When it comes down to deciding whether or not to use an inboard or an outboard motor, it would be helpful if you first consider how often and for what purpose you intend to use your boat.
This article will first explain the differences between an inboard and an outboard motor. Then we will explore the pros and cons of each, and finally, I will offer you a list of tools and specifications that will guide you along your small boat motor buying journey.
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What Is An Inboard Engine?
As the name implies, an inboard engine sits inside the boat. An inboard engine’s location is within the boat’s hull– the boat’s central structural cavity, which is watertight.
The engine itself does not steer the boat. Instead, by using a steering wheel, you control a set of rudders that can be found behind the propeller to determine the direction in which you want to travel.
What Is An Outboard Engine?
As you have probably already guessed, an outboard engine fits on the outside of the boat. In contrast to inboard engines, you can control both the power and direction of the boat by moving the entire engine.
Depending on your preferences, boat size, and intended use, you can retrofit a steering system to an outboard engine. Alternatively, use a tiller, a handle attached to the rudder, to steer your outboard motor- this option boasts better maneuverability for many enthusiasts.
Inboard vs. Outboard: The Small Boat Motor Standoff
There are plenty of pros and cons to either motor configuration- whether you choose an inboard or an outboard engine is really up to you, although I will help you come to your conclusion once we get into the buying guides below.
But first, let’s talk about the pros and cons of each motor. When it comes down to it, boating enthusiasts have pretty much become loyal to one over the other because that is what they are used to.
Pros of Inboard Motors
- Power– Inboard motors are typically built similarly to car engines; they produce more horsepower and torque than outboard motors.
- Fuel Efficiency– Some people will swear up and down that inboard motors are more fuel-efficient than outboards. Still, the difference may be pretty negligible considering the advancements in the industry.
- Quieter– Due to the location of the engine resting inside a closed cavity within the boat’s hull, inboard motors tend to be much quieter than outboard motors; this is advantageous to fishermen and families who prefer to entertain their guests without all the noise. Please know that the small boat engine industry is working hard to reduce the noise that outboard boats produce, and you may not know that solar-powered engines exist.
- Longevity– The average inboard motor’s more complex design and mechanism lends to its longer rated lifecycle and will not need its first tune-up until approximately 1,500 hours of life.
- Watersport Friendly– Small boats with inboard engines are a favorite amongst the watersports community. Inboard motors give the boat a lower center of gravity and major pulling force, providing a thrill-riding wake to the person getting towed behind.
Cons of Inboard Motors
- Expense– Although you can usually expect the duration of an inboard motor to outlast that of an outboard in addition to less frequent maintenance, you will face a significantly higher up-front cost.
- Less Interior Space– Because an inboard engine is much larger and depending on whether it is a straight-shaft or V-drive will determine if you will sacrifice interior space in the middle section of the boat or near the transom (aft or rear area) of the boat.
- Maintenance Requirements– The complexity of inboard motors usually requires maintenance to be done by a professional unless you are mechanically inclined.
- Winterization– During the cold season, you will have to winterize your entire boat instead of just removing an outboard motor.
- Maneuverability– It is often more challenging to park and maneuver through tight spaces with an inboard motor than with an outboard motor.
- Fire Hazard– If an engine failure ever caused a fire, the risk of damage and human casualty is much higher than if something was ever to go wrong with an outboard. Inboard engines must be installed with adequate airflow to prevent overheating.
Pros Of Outboard Motors
- Portability– When necessary (for winterization, storage, etc.), an outboard motor can be easily removed from the back of the boat and transported to your location of choice.
- Maximizes Interior Space– Let’s face it, boats do not typically have loads of space, but with an outboard motor configuration, you have more opportunity to maximize your interior space.
- Winterization– It is a much simpler process to winterize an outboard motor; not to mention you have much easier access to the various parts of the engine.
- Lower Cost– Typically, boat owners can expect to pay less for an outboard engine than inboard counterparts. Keep in mind this is dependent upon the specific needs and preferences of the interested person. For your interest, an article in Pontoon Deck Boat Magazine takes a closer look at the average costs of outboard motors based upon brand and horsepower.
- Excellent Maneuverability– Boat owners seem to enjoy the quick-response handling of outboard motors, especially those that continue to use a tiller.
- Convenient– The ability to tilt an outboard motor up is an additional benefit for boaters near shallow or rocky waters.
Cons of Outboard Motors
- Less Torque– Inboard motors are usually preferred by enthusiasts looking for high torque output, giving one the flexibility of using a bigger, heavier boat. Torque output is becoming less of an issue for boat owners because they can adorn their transoms with more than one outboard engine.
- Fuel Efficiency– BoaterPal conducted a study in which they found that inboard motors are slightly more fuel-efficient than outboard motors.
- Service Life– Outboard motors require more frequent maintenance, and historically inboard motors outlived outboards; however, if you perform regular maintenance, today’s outboard motor market is top-notch.
- Versatility– You should check your state’s local regulations if you are interested in utilizing your boat for watersports. You may face penalties if towing people for certain activities if your boat has outboard motors.
How Do You Choose?
You can see that there are a significant number of pros and cons for both inboard and outboard motors for your small boat. The choice boils down to your personal preferences, and with advancements in today’s marine technology- the question of power is almost negligible.
When it comes time for you to make a decision, I recommend that you go for a lake test in a boat with both configurations to see which feels most comfortable and natural to you personally.
I have enjoyed performing watersports and partaking in leisure activities on boats with either an inboard or outboard motor, and I have enjoyed all of my experiences.
If you are seriously considering becoming a boat owner and begin shopping around for a suitable motor, think about the following:
- Intended Use (watersports, fishing, leisure)
- Ease of Maintenance
- Steering Response and Maneuverability
- Boat Size and Weight
- Seasonal Use or Year-Round Pleasure
- Up-front Cost
If you are a serious contender in the competitive world of watersports where the wake is a high priority (such as wake surfing), then an inboard motor is most often preferred.
The location of an outboard motors placement can become a nuisance for active watersports enthusiasts. In addition, it is more difficult to enter and exit the water without having that rear deck.
If you are purchasing a small boat to enhance your fishing experience, many fishermen love the control and maneuverability of the outboard motor lineup. That tilt-action of the outboard motor is a great thing to have when getting close to the shoreline.
On the other hand, outboard motors tend to be louder than inboards because of the lack of housing and insulation, which could scare away your catch. Another thing to consider is the possibility of getting your fishing lines snagged on the outboard motor to which you would not have to worry about with a tucked away inboard marine or diesel engine.
For leisure or recreational use, either configuration would do the job just fine, but you will have more deck space for entertainment and lounging around if you opt for an outboard motor.
Ease Of Maintenance
Outboard motors are DIY friendly, and with some basic instruction, you should be more than qualified to check the basics such as oil, fuel, spark, and battery.
As a boat owner, you have the potential to save money if you are mechanically inclined or quick to learn because the cost of marine mechanics can be pretty high (up to $200 per hour for specialized service).
Inboard motors are more intricate (like an automobile motor) than typical outboards, so you need to have more than a basic skill level to service this type of engine adequately.
More often is the case that access to the various engine components will be more challenging to come by when performing maintenance on an inboard engine. However, once you remove the cowling on an outboard, everything is exposed and easily accessible.
Steering Response And Maneuverability
With whichever type of motor you decide on, you should hire a professional to install your engine, ensuring it fits your boat’s specifications. The installation procedures will differ depending on whether you choose an inboard or outboard motor and your steering preference.
Boat owners have become accustomed to the steering wheel console because it resembles land-driving; however, you must have the steering system installed explicitly to your motor.
Based on your preferences and boat size, you could choose between a mechanical or hydraulic steering system; essentially, the first does not have power steering, and the second one does.
If you have an outboard engine, people are reverting to the use of a tiller to steer their boat. Not only are tiller-steered outboards less expensive, but people enjoy the hands-on responsiveness they experience in turning and docking their boats.
Boat Size And Weight
Not much to say here, but as you begin your search for the perfect boat and motor combination, you will quickly find out that prices increase rather quickly based on its size and weight.
In any case, you need to ensure that the motor you select has both durability and efficiency ratings that measure up to the boat’s specifications. You do not want to put undue stress on your engine, nor would it make sense to place 350 horsepower on a dinghy boat.
Seasonal Use Or Year-Round Pleasure
Your boating leisure may revolve around seasonal changes based on your location. So if and when the bad weather rolls in and it’s time to store your boat, you should be aware of the process known as winterization.
The process of winterizing an inboard engine is a bit more complicated than an outboard. However, the concept is the same- your engine and other related systems need protection from the elements.
A Boatsetter article mentions that winterizing a boat yourself will cost approximately $250 versus $500 if you pay to get the treatment done at a boatyard. Of course, the price will fluctuate again depending on the size of your boat and engine.
Generally, outboard engines have a lower up-front cost, but it all depends on whether you want to take your family out for a calm cruise on the water or enjoy bragging rights with your boating buddies.
You could potentially add an outboard motor to your boat for an additional $800. However, if you want more weight and more horsepower, you could easily spend more than $30,000 for an outboard, depending on brand and design.
If we don’t even consider installation prices, the starting range for an inboard motor will be at least three times higher, if not more. So again, if you are looking to have the biggest and baddest engine out on the water, then your horsepower craze could quickly turn the digits as high as $100,000.
Becoming a boat owner is exciting, so I hope that this small boat motor buying guide has helped you to consider the various components that go along with choosing a suitable motor for your boat.
I hope you have plenty of fun on your new boat, no matter if you are into adrenaline sports, fishing, or family cruising. Remember to always check with local authorities for guidelines and restrictions in aquatic leisure and boating and stay safe.
Would you please leave your small boat motor questions or concerns in the comment section below?
Joseph Fabiano is a writer, nature enthusiast, and stay-at-home father of two wild and free boys. He enjoys starting his day with a good run, hot mug of coffee, and a jump in the Ionian Sea, no matter the weather. Currently based in the Apuglia region of southern Italy, he enjoys discovering the world with his best traveling buddies (his little monkey’s and beautiful wife) at every given opportunity. Every trip, long or far, should be made an adventure according to Joseph as he believes inspiration and creation is right in front of you.