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words - Steve Kealy
Star Trek officers would use Transporter Beams to get around a busy city, but we have something much more fun...

In crowded cities, scooters are a good thing; since the venerable Vespas and Lambrettas of the 1940s, literally tens of millions of small-wheeled, bulbous-bodied, smoky scooters have been built and sold around the world. Cheap transport in a Europe shattered by war, scooters were intended to offer several advantages over small motorcycles. The Vespa was designed by an aeronautical engineer who in fact hated motorcycles; his design brief was to make a small, cheap alternative type of transport that would appeal equally to men and women, was easy to ride, would avoid the dirt and grime associated with motorcycles and could carry a passenger.

Corradino D’Ascanio – a General in the Italian Air Force and a Professor of Engineering at Pisa University – put the engine and gearbox straight onto the rear wheel, cutting out the motorcycle’s chain and all its associated oil and dirt. His step-through design overcame the challenge for women of wearing a skirt, and a wide front apron kept much of the rain and spray from a rider’s clothes. Seventy years on, his design is still with us. Although D’Ascanio – who died in 1981, aged 90 – probably never dreamed of building 500 and 650cc scooters, even maxi scoots like Yamaha’s TMAX and Suzuki’s Burgman are true to his basic design.

So too, is Honda’s PCX 150, which is essentially identical to its PCX 125 little brother bar the extra cubes. Unlike its distant ancestors, the PCX 150 isn't powered by a ring-rattling two-stroke engine spewing eye-watering blue smoke, its transmission doesn’t depend a upon twist-and-hope left handlebar grip, and its brakes don’t need to be helped by dragging one foot on the ground. In typical Honda fashion, the scooter has become socially acceptable.

The PCX is a 21st-century citizen with a big social conscience. It has quick and silent electric start, the eager 153cc fuel-injected engine whirring quietly to life. It has a twist-n-go continuously variable transmission (CVT), so there are no gears to change. It has two luggage compartments, anti-theft security devices, exhaust-cleansing catalytic converters (two of them) and even idle-stop technology to cut down on fuel consumption, exhaust emissions and noise – the engine cuts out when the bike’s stopped for more than a few seconds.

At first the latter is disconcerting, but there’s a button where a motorcyclist would expect to find an emergency ignition kill-switch that bypasses the idle-stop function so the engine will remain running when at rest. But it doesn’t take long to gain confidence that the bike will restart – just touching the throttle will instantly reignite the willing engine and of course it also engages the transmission. The Honda goes from inert to zipping along in a blink, plus it’s quick – from a standstill, it out-accelerates anything with four wheels and will surprise many bigger-engined two-wheelers, too. With the CVT holding the engine at optimum revs, the PCX150 builds up to an urban speed quickly and seamlessly. And remarkably, it will happily zip along at a sustained 110km/h – maybe even more, but we couldn’t possibly confirm that.

The svelte scooter is stylish, with its red wrap-around bodywork and bright lights, lamps and indicators. Under the remote-release seat there’s a large luggage boot; it’s big enough for a helmet and some other gear, up to a maximum of 10kg. An external steel hook can secure another helmet when parked. There’s also a 1kg-capacity glovebox under the left handlebar – big enough for a wallet and phone – though Honda says it’s not suitable for valuables or fragile items. In the instrument binnacle and behind a vestigial flyscreen, there’s a speedo, a fuel gauge, trip meter, and a host of warning lights – but no clock. Its absence on a vehicle likely to be used for getting to meetings is a major oversight. Keeping the scooter safe is a neat metal shutter that covers the ignition key’s slot – a common theft procedure is jamming a big screwdriver into the lock and this shutter negates that.

A minor fly in the PCX ointment is rider comfort. Coupled to a somewhat harsh ride – the suspension is stiff and doesn’t offer much compliance over sudden bumps or at higher speeds – there’s a hump in the seat, perhaps to keep the rider in place under rapid acceleration. But the long-term result is to enforce a ‘sit-up-and-beg’ stance that becomes tiring after an hour or so; the stylish footboards don’t offer many options for foot placement and that doesn’t help.

Braking is achieved by two identical levers, bicycle style; although common with auto or shiftless scooters, this is unlike scooters of yore, which often had a foot pedal on the floorboards. Honda fits a disc brake to the front wheel and a contained drum to the rear, and although the 14in wheels carry narrow tyres, the braking effort available is remarkable, especially at the rear. Even on dirt roads, it was possible to dish out a great deal of stopping power before the wheels began to lock.

Similarly, on unmade roads the CV transmission gave just enough power to create a slight trace of wheelspin, but at no stage did the Honda get unmanageable, nervous or scary. Many scooter riders could be wary of tackling unmade roads, but the PCX150 was remarkably composed and reassuring in this environment, which admittedly isn’t exactly part of its design brief.

Clever, neat and convenient design touches abound – the messy bits are well-hidden and a huge exhaust heat-shield keeps unwary legs and clothes away from hot bits; the passenger ’pegs slide neatly sideways for use, but when they aren't required they look like stylistic details. But the best part of the slick and quietly capable Honda was its frugality; despite being ridden almost entirely in a ‘spirited’ fashion – that is, with the throttle pretty much pinned to the stop most of the time – fuel consumption simply would not reach 3lt/100km. Ridden in a more appropriate, sedate fashion, that number would assuredly drop down towards 2lt/100km. That's about $3.00 of fuel for every 100km travelled, and that alone is a compelling reason to give the $4000 Honda a serious look. Even more than that though, is the fact the thing looks just so darn good.
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Published : Thursday, 18 October 2012
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