Small motorcycles and scooters are common on city roads around the world, but not so much in Canada. Here, they’ve got a few things stacked against them.
First, the weather. Most riders don’t want to bundle up to brave the cold, and in any case, two-wheelers are unsafe on snow and ice. They cannot be relied on as year-round transport.
Second, the legislation is intimidating. A motorcycle rider must have a motorcycle licence – whether you’re riding a 125-cubic-centimetre runabout or a heavyweight Harley-Davidson. In some provinces, obtaining a scooter licence is less demanding, but it’s still required.
Third, why invest in a mini-motorcycle when you can just ride an electric bicycle? There are no extra charges for registration and insurance for bicycles, there’s no licence needed, and you can use dedicated bicycle lanes or paths. Some electric bikes even look just like motorcycles.
And fourth, there’s no advantage to motorcycles in getting through city traffic, as there is in most of the rest of the world. Generally a motorized vehicle in Canada isn’t allowed to share a lane with another motorized vehicle (e-bikes for the most part are not considered motorized, but assisted), which means no passing in the same lane, which means no riding between vehicles, even if traffic is stopped. When there’s congestion, the law says motorcycles must wait in line with all the other vehicles, whatever their size and regardless of whether there’s space to pass safely.
So why is Honda Canada bothering to promote its family of five very small motorcycles for urban transportation?
Derek Verheyen, Honda Canada’s product planning manager, says it is all about creating an interest in motorcycling, and also bolster loyalty to the Honda brand of motorcycles. It’s done a good job of this with off-road bikes, and now it want to do the same for its street bikes.
“Now we can get somebody to look at [the motorcycle] industry for the first time and say, I want to start here, work my way through, maybe go to a custom bike later or a real sport bike later in life,” he says.
The least expensive Honda street motorcycle is the Navi, which starts at $2,299 and is new to the lineup this year. It was originally designed for the Indian market, where it sold for less than $1,000, and it’s both basic and stylish. It uses a 109-cc scooter engine that produces 7.8 horsepower and is attached directly to the rear swing arm – that plastic box where the engine should be is actually a surprisingly practical locking storage box.
The made-in-Mexico Navi performs like a scooter, with a continuously variable transmission and twist-and-go throttle, but rides like a motorcycle, with a fairly tall and comfortable seat, and foot pegs to each side. The gas tank is large enough for only 3.4 litres, but that will take you more than 150 kilometres. It uses a carburetor and linked drum brakes, and top speed is about 80 kilometres an hour if the wind is behind you.
I did not feel vulnerable riding the Navi in downtown Toronto because it was quick enough off the mark to let me get some distance at traffic lights. I certainly felt safer than when I ride a bicycle on the street. When I wanted to stop and park, I just tucked it out of the way, as I would a bicycle, though parking is free in Toronto for all motorcycles at municipal lots and at marked on-street sites.
And if traffic is stalled, it would be tempting to thread through slowly and carefully. Technically it may be illegal, and therefore not something we can recommend, but at 107 kilograms the Navi is simple to manoeuvre.
Honda makes even smaller bikes: the $3,699 Ruckus and the new-this-year $3,299 Giorno are both scooters, with step-through space for your legs and a twist-and-go throttle. They both have 49 cc engines and differ mostly in their appearance: funky-future for the Ruckus and Euro-chic for the Giorno. I only rode the Ruckus and the little 4.3-horsepower engine was just too slow off the start for me; as well, I didn’t feel comfortable tucking in my knees so close to the handlebars.
The larger $3,949 Grom has been around for a few years and it’s pretty peppy, with a 124 cc engine and a five-speed manual transmission (up one gear from last year’s model) that will help it pass 100 kilometres an hour on a good day. It has sophisticated suspension and fuel injection and is even more fuel-conscious than the Navi, with an official consumption of 1.4 litres per 100 kilometres from its six-litre tank.
And then there’s the retro-cool Monkey bike – very similar to the Grom, but the most expensive at $5,299. Its fat tires and twin shocks soaked up the potholes and didn’t get caught in streetcar tracks. Like the Navi, it was quick enough to not be a concern in traffic, yet was still light and easy to ride.
Are these enough to tempt people away from electric bicycles and into motorcycling? Honda thinks so.
“There’s a certain nimble aspect to these motorcycles, like parking, like storage and how easy they are to care for and look after,” says Verheyen. “There’s a low cost of ownership, so you can still own a car, but also own a motorcycle.
“They give you the freedom to go where you want, outside of public transit. There’s an appeal of performance [and] a feel of riding. It’s the whole appeal of the motorcycle experience.”