Serial boat owner and watersports adrenaline junkie Drew Maglio explains what makes the top three best jet ski brands on the market stand out from the rest...
Among all watercraft, the jet ski is perhaps the most fun to ride. First appearing en masse during the 1980s, personal watercraft (PWCs) began as sporty, capricious single-rider designs operated from a standing position and geared towards stunts, tricks, and speed.
While there still are a number of small, sporty personal watercraft available today that pay homage to the PWC’s heritage and original design, the vast majority are much larger, more stable, and are able to carry 2-4 seated passengers in relative comfort and luxury.
While the vast majority of PWCs made today are general purpose, aka touring jet skis, there are also single-person sport, budget, tow sport, and even fishing jet skis on the market.
These days there are three main manufacturers of personal watercraft, namely Yamaha, Bombardier, and Kawasaki, using the brand names Wave Runner, Sea Doo, and Jet Ski respectively. This guide aims to help smooth the waves of the PWC world and explain the key differences between the three best jet ski brands.
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The big 3 best jet ski brands
Yamaha is perhaps the most well-known jet ski brand in operation today. Known for comfort, stability, and reliability, Yamaha is arguably the most mainstream PWC manufacturer — and therefore is probably the first place most jet ski buyers will look.
Yamaha offers five different lines in its Waverunner range and many different models within this, making it dizzyingly difficult to choose the perfect one for you. The five product lines are rec-lite, recreation, luxury, performance, and freestyle.
The rec-lite is a higher-end fiberglass, entry-level option, designed to compete with Sea Doo’s polypropylene (i.e. plastic) Spark. With four different models within the rec-lite EX line all sharing the same 3-cylinder 4-stroke gasoline engine, prices vary substantially depending on options, so a smart approach is to aim for the best value and step up to the next in the lineup if the price is similar.
The recreation line, or VX, is where most buyers will find the right balance between cost, build quality, and options. Unlike the EX line, all VX Wave Runners feature RIDE, Yamaha’s equivalent to Sea-Doo’s IBR (intelligent brake and reverse), both of which greatly improving braking, turning, docking, and overall control. I personally would not own a PWC without these features.
Nonetheless, the colors, speakers, seating capacity, and other options like touch displays, are what will likely determine which VX model buyers will be drawn to. Certain additional options like the VX RecDeck may be worth it for some buyers, who want to use their PWC as a platform to swim from. Lounging and fishing packages are also offered.
For the performance-minded, there are also some high output versions available that take the horsepower from a meager 69hp up to the 180hp mark, while remaining naturally aspirated.
Personally, I would not consider a PWC without the high output motor, but would stay away from the SVHO versions because of reliability/longevity concerns, which run higher compression ratios and require premium gas due to the use of a supercharger.
The luxury FX line includes premium touring jet skis, priced a notch above the VX line. Of the models offered, the FX Cruiser is likely the sweet-spot, featuring an HO motor as standard, 3-person seating capacity, and integrated GPS functionality.
The GP line includes performance-oriented touring jet skis designed for riders who wish to go fast and be a bit adventurous with their PWC. Options on this line include enhanced Go-Pro mounts and other adrenaline-junkie features. Compared to the luxury PWCs, the GP line is a bit more minimalistic, but does come in with HO and SVHO versions. These Wave Runners will hit very high speeds in excess of 60mph, but there are hefty initial and maintenance costs to consider.
The Jet Blaster and Super Jet models form the sport line and these stand-up PWCs are designed for on-water tricks, stunts and just an overall fun time, but as a result will not tend to appeal to more casual buyers.
N.B. Many Yamaha Waverunners feature the ability to trim the jet nozzle for enhanced low-speed planing, rough-water performance, larger tow wakes, and more, but this is not offered on the lower-end EX or VX product lines.
If Yamaha is the #1 manufacturer of personal watercraft, Sea-Doo manufactured by Bombardier, is #1B. What Yamaha offers in terms of reliability and dependable quality, Sea-Doo makes up for with innovation and sometimes radical design and engineering.
This is not to say Sea-Doo is unreliable by any stretch of the imagination, but rather that— for better and worse — the company is much more aggressive and innovative than Yamaha and is unafraid to try new technologies and design methodologies.
Hence, most of the innovations in the PWC market over the last 30 or so years have been introduced by Sea-Doo — but perhaps perfected by Yamaha. Some notable examples include the aforementioned IBR (Intelligent Brake and Reverse) and entry-level Spark.
Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, Sea-Doo PWCs typically offer more standard features as well as optional bells and whistles. Sea-Doo offers a dizzying seven different product lines from the entry-level, rec-lite Spark, to the performance-oriented GTR, RXT, and RXP PWCs. Making sense of Sea-Doo’s offerings is even more complicated than Yamaha’s because the company attempts to make a ski for everyone.
There are dedicated tow sport and fishing PWCs, as well as general-purpose and touring jet skis. Unless you’re going to be primarily doing one activity on the water, I personally would advise purchasing one of the general-purpose or touring PWCs, as jet skis in general do not make great tow boats or fishing platforms.
A few models of note in the Sea-Doo range are the Spark, GTI, and GTX. The Spark is the entry-level option and is great for new PWC riders, as well as those on inland or protected coastal waters that just want to get out on the water and have a little fun with a machine designed to do a bit of everything. The Spark is made of polypropylene which makes it surprisingly resistant to UV, as well as minor scrapes, but at the expense of being much softer than fiberglass.
While the Spark retails at around $6,000, additional features like the convenience package, which features IBR, will add an additional $1,300. If purchased for around or under $7,000, the Spark — with its standard 60hp (or optional 90hp) engine — presents amazing value in a peppy, responsive package that is perfect for teens and new riders.
For better or worse, the GTI line shares the same Polytec polypropylene hull material that the Spark uses, but retails at around $11,000. Larger, more stable, and more feature-packed than the Spark, the GTI features a standard 130hp motor and IBR.
The GTI SE features an optional 170hp engine, IBR and a premium audio system, as well as IDF and VTS. IDF is an innovative system designed to clear debris from the jet pump and nozzle at the click of a button. VTS is a variable trim system. The upgrades from the standard GTI to the SE merit the upgrade cost in my opinion.
The GTX is Sea-Doo’s premium recreational touring PWC and is offered in a few different configurations with three separate engine options, ranging from 170hp to 300hp. Buyers be warned however: this power will come at the cost of increased maintenance, engine overhauls and fuel consumption. The GTX features a standard fiberglass hull and personally, I wouldn’t buy a PWC without one.
Buyers will find many of the optional features of the GTI SE on the GTX as well, like IBR, VDS and IDF (optional on the 170hp and 230hp engine models, standard with the 300hp engine) — albeit in a more premium hull and overall package. Compared to many Yamaha Wave Runners and lower-end Sea-Doos, the GTX has a large, stable swim platform for tow sports, fishing, and easy re-boarding.
The fishing, adventure, and tow-sports specialized Sea-Doo PWCs are typically set up slightly differently with coolers, a windshield and retractable ski pylons respectively. Seats, engine options and other accessories may also vary slightly from the more mainstream PWCs.
50 years ago, Kawasaki released its first Jet Ski PWC and in doing so, forever intertwined and married the trade name Jet Ski with the PWC. At heart, Kawasaki is a bit of a blend of both Yamaha and Sea-Doo, as it is a reliable premium product that places emphasis on performance, while doing away with a lot of bells and whistles. The one time I have gone 70mph on a PWC, it was on a Kawasaki.
These days, Kawasaki is still offering competitive and innovative products — albeit to a bit more niche of an audience. Kawasaki offers four product lines currently, starting with the SX-R, which is a stand-up, single-rider sport ski that pays homage to the company’s original design DNA. Sporting a four-cylinder engine in such a small package, the Kawasaki SX-R goes like a rocket on the water [as editor Hugo can attest].
In addition to the SX-R, the company offers 3 other product lines: STX 160, Ultra 160, and the Ultra 310. The STX 160 is the jet ski that most casual riders will be drawn to for its best-in-class performance, handling, reliability and minimal frills at an affordable price of just under $12,000 in the base trim.
All models do, however, feature docking assist and cruise control. Higher-end models feature premium audio, upgraded well mats and premium paint schemes and graphics at a minimal surcharge.
The Ultra 160 shares the premium hull form and 22.5 degree deadrise that the high-end Ultra 310 has and also features Kawasaki’s version of IBR, called KSRD (Kawasaki Smart Reverse with Deceleration).
All models in this class feature multifunction displays and rear-facing cameras. The latter is likely unnecessary for most but nice to have for tow sports. LED accent lights come as standard and there is a provision for a premium audio system in the higher end Ultra 160 model.
The Ultra 310 is arguably the best offshore jet ski currently on the market as it sports a deep see hull with 22.5 degrees of deadrise, KSRD, launch control, rearview camera and much more.
With its supercharged engine, the Ultra 310 is sure to fly! Although, as with all premium jet skis, this does come at the expense of fuel cost and likely the need for increased engine overhauls and maintenance.