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What's Behind Popularity of Oversized Scooters on Tokyo's Roads?

Special from Japan Today By Justin Gardiner

Until recently, domestic sales of Japanese motorcycles had been on the wane, as the increasingly affluent locals opted for four wheels instead of two. Then, over the past few years, an unlikely new style of bike reversed that trend—the so-called ¸ber-scooter. Is this blip on the statistical charts the start of a genuine return to two wheels, or merely a fad in the fashion-obsessed capital? After all, the majority of people who ride these hybrids appear to be style-conscious college students or “freshmen” in their twenties.

We asked three veteran Tokyo motorcyclists to test three large scooters from each of the big manufacturers. None would ordinarily even consider riding such a scooter—at least not in public—but we wondered if spending a week enjoying the convenience of a step-through body and plenty of luggage space would win over our city commuters?

Skywave good-bye First up was Charlie Lipton, a former California Highway Patrol rider and owner of several classic bikes, from BSAs to BMWs. Lipton tried out a 400cc Suzuki Skywave, and once he got it moving, his questions—“Where’s the clutch? How do I get it into gear?”—showed clearly that the scooter would have to have a very high convenience factor to convince him.

“If you commute between any two points in Tokyo, or any other largish city, the Skywave will get you wherever you’re going safely and comfortably,” he says. “A quick twist of the throttle produces a negotiation session between the carburetor, centrifugal clutch, and final drive that results in a…stately climb away from the stoplight. Acceleration produces a similar input-to-results lag that’s more reminiscent of a turbocharged car than a bike.

“The Skywave is ridden by planting one’s backside in a large upholstered seat [that has] a convenient backrest, then placing one’s feet forward on the floorboards. Long-legged riders will quickly find that having their backside below knee level with no tank to squeeze is an uncomfortable way to sit. After spirited riding, your feet always end up about 25cm can’t train the road racer out of your system that easily.”

Go Forza it “Mike-the-Bike,” a former London motorcycle messenger and big bike enthusiast, had similar issues with the seating position of the Honda Forza 250cc, but he found a few things to like, too.

“The controls, what few there are, are sensibly located and work fine,” says Mike. “The handbrake at first seemed quite superfluous but soon proved its worth at traffic signals. However, the fuel gauge didn’t seem to move for the first 80km, after which it plummeted. The right handlebar lever operates the front brake, whereas the left lever—where I would normally expect to find a clutch—applies both front and rear brakes in unison, in what Honda call a “Combined Braking System.” I was amazed at the stopping power of the CBS, having failed miserably to make the wheels lock despite strenuous attempts. In contrast to the forward dip on a real bike, CBS brings the machine to rest rather like a plane touching down, with most of the weight on the back wheel.

“Unlike some of its siblings, the Forza has no rear trunk, but the under-seat compartment will comfortably take a full-face helmet and waterproofs, or even a B4-sized briefcase, and there are two useful pockets in the aft fairing, one of which holds a square 500ml PET bottle very steady. Being directly above the engine, the under-seat compartment does get very warm, so you probably won’t want to use it to bring your ice cream home from the supermarket. But it has a light so you can see to clean up your melted B&J’s when you forget.

“The Forza is great at what it does, which is to get the rider from point A to point B quickly and easily. So why don’t I really like it? My main problem is that driving the ¸ber-scooter is boring. Unless you’re in stop-go-weave traffic, there’s nothing to do! At half a million yen, I certainly wouldn’t consider buying a new one. But if I found a really cheap one or was given one, I might keep it for running around town.”

What a drag Third rider Mike Lloret doesn’t own a sport bike; rather, he tools around on a chopper with a seating position not so different from the Yamaha Majesty test scooter.

“It’s comfortable enough...rather like driving an easy chair,” he says. “However, even with my only reasonably long legs, I suspect that having my knees a bit higher than my butt might become uncomfortable after a couple of hours. More importantly, if I put my feet flat on the floorboards, my knees interfere somewhat with any steering that requires moving the handlebars, so my feet are usually up in front of me on the angled part of the floorboard. Not such a different angle from that when riding my [Yamaha] DragStar, but perhaps not very comfortable for someone used to riding in a more crouched position with feet farther back.

“One thing about riding these scooters in the rain: your feet don’t get nearly as wet, since the floorboards fend off much of the splashing as you go through puddles and the like. This is balanced by the windshield height and angle, apparently designed for someone under 170cm, that sluices rain and wind directly into your face.

“There’s much less sensation of speed at around 60 or 70km than on my bike, possibly due to its very quiet engine. Acceleration is smooth to 80 or 90km/h...not necessarily a good thing, since it’s essentially the same smoothness regardless of whether the throttle is twisted with a vengeance or with languor.

“My basic impression was that all it is—or will ever be—is a rather powerful, heavy scooter. Not a motorcycle.”

Last lap While the sessions produced no real converts, one of the riders nonetheless suggests that the oversized scooters are more than a passing fad.

“The Skywave is aimed at ‘nice’ people, who do ‘nice’ things,” Lipton says. “Going to clubs, going to the park, going shopping, heading to the beach, parking in front of trendy sidewalk cafes and drinking tea… Its design is pointed squarely at riders whose knowledge of tools may extend to knowing which end is the handle [or] whose knowledge of performance is knowing which end is the front of the bike and how to make it go in that direction at least as fast as everyone else. These are the kind of buyers that manufacturers and dealers love. They don’t just buy a bike, they buy a service relationship. They buy brand name parts. They’re the buyer that keeps on giving. That’s why large feet-forward step-throughs are unlikely to go away soon.”