Review: Sea-Doo Spark, the jet ski that might save the industry

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Gizmag's Loz Blain comes to grips with the Sea-Doo Spark (Photo: Noel McKeegan/Gizmag.com)

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The PWC market has been in decline for a number of years, possibly because jet skis have become so gigantic, powerful, expensive and fuel hungry that they've stopped appealing to younger folk. Sea-Doo is starting to turn that around, though, with the release of the Spark. Half the price, half the weight and half the power of a regular midrange jet ski, the Spark delivers 90 percent of the fun of a more expensive PWC in a way that's much more accessible and attractive to newcomers … and burns nearly ten times less fuel than the big boys. If it's newbies the Spark is hoping to attract, then we've got a total newbie on the team to test it. The completely inexperienced Loz Blain and the moderately experienced Noel McKeegan take to the water to see how she goes. Rejoice, dear readers, that Loz didn't fit into a wetsuit, and is thus not depicted in skin tight clothing.

I can hardly stand up today. Several major muscle groups are whining indignantly that they expect several months' notice if they're expected to actually do something again in the future. Other areas are bruised and abraded, I feel like I've been hit by a truck. On top of that, I've sunburned myself to a deep, angry red – particularly on my face, which would make me look deeply embarrassed if it wasn't for the pasty, white raccoon goggles where my sunnies sat.

Yesterday was my first jet ski test, and such are the tribulations of trying new things. What right have I to be doing a jet ski review without ever having ridden one before, you ask? Excellent question.

In the mid-1990s, US Personal Watercraft (PWC) sales sat around 200,000 per year. These days, you're looking at less than 50,000, according to BoatingIndustry.com. Even before the 2008 global financial crisis, they were in the 80,000 a year range. The simple fact is, they're nowhere near as popular as they used to be.

Part of that could come down to social factors. Irresponsible jet ski riders gave the devices a bad rap in the late 90s and 2000s, and many areas enacted new laws restricting where and how they could be used. But another part of the story has to be the direction of their development – bigger, faster, heavier, more horsepower, more expensive.

For a device that's essentially a toy, and serves very little practical purpose unless you happen to conveniently live across a lake from your local milk bar, the cost is hard to justify. A powerful jet ski with a trailer can easily set you back upwards of US$20,000 – and with well over 200 horsepower on tap from gigantic engines that tend to run flat-out most of the time, they guzzle petrol at a truly frightening rate as well. Not to mention the sheer size of the things – you're giving up a whole large car spot in your garage to store one.

Which leads us to why Gizmag's spindly editor Noel and I, two motorcyclists, are out here testing a jet ski. Because Sea-Doo has developed a new PWC that sells for around half the price of a regular jet ski. One that looks like it might turn the whole industry's fortunes around, and one that's targeted at people who would never have thought of getting into the market before – and that, right there, is us.

The Spark certainly stands out in a Sea-Doo showroom. Where the other skis are giant, hulking things, the Spark is petite and friendly-looking; you can lift the front up with one hand, easily. Where the others are sleek, shiny and clearly very expensive, the Spark looks cheap and cheerful in its matt plastic finish. Where the others are dark and brooding, in glossy piano black with flashes of dangerous red, the Sparks are orange, yellow, and even pink, with a fun looking camo pattern.

With 130-odd horsepower being the previous entry-level floor, the Spark has launched with 60 horses, or an optional 90-horsepower High Output version. Mind you, where the 130-horsepower GTI130 weighs a huge 359 kg (791 lbs) dry, the Spark is a minuscule 184 kg. Which means in power-to-weight terms, the High Output spark actually boogies a bit harder.

And so, we took two Sparks with us to the beautiful Pykes Creek Reservoir about an hour west of Melbourne – one orange 90-horsepower 3-seater optioned up with a waterproof storage bin and Sea-doo's exclusive Intelligent Brake/Reverse system (iBR), and one bright pink 60-horsepower 2-seater that had been boosted to 110 horses.

Powering the Spark up, you're put into a soft Touring mode, which you immediately switch out for all-out Sports mode. Why would you have a default low-power mode on a ski like this? I dunno. From there, it's straight to full throttle and the ski is rearing up out of the water as it propels you forward.

As a motorcyclist, the closest thing I could compare it to would be a high powered quad bike for the water, but more dynamic, and much nicer to fall off of. Steering the Spark hard requires you to throw your body into the turn, gas off to bury the front end a little, then yank the bars around and get back hard on the gas.

Getting more and more aggressive as my confidence grew, I started finding ways to break the back end loose and almost drift the thing sideways. This was hilarious fun. A few times, I threw the front end down so hard that I felt the Spark pivoting on its nose and skating backwards, jet entirely out of the water, before digging in and powering out again. This kind of stuff was the best fun I had all day.

My top speed was 81 km/h (50 mph), the more aerodynamic Noel managed 84, and the Sparks felt fast and powerful on the water, at least until a guy on a 250-horsepower Yamaha Waverunner flew past, demonstrating about a 40 km/h (25 mph) top speed advantage. But he didn't seem to be able to chuck his ski sideways or spin it on its nose like we could, so screw that guy.

Would those kinds of moves be possible on something bigger and heavier? I dunno, but Melbourne Sea-Doo's Sam Mosca tells me this kind of riding is what makes the Spark stand out as such a fun machine, even against its muscular rivals. Larger skis can turn on a dime, but they dig in and carve corners much more precisely, while the featherweight spark can be a lot livelier at the rear end.

That's not to say the Spark's steering isn't precise – it takes some effort to bring the back end around, and unless you're really throwing your weight about it'll grab the water and carve a turn very quickly and confidently. I even found myself sticking a knee out through force of habit (even though I've never had a knee down on a motorcycle, to my eternal shame).

Sea-Doo is the only manufacturer that currently makes an "intelligent brake/reverse" system for its PWCs, and my test unit had one fitted. With the right bar trigger being the throttle, the left was the brake, and it stopped the thing with a fair bit of force … enough to chuck me off the side into the drink once when I wasn't set up and prepared. At slow speeds, holding the brake lever in and applying throttle engaged a handy reverse gear that gave me extra options closer to the shore. We had a pretty clear day on the lake and I didn't need the brakes very often – but I could see it being a very handy extra lever to have if there were more boats or swimmers competing for space on the water.

The light weight of the Spark did seem to make it a touch slappy when coming down from small jumps – not really an issue on our smooth lake test, but I did find myself wondering if I wouldn't appreciate a chubbier ski to take some of the hits for me if I was out in the surf.

As somebody who's never spent any time on a jet ski before, one thing was instantly apparent. While being out there alone is plenty of fun, things got a whole lot more entertaining when Noel put the camera down and joined me on the other Spark.

With two riders out there, you can chase and roost each other with spray from a hard turn. You can rip along together, the other rider's motion adding to your own considerable sense of speed, and most importantly, you can stop and yell "WHOA DUDE, 'DYA SEE THAT" a lot.

I can't see myself getting into jet ski riding as a solo hobby, but add in a buddy and it's a lot more fun – not to mention a great way to get out and see parts of the country you might not visit otherwise. Even if you're tearing up the water and making an utter cretin of yourself in the eyes of anyone with a fishing pole.

The Spark is the lightest ski on the market by a country mile. You can use it to tow a wakeboard, or carry one or two passengers, but it's probably strongest as a solo fun machine. It's genuinely half the price of a midrange ski, meaning you can now buy two, stick 'em on a double trailer, and make it a social outing.

It's by far the most fuel efficient PWC you can buy, burning just 7.3 liters (1.9 gal) of fuel per hour on the 60-horsepower version, or 9 liters (2.4 gal) per hour on the High Output version. If that sounds like decent economy, consider this: the 250-horsepower Sea-Doo RXT-X gulps down a horrific 76 liters (20 gal) per hour, and the Yamaha FX Cruiser guzzles a devastating 80(!) (21 gal). That's enough to run a family car for a week or two, frittered away in 60 minutes. We filled the Sparks' 30-litre (7.9 gal) tanks, and rode all afternoon until my hands, arms, shoulders, thighs and neck could take no more, and didn't get the fuel gauges below halfway.

The Spark has some absolutely huge advantages over the rest of the market. It's vastly cheaper to own and run. It's smaller to store. The whole hull unbolts from the deck in 10 minutes, making panels easy to replace, and giving you access to the whole motor for maintenance.

The big boys rough it up when it comes to top speed, but it still accelerates hard, and its light weight and handling bring crazy shenanigans within easy reach. It's exactly the kind of machine that could re-invigorate stagnant sales and bring fresh blood into a market whose average customer was 47 years old last year. And it looks like it's working – new and experienced owners alike are getting in on the action and snapping them up. As I'm returning my Spark to Mosca, he tells me "we were expecting people to buy the Spark, then move up to something more powerful – but that's just not happening. Nobody's trading them in, they're keeping them."

The high output Spark, judged in a vacuum as I'm judging it, is a wickedly fun vehicle that has the potential to turn things around in the PWC segment. Starting at US$4,999 ($7,800 in Australia), it's much better priced as a recreational vehicle, and it's certainly got Yamaha and Kawasaki scrambling to work out how to compete with it. Mind you, that price is for the basic 60 hp model without a trailer, and everything else adds substantially to the price.

Now pass the Dencorub, I'm utterly banjaxed. For my next trick, I'm planning to test ride the most powerful jet ski on the market. Seeing as the entry-level Spark almost dislodged my arms from their sockets, I suspect my next test might be a pair of these.

Check out the Spark in action in our video review.

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