Dag Pike finds himself smitten with the latest entry in the Prestige line up from Jeanneau, with technical mastery meeting fine design in equal measures.
I never ceased to be amazed at what modern powerboat designers can squeeze into a compact hull. French builder Jeanneau has outdone itself with this new addition to their range, creating a four-berth yacht in a 55-foot hull. The Prestige 550S is a sophisticated design, offering that sought-after combination of good performance plus great styling and innovation. However, French builders have been noted for their idiosyncratic approach to boat design, so in the 550S you do find some interesting new features that combine innovation and mainstream design to create a boat that has a character all its own.
The Prestige range from Jeanneau was developed to combine advanced design but to remain competitive against other major European builders. Jeanneau has previously focused on using Volvo Penta’s IPS drives for the Prestige, but for the 550S they have switched to the Zeus Drive and this certainly allows a huge amount of accommodation space in the hull. With the compact engine compartment, over three-quarters of the hull interior is dedicated to the comfort zone and the designers have made the most of this.
The master suite has its own entrance stairs leading down from the saloon, making this a really wonderful and private area. The master extends to the full width of the hull and the large windows enhance the space. A large bathroom and a walk-in closet extend across the width of the hull forward from the bedroom, so the owner is well insulated from his guests. In the port window, there are seats on each side of a small table that doubles up as a vanity unit.
The forward cabins are not quite up to the same standard, and they look much more basic with barely adequate stowage spaces. The bed in the forward VIP splits apart in scissor-fashion, so they can be used as a double or two singles. The two closets here are deep enough at the top for hangers but taper to almost nothing at the bottom so clothes may not lie comfortably. The twin berth cabin is adequate and you can specify an en-suite bathroom for this cabin, but that means the owner has to give up his walk-in closet.
There is a single berth cabin inside the transom, which has its access under the sunbed cushions and includes toilet and shower. Wide transom windows give great light in this compact space and it is comfortable enough to serve either for crew or as an isolated guest cabin.
At main deck level, the lounge behind the helm is very inviting, with comfortable seats and settees that have a great outside view. A large sunroof can be opened up above the helm, so that the 550S can be converted into a virtual open-air cruiser when the weather is fine. The windows in this roof give good natural light, even when we were in the gloomy weather of the test day. Another innovation is a TV set that hinges up from the dash on the port side rather than the conventional rising TV hidden behind the settees.
Aft of the lounge is the galley, which is well equipped and located to serve food both to the table in the cockpit or to the lounge/diner. The galley is one step down from the saloon deck level and this can catch you out because the step is not clearly marked on the dark wood floor. You also need to watch the stairs down to the master suite opposite because these intrude into the same deck area and could catch you out as you come in through the door. I would also like to have seen some more handholds to make moving around the boat more secure at sea.
Handling that Prestige
The Zeus drives, coupled to a pair of 600-horsepower Cummins diesels, add a whole new dimension to boat control, and Jeanneau has exploited these automation capabilities to the full. You can drive the boat on the throttles and the wheel as normal, but press a button and the boat goes into automatic trim mode, which can get you another two or three knots on the top speed. It is disconcerting that to get this extra speed the flaps are set almost fully down and this is on top of the designers adding a hook into the stern lines of the hull. Jeanneau claims this setup allows a good combination of low and high-speed performance and certainly the trim angle hardly changes throughout the speed range.
Press another button and you engage the Skyhook feature, where the boat will maintain a GPS-based position in the open sea automatically. This can be useful if you want to stop in harbour to put the fenders out and it could be an alternative to anchoring for lunch, but don’t go swimming with the Skyhook engaged because the propellers will turn without warning. Press another button and the autopilot is engaged to maintain course and this can also be set to follow a series of waypoints that you have previously entered. To add to this level of automation there is also a joystick control that combines propeller, steering and bow thruster to give fine manoeuvring control for berthing.
You almost wonder what is left for you the driver to do, and my feeling is that this is perhaps a step too far in computer control. It might have been a bit more user friendly if Jeanneau had not installed the control in front of the throttle levers where it is hard to reach and the control buttons are tiny making then hard to see and use. I liked the dash with its twin Raymarine displays either side of the wheel and the low key engine instrumentation, although two long lines of switches could cause some confusion.
The real bonus of this design comes in the brilliant visibility from the helm. Jeanneau uses narrow metal mullions to support the glass instead of the heavy composite mouldings used by other builders and it makes such a difference with no worries about boats and buoys being hidden behind the blind spots.
Outside, the optional teak decking adds a quality touch and the side decks are easy to negotiate. The 550S shares the same hull as the 550, which is the flybridge version. On the S version, there is a truncated flybridge with only enough space for a very private sunken sun bed. You could call it the Flying Sunbed, and it is a great spot to enjoy the sun.
The cockpit is spacious and the sun bed across the transom has a section that can be raised to form a settee back when dining out here. A tender would be stowed on the hi-lo swim platform, which would make for easy launch and recovery. However, the weight of a tender might knock a knot or so off the top speed recorded.
The 550S is based on a deep vee hull design and Jeanneau has managed to find a good balance in the sporty style but that anchor hanging out over the bow would add a bit to your marina charges. Inside the style is best described as sharp edged Scandinavian; it looks smart and clean, and owner inspired additions would help to soften the look.
As far as the handling and performance goes there are no complaints. There is plenty of power from the twin Cummins diesels to give good acceleration and to take the top speed up to a creditable 32 knots. The handling is taut and precise with the boat heeling reassuringly into turns. We had lively seas on the test run off Cannes and the 550S handled these well with little evidence of any slamming. That fine entry at the bow gives a significant improvement to the performance in waves. This is a very satisfying boat to drive.
Despite some criticism, I fell in love with the 550S. There is so much that is good about this new and innovative design and it offers so much, that I feel that it represents a significant step forward in power cruiser design. It has style to die for and performance to excite and accommodation that would happily grace a 65-footer. What more could you ask for?