The 6 Best and Worst Jet Ski Brands: An Honest Guide


Jet skis aren’t cheap, so deciding which jet ski to buy is a big decision. If you’ve been thinking about buying a jet ski you might have come across several brands and be wondering, “Which one is the best?” You might also feel skeptical reading reviews and wonder if the websites who are recommending different brands are being honest with their recommendations, or if the writers are receiving money from the companies in exchange for good reviews. 

I understand how you feel, which is why I wrote this guide to the best and worst jet ski brands, no kickbacks, guaranteed.

What is the best jet ski to buy?

Kawasakis are the best jet ski for experienced riders looking for speed, Yamahas are the best for families looking for reliability and longevity, and Sea-Doos are the best for fun features. Other jet ski brands like Honda, Polaris, and Tigershark are no longer in production, so although they have some merits, they also have a lot of issues to consider.

The hard truth of the matter is, there isn’t one brand of jet ski that is the best.  The best jet ski is the one that is best for your priorities. I’ll be discussing all the pros and cons of these six brands in more detail below.

The Best: Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Sea-Doo

First, a word about terminology. You may have heard terms like PWC, jet ski, wave runner, and Sea-Doo all used to describe what you think of as a “jet ski.”  The reality is that Jet Ski, WaveRunner, and Sea-Doo are all actually separate brand names.  Jet Skis are made by Kawasaki, WaveRunners by Yamaha, and Sea-Doos by Bombardier. PWC, which stands for personal watercraft, is the generic term for all three, though jet ski has also become a common generic term. 

For this article, I will be referring to Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Sea-Doo in order to distinguish these three brands, which are the only three brands currently manufacturing PWCs.  I will be using “jet ski” as the generic term for all PWCs.

These three brands are all excellent choices if you’re in the market for either a new or used jet ski.  Not only are they the only three brands currently making new jet skis, but the overall quality differences between them are negligible. You can’t go wrong with any of these three brands. 

That being said, not all of these brands are the best for every kind of rider.  None of the three brands is the best overall, but rather, each brand has different strengths and weaknesses that make it the best for different kinds of riders with different priorities.  I’ve discussed each below in more detail.

Kawasaki: The Best for Experienced Riders

Kawasaki made the first Jet Ski ever, and it’s where we get the term jet ski. Because they’ve been around the longest, they have a great reputation, but their reputation is especially great when it comes to the speeds their engines generate, which isn’t surprising when you consider that Kawasaki is also one of the most popular motorcycle/dirt-bike brands. 

For experienced riders who are looking to go as fast as possible on the water, including professional jet-ski racers, Kawasaki is often a favorite choice.

Kawasaki Jet Ski Strengths:

  • Speed- Kawasakis are, without a doubt, the fastest jet skis on the market. They make the most powerful engine and some models can reach top speeds of 70mph. They can also go from 0-30mph in just 2 seconds. This is why they’re so popular with professional racers.
  • Luxury Features- Many Kawasaki models come manufactured with luxury features including protective, heat-resistant seat covers, built-in speakers, and adjustable handlebars that accommodate a variety of riders. These luxury features can make for a much more enjoyable riding experience.
  • Size- Another advantage of Kawasaki’s is their size.  They tend to be the biggest of the three brands. Their models that claim to fit 3 riders do so comfortably, whereas some other brands’ 3-person models can feel cramped. This combined with a large rear deck that makes re-boarding easy makes them great for tow sports.  They also have some of the largest on-board storage and fuel capacity.
  • Stable- Because they are so large, Kawasakis are also very stable. They don’t feel wobbly when out on rougher water and they come with a patented Smart Steering Technology that helps prevent the driver from losing control. Their stability may make them a good choice for those who are primarily riding out on the ocean.

Kawasaki Jet Ski Weaknesses:

  • Price- The biggest weakness of Kawasakis is their price point. They are hands down the most expensive of the three brands, with their cheapest models still coming in at over $10,000. Some of their models have a baseline MSRP as high as $20,000.
  • Reliability- The other main weakness of Kawasakis is their reliability.  They are by no means an unreliable jet ski, but they can wear out more quickly than other brands, especially their models with larger engines and especially when run frequently at their top speeds.

It Depends:

  • Low Seat Design- One interesting feature of Kawasakis is their low seat design. This can be a strength or a weakness depending on who will be driving the jet ski most frequently.  Many riders love the low seat design because it feels more natural and allows for better maneuverability.  However, for tall riders, it can make for a more uncomfortable riding position.

Yamaha: The Best for Long-Term Use and Families

Yamaha, the maker of WaveRunner, is currently the #1 brand of jet ski across the globe and is likely the best choice for families or anyone who is primarily concerned with safety, reliability, and longevity.  They have a reputation for being the most reliable brand and some of their added safety features can make them a great option for families. There is a reason most rental companies buy Yamaha, which is for their great reliability and cheaper maintenance schedules. The Yamaha RiDE feature is great for new and experienced riders to allow precise control of the craft.

Yamaha WaveRunner Strengths:

  • Reliability- As mentioned above, the biggest strength of Yamahas is their reliability.  They don’t break down easily and they run for a long time. Next time you pass a jet ski rental shop, look at what brand they are using. There’s a good chance it’ll be a Yamaha.  Yamahas are the most popular brand for rental companies, which speaks to the fact that they are workhorses that aren’t likely to break down often.
  • Engine Design- One of the keys to Yamaha’s reliability is their engine design.  Yamaha engines are known for their reliability and for being easy to work on when they do occasionally break down.  Because engine problems are some of the most expensive jet ski repairs, having a design that doesn’t break easily and that can potentially be fixed at home makes them more affordable long-term.
  • Fuel Efficiency- Another long-term cost-saving feature to Yamahas is their fuel efficiency. Though Kawasakis have the largest fuel capacity, Yamahas have the best fuel efficiency, which means fewer trips to the gas station, even when out on the water for a long day of riding.
  • Added Safety Features- Jet ski safety is largely dependent on how they are ridden; however, Yamahas have some added safety features that make them extra safe.  RiDE, their dual throttle system, allows you to control deceleration, turn while decelerating, and stop 30% more quickly. Most jet skis only allow you to stop by releasing the throttle and coasting and since jet skis don’t have rudders, releasing the throttle stops your ability to steer. Yamaha’s sort of “reverse thruster” system, if you will, is a great added feature because the rider has much more control over the watercraft. This may make them a good choice if you will have kids driving the jet ski.
  • Variety- Yamaha has 4 series of jet skis: the EX (Rec-Lite), VX (Recreation), FX (luxury), and Performance Race series.  Each series comes with a base model and several other upgraded models, so there’s something for everyone. 
  • Extra Features- Some of Yamaha’s standard extra features also make them a tempting purchase. All Yamaha WaveRunners have a tow hook, automatic bilge pump, stereo mount system, and can seat up to three people, and all except the EX series have a re-boarding step and dual mirrors. These standard features are often only available on more expensive models of other brands.

Yamaha WaveRunner Weaknesses:

  • Lack of Features on Base Models- There truthfully aren’t many weaknesses to Yamahas.  The only real weakness they have is that despite some of the great extra features they have, there are some lacking features on some of the base models.  For example, some base models have less comfortable seats, no built-in speakers, and a lack of watertight storage.

It Depends:

  • Made in the U.S.A- This is a personal preference, but if you prefer to purchase American-made products, Yamaha is the way to go. Their jet skis are all assembled in the U.S.A., unlike Kawasakis or Sea-Doos.
  • Price- Yamahas are neither the most nor the least expensive brand, so whether or not they are the more affordable choice comes down to comparisons between specific models and their equivalents with other brands. For example, in the Rec-Lite category, the Yamaha EX is roughly $2,000 more expensive than the Sea-Doo Spark, to which it is most comparable (Kawasaki doesn’t even make a Rec-Lite model). Conversely, Yamaha’s performance series models are on average $500-1,000 cheaper than their Kawasaki or Sea-Doo counterparts.
  • Speed- As with price, Yamahas are neither the fastest nor the slowest jet ski brand.  Their fastest models top out at around 65mph, which is 5mph slower than Kawasaki, but still pretty darn fast. They’re still a popular choice for many professional racers.

Sea-Doo: The Best for Beginners

Sea-Doo has become a monster in the jet ski industry. With 6 different classes of jet skis, their fleet has a wide variety of options designed to meet the needs of many different riders.  This variety coupled with their custom specialty feature options and affordable pricing makes them the best choice for beginners.  In fact, they are also the most popular brand with first-time buyers. The one great thing about Sea-Doo is that there is a model for everyone, whether you are into fishing, wakeboarding, cruising, or performance riding, they have a model to fit your specific needs.

Sea-Doo Strengths:

  • Price- Perhaps what makes Sea-Doos the best option for beginners is their prices.  The Sea-Doo Spark, their Rec-Lite class model, is only $5,300, which is as cheap as many used jet skis. Many of their base models in other classes are also less expensive than their Yamaha or Kawasaki counterparts.
  • Variety- The second reason Sea-Doos are a great option for beginners is their variety.  They have 6 different classes of jet skis based on different styles of riding, including special models for tricks, towing, fishing, touring, and racing in addition to standard recreation models.
  • Custom Features and Upgrades- Another strength to Sea-Doo is that there are lots of ways to upgrade them, even after your initial purchase. They make tons of accessories that can be added to make the jet ski totally customized.  Want to put in speakers? They can do that. Wakeboard towers and racks? They have those too. Need more storage to pack a picnic? Their LinQ system has dozens of storage options to fit every need.  Basically, if you can dream it you can do it. Check out Sea-Doo’s accessory shop to see their full line of accessories.
  • Design- Sea-Doo has some of the best-designed watercraft on the market. They have always had some of the sharpest, best-looking skis on the water. They are bold with their colors and style, and it really works. If you want the best looking jet ski on the water, buy a Sea-Doo.

Sea-Doo Weaknesses:

  • Lack of Features on Cheaper Models– The trade-off with Sea-Doo comes down to pricing vs. features.  Their base models are hands down the least expensive of the three brands, but they lack some of the features you may want later on, like more storage or a more comfortable seat.  Although they do offer these kinds of upgrades (and more), by the time you pay for them, you might be out as much money as you would have been had you gone with another brand.  That’s why these are best for beginners. You can get in at a lower entry price and see if the sport is really for you and then invest in more custom features down the road.
  • Reliability– This is somewhat of a contested topic on jet ski forums. Sea-Doos are not an unreliable brand, but some people feel they break down more regularly than other brands, while others do not.  Either way, it is something worth considering, particularly because some of Sea-Doo’s design features, like their Closed-Loop Cooling System, can make them trickier to repair than other brands.

It Depends:

  • Closed-Loop Cooling System- Depending on your point of view, Sea-Doo’s closed-loop cooling system may be either a pro or a con. Both Yamaha and Kawasaki use open-loop systems, which pull water in from the lake/ocean as you ride to keep the engine cool.  Open systems are much easier to repair, but they can lead to more engine corrosion over time, especially with regular use in saltwater.  The corrosive effects can be mitigated by really good maintenance routines, but Sea-Doo hopes to avoid these effects all together with their closed-loop system. Instead of pulling in water, they use antifreeze to cool the engine and the temperature can be controlled as necessary, unlike an open-loop system.  However, if it breaks, the system is more complex to repair, so you’ll probably have to take it to a dealer rather than repairing it yourself.  

Summary: Which Should I Buy?

If you want…Buy a…
Speed and powerKawasaki
Safety, fuel efficiency, and easy maintenanceYamaha
Most affordable and biggest selection of custom featuresSea-Doo

The Rest of the List: Honda, Polaris, and Tigershark

Before moving on, I feel it’s important to offer a disclaimer about our next three brands.  As mentioned above, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Sea-Doo are the only brands currently manufacturing jet skis, so if you are looking to buy a new jet ski, you will have to go with one of those three brands.

If, however, you’re interested in buying a used jet ski, either because you’re looking to get a used model for a cheap price or because you enjoy working on them as projects, Honda, Polaris, and Tigershark are a few brands worth considering

None of these three brands is “bad,” however, as with the three best brands, there are some considerations worth taking into account before purchasing one of these jet skis.  Most importantly, because none of these three brands are still in production, all of them are going to have some issues with parts availability when it comes time to repair them. That being said, they may still be good options if you are looking to save some money or want to take one on as a project.

The Okay: Honda

Of the three brands that we’re covering in this section, Honda is your best bet for several reasons. When Honda’s were being made, they were great jet skis, so much so that people were surprised when they stopped manufacturing them.

However, one major issue to consider is that the last year Honda produced new jet skis was 2009, so the further away from that date we get, the more outdated they become.  That being said, despite not having a new model in over ten years, Hondas are still a fairly popular jet ski, which speaks to their quality and performance.

If you want to learn more about Honda, here is the story of what happened.

Honda PWC Strengths:

  • Reliability- When they were being manufactured, Hondas had a reputation for being workhorses. They ran for a long time and didn’t break down often.  Incidentally, some of the last models took a few years to sell after manufacturing stopped, so despite how old they are, you can still find some used ones that have quite a bit of life left in them.
  • Performance- Hondas also had a reputation for their performance when they were being manufactured.  They did and still do rival many new jet skis when it comes to speed, power, and agility, which still makes them a favorite brand among jet ski enthusiasts.
  • Price- Perhaps the biggest pro to buying a Honda is that you should be able to get a great deal on one. Because they have been out of production for so long, any Honda you find will either have a lot of engine hours on it or have been sitting in a garage for quite a while, so you should be able to get a really good deal.

It Depends:

  • Maintenance- This could be either a strength or a weakness, depending on your viewpoint.  On the one hand, Hondas are easy to maintain and work on yourself because the older design is much simpler than many new models. On the other hand, as mentioned above, any Honda you find likely either has a lot of engine hours or has been sitting out of use for a while. In both cases, you may find that the jet ski needs more maintenance, which you may or may not be interested in doing/paying for.

Honda PWC Weaknesses:

  • Cost/Availability of Parts- All three of Honda’s major weaknesses are related to the fact that they are no longer in production. When it comes to maintenance, Hondas are easy to work on, but getting the parts may be a challenge.  You may have to do quite a bit of digging online to figure out what you need and find a way to purchase necessary parts.  Once you do, you might find that they’re fairly expensive because they’re not being manufactured anymore.
  • Outdated- The second major weakness of Hondas is the fact that their design and technology is now pretty outdated.  Hondas lack many of the comforts and added features of new models. For example, they won’t have built-in stereos, depth finders, or advanced steering/braking systems. These may or may not be important to you.

The Worst: Polaris and Tigershark

As has been discussed, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Sea-Doo are easily the best jet ski brands, and a compelling case can be made to keep Honda in the mix despite beign out of production for over ten years.  It’s pretty difficult, though, to recommend buying a Polaris or Tigershark if you are buying used. 

This is a contested topic, so by all means, seek out additional perspectives, but in my honest opinion, it is not worth it to buy a Polaris or a Tigershark in the year 2020 because they have the same cons as a Honda, but exacerbated, and fewer of the pros.

Polaris

Polaris PWC Strengths:

  • Price– The biggest strength Polaris has going for it is the price. You can find a used Polaris for between $300-2,500, which is way cheaper than most jet skis, even used ones.
  • Style– The second biggest strength Polaris has is their style. They were popular in the 90s and have a cool retro design. If you’re the type of person who likes classic cars, you might like a classic Polaris jet ski to have just for fun because it looks cool, but that’s about it.

Polaris PWC Weaknesses:

  • Reliability, Upkeep, and Features- Unlike Hondas, Polaris never had a great reputation for reliability, and now that they’re so old, it’s unlikely you will even be able to get one in the water without having to do some work on it first.  This work will likely be expensive because parts are going to be difficult to find.  Lastly, as with Honda, because Polaris has been out of production for so long that they lack many of the modern features that make newer jet skis more comfortable and safer.  

Tigershark

Tigershark PWC Weaknesses:

  • Tigershark is the only brand in this list that I have to start with the weaknesses on, which should tell you that they’re not a good buy. Of all six brands, Tigershark is the least reliable and the most difficult to find parts for.  Even when they were still being manufactured they had problems with reliability.  I don’t know about you, but if a company couldn’t even make a solid product when they were in their heyday, I’m in no rush to get my hands on one when they’re 20 years on the other side of production (which stopped in 1999).

Tigershark PWC Strengths:

  • I guess if we’re looking on the bright side, there were about three years in the late 90s (between ‘97-‘99) when Tigershark started to get their act together and came out with some pretty decent models.  (On the other hand, this is also when they got into a lawsuit with Yamaha for patent infringement, so there’s that).  If someone wants to give you a late 90s, working Tigershark, by all means take it, but that’s about the only circumstance in which they’re worth getting at this point.

Conclusion

Thanks to the internet, we live in a world driven by ratings and reviews. I, for one, rarely buy something as simple as a new stain remover without doing some research first.  The fact that we are willing to go to such lengths for even minuscule, everyday products should tell us how much more important it is to read good reviews on big-ticket items like a new jet ski. 

Buying a jet ski is not an inconsequential financial investment, and as such, should warrant some thought and consideration ahead of time.  I hope this guide has given you some reassurance that, for the most part, whichever brand of jet ski you purchase, you are going to be getting a good product.  However, not every jet ski is best for every rider.

Which brand, class, and model to go with is ultimately a personal decision. This is true whether you’re buying a brand new, top of the line Kawasaki, or a cheapo used Honda that’s been sitting in some guy on Craigslist’s garage for the past six years. Before making a final decision, try to make a list of what’s important to you when looking for a jet ski and see which brand or model will suit those needs best.

When in doubt, remember that Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Sea-Doo are the only companies still manufacturing jet skis, so if you want to buy new, those are your three choices.  Kawasakis are known for speed and power, Yamahas for reliability and safety, and Sea-Doos for affordability and customizable features. Kawasakis have a long history because they were the first to manufacture Jet Skis, but Yamahas are currently the #1 jet ski brand and Sea-Doos are the most popular brand with first-time buyers.

If you’re going to buy used, any of these three brands are still a good option, as are the long-outdated but still fan-favorite Hondas. They may not have produced a new model since 2009, but they still maintain popularity for their easy to work on, old-school design and high performance-ratings. 

Steer clear of brands like Polaris and Tigershark that are both out of production and that weren’t that great to begin with.  With so many other great options, there’s a jet ski to fit everyone’s priorities and budget while still getting a good-quality product.

Eric

I have been an avid boater / jet ski fanatic since I was a kid.

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