Throwing Sparks: How Sea-Doo’s Newest PWC Could Change The Industry


In 1996, there were an estimated two million personal watercraft sold worldwide. That number is gargantuan when you consider that last year saw the sales of roughly 29,000-plus units. Within seventeen years, our industry has rapidly desiccated to near terminal levels. During this decline, we’ve lost two major manufacturers – Polaris and Honda – and hundreds of dealerships. Of the three manufacturers who remain – Kawasaki, Yamaha and Sea-Doo – the division of market share is radically imbalanced.

The biggest differentiation between the industry’s height in 1996 and today is the age demographic of buyer. Today’s PWC are priced far out of reach of most 25-35 year old buyers.

To the outsider, the personal watercraft industry is woefully ill. Public interest appears to be minimal; vehicle sales are a mere trickle of a once torrential river; and club and sanctioned racing body memberships are paltry.

Yet, in light of all of this bad news, there’s never been a better time to be a personal watercraft enthusiast. Modern safety features have earned the acclaim of the US Coast Guard, boating commissions and regulatory boards. Environmental groups have relinquished their attacks, and even have began employing watercraft themselves.

The build quality of today’s runabouts exceed the standards of full-sized sport boats from only a few years earlier. The performance offered from the factory and dealer floors are equal to, if not superior to the race-bred machines that earned National and World Championships only a few years earlier.

Interestingly – yet not totally surprisingly – youthful buyers trend more favorably towards a “fun experience” than creature comforts and technology.

Yet, why aren’t dealers flocked each Spring with new and returning customers? The answer won’t surprise you.

Building a watercraft lightweight and affordable also required it to be equally durable, as youthful riders are more likely to push the vehicle to its limits.

Over a decade ago, strides were made by manufacturers to appeal to a more mature market in an effort to shed its poor public image. Prior to the large four-stroke runabouts comprising much of the lineups these days, personal watercraft were widely believed to be a pestilence, a swarming mass of irresponsible, intoxicated and inexperienced gnats buzzing around local lakes and waterways.

By repackaging their products as stable, sophisticated and refined machines rather than rowdy, raucous and carefree, manufacturers felt they could kill two birds with one stone – improve public relations and reach a more affluent age group. The problem with this method of merchandising proved extensive.

Although older buyers have the expendable income to spend on a $18,000 runabout equipped cruise control, automated suspended seats and a sound system, they also exhibit low turnover. Frankly put, they typically don’t ruin their stuff. Additionally, the quantity of hours spent riding is lower, thus requiring less maintenance and upkeep as well.

Conversely, youthful riders habitually ride longer, more aggressively and nearly year-round. They also are more prone to want to “trade up” to a newer model, even when improvements over their current model are negligible. Moreover, youthful buyers are more likely to modify or personalize their craft thus encouraging aftermarket growth.

It could be said that Sea-Doo has covered every angle of the Spark. Customers are encouraged to customize their Spark with unique vinyl wraps and color combinations, as well as choose from a broad spectrum of accessories.

It was only until late this Summer that one manufacturer did something to address this. Sea-Doo’s introduction of the Spark is not a marketing gimmick or short-term ploy. It’s a tectonic shift in how the personal watercraft industry should operate.

Differences from a two- and three-seater are a change in seat length and a rear platform extension. Modularity has become the signature trait to this ground-breaking machine.

Arguably, every facet of executing a concerted effort towards a virgin market of youthful buyers has been addressed. Each advancement employed by Sea-Doo to reduce costs overlaps into other categories.

To reduce weight, a new PolyTec recyclable material was developed in addition to the uniquely open ExcoSkel design. This not only reduced gross weight down to 405-pounds but provided improved structural integrity.

The modular component construction not only cut assembly time and weight, but radically opens up the Spark to ease of maintenance and modification. Tuners can remove the top deck with the turn of a few dozen screws. In fact, it’s simplicity is one of its greatest attractors. A color change can be done with the swap of three panels, and damaged portions are as easily replaced.

Less is more with Sea-Doo’s Spark, as first-time riders will familiarize themselves with the nimble and more playful 90-horsepower ACE engine before trying their hand at a supercharged 310HP full-sized machine.

Employing Sea-Doo’s ACE 900cc four-stroke plant – found previously in Can-Am snowmobiles – provided buyers a choice of the 50 and 90 horsepower configurations, access to an already established aftermarket of ECU tuners, and keeps the PWC accessible in two-stroke restricted lakes. Its quiet operation and ability to run on 87 octane pump gas only adds to its broad appeal.

Ease of operation is a central factor to appealing to broader – and previously inexperienced – demographic. Even with BRP’s available iBR, the Spark remains significantly “fool proof” to operate.

When first announced, production of the Spark was already well underway, with units boxed and halfway to South America and Australia. Undoubtedly, Sea-Doo knew that a craft priced below $5,000 would be greedily accepted, and well received it has.

But what the potential lies within the Spark far surpasses that of a much needed boost in dealer sales. It’s the philosophy behind the Spark that can cause a tectonic-level shift in the personal watercraft industry. Sea-Doo’s open-arm embrace of a demographic otherwise ignored for nearly 20 years is almost completely alien to the likes of Kawasaki, who at 7-percent of the market share, is in dire need of wider appeal.

The biggest impact of the Spark will not be found in the public’s acceptance of the new craft, but Sea-Doo’s competition adaption of the same philosophy with its products.

Completely glossing over any refresh of the STX-15F or even the naturally-aspirated Ultra LX, Kawasaki doubled-down on a group already saturated with fully-loaded and heavily optioned watercraft. Whether this “damn the torpedoes” position plays out in Kawasaki’s favor remains to be seen, but it does strike as completely antithetical to Sea-Doo’s maneuvering.

Yamaha’s VX line of affordable performance is a fair middle ground but is too cautious in its delivery – that is, save for the VXR. The “big motor in a little PWC” combination proved a winning combination for hot doggers and racers alike. The Spark though, is something completely different. And it’s that departure from the status quo that is likely to prove the next evolutionary step in our industry.

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Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw

Editor-in-Chief – kevin.shaw@shawgroupmedia.com Kevin Shaw is a decade-long powersports and automotive journalist whose love for things that go too fast has led him to launching The Watercraft Journal. Almost always found with stained hands and dirt under his fingernails, Kevin has an eye for the technical while keeping a eye out for beautiful photography and a great story.

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