of two couches on the 12- by 10-foot deck, then when things get heated, take the plunge to the waters below. Power choices top out at twin, 425-hp outboards with joystick control. $370,318 with twin Suzuki 350 outboards.
Sea-Doo Switch Cruise 21
The Switch Cruise 21 is not the most lavish of the group, but it is one of the most clever new designs in the pontoon world. Made by the famed personal watercraft maker, the Cruise has a composite hull, and at the helm, PWC-style handlebars and trigger throttle replaces the traditional wheel and hand throttle. Clear vinyl panels wrap the perimeter, giving the captain a better view when docking as well as making the boat feel more spacious.
But the real kicker, as the name suggests, is the boat’s Lego-like configurable floorplan. Individual furniture components can be easily moved to almost any position on deck, allowing owners to set up the boat for how they plan to use it on any given day. Cruising with family one day, fishing off the bow the next. Think of it as the Swiss Army knife of pontoons. Jet-drive power options run to 230 hp. $36,499 with Rotax 230 power.