2011, November; Wisemans Ferry, Hawkesbury River: Malibu is highly regarded for its specialised ski and wakeboarding designs, and the company has also shown it is well aware of market trends. So this Axis A20 makes an interesting comparison with the car industry – but in reverse!
When Toyota wanted to expand its market potential, it moved into the more upmarket arena by introducing its Lexus brand. Lexus is wholly owned by Toyota but is run as an autonomous operation. When Malibu decided to address a different market segment, it also created a new brand but, as Malibu was already in the ‘upmarket’ domain of watersports boats, the new line was positioned in a lower price bracket.
The new name is Axis, and Malibu has formed the company Axis Wake Research to design and build boats that hold the quality and performance levels for which Malibu is renowned, but which are more suited to owners who are a little more budget conscious. For example, this Axis A20 is priced from around $65,500 as against the more upmarket Malibu Wakesetter VLX from around $80,500 (at the time of review).
In Australia, both brands are built at the superb Malibu factory in Albury and, if you’re at all interested in these tow boats, a factory visit is a great way to truly appreciate how well they are put together.
Axis boats are designed by a dedicated team, separate from Malibu-branded designs, but the same construction techniques are used including hand-laid, cross-core laminates and the all-fibreglass FibECS - Fibreglass Engine Chassis System. The boats retain a string of included features to make them more than competitive in their size and price bracket, but to achieve the lower price point there are less interior components and reduced electronics than their Malibu counterparts.
Nevertheless, the A20 still comes with cruise control and triple sub-floor ballast tanks plus it provides a pro-level wake. Additionally, it can be optioned up with items such as a plug-and-play ballast system and an auto-set Power Wedge (the Malibu transom-mounted hydro-foil that can be deployed to boost wake size and shape). Even if you are not interested in serious watersports, these facilities are great fun with which to play!
The Axis independent design team sure came up with a boat that looks different; the black colour with blue accents adds to a quite aggressive stance that’s further highlighted by the forward hull shape and a unique windscreen too. Even the rear vision mirror looks extra cool! It’s mounted on a bracket that curves inward from the front frame of the wake tower to be positioned in the best possible spot above and ahead of the driver. It’s a great combination of style and practicality.
Let’s get back to the hull through first. The chines, as they run toward the bow, lift up and stay parallel without the usual curving in toward the stem. The effect is to carry the beam of the boat right forward, so there’s lots of lift and buoyancy there, and loads of space aboard, but the keel line stays sharp for a soft ride. It looks quite like a tri-hull, or cathedral hull as they were sometimes called, but it’s not truly that – just a clever innovation of design that again mixes a terrific and unusual appearance with practical performance.
From amidships towards the stern, the hull is more conventional with a single strake on both sides and a small planing delta broadening toward the transom from a start point at the single turn fin. The inclusion of that last word in the name of the new company – Axis Wake Research – would indicate some careful investigation went into the hull design, and it certainly works well out on the water.
Although visually different from a ‘mainline’ Malibu such as a Wakesetter, the Axis is very similar when it comes to driving and performance. The skipper’s position is amongst the best around with a top seat offering good support, both from underneath and the sides. It’s comfortable too, adjusts fore-aft and swivels so the driver can more readily join in the conversation when the boat is stopped. For varying your stance at the wheel, an optional flip-up bolster gives a higher sight line. Even when sitting properly in the seat though, the view ahead is unrestricted as are the two big dials on the dash. All the switches and the throttle/shift lever are within easy reach and fall naturally to hand. The padded rim of the sports-style wheel feels good, and it looks good too with a polished hub and broad scimitar-curved alloy spokes. The wheel is tilt-adjustable while an angled floor panel makes an excellent foot rest regardless of individual leg length – helpful for those like me who are not so tall.
The dash panel area has a dark non-glare finish so there are no reflections in the screen. The two dials on the dash comprise a rev counter with inset digital readings that cycle through data such as (river/lake) water and air temperatures plus engine water temperature, oil pressure and volts, and a speedo that also has read-outs such as fuel level. Alongside the ignition key to the right of the wheel is the control for setting speed (cruise control), while the Sony stereo controls are to the left. Banks of switches are set a bit higher on both sides where they are easy to both see and operate.
Adding to the convenience of the driver are an armrest shelf behind the throttle/shift and a drink holder down to the right below a small storage pocket – the whole set-up is excellent, very well thought out and beautifully executed. And then there’s that superb ski (rear view) mirror on a magnificently manufactured arm that gracefully curves in from the wake tower; the arm looks marvellous and it positions the mirror perfectly – it’s maybe a small point, but it’s original and it just looks and works so beautifully – well done Axis Wake Research!
Motive force for the A20 came from a (standard equipment) 335 hp Indmar V8 that had all the grunt you’d need for any form of watersports. A 400 hp Raptor V8 is optional. For sure the boat would be great at any of skiing, wakeboarding, wake surfing or toy-towing, although the design criteria are more targeted at wakeboarding – and it’s a happy cruiser too for those times you just want to stay on the water rather than in it.
The V8 is rear mounted and operates through a V-drive to spin a four blade 14.5-inch diameter by 14.25-inch pitch prop. Throttle response was smooth and steady with strong punch away from rest; the bow lifts under the thrust from that 4-blade prop but is soon back down to an efficient running angle. The steering was light (3.5 turns lock-to-lock) with a pleasing level of feel as to how the hull was behaving – which was invariably just right as at tow and cruise speeds the boat felt balanced, and it held that stance even through tight turns. Again the ‘Research’ has paid off with an excellent matching of hull, engine and prop.
We carved up the water with a few figure eights then ploughed through those to see if it would upset the A20, but it didn’t and the hull slipped through the slop with no bumps or rattles. The wide bow area with those ‘non-curve-in’ chines didn’t seem to stop the boat riding softly and keeping its crew comfortable and dry.
I looked ahead below the top frame of the screen with a good view all round – including astern with that beaut mirror. The screen doesn’t have a side return and the end frame is wider than usual, but that didn’t affect my vision, and there was only just enough slipstream around the edge to provide fresh air so I doubt on cooler days that it would be too cold. The aerodynamics seem to have been thought out carefully, and the styling is clever too in this area for the sharply forward-angled lower frame for the wake tower makes it look like there is a screen return, but the open area makes it much easier for the driver to talk with a ‘boarder in the water. It’s another little aspect of the A20 that’s different and adds to its visual ‘stand out’ impact.
At 3,000 rpm the V8 and the A20 were just loafing along at 35 kph and a relaxed cruise was faster at 3,500 rpm and 47 kph. Edge the throttle further forward and you’d be really starting to eat the river at 4,500 rpm and 59 kph, whilst we found top speed to be 65 kph with 5,100 rpm. At any velocity, the A20 was a delight to drive and gave a calm, silky run for the crew. With all that Malibu tow-boat experience in the hull, and the Axis research, plus the ‘playability’ of triple ballast tanks and the Wedge, the wake could be set for any individual predilection.
Those triple ballast tanks (one amidships, two aft either side) add 360 kgs of displacement to boost the wake, and the optional ‘Plug ‘n’ Play’ adds extra water sacks under the bow seats and in the rear storage lockers (still leaving room for stowage) that give a further 590+ kgs of ballast. If that’s still not enough for you, add the Auto-Set Wedge for an effective jump of another 454 kgs and you have a total of a monster 1,400 kgs! Both the standard tanks and optional sacks are filled and drained through switches on the dash.
To cryptically sum up the interior of the A20, all you have to say is seats and storage. Not only the whole bow area can be set up with seats, but even the passage through the screen has seats! These can flip-up for seating or lay flat for movement fore and aft. With the removable bow fill-in cushion, maybe calling it a huge lounge arena might be a better description. The seats continue from that through-screen passage and wrap to port for a very good observer’s spot before flowing aft, then across the back of the cockpit and forward again to behind the skipper’s seat. The cockpit aft lounge can be slid forward for a different seating position, or it could be used as a table for snacks. Storage spots are everywhere including under all the seats, behind the observer under the screen console and either side of the engine under the full beam sunlounge. Drink holders, grab handles and stereo speakers abound too. The standard of upholstery and trim cannot be faulted, and there are LED courtesy lights and storage area illumination.
Soaring above the boat is the standard ‘FatAX’ tower with dual wakeboard racks and bimini shade cover which was stored in its sock for our run. The tower folds down so the A20 can be parked, on its trailer, under a ceiling or carport that clears two metres. The boarding platform is removable and the trailer draw bar hinges back so that overall length for parking is reduced to 6.45 metres (6.55 if a Wedge is optionally fitted). Incidentally, the galvanised custom trailer has 15-inch alloy wheels on dual axles, Dexter electric-hydraulic four-wheel disc brakes and a four-way bearer system to properly support the hull.
Axis set out to provide as much room and as good a wake as a larger boat can provide, and the A20 achieves those goals admirably. Despite the lower price point compared with its sibling Malibu-branded boats, the A20 carries an impressive list of standard features and inclusions.
Overall Length: 6.10 metres
Beam: 2.49 metres
Draft: 0.68 metres
Weight (boat): 1,451 kgs
Fuel: 182 litres
Power: Indmar V8 335 hp
Top Speed: 64.9 kph
Price from (at time of review): around $65,499