Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Scooter Diary Part 2 - Region of Manufacture

Scooters come in all different sizes, shapes, prices, and packages. They can, however, be grouped into a discreet number of categories, first by region of manufacture, then by size of motor, then by body style, and all by price.

Keep in mind. This is not meant to be a definitive, scholarly, side-by-side comparison of every brand of scooter. These are merely my impressions and opinions.

REGION OF MANUFACTURE

Scooters are manufactured in Japan, China, and Europe. Yes, you can argue that Taiwan is not China, but let’s not quibble.

• JAPAN
The major Japanese scooter builders are Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki – the motorcycle folks. Their scooters are uniformly more expensive than a Chinese scooter of comparable engine displacement, but may be less expensive than European counterparts. More on price in a subsequent post.

Simply put, the engineering, fit, and finish of Japanese scooters is on the whole superior. The term ‘bullet proof’ applies. Not that there aren’t occasional operational quirks to be noted. But on the whole, nobody designs and builds a scooter better than the Japanese. Because Japanese scooters are available from a wide network of factory authorized dealers with comprehensive service departments, warranty services are readily available. And because most independent motorcycle mechanics are accustomed to working on major brand Japanese motorcycles, post-sale service is not a problem even in areas without a particular marque’s dealer.

I can attest to the fit, finish, and economy of operation of Japanese scooters. I bought a Yamaha used, put 1,000 miles on the clock, sold it for exactly the price that I purchased it, and I never took a wrench to it and never saw the inside of a dealer’s garage.

So if the object of the exercise is to buy a scooter, hop on board, twist the throttle, and take off down the highway without a care in the world, and if price is not a particular concern, buy Japanese.

• CHINA
The Chinese are famous for their knockoffs – knockoffs of designer clothes and accessories, knockoffs of copyrighted intellectual property, knockoffs of a capitalist economic model. Chinese scooters are no exception.

Their motors (designated GY6) are knockoffs of Honda motors. Their chassis designs are knockoffs of the designs of the Japanese and Europeans. And like a Chinese-manufactured fake Rolex, Chinese scooters are cheap. Cheap in price – up to one-third the price of a Japanese scooter of similar displacement. Cheap in construction – manufacturers save money by not spending time on the labor necessary to smooth down welds, by using low-grade rubber for hoses and cheap spark plugs, by …well, you get the picture. Cheap.

You don’t jump on a Chinese scooter and ride into the sunset. You at least change all the fluids and, if you’re smart, the tire’s valve stems. You check all the nuts and bolts for tightness. You change the fuel filter and keep an eye on the fuel lines. And then you jump on and ride. And you keep checking and checking and checking.

There are no dealer networks for Chinese scooters because there are no recognized marques like Yamaha or Honda. Jonway is becoming a reasonably well known name, but Jonway scooters are manufactured under license in more than one factory. The majority of Chinese scooters are sold over the internet (eBay is a favorite shopping place for both scooters and parts) or by single-store importers. Warranties are worth about what you would expect under such circumstances. And because Chinese scooters have a reputation for cheapness (there’s that word again) and because they have found their market niche by underselling the name brands, it’s hard to find a mechanic who will deign to work on them. As a result, a prerequisite for owning Chinese scooter is a willingness to serve as one’s own mechanic.

Having said all of that, I chose to own a Chinese scooter after I sold my Yamaha. I’ve got a good set of tools, I’m relatively handy with them, I have time for one more hobby, and there are plenty of internet resources available to walk me through the most complicated maintenance and repair jobs. I’ve had it for a year, I’ve put 5,000 miles on the clock, and my scooter has never needed servicing that I couldn’t provide myself.

• EUROPE
I’ve never owned a European scooter, so believe me or don’t.

For many years, the image conjured up when the word ‘scooter’ came up in the conversation was of the Italian Vespa. Stylish and zippy, Vespa had the field to itself for decades. The chassis design is distinctive and has therefore been copied by just about every other maker. Now other European manufacturers like Sachs in Germany and Peugeot in France are in the business. But Vespa and their Italian competition Aprila dominate.

European scoots are like European sports cars. Have I mentioned stylish? Goes without saying. But there’s a dark side. Like European sports cars, European scooters tend to be finicky, as individual as their human owners, with their own quirks and foibles. You don’t work on a Vespa, you get to know it and come to an accommodation. There are substantially fewer dealerships than the Japanese but more mechanics willing to work on them…that is, if your mechanic can come to an accommodation…

Again, we’ll have a more detailed discussion concerning price later, but generally the European scooters are in the same price range as the Japanese and in some instances more expensive.

• TAIWAN
OK, so I lied. Taiwan deserves at least a paragraph or two.

There are a few recognizable marques – Kymco and SYM come to mind – and the Taiwanese also build scooters under license for other more recognizable brand names…which shall remain nameless. Their quality is generally superior to the Chinese, inferior to the Japanese, and as you would expect, they are priced between the two.

Both Kymco and SYM are building dealer networks but they are still few and far between. If there’s a dealer near you, Taiwanese scooters are a reasonable alternative if you don’t want to get your hands greasy but don’t have the money to go Japanese.

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