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Choosing the Right Outboard

From Pacific Fishing, November 2000
By Terry Johnson, University of Alaska Sea Grant, Marine Advisory Program
4014 Lake Street, Suite 201B, Homer, AK 99603, (907) 235-5643, email:

Operators who use medium- or high-pow- only 40-50% of the fuel of a comparable still not quite as clean or fuel-efficient as a
ered outboard motors in commercial appli- power two-stroke at cruising speeds, and four-stroke, they are relatively lightweight
cations face a rapidly changing set of only a fifth as much at idle. and powerful.
choices, the result of EPA emissions regu- However, the four-stroke weighs 15% DFI is not the same as electronic fuel
lations and developing technology designed more and costs 50% more. Because each injection (EFI), which employs an electronic
to improve performance and fuel economy. cylinder fires only on every second revolu- metering device in place of a carburetor.
As you’re probably aware, federal law tion, four-strokes tend to be a bit less peppy Two-stroke EFI engines, such as those made
requires an overall reduction in the amount than their two-stroke competitors, and tend by Suzuki, show some efficiency advantage
of pollutants each manufacturer’s line of to operate 500-700 rpm faster to achieve over carbureted engines, but generally have
motors releases into the environment so that similar performance. the same characteristics of carbureted two-
by the year 2006 total hydrocarbons must Industry talk is that both Honda and strokes.
have declined by 75% and nitrogen oxides Yamaha are developing four-strokes in the Each of the three big players in two-
by 33%. The source of most of these pol- 200-225 hp range, although at this writing stroke outboards has taken a different ap-
lutants? The good-old carbureted two- neither company is announcing a debut proach to DFI. OMC’s Evinrude engines
stroke engine. date. Considering that a Honda 130 weighs use a system developed by a German firm,
If you review your high school auto shop in at around 500 lb, and lists at over called Ficht Ram Injection (OMC’s other
notes you’ll recall that the beauty of the two- $11,000, these are likely to be big, expen- brand, Johnson, retains the carbureted two-
stroke is that it is cheap, lightweight, and sive motors. stroke technology, at least for now). Mer-
simple. It has no valves; the intake and ex- Other makers are taking a different ap- cury/Mariner licenses an Australian
haust ports open at the same time so that proach to meet EPA pollution standards and technology called OptiMax. Yamaha is a
each cylinder is exhausting and sucking in consumer demand for improved economy. latecomer in the field, having introduced
a fresh fuel/air charge simultaneously. The They have developed variants on a type of its system, called High Pressure Direct In-
bad part is that a goodly portion of the fresh two-stroke known as “direct fuel injection” jection (HPDI), for the first time in the 2000
charge goes straight out the exhaust port or DFI. A DFI two-stroke doesn’t have a car- model.
without burning, pumping vaporized raw buretor and the incoming fuel/air charge is Performance of the three systems is re-
gasoline directly into the environment. Con- not pumped through the crankcase and markably similar, but technically they dif-
trary to popular belief, most of the “smoke” sucked into the cylinder while the intake fer. The Ficht system employs an electronic
produced by a two-stroke isn’t burned lube and exhaust ports are open. Instead, it has solenoid injector on each cylinder, con-
oil, it’s unburned fuel. an injector—somewhat like that of a diesel trolled by an electronic control unit (ECU)
Honda’s engines are “2006 compliant” or a multi-port fuel injection car engine— that synthesizes information from 11 dif-
because they are all four-stroke design that meters and forces fuel under pressure ferent sensors on the engine to determine
which, as you recall, uses valves to admit directly into the combustion chamber after the correct amount and timing of fuel in-
the fuel/air charge after blocking the ex- the exhaust ports are closed. The result is jected, and ignition timing. An engine-
haust outlet. In part because of the EPA nearly complete burning of the fuel and driven pump moves fuel from the tank to
rules, and in part because of the phenom- smoother operation, even at low rpms. the engine, an electric pump sends it to the
enal success Honda has enjoyed with its OMC, Mercury, and Yamaha are build- injectors at 25 psi, and the injectors force it
clean, quiet, smooth-running four-strokes, ing V-4 and V-6 DFI engines in ratings from into the combustion chamber at 250 psi. A
most of the other manufacturers have come 130 to 225 hp. throttle body controls the air flow to the
out with four-stroke models in the smaller The difference is more than merely tech- cylinder and an oil injector behind the
horsepower ranges. A few years back nical. Testing by manufacturers and inde- throttle body mixes lube oil with the air
Honda introduced 90, 115, and 130 hp en- pendent technical organizations shows that being sucked into the crankcase.
gines, and Yamaha countered with 80, 100, across the board DFI engines use half the The OptiMax system is similar but uses
and 115 hp four-stroke models. The Yamaha fuel of comparable carbureted two-strokes, two sequential injectors per cylinder, one
115 and Honda 115 and 130 are electroni- or less, at idling and trolling speeds, and at to pre-mix gas and pressurized air and the
cally fuel-injected; the others have carbu- least 20% less at cruising and top speeds. other to inject the mixture into the cylinder
retors. All are smooth, clean, and reliable. And the erratic stutter of a two-stroke at at 90 psi. A belt-driven pump pressurizes
Claims of four-stroke efficiency are not low speed is eliminated; DFI engines are the air. An oil pump sprays oil directly onto
exaggerated. Independent tests show that a smooth at idle or trolling speed since each the connecting rods. The ECU and injec-
four-stroke outboard consistently burns cylinder fires on every revolution. While tion system are standard automotive units.
Yamaha’s HPDI employs two fuel because of overheating, lack of lubrication,
pumps to bring fuel to the high pressure or collision with hard objects, all the result
pump, which sends it to the injectors at 700 of operator inattentiveness.
psi. The ECU makes adjustments based on Honda does test its motors to ensure that
input from eight engine sensors. Yamaha’s they last at least 2,000 hours, but the com-
ignition system uses conventional spark pany claims to have testimonials from com-
plugs, as opposed to specialized plugs de- mercial and military users who have put
veloped specifically for the other two en- 9,000, 10,000, and even 15,000 hours on
gines. Ficht and Optimax plugs are pricey, their motors. Honda acknowledges that
$12-$25 each. such longevity is possible only with “ritu-
All these pumps, control units, sensors, alistic maintenance.” Indications are that
and injectors make DFI engines somewhat four-stroke engines are likely to outlast
more complex and expensive than carbu- modern two-strokes, in part because of the
reted engines. Are they also more trouble- better cooling of the four-stroke design, and
some? OMC had a lot of problems with the superior lubrication of the closed crankcase.
early Ficht engines, so many that the com- The builder’s faith in the durability of
pany distributed retrofit upgrade units to its engines is reflected in part by the length
owners of ’98 and ’99 model year engines, of the standard warranty: Honda’s is three
and redesigned some elements of the en- years on their biggest models, while OMC
gines in subsequent years. Some, though and Mercury cover the first two years.
fewer, problems have been reported by Yamaha covers their HPDI engines for two
owners of OptiMax engines, and Yamaha’s years and their four-strokes for three years.
HPDI is still so new that it’s too early to Suzuki and Tohatsu/Nissan warranties are
tell whether problems will emerge. three years and two years, respectively.
(The independent, subscription-sup- Both companies make carbureted and elec-
ported publication Powerboat Reports tronic fuel injection engines but don’t cur-
among other things tracks complaints di- rently make a DFI model. (These warranties
rected at motor manufacturers. The maga- do not apply to commercial users.)
zine has done numerous performance and A nifty thing about outboards is that if
efficiency tests of new-generation motors you ever should actually wear one out, you
and has chronicled the Ficht odyssey. The can simply replace the powerhead. A rebuilt
journal’s editors say that despite those prob- powerhead, which is something like an au-
lems already documented, they expect that tomotive short block, costs about a third of
in the long run DFI engines will prove more the price of a new engine
reliable than their carbureted predecessors, The powerhead is only half the story in
in part because many outboard ills result outboards, however, and some makes are
from carbon buildup, which is minimized known for the strength and durability of
by use of engine sensors and ECUs.) their lower units. Many fishermen base their
Clearly, DFI engines require clean fuel, engine selections more on their experience
which is a problem in some locations, and with the overall durability of a company’s
a good fine-pore water separator filter be- motors than on specific technical details of
tween tank and engine is essential. a particular engine. Dealers report that, for
While it often seems that the outboard example, despite all the good news concern-
industry is more interested in futuristic styl- ing the clean and fuel efficient new models
ing and “hole shot” speed, commercial us- on the market, Alaska commercial fisher-
ers require durability and longevity. So, how men are still picking Yamaha carbureted
long can you expect a new outboard to last? two-strokes over other motors by a wide
It’s too soon to tell about the DFI units, but margin.
in general industry people say that well This may be the last model year those
maintained outboards have been good for units (and many other carbureted two-
an average of about 1,500 engine hours, strokes) will be available, since they don’t
with some individual units going 2,500 or meet the EPA emission standard for 2002.
more. Unlike diesel builders, outboard Some users no doubt are buying up the last
motor companies don’t test their engines motors on the market to ensure that they
for longevity, or if they do they don’t re- can continue to use what they know and
lease the results to the public. trust. ✦
Note the proviso “well-maintained.”
Most outboards don’t last even that long