MerCruiser vs Volvo – A Review of Sterndrive Engines

Sterndrive Powered Boats

If you are considering purchasing a sterndrive boat, you might be wondering whether the brand of engine matters – MerCruiser vs Volvo?  In this article, I compare owner satisfaction with each brand based on our unbiased survey of boat owners.   And I discuss the specific strengths and weaknesses of each.

The findings are based on our recent survey of 56 boat owners (27 MerCruiser owners and 28 for Volvo).  While the sample size is lower than desired, this is largely due to the fact that sterndrives are less popular than they once were.  Outboards have now replaced sterndrives in many pleasure boat applications because they have lessor maintenance requirements, have a more favorable power-to-weight ratio, and are lower priced for the equivalent power.  Nonetheless, sterndrives still offer advantages in terms of providing a “cleaner” look and enabling a full swim deck.   If these are important considerations to you, then a sterndrive-powered boat might be the right fit.  And many major boat manufacturers continue to offer both propulsion types.

But, before digging into the findings, let me first clarify what I mean by sterndrive engines since these are often confused with “inboards”.

What is a sterndrive?

Sterndrive Engine

Sterndrive Engine

A sterndrive, also known as an I/O (inboard, outboard drive), is a marine propulsion system that features a car-like engine in the stern (rear) of the boat. The engine is connected to a drive unit that is attached to the rear, vertical, wall of the transom. What makes sterndrives different than a true inboard engine is that the drive unit can be raised and lowered. By contrast, an inboard has a fixed prop shaft beneath the boat that cannot be elevated.

Forward Drive

Forward Drive

A more recent variation of the sterndrive is the “Forward Drive” which was introduced by Volvo a few years ago (although MerCruiser has since introduced its own version). As the name implies, the propellers on the drive unit are forward-facing which makes the propulsion system more conducive for things like wakesurfing since there are no exposed propellers off the rear of the boat. But, as with conventional sterndrive engines, the drive unit of the Forward Drive is mounted on the transom – not underneath the boat.

MerCruiser vs Volvo Ratings

MerCruiser vs Volvo Overall SatisfactionOverall owner satisfaction with the two major sterndrive engine brands is largely equal and moderately high (especially considering that about 40% of respondents had boats that were at least a decade old).  This suggests that, regardless of which brand you choose, most boaters will be happy with their purchase.  However, each brand does have some unique strengths and weaknesses as will be discussed next.

MerCruiser

A key strength of MerCruiser is its reliability (9.4 out of 10).  Several owners commented that they have not had any major issues after years of ownership.  While the brand did not get great ratings for fuel economy, a few recent owners did provide positive comments in this regard.  Perhaps this is an area that has been improved in recent models.

MerCruiser RatingsBelow are representative comments from MerCruiser owners regarding the reasons for their overall satisfaction:

  • ‘Design of the Alpha 3. It is matched well with the Cobalt hull and prop for optimal performance at speed. It also allows me to operate in shallow water areas where a Volvo I/O could not.’ (Jim G., New York, 2007 MerCruiser, Rating: 10)
  • ‘No issues, no recalls and very satisfied.’ (Rodney E., Oklahoma, 2020 MerCruiser, Rating: 10)
  • ‘Great looking motor, easy access, quiet, plenty of power.’ (Brent H., Ohio, 2019 MerCruiser, Rating: 10)
  • ‘Plenty of power for water sports. Not a single problem since new beyond regular maintenance.’ (Benson E., Maine, 2007 MerCruiser, Rating: 9)
  • ‘Great performance and minimal issues over 15 years.’ (Ted B., Georgia, 2005 MerCruiser, Rating: 7)
  • Great engine, can spend all day on the lake and still have over a half a tank of gas.’ (Joshua S., Maine, 2018 MerCruiser, Rating: 10)
  • ‘Very happy – it does a great job and gets good gas economy plus is reliable.’ (Geoffrey R., Texas, 2019 MerCruiser, Rating: 9)
  • ‘Is noisier than friends Volvo engine.’ (Jaris V., Iowa, 2015 MerCruiser, Rating: 7)

Volvo

Volvo RatingsAs with MerCruiser, Volvo owners are also satisfied with the reliability of their engine.  And, the brand receives relatively high marks in terms of “Quietness” in comparison to that of MerCruiser.  However, Volvo owners were less satisfied with the “Ease of Maintenance”.  And, as one owner noted, finding authorized service centers can be an issue in some areas as they are likely less abundant than MerCruiser dealers.

  • ‘Reliability. Had no engine issues to date.’ (Brian H., Iowa, 2017 Volvo, Rating: 10)
  • ‘It has performed great and have not had any issues since the purchase.’ (Roger W., Arkansas, 2014 Volvo, Rating: 10)
  • ‘The engine has been flawless and runs for a months worth of outings on a full tank.’ (Robert P., Texas, 2017 Volvo, Rating: 9)
  • ‘Power and fuel economy due to variable can shaft design.’ (Mark P., Texas, 2012 Volvo , Rating: 6)
  • ‘Good power, mostly easy to work on. Not a perfect 10 due to availability of parts and factory authorized service centers.’ (Chris W., Texas, 2008 Volvo, Rating: 10)
  • ‘The motors are easy to work on, well laid out for easy maintenance and have been super smooth and quiet. I am getting incredible fuel economy, could not ask for more.’ (David L., Oklahoma, 2016 Volvo, Rating: 10)

MerCruiser vs Volvo Brand Consideration

Brand Preference

In addition to asking boaters to rate their engine, we also asked which brand(s) they would consider and the one brand they would prefer if purchasing another boat.  This gives us an indication of customer loyalty or commitment.  Since the number of MerCruiser and Volvo owners in our sample was about the same, we would expect brand consideration and preference to likewise be about equal if MerCruiser and Volvo had the same level of commitment.

But that is not what we observed in our survey. MerCruiser vs Volvo Brand PreferenceA higher percentage of sterndrive boat owners would consider a MerCruiser (76% vs. 61% for Volvo).  The same was true for brand preference as nearly half of boaters favored a MerCruiser (45%) vs. one-third for Volvo (30%).  About a quarter of respondents were undecided.

Why some prefer MerCruiser

So why the slight preference for MerCruiser?  For some, it comes down to better service availability.

  • ‘Broad service network.’ (Jim G., New York, 2007 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Volvo parts are too hard to obtain. Love my Merc!’ (Ted B., Georgia, 2005 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Perception that it is easier to get serviced.’ (Doug B., Texas, 2007 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Been in the business a long time and has a good reputation for reliability and performance.  More service centers available compared to the Volvo.  I believe, though I don’t have specific facts, that Mercury parts are less expensive than the equivalent ones from Volvo.’ (D A., Ohio, 2005 Volvo, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Never had any issues with them before.’ (Joshua S., Maine, 2018 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Better reliability.’ (Mark P., Texas, 2012 Volvo, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Pretty much a standard Chevy block, easy to work on, maintain.’ (Daniel B., Florida, 1997 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Local mechanic.’ (Tim H., Iowa, 2015 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘This brand has been very reliable.’ (William D. M., Maine, 2012 MerCruiser, Prefer: MerCruiser)
  • ‘Heard good things.’ (Brent H., Ohio, 2019 MerCruiser, Prefer: Volvo)

Why some prefer Volvo

While slightly more boaters prefer MerCruiser, Volvo has plenty of fans too as many owners have experienced years of reliable service from their engine.  Here is why some would prefer a Volvo.

  • ‘Very smooth drives, reliable, joy stick is incredible and works great.’ (David L., Oklahoma, 2016 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘Volvo has always been a reliable engine with power while efficient.’ (Wesley B., Georgia, 2016 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘I’ve owned 2 boats with Volvo stern drive engines. They have been pretty reliable.’ (James A., Virginia, 2016 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘Dependability.’ (George M., Texas, 2015 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘The Volvo in our boat has been very reliable.’ (Saundra M., Ohio, 2004 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘I have owned both and like the performance of the dual props.’ (Roger W., Arkansas, 2014 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘I am a mechanical engineer – it is simply build better.’ (Rob C., Kansas, 1997 Volvo, Prefer: Volvo)
  • ‘My previous 2015 Formula had a Volvo 6L 380hp v8 that was smaller, lighter, and quieter than my current 8L 380hp MerCruiser but had equal-to better performance (variable valve timing).’ (Larry S., Missouri, 2019 MerCruiser, Prefer: Volvo)

Conclusions

Based on our survey, it is evident that both MerCruiser and Volvo produce a quality product that will likely deliver years of reliable service.  And, because overall owner satisfaction was nearly the same, the choice of engine brand should not be a major deciding factor when shopping for a sterndrive-powered boat.  If the boat you are looking at comes with a MerCruiser, that is great.  But if it happens to come with a Volvo, that is fine too.  You are likely to be very pleased either way.

The main exception to this is if there is not a certified dealer or mechanic in your area.  As the industry leader, MerCruiser has more service locations than Volvo.  So, unless you have “skills” and plan on doing most of the service work yourself, this is something you should investigate before purchasing a boat.

If you own a sterndrive-powered boat, let us know about your ownership experience in the comments section below.  And, if you are considering an outboard-powered boat instead, check out our review of outboard engines under 150 HP and engines 150 HP and above.

Thanks again to the many boat owners who took the time to share their input in our engine surveys.  Without them, this information would not have been possible.

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