Yamaha vs Kawasaki Jet Skis: What brand is the better buy?


When it comes to the world of jet skis, there are usually three brands that everybody has at least heard of once before. Those brands are Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Bombardier.

As far as quality goes, all three of these manufacturers have a reputation for making good products. However, Kawasaki and Yamaha tend to pull ahead as the best of the best in most people’s opinions.

So when it comes to making a decision between these two impressive brands, how can you know which one is the better choice? Some of it will come down to preference, but we can look at and break down information that will help determine whether Kawasaki or Yamaha makes the better machine.

The Kawasaki Jet Ski and the Yamaha WaveRunner

Before getting into the finer details, it is important to make a distinction between the two brands of vehicles that we will be looking at. The type of vehicle we are examining in this article is called a personal watercraft.

The definition of a personal watercraft, found here, is as follows: “The PWC is classified as a “Class A” Inboard Boat (a boat less than 16 feet in length) by the U.S. Coast Guard. They are designed to carry from one to three persons, and to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling ON the watercraft.”

Basically, a personal watercraft is a small jet boat that is sat on instead of in. Jet ski has become a sort of catch-all term used to refer to all personal watercraft, but this is technically incorrect. Jet Ski is actually the name of a personal watercraft made by the company Kawasaki.

The company Yamaha produces a personal watercraft called the WaveRunner. So from here on out, the term Jet Ski will, in fact, be referring to the product make by Kawasaki.

While WaveRunners and Jet Skis are fairly similar in a lot of ways, there are some differences between them. We can start this examination by looking at a brief history of each product.

History of The Kawasaki Jet Ski

Kawasaki has been in the personal watercraft market for longer than any other company. Bombardier actually did produce personal watercraft before Kawasaki did, but they did not see much success and because of that, they dropped out of the market after only two years.

In 1972, Kawasaki started producing and selling the first ever commercially successful personal watercraft. Clayton Jacobson II, who is credited with inventing the personal watercraft that we know today, helped design these original Jet Skis.

The first Jet Ski models, the WSAA and the WSAB, were stand-up models. While this type of model is not nearly as common today, they were all that was produced for over ten years. Stand-up models are made to be ridden by only one person and are popular among those who want to compete in freestyle competitions and certain types of races.

In 1986, Kawasaki introduced its first sit-down model, the 650 X2. A shift in popularity began in the 1980s, and sit-down models ended up becoming much more popular.

The vast majority of models that you see around today are of the sit-down variety, but Kawasaki is one of two companies that still produce stand-up models.

For almost fifteen years, Kawasaki was the only manufacturer of personal watercraft. Many people believe that Kawasaki is solely responsible for the size and success of the personal watercraft market today.

While there are other companies that have made large contributions to the market, it is safe to say that it would not be the same without the Kawasaki Jet Ski.

History of The Yamaha WaveRunner

As mentioned above, Yamaha is one of the biggest and most recognizable names when it comes to personal watercraft. They have not been at it for quite as long as Kawasaki, but they do have a few decades of experience. In 2016, the WaveRunner celebrated its 30th year in the market.

Yamaha began production of the First WaveRunner in 1986. This model was called the Marine Jet 500T. According to Yamaha, this was the first sit-down style open stern personal watercraft in production, and it created the personal watercraft market that we have today. (source)

Since then, Yamaha has continually worked to improve the WaveRunner and the personal watercraft experience. The company claims many industry firsts, including the first 4-passenger personal watercraft as well as the first personal watercraft featuring a 4-stroke engine.

Even with these claims to fame, it can be hard to distinguish a Yamaha WaveRunner, or any other brand, from a distance. Yamaha solved this problem with a visual feature. Every WaveRunner comes equipped with a visibility spout, also referred to as a rooster tail. This is a spout of water that shoots up from the back of the WaveRunner in an arc shape.

Something else that sets Yamaha apart from other personal watercraft manufacturers is that they are the only company besides Kawasaki to still produce stand-up models.

The impact that Yamaha has had on the personal watercraft market is large and undeniable. Whether the market would be the same size that it is now without the WaveRunner could be debated, but it is definitely one of the key players today.

Strengths

Personal watercraft are good at a lot of things, especially when you are talking about high-quality brands like Kawasaki and Yamaha. We can take a look at what are considered to be the most positive things about both the Jet Ski and the WaveRunner.

Jet Ski Strengths

Jet Skis have a lot going for them. One of the things they are most known for is speed. The Jet Ski STX-15F, for example, has a top speed of just under 70 miles per hour. This is pretty much the top speed that can be achieved on a stock personal watercraft.

The STX-15F is also able to accelerate from 0 to 30 miles per hour in less than two seconds.

The Jet Ski Ultra 310LX SE, which is the top of the line Jet Ski model, has over 300 horsepower. These are powerful machines, no doubt.

But Jet Skis are good for more than just powerful engines. Kawasaki focuses on the seats to ensure that riders are comfortable at those high speeds. Most personal watercraft are made to hold up to three people, but sometimes when three people ride at once it makes for a tight fit.

The seats on Jet Skis are designed to fit three people without too much squeezing. The seats on Jet Skis are also lower than other brands. That means that the Jet Ski will feel more responsive and natural in its maneuvering. However, it could also mean that the seating is a little less comfortable for riders with long legs.

Jet Skis are made to have great handling capabilities. Recent models of Jet Skis are equipped with Kawasaki Smart Steering technology. Personal watercraft use their jet propulsion system for directional control, and because of this, it can be difficult to control them when the throttle is not engaged.

The Kawasaki Smart Steering System helps to keep the Jet Ski stable and the rider in control when the throttle is released at high speeds. This feature improves the overall safety that Jet Skis offer.

WaveRunner Strengths

WaveRunners excel in many areas as well. More than anything and any other brand, they are known for their reliability. A WaveRunner will last a long time without many problems. More on that later.

The engines of WaveRunners are powerful like the ones on Jet Skis, but WaveRunner engines are also known for being easy to take care of. They are fairly simple, which means that if you do end up having to do some work on a WaveRunner engine you can look up the problem and fix it yourself.

Other personal watercraft brands are known for having complicated engines, so they usually have to get taken into a mechanic for any issues. Being able to work on the engine yourself is highly advantageous and can potentially save a lot of money in the long run.

Another strenght of WaveRunners is the variety available. Yamaha is currently producing four series of WaveRunner: the EX series, the VX series, the FX series, and the performance race series. There are a number of models within each series, so there are quite a few to choose from.

Besides there being a large variety of base models, WaveRunners are also easily customizable. You can buy almost any model and outfit it for fishing, use it for tow sports like tubing or water skiing, or add any of a number of accessories that are available.

Weaknesses

Since Jet Skis and WaveRunners are both such good watercraft, it can be hard to point out definitive weaknesses. However, there are some things that each are not the best at, and we can take a look at those things.

Jet Ski Weaknesses

Probably the most commonly cited downside to Jet Skis is the price tag that they carry. Out of the big three manufacturers of personal watercraft in the market today, Kawasaki holds the distinction of having the most expensive base models.

Some personal watercraft have starting prices lower than $6,000, but the price for a new Jet Ski starts at about $10,000. No one said that personal watercraft were cheap, but that is a pretty big difference in starting prices.

Another point that some might consider a weakness of Jet Skis is the limited accessories. The more expensive models might come with Bluetooth speakers built in, but the less expensive models do not, and Kawasaki does not sell speakers that can be attached to them.

That is just one example. Kawasaki only offers a few accessories in their online store.

WaveRunner Weaknesses

Price can also be a bit of a downside for WaveRunners. While they tend to be cheaper than Jet Skis, they are still not the cheapest of personal watercraft. That honor goes to the Sea-Doo.

Overall, it is difficult to name many weaknesses for WaveRunners. They tend to perform extremely well and last a long time.

Reliability

Jet Skis and WaveRunners are both dependable. They are both manufactured by companies that have been in business since long before the invention of personal watercraft and have always delivered many different quality products. We can take a look at the companies themselves to get a better understanding of who builds these machines.

Kawasaki

Jet Skis are manufactured by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Motorcycle and Engine, which is a division of Kawasaki Heavy Industries. As the name implies, the Motorcycle and Engine Division focuses on developing and manufacturing motorcycles and other powersport vehicles like side by sides and ATVs.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries is a Japanese company headquartered in Tokyo. Kawasaki has been in business for a long time. The company was founded in 1896, which makes it over 120 years old.

Over the century that Kawasaki has been in business, it has produced everything from railway cars to aerospace and defense equipment. Some of the company’s more notable projects include being involved in the development and production of the Boeing 767, Boeing 777, and Boeing 787 jets, and helping in the design and development of high-speed trains.

Kawasaki was also involved in developing advanced space robotics projects like the HOPE-X experimental orbiting plane and the Japanese Experiment Module for the International Space Station. The work that Kawasaki does is literally out of this world.

It is easy to see that Kawasaki has had a hand in some very large projects. But what about their smaller ones? The company began development of motorcycles back in 1949, and mass production of the motorcycles began a few years later in 1953.

Since then, Kawasaki has become one of the largest sellers of motorcycles in the world. The motorcycles are well-known for being top notch and are popular for both racing and recreation.

Motorcycle engines and personal watercraft engines are fairly similar, so to say that Kawasaki had a good idea of what to do when they started making Jet Skis would be accurate. Over the decades of production, Jet Ski engines have only become better designed and more reliable.

Jet Skis are pretty safe to depend on. However, they might not quite be the most dependable on the market.

Yamaha

Yamaha Motor Company is another Japanese company with a long and impressive history. It is headquartered in Iwata, Shizuoka Japan, and was founded on July 1, 1955.

Yamaha Motor Company started out as a branch of the Yamaha Corporation, which is known for being the largest producer of musical instruments in the world.

Since separating, it has also become one of the largest sellers of motorcycles in the world. Yamaha Motor Company also produces and sells boats, ATVs, scooters, swimming pools, snowmobiles, and helicopters.

Having been in business for over 60 years now, Yamaha Motor Company has had a lot of time to make a lot of great products and keep improving. Specifically, with WaveRunners, they are always trying to come up with new ideas to make them better each year.

When it comes to the reliability of personal watercraft, WaveRunners are generally praised as being the most reliable. They will last a long time and not have many issues.

As a testament to that reliability, many companies that rent out personal watercraft have fleets full of WaveRunners. In fact, in the research that I have done myself, every company I have come across has a fleet made up of at least partially, if not wholly, WaveRunners.

When so many people put their livelihoods in the hands of a product, it is likely to be something that can be trusted.

However, rental companies are not the only ones who have to depend on the personal watercraft of their choice.

Use in Competitions

The sports of personal watercraft racing and freestyle have become more popular in recent years. In order to perform well in these competitions, riders have to know that their machine is going to do what they need it to when they need it to.

Aqua Cross, or AquaX, is a professional league of personal watercraft racing. They have a list of the current top-ranked riders in the world that we can examine for some insight into what the pros prefer.

Out of the 52 riders on the list, 39 compete using some model of Yamaha WaveRunner. That’s 75%! Out of the top 10, 8 use WaveRunners. It is pretty easy to see that professional athletes trust the WaveRunner name. Of course, part of the decision comes down to personal preference and other factors, but numbers like that don’t lie.

All in all, it is safe to arrive at the conclusion that the Yamaha WaveRunners are the most reliable personal watercraft on the market.

Longevity

Something important to consider when buying a personal watercraft is how long it will last. But how long can you expect one to last?

Firstly, personal watercraft have their usage measured differently than automobiles. Instead of measuring the total distance that they have traveled, the life of a watercraft is tracked by how many hours the engine has run.

When looking at average yearly use, personal watercraft with over an average of 30 hours per year can be considered high-hour. That means that a model from 2018 with 50 hours would be considered high-hour today since 50 hours were put on it in a year. A model from 2017 with the same number of hours would be considered low-hour.

Generally speaking, when a personal watercraft reaches a total of about 150 hours, it is considered high-hour. Most will last well beyond this to at least 300 hours. While 300 hours is often seen as the average life span, it is possible for personal watercraft to last longer than that as well.

Many people claim to have both WaveRunners and Jet Skis with 500 to 700 hours and above that still run perfectly fine. In my research though, I have found more people who claim to have WaveRunners than Jet Skis in ranges that high. So based on what I have seen, WaveRunners tend to last longer.

Extra Features

A good way to compare Jet Skis and WaveRunners is by looking at the features that are included. These features are not included in every model, but seeing what features stand out from each make can be a good way to determine which sounds more like what you want in a personal watercraft.

Jet Ski Extra Features

  • Smart Learning Operation (SLO)– When this mode is engaged, the top speed of the jet ski is reduced by 30 percent. It is a good way for beginners to become familiar with the way the jet ski handles. After a rider is used to it, they can try riding at higher speeds if they desire.
  • Large rear deck– A large rear deck makes boarding the jet ski much easier, especially from the water. This is ideal for if a rider is thrown off or for people who are towing and are getting on and off the jet ski frequently.
  • Kawasaki Smart Steering system– We already looked at this feature earlier in the article, but it is worth mentioning again. According to Kawasaki, their Jet Skis monitor the steering input and engine speed simultaneously in order to maintain control.
  • Class-leading fuel capacity– A gas tank with a capacity of 20.6 gallons translates to more time on the water and less time refueling.
  • Class-leading storage capacity– Some people want to be able to bring a lot of things out of the water with them. The Jet Ski with the largest amount of storage has 56 gallons of space available, and it’s all watertight.
  • Sport performance seat design– This seat has a special textured “gripper-style” seat cover material to help maintain ride position in any condition.
  • LXury Seat with heat-resistant material– Some models come equipped with a seat that is made with a special material that does not heat up as much as regular seats. This goes a long way, as seats can really heat up during a sunny day of riding.

WaveRunner Extra Features

  • Tow hook– Every sit-down model of WaveRunner comes equipped with a tow hook. Even if towing is not your main activity, it is quick easy to get started with any model.
  • Automatic bilge– A bilge pump helps to empty water from the engine compartment if any happens to get in. Obviously, all personal watercraft are designed to keep water out of the engine, but this is a nice feature to have for extra peace of mind.
  • Watertight storage– All sit-down models come with some watertight storage. The maximum amount is 44 gallons. This is a pretty good amount, but the Jet Skis do have them beat in this department.
  • NanoXcel 2 hull– This feature is a testament to Yamaha’s continual efforts to improve what they make. The NanoXcel 2 material is 18% lighter than its predecessor, allowing for tighter handling and higher speeds.
  • Garmin Striker GPS Fishfinder– Many WaveRunners can be equipped with this GPS and fishfinder. It comes in handy when fishing, obviously, and is also great for making sure that you do not lose your way in a large body of water.
  • RiDE by Yamaha– This is a dual throttle system that WaveRunners come equipped with. The throttle on the right handle is to accelerate, and the throttle on the left handle is to decelerate and reverse. This feature makes slowing down more controllable and less jerky.

Affordability

As previously mentioned, there can be a good deal of personal preference that goes into choosing what model of personal watercraft is the best. Some people think that having the most storage capacity possible is important, while others don’t think it matters all that much.

When it comes to price, though, a dollar is a dollar. Or in some cases, a thousand dollars is a thousand dollars. There is a definite winner when it comes to this category.

Kawasaki Jet Skis tend to be the most expensive. They do have a fairly wide range of prices, but they start quite a bit higher than the WaveRunners do.

The Jet Ski STX-15F has a starting MSRP of $9,699. This is the cheapest new model available.

The cheapest new WaveRunner is the EX, which has a starting MSRP of $6,799. That is quite a difference. While the STX-15F and the EX are technically from different classes of watercraft, even when we look at a WaveRunner of the same class there is a significant difference.

The WaveRunner VX-C is in the same class as the STX-15F, but it has a starting MSRP of $8,999. $700 is a pretty big difference to most people.

To compare the higher ends as well, the most expensive new Jet Ski model is the Ultra 310LX which has a starting MSRP of $17,999. The most expensive WaveRunner is the FX Limited SVHO which has a starting MSRP of $17,399. That’s still pretty expensive, but it’s a bit less expensive than the Jet Ski.

So when it comes to affordability, the Yamaha WaveRunner is the definite winner.

The Final Verdict

So the big question is, which is the better buy? There are many reasons why people prefer one brand over the other, and I think that all of them are valid. However, I have to say that, in my opinion, the Yamaha WaveRunner is a better buy.

Based on the information that I have found, WaveRunners perform just as well as Jet Skis, they tend to last longer, and they are available at significantly lower prices. With all this in mind, it is clear to me that WaveRunners are the better deal.

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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