There's no shortage of hyperbole in auto or boating showrooms, but a new pontoon by Larson Boat Group that will make an appearance at the Minneapolis Boat Show has retailers and consumers more than a little curious.
Yes, a pontoon.
"It's a crossover between a runabout and a pontoon," said Ron Sahr, director of engineering at Larson.
With fiberglass panels instead of a vertical fence and LED strip docking lights, the new Escape is a sleek head-turning marvel worthy of Larson's 100th anniversary.
Considered a leader in fiberglass boats, Larson wanted to emphasize efficiency and style with its new signature. The company is known mostly for runabouts (a fiberglass pleasure boat with less room and more performance than a pontoon) and cruisers (larger, pricier versions of runabouts, often with an enclosed bow and a small sleeping area).
But Larson knew it needed to be unique if it wanted to compete in pontoons, Sahr said. "It's a saturated marketplace."
Looking like no standard pontoon, the styling, inspired by the automotive industry, has a flow to it. The LED strip docking lights give off a blue glow to almost resemble headlights.
The new model comes at a time when sales for runabouts and larger cruisers have been flat. Boat manufacturers and retailers are hoping the new pontoon will bring in a flood of potential buyers.
Larson introduced a prototype to dealers in late August, and the final version went into production in November. That version debuts in Minnesota at the Minneapolis Boat Show (www.minneapolisboatshow.com), which runs Thursday through Feb. 2 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
But the feature on the Escape that is expected to attract old and young is not mini towers or comfortable captain's chairs. It's the port-a-potty that rises at the touch of a button in about 20 seconds.
Not just some flimsy flipout canvas model, Sahr said, it is roomy and hard-sided with granite-like flooring, double-door design, a mirror, light, and exhaust fan. When retracted, it's a galley top for drinks or snacks. "It's been a very popular option so far," he said. More than a third of his customers are ordering it.
Although the sleek look will attract some buyers, it's the good-quality head (port-a-potty) that customers see first, said Dick Peifer, owner of Boomerang Marine and Powersports in Alexandria. "Pontoons are so family-friendly. Kids always have to use the bathroom. It's a strong selling feature."
The Escape is seen as the bridge to the next generation. In the recent past, too many boat owners saw no need to trade up when they went to the showroom. "People had no need to trade in because the new product looked too much like their old one," Sahr said.
Pontoons, often the boat of choice for young families and baby boomers with grandkids, have always been as utilitarian as a minivan, but customers like Jesse Osborne of Ham Lake describe the Escape more like a sports car.
"It's got a wild factor to it," he said.
Osborne, along with his dad and the rest of the family, found their Centurion Wakeboard too small for family outings and ill-equipped when nature called. "When I saw the Cabana rising from a fiberglass table, it blew my mind," said the 30-year-old custom car builder.
But the Escape's fit and finish clinched it for Osborne. "This looks like a Bennington [luxury pontoon] on steroids. It's got an aggressive look to it."
Peifer describes the Escape as new and different. Its tapered tube design means less drag, higher speeds and better fuel economy. "It comes out of the hole like a rabbit," said Peifer. "It can take hard turns at full throttle. It's very stable and comfortable."
Although the Escape is too new for extensive, independent testing, Pontoon & Deck Boat magazine tested a prototype last year, comparing the Escape with four unnamed competitors. The average tested speed of the other boats was 24.1 miles per hour, but the Escape topped out at 30 mph.
"That's a serious gain in top speed and the added efficiency will save money at the fuel dock," the magazine said in its Fall 2013 issue. "Proving to be an efficient pontoon using minimal horsepower could be this 'toon's' best quality."
Boomerang Marine has one Escape on the showroom floor with two more on the way, Peifer said. He's sold two so far. Built in Minnesota, the Escape starts in the low $30s. It is available in 21-, 23- and 25-foot lengths with up to 150 horsepower. Larson designs, builds and markets 58 models of boats in its three brands: Larson, Triumph and Striper. The two Escapes featured at the Minneapolis Boat Show will be a 25-footer with twin tubes ($64,685) and a 23-footer with triple tubes for $58,995.
It's becoming the boat that customers make a beeline toward when they enter showrooms, Peifer said. "We're finally giving customers a reason to trade up. This is a lot more than round tubes with a fence around it and some seating on top."