Every so often, a boat’s price tag really shocks you… but in a good way.
The entry-level boat has been a staple of the marine industry for years and few would deny the value of such offerings. They allow folks to get into boating who might not otherwise have the opportunity. In the past, however, such craft often lacked some essential ingredients like adequate powerplants, sturdy construction or suitable hardware. With a base price of $11,995 (including trailer), Bayliner’s sporty 185 certainly qualifies as an entry-level rig — but it is definitely not a boat with an entry-level appearance or performance.
Close inspection of the 185 during our test in the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland, showed that the shortcuts so often found in value-priced boats are few and far between in this model. Bayliner’s 18-footer, which is solidly built with quality materials, proved to be a very capable performer — even with the base, 135 hp 3.0L MerCruiser sterndrive. The options list includes some items that are standard on more expensive boats, so the fact that it’s priced under $12 grand comes as sticker shock of the most pleasant kind.
The 185’s hull employs a box-type wood stringer system that is cored, sealed and fiberglass encapsulated. The crossbracing is fashioned from XL plywood that’s also fully encapsulated. The transom opening is sealed to prevent water intrusion and the possibility of delamination. And Bayliner backs all of this up with a limited warranty against rot for the life of the hull.
It was a dreary day that was a bit on the chilly side and occasionally spitting rain. Water conditions were ideal for testing, however, with just enough chop to get the boat up and free. We were also pleased to find enough wakes and waves to evaluate the Bayliner’s riding qualities. With three on board and approximately 10 gallons in the boat’s 28-gallon tank, we clipped off a top speed of 42.5 mph. The ride quality was better than what we had expected from an 18-footer with a moderate 19 degrees of transom deadrise.
Featuring a wide, 7-foot, 9-inch beam, the hull has a sharp forward entry. Contributing to the 185’s performance, the innermost strake morphs into a pad-V bottom at the stern. The center strake ends fairly far forward while the outer strake is carried clear to the stern. The strakes are relatively narrow and present a very little flat surface to the water. This allows the hull to settle a bit deeper when going through waves and improves the ride.
The little I-4 MerCruiser does a good job with this hull. Our 0-to-30 mph acceleration tests averaged 8.6 seconds — a satisfactory time for recreational skiers. In addition, the boat planes off with minimum bow rise.
The hull responds well to power trim but, being an entry-level boat with the base engine, it was not equipped with power steering. Those who are used to outboards and the steering torque they develop as you trim in or out will feel right at home in this Bayliner. Those who expect their boats to handle easily with neutral steering throughout the trim range, however, will want to choose optional power steering or upgrade to V-6 power with standard power steering.
And if extensive watersports are in your plans, we definitely recommend stepping up to one of the two 4.3L MerCruisers offered at 190 and 220 hp. There is enough power in either V-6 model to turn the 185 into a serious performance boat.
There is nothing revolutionary about the Bayliner 185’s layout. It is as typical as an 18-foot bowrider can be. The bow light occupies the forepeak deck, and cleats are mounted to port and starboard approximately 18 inches back. You won’t find an anchor locker, which is not an oversight, but more an issue of space and cost savings in manufacturing. This is not something most owners will probably miss, because most 18-foot bow-riders don’t spend much time on anchor. Nevertheless, for safety’s sake, every boat should carry ground tackle — it’s just that on this particular model you’ll have to find alternate storage.
The bowrider area has upholstered backrests along the gunwale and against the consoles. Storage is found under the seat cushions, and grab handles provide added security for passengers riding upfront. The upholstery is attractive and the material is a heavy-gauge marine vinyl formed around all-composite bases. Port and starboard cupholders are mounted in the gunwale, just forward of the windshield.
Bayliner uses a wraparound, walk-through windshield that’s heavily framed and securely braced. Molded into the deck, the consoles are an integral part of a liner that includes the sole of the bowrider area. This supplies substantial bracing, and the windshield and consoles are free of shakes and vibrations.
The helm includes Faria instrumentation, and the gauges have a classic look with black lettering against a silver background that’s highlighted by chrome bezels. These are set in a molded panel with individual pods for each gauge.
The electrical switches and ignition are mounted on a horizontal panel below the instruments. Unfortunately, however, the toggle switches stick up instead of out — and while protected by rubber boots, both the key switch and toggles appear vulnerable to water intrusion over time. We’d prefer to see a more weather-friendly design.
The Bayliner 185 is equipped with a tilt steering wheel — a nice touch that’s not usually seen on value-priced boats. Overall, the helm is attractive and comfortable, with the side-mount control for shift and throttle ergonomically positioned.
At the first mate’s seat, you’ll find a glove box that houses a Bayliner house-brand AM/FM stereo with twin speakers. This is not the most powerful stereo in the world, and you won’t be hearing the thunder of the kettledrum over the sound of the engine. It is more than adequate for relaxing at rest, however, and additional speakers are optional.
An unexpected bonus is a separate niche with an “audio in” jack that allows you to plug in a portable CD player. For your convenience, you’ll find an adjacent 12-volt accessory plug to power the CD player — or whatever else you have in mind. If a dedicated CD system is important, you can also order an optional 10-CD changer ($276) from the factory to be installed at the dealer level. Of course, the installation price will depend on the dealer’s labor rates.
We ran a basic model with a carpeted cockpit, but Bayliner also offers a non-skid fiberglass deck for a $707 upcharge. A wakeboard-sized toy locker is mounted in the deck between the seats. Although it’s not carpeted, we found the interior ’glasswork to be free of shards. We noticed that there is no trim around the opening where the carpet wraps around the edge of the locker; this is an area where carpeting tends to come loose and fray. The carpeting on the lid is trimmed, however. Additional storage is found under the gunwales — space that many entry-level boats fail to utilize. And we were happy to see that the padded gunwales offer strategically placed grab handles for increased passenger security.
Our test boat, supplied by Riverside Marine in Annapolis, Maryland (800/998-8444; river sideboats.com), featured the standard cockpit arrangement that includes two back-to-back lounge seats and jumpseats on either side of the engine box. The jumpseat cushions can be raised to the level of the engine box to form a small sun pad across the stern.
For a nominal $314 upcharge, you can order the 185 with the Sport Seating package, consisting of bucket seats for the captain and first mate and a bench seat just forward of the engine bay. This arrangement creates a large sun pad atop the engine — but the tradeoff is lost cockpit space.
A style this writer would prefer (but hasn’t seen in any boatbuilders’ lines) is bucket seats forward and jumpseats aft. This would provide the maximum amount of cockpit room — but at the price of losing seating for one person. But what the heck, with a maximum passenger capacity of eight, having fewer people on board might be a welcome relief.
THE WORKING END
The engine box is a molded, two-piece affair with a fiberglass lower section that also forms the jumpseat bases. The upper portion rises on gas struts. With the standard I-4 MerCruiser, there is plenty of room to work on the engine.
For those craving more power, the 190 hp V-6 adds $3021 to the price, while the 220 hp V-6 adds $5329. Should you go this route, we suspect that access through the top will be more limited. Fortunately, MerCruiser has greatly improved serviceability with “easy drain” oil systems and up-front service points and filters on its V-6 and V-8 engines.
A molded swim step extends over the sterndrive unit, and includes a three-step swimbladder and grab handle. This is as it should be. A boarding ladder should be standard on all boats to assist anyone who inadvertently goes over the side.
In spite of the dreary weather, the time we spent aboard the Bayliner 185 was worthwhile, and helped prove that value-priced boats don’t have to be “cheap.” That said, our inspection did call attention to some of the optional items that are standard on more expensive boats. For example, Bayliner’s optional convertible top ($293) would have been handy during our test. There’s also a Bimini top available for $443 that will probably be useful for those who do most of their boating under a blazing sun.
Other worthwhile additions include an extended swim platform ($564) that’s great for water play and a factory tower that comes as part of the $1771 XT Package which also jazzes up the boat’s gel coat and graphics.
Sure, adding all the goodies ramps up the price, but even in its stock dress, the Bayliner 185 delivers undeniable value and performance — and without the sticker shock.
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