Popularity of portable petrol engines on rise, but shift to electric heralds new era
In spite of growing challenges from electric motors in some markets, portable gasoline outboards remain the workhorses of the industry
The market for portable gasoline/petrol-powered outboards has always been a picture of consistency for engine manufacturers, a segment seemingly impervious to market fluctuations through good times, bad times, and even a global financial meltdown. Not even a worldwide pandemic has managed to shake it, with most engine manufacturers reporting continued strong sales in different markets around the world. Only at the lowest-power end of the range is the portable sector beginning to show erosion – and that coming not from market slowdown, but growing competition from electric motors.
For the most part, sales of gasoline-powered outboards in the 8 to 30 horsepower range remain steady or show moderate growth in Europe. “All outboard engine segments continue to grow, despite the Covid-19 pandemic,” reports Jan Koopman, division manager, Yamaha Marine EU. “In Europe, small engines remain the biggest market in terms of unit sales. But we are seeing the 2.5 horsepower to 6 horsepower range losing ground to electric motors.”
Koopman notes that part of that shift is being driven by regulatory change, led by the city of Amsterdam moving to allow only electric powered boats to operate in its canals as of 2025. “There are many regulations being discussed,” he says. “Not just discussed, but implemented.”
Regulatory change is poised to bring changes to the portable outboard market in North America as well. Among a number of proposed changes to emissions standards recently tabled by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is a recommendation that gasoline-powered outboards of 19 kw or less in power output (approx.. 25 horsepower) be replaced entirely by electric motors, with a 10-year phase-in period. It’s only a proposal right now, but a discussion worth monitoring, since CARB emissions standards have a history of being adopted nationally by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“When it comes to the low-power category, electric outboards will gain in popularity whereas the demand for petrol outboards will further dwindle,” says Victor Wu, vice president at Hidea Power Machinery. “Electric motors are more environmentally-friendly and have a price advantage. They represent serious competition in the small engine market.”
For its part, gasoline outboard manufacturer Parsun Power Machine has elected to hedge its bets with the introduction of two new electric motors of its own – a 1.3 kW model slated for release in the second quarter of 2021, to be followed by a 3.0 kW model due in Q4. “As the biggest petrol outboard builder in China, we have been keeping our eyes closely on the market need and the development of the marine propulsion technology,” said Parsun’s vice president of sales, Nathan Yhang. “The 1.3KW model will be lightweight, easy handling, quiet, smoke-free and fuel-free, with an integrated high-performance lithium battery at about 1.3 kWh. It is designed for dinghies, small sailboats and some other boats. The 3.0 kW model is designed for larger boats with a longer range requirement. The motor is powered by external battery bank which can be easily expanded.”
Despite the talk of the potential for a government-mandated shift to electric power, portable gasoline outboards remain strong sellers in North America, where the National Marine Manufacturers Association notes year-over-year category growth of 18 percent for the segment in 2020. “The 9.9 is still the workhorse of the lineup,” says Mercury Marine president, Chris Drees. “We’ve actually seen tremendous growth in the portable segment and part of that may be just more people wanting to get out the on the water, as first-time boaters with a small boat or an inflatable. Our portable engine sales have really been on fire, and we just ramped production back up. We will be caught up here shortly, but the degree by which that small portable market rebounded was really one of the biggest surprises for us.”
Beyond the US market, portable outboards continue to dominate sales in both Russia and South America, says Tohatsu Corporation president Isami Hyuga. “In Russia probably 95 percent of our sales are engines of less than 30 horsepower,” he says. “And also South America. We produce a huge number of small horsepower engines for these markets, which are very strong.”