Seeking cheap fun on the waves in the Sea-Doo Spark: Motoramic TV

September 17, 2013

Personal watercraft, those motorcycles of the waves, are technologically superior to the Day-Glo buzz bombs that were pounding past the shore ten or 15 years ago. They’re quiet, clean and faster than ever. But the Kawasaki Jet Ski and its ilk aren’t as popular as they once were, a problem that’s linked to a very simple cause: modern watercraft are too expensive. It’s a fleet of BMWs with no Minis — figure $8,000 and up for what now passes as an entry-level machine. That’s a daunting price point for what is, ultimately, a toy.

Sea-Doo, perceiving the need for a back-to-basics machine, set out to build a new model to entice the crowd that turns to the used market in search of some semblance of affordability. The price goal: a wildly ambitious $5,000. It took eight years, but the result is the 2014 Sea-Doo Spark.

The Spark doesn’t have suspension or a supercharger or a wakeboard tow pole. The hull is not glossy. It’s not even fiberglass, because that would’ve been too expensive. There’s no speed limiter because it doesn’t need one. The basic version is priced at $4,999. I know it’s one-dollar semantics, but when was the last time one of these things had a price that began with a four? Certainly it was a year that began with “19."

In the car world, the value-leader models tend to be stripped of anything enjoyable — power, comfort, dignity. In this case, though, the quest for low cost led, paradoxically, to less weight and thus higher performance. Because the Spark’s deck and hull are made of reinforced plastic rather than fiberglass, the Spark weighs only 405 lbs. (421 lbs. for the three-seat model). The next model up the ladder, a three-seat GTI 130, weighs 790 lbs.

The cost mandate also drove a quest to wring multiple functions out of any given part — a trick much beloved by Lotus in the Colin Chapman days. The Spark’s heat exchanger, for instance, is a long piece of aluminum built into the bottom of the hull. In addition to its heat-shedding function for the cooling system, it’s also reinforces the hull and serves as a motor mount, saving both weight and dollars.

Because it doesn’t weigh much, the Spark can put a grin on your face with only a relatively small 900-cc three-cylinder beneath the seat. The base model is 60 hp with the high-output model ramping that number to 90. Which might not sound like much in the context of, say, Sea-Doo’s insane 260-hp muscle machines, but the Spark’s power-to-weight ratio is still formidable. The concept is sort of like a Mazda Miata or Subaru BRZ for the water —the fun lies in the agility and punchy power rather than all conquering top-end speed. Except, in car terms, the Spark is more like finding a BRZ with the price of a used Nissan Versa.

Sea-Doo hasn’t released final pricing, but I hear that the brake and reverse option will cost $700 and you’d be a fool not to get that. The high-output motor might be another $700, and I’d get that, too, since it gives you 50 percent more horsepower and raises top speed from 40 mph to 50 mph. And then you’ve got a watercraft that still costs at least $1,500 less than anything else, while weighing 40 percent less and offering a cool matte finish in five different colors. I’m partial to the littoral combat-ship look of the grey one — “licorice,” in Sea-Doo parlance.

Whenever a vehicle has an outrageous price, my hokey dad-humor response is to say, “I’ll take two.” And I might say that about the Spark, too. Except this time, I’d mean it.