- … it is good to see Bayliner bucking the trend with a boat that works so hard to get things right for those with limited funds and basic experience.
- … this remains a very easy boat to drive, with precisely the gentle, moderate heel in the turn the designers required.
- A decent depth of freeboard … makes it feel as though you are ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ the Element …
Bayliner Element XL
If you want an eight-man plaything on a four-man budget, Bayliner’s new ‘stretched’ Element might be just the thing. Alex Smith reports.
Bayliner are the world’s most famous entry-level brand, and although they plainly operate as a profit-making business, they sometimes seem to provide a service to the rest of the industry – firstly by convincing the uninitiated that boating might be worth a go, and secondly by enabling them to afford it. In fact, Bayliner’s history is largely defined by the production of small, accessible boats, so when they introduced the Element last year, most of us saw it as a reason to rejoice. OK, so it wasn’t the most thrilling boat in the world, but at around £15,000 for a 16-footer it looked like a genuinely viable new boat option for cash-constrained buyers. The recent expansion of that model range with the arrival of the (slightly) larger 18ft Element XL is therefore an event that warrants our attention.
The Element basics
When Bayliner set about generating a new entry-level platform, they didn’t just design a boat to the same old format. Instead, they held a set of focus groups with novice boaters in a bid to better understand what they wanted. The result of this research was very compelling. According to the survey’s participants, it wasn’t enough simply for a boat to be safe and secure. On the contrary, it had to actually feel safe – and that important distinction would apparently require four key things: (1) very little bow lift from a standing start; (2) reassuring lateral stability for easy movement on board; (3) reliable directional tracking when off the plane; and (4) minimal heel in the turn.
Now to many of us, a wish list like that would appear to point towards a catamaran, but for Bayliner, whose boats always have to stay very competitive on price, the solution was a tri-hull style of design based on a monohull with a pair of moulded sponsons. Described rather dramatically by Bayliner as the ‘M-hull’, it is essentially a traditional cathedral design, the likes of which have been used to great effect on a range of small planing craft over the years. Naturally, then, it is far from a revolution, but as a base for a boat that satisfies the demands of the tentative beginner, it did a perfectly acceptable job on the Element – so there’s no reason to imagine that this stretched version should be very much different.
The three-tier internals
While it is always tempting to design an affordable boat with an empty deck and a range of add-ons and seating options, the XL follows on from the Element by employing an entirely moulded (and therefore immovable) jetboat style of configuration, comprising three simple seating sections – one forward, one amidships and one aft. Each is based upon a curved moulding, with a lift-out cushion and a small grey plastic grab handle for security. This approach enables the boat to accommodate up to eight people – and while not that many of the seats actually face directly forward, it is a useful layout for friendly face-to-face socialising, either at anchor or alongside.
Up in the bow, the relatively square, almost deck boat-style design helps maximise internal space, while further aft, a beam in excess of 2.1 metres makes things far less cramped than you might expect. A decent depth of freeboard also makes it feel as though you are ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ the Element, and while it’s by no means a lofty moulding, it does suggest that Bayliner have tried hard to make new boaters feel safe.
Back aft, the stretched stern section uses the XL’s additional half metre to create a four-man seating area that can accommodate a pair of fuel tanks beneath the port cushion, an optional cool box beneath the central section and a storage locker with battery isolation switch beneath the starboard lid. It’s a neatly arranged zone, particularly if you take advantage of a couple of additional options – namely a water sports arch above the transom and an aft infill cushion to help generate a full-beam sunbathing pad. And while that starboard locker still needs some dividing walls to help prevent your stowed baggage knocking into the isolation switch, in all other respects, this part of the eight-man XL is a worthwhile upgrade over the smaller six-man Element.
Elsewhere, the affordability is achieved in some very sensible ways – like cheap plastic grab handles and cup holders, a very simple dash, a tiny windscreen and an unflinchingly basic standard kit list. The position of the stereo control on the inboard side of the console seems slightly less sensible at first, but it does enable people elsewhere in the boat to access it more easily. And while the storage spaces throughout this boat are quite shallow, there’s really not much that can be done to remedy that on such a moderately contoured cathedral hull.
The M-hull underway
When you perch on the edge of the driver’s cushion and bury the throttle, it becomes plain that, despite the M-Hull’s lateral stability and smooth directional tracking, the Element XL remains every bit as bullied by the need for favourable weight distribution as its smaller sibling. For instance, with five people on board (two in the midsection, two aft and one poor soul up in the bow), the ‘flat lift’ onto the plane requested by Bayliner’s original focus groups is not quite there. Instead, we experience around 10 seconds of bow-up revving before we finally push up over the hump and settle back down. We have the top-rated 115hp outboard on the transom here, so once we’re up and planing, there’s a decent amount of fun to be had. You need to avoid overtrimming if you want to avoid falling off the plane, but even though we have a few lumps about and a bit of a breeze getting up, this remains a very easy boat to drive, with precisely the gentle, moderate heel in the turn the designers required. It’s not massively trim sensitive, but there is sufficient controllability to elevate the nose a touch – and while it’s by no means a fast boat, it does everything well enough to enable you to enjoy your drive without any feelings of frustration at a lack of power or handling vigour. Of course, the ride is hard, wet and windy (extremely so in conditions like this), but we still find ourselves wiping the saltwater spittle from our eyes and nodding with general approval at the way in which the boat conducts herself.
Despite its apparent simplicity, the helm station also has some good points. It sits on the starboard side of the middle section, where the inherent stability of the hull does a good job of keeping things level when single-handed. The simple helm pod also comes with a foot brace and a usefully oversized central speedo, plus uninterrupted 360-degree visibility. However, the minuscule screen, which perches on top of the console like an impotent decoration, is not much use at all and the driver’s seat is also particularly awkward. It sits a long way aft of the dash controls, so in order to reach the wheel you have to shift forward on the seat, well away from the backrest. On a run through the chop, that becomes rapidly uncomfortable, and while there is apparently a separate optional cushion designed to plug the gap between your lower back and the moulded backrest, its absence on our day out did the test boat no favours.
In an age when so many builders appear to be abandoning the bottom end in search of fatter profit margins, it is good to see Bayliner bucking the trend with a boat that works so hard to get things right for those with limited funds and basic experience. Like the original Element, the XL is a traditional runabout with a cathedral hull, curvy jetboat-style internals and a famously attractive mainstream name. It’s basic in finish, limited in features and lacking in outright ability, but if the intention was to produce a generous, social platform that is entirely unfrightening to own and drive, then despite its dynamic limitations, both the Element and the new XL should be considered a job well done.
Why you would
- 8-man capacity
Why you wouldn’t
- Very few forward-facing seats
- Poor helm position
- Wet ride
- Bow filler cushion
- Aft filler cushion
- Bimini top
- Mooring cover
- Under-seat Igloo cooler
- Stereo with iPod socket and twin speakers
- Digital depth indicator
- 23-litre ‘sidekick’ fuel tank
- Sports pack (water sports arch, board rack, custom graphics, Igloo cooler and bow filler cushion)
Specifications & Price
Element Element XL
Length: 4.93m 5.49m
Beam: 2.13m 2.13m
Weight: 712kg 907kg
Fuel capacity: 45 litres 45 + 23 litres
People capacity: 6 8
Power: 60hp 80–115 hp
Engine: Mercury F60 Mercury F115
Price: From £15,205 From £19,184
Bates Wharf: www.bateswharf.co.uk
Windermere Aquatic: www.aquaticboatcentres.com