There is a term in marketing that strikes fear into the hearts of all competitors, and builds the legacy of the company that can successfully pull it off. The term is “disruptive product.” For us normal folks, we would call it a paradigm shift, or a benchmark product. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it can rewrite the playbook for an entire industry. The last big disruptive products we collectively saw were the Apple iPhone, iPad, and the iOS platform. The world had never seen anything quite like them, and we don’t need to go into details on the effect they had. But every company seeks to capture that magic product that hits he right market at the right time.
We were on hand in Orlando, Florida last week with Sea-Doo to attend a colorful media event for the Spark, with the term “disruptive product” being thrown around more than once. The Spark is a new entry-level personal watercraft (PWC) with some decidedly out-of-the-box thinking. After riding it, we think it’s a home run. Did we mention it will cost less than $5,000?
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, and I need to do some housekeeping.
The PWC market plays in a decidedly niche market. There are family-friendly starter watercraft in the $8,000 range, and they go all the way up to $18,000 luxury performance watercraft that have technology rivaling some sports cars. With the rising prices in the recreational marine market over the last decade, the PWC market (like most boat market niches) has stagnated and become mature. For those of you playing craigslist Find of the Day at home, there are also no shortage of boats that fall in that range. All this adds up to is a mature, stagnant market that is not pulling new customers to the sport. Sea-Doo has identified a large hole in the market for a PWC that is fun, not intimidating, family-friendly, and inexpensive to own and run. Their market analysis shows a sweet spot for the 25 to 35 demographic in the $5,000 to $7,000 price point, where younger families can justify buying a PWC. Up ’til now, however, the PWC market starts just north of there. This is where the Spark comes in.
The Spark begins with a mission: a lightweight, durable watercraft that is fun, not intimidating, low-maintenance, and retains its Sea-Doo DNA. From there, everything else is a blank page. The Spark makes a strong play at reducing costs without feeling cheap. You have your choice of 2up or the slightly longer 3up hull. The hull is all-new, based in the X4L hull, and is made from a mixture of roto-formed polymer and fiberglass. This reduces cost and weight, and ups the durability quotient. The deck is entirely made from a durable polymer, and bolted to the hull. The color components are also bolt-on, and are cast into the material—there is no gloss finish on exterior. There is also no glue anywhere in the construction process. The entire deck can be removed with an impact gun in 10 minutes, exposing all the mechanical bits underneath.
There are five colors available, each rendered in the aforementioned textured plastic rather than gel coat. If you’re handy with a wrench, we have it on good authority that you can change the color on a whim. The theme here is light and durable, and able to be towed behind almost any car available in the U.S. today. And we do mean light—the final weight wasn’t specified, but we were told around 400 pounds, or nearly less than half of what current products weigh. Two people can pick the ski up without back injuries. The upshot here is a highly durable hull that can take a lot of abuse.
Speaking of mechanical bits, you will be looking at one of two power plants when you do get in there, both of them variants of the Rotax 900 ACE engine. The base engine is a 60 horsepower variant with closed cooling, or for a small-up charge you can upgrade to the H.O. version with 90 horsepower. Going for the larger engine buys you Sea-Doo’s electronic throttle control with Sport Mode, which sharpens the throttle and unlocks the extra 30 horses. Additionally, going with the engine upgrade opens the door to iBR (intelligent Brake and Reverse) option, Sea-Doo’s exclusive braking feature. The engine upgrade is optional on the 2up and standard on the 3up, with iBR optional on both H.O.-equipped models. The engine is designed for hard running, with an oiling system that can lubricate the rotating assembly up to 90 degrees from the horizon. Fuel capacity is 7.9 gallons.
But let’s be honest. You don’t care about any of this. You only care how it rides, right? In a word, it’s spectacular—and reminiscent of PWCs from a decade ago.
On the water
Climb aboard and the craft is stable and the seat is narrow, giving the rider room to work. The controls are simple: start/stop button on the left, throttle on the right, and a multifunction gauge in the center below the handlebars that shows speed, RPM, and fuel. The combination of light weight and peppy engine adds up to spirited performance. We took the 60 horsepower base model out and felt it was very enjoyable—perfect, really, for a new rider. Acceleration is adequate, and flat-out she will top out in the low 40s (we were not able to hook test gear up to these units as they were pre-production models). Handling, however, was a real eye-opener. The ski changes direction on a dime, carves hard corners, and has enough power to jump its own bow wake on a hole shot. Lean into it and lay on the gas in a corner and it will slide and spin like a hooligan. The ride was also quite palatable, occasionally slapping over really rough chop, but at no point was it uncomfortable.
Move up to the H.O. model and you gain Sport Mode, which remaps the throttle to be an order of magnitude more responsive. This turns the ski into a much more dynamic PWC, with instant power anywhere, and ups the top speed to 50 mph. Sea-Doo’s iBR system is foolproof as well, and very effective. Tap the left lever and the ski goes into neutral, with thrust diverted to either side. It allows the ski to rotate on its axis. Hold the lever to go to reverse. Tap the throttle briefly to put it back into forward. It definitely makes the ski much more maneuverable at docking speeds, and reassuring to the pilot at higher speeds. This was the configuration that everyone was clamoring to try, and even the most jaded PWC enthusiast came back with a smile on their faces, wanting another go. More than one came back from riding Sea-Doo’s other models and headed right back for the Spark—including me, for that matter.
It’s the duality of the Spark’s personality is what makes it so endearing. If you are new and inexperienced, there is nothing about your first ride on the Spark that is intimidating. It’s zippy, fun, and stable. Take a few laps around the lake, and you start to learn you can throw it around more. The Spark responds by focusing, carving harder lines, and getting more and more playful. Suddenly gentle turns and relaxed cruising becomes super-sharp transitions from left to right, kneeling down on the floorboards and dipping your shoulder into the corner. It makes you feel like a hero.
And at $5,000, your wallet will make you feel like a hero too. The Spark opens at $4,995 for the base 2up. Going to the H.O. model with iBR brings you up to $6,399. Buy a 3up (which includes both the H.O. and the iBR system) and you’re around $7,000. It is nearly impulse-buy money, and you get a warranty on top of it. Production is up and running and they should be in dealers by Thanksgiving.
Two thumbs way, way up on this. Go try one.