Why can’t they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What’s the matter with kids?
What’s the matter with kids?
What’s the matter with kids today?
– “Bye Bye Birdie,” 1958
Seriously, what is the matter with kids these days? I’m not talking about the weird unpronounceable drugs they take (LSD was good enough for grandpa, and it’s good enough for you! Why, in my day we didn’t have Oxycontin: we had to steal Valium from our mothers…) or their penchant for mixing gangsta’-style ball caps with Dead Kennedys T-shirts (“um, I think it was like a TV show or something”) or even their creepy obsession with social networking websites (“What? You only have 1100 Facebook friends? You know, you can totally get treated for Social Anxiety Disorder…”). No, my beef with them is their seeming disinterest in two-wheeled transportation.
When I was 18—and maybe this describes you, too—I discovered scooters and I could think of little else besides food and sex (hey, I was 18). I had no Wii, no X-Box, no MySpace. But I had a Yamaha Riva 180, there was no helmet law, and to say I felt an awesome rush of freedom accelerating up to that bike’s sizzling 65 mph top speed is serious understatement. Suddenly, suburban Marin county didn’t seem so remote: San Francisco was 20 minutes away and I was a man of the world. Twenty-two years later and that feeling of liberation has yet to diminish.
Which is why a phone conversation with Yamaha Motor Corporation USA’s Product Planning Manager, Derek Brooks, was a shocker. Yamaha’s zippy, zesty, seemingly youth-oriented Zuma 125 scooter isn’t being bought by youths. The average age of Zuma 125 owners is a Methuselah-ish 48. In fact, 49 percent of Zuma 125 buyers are over 50, while only 11 percent are under 30. “You would imagine the kids that grew up on dirt bikes would naturally transition to scooters as they reach the driving age.” said Brooks. “However, we’re not seeing as much of that as we would like. They typically get too focused on getting their first car at that point.” A car? Really? They are missing out, because when it comes to getting your first taste of automotive freedom, it’s tough to beat a simple, fun scooter like this.
For many years, Yamaha has had its Zuma scooters built by vendors—the first one was built by MBK in France, with later models coming from a company in Taiwan. Yamaha now makes the Zuma 125 in Yamaha’s own Taiwanese facility. It’s pretty standard scooter construction, with a tube-steel chassis and plastic bodywork. Twin shocks hold up the back end, and the skinny 27mm fork tubes get plastic covers to make them look more beefy and protect them from debris. What is beefy are the fat, semi-knobby tires, a 120/70-12 front and 130/70-12 rear designed for grip and handling on a wide variety of surfaces, and maybe—just maybe—to pull those kids from the motocross track over to the scooter side of the showroom. A disc brake in front a drum in the back handle stopping duties.
Widely spaced mirrors, easy-to-read instruments and wind-cheating handguards make the Zuma 125 nicely equipped.
The engine is built for reliability, torque and efficiency. It’s a fuel-injected, four-valve, four-stroke Single with a single overhead cam and sporty 10.0:1 compression. Electric start makes operation easy, and an oiled-paper filter keeps off-road operation from ruining the motor, which uses a built-in centrifugal oil filter: an oil change is just that, with no new filter required. Transmission is fully automatic CVT with belt drive.
Styling is simple and aggressive. Those big rally-racer headlamps light the night with twin halogen bulbs—one for a 60w high beam, the other a 55w low—the leg shield is narrow, there are dirtbike-style handguards bolted to the exposed tube handlebar, and a compact (but complete with fuel gauge) instrument panel hides under a tiny fly screen. The frame tubes are exposed, and kind of like Marky Mark, the scooter manages to look tough and cute at the same time.
Gabe found the Zuma 125’s seat surprisingly high. He’s 5-foot-6 (but says he’s 5-foot-8), for reference.
Getting on board the Zuma, the first thing I notice is that it’s not your average Asian-sized scooter. It’s roomier than a 50cc Zuma and it’s a good fit for me at 5-foot-6. The seat is high, giving plenty of legroom but actually making it hard to reach the ground at stops unless I slide forward. It is broad and comfortable, and there’s plenty of room for a passenger. Extenede trips may reveal the thin nature of the foam, but at least there’s about five gallons of storage under the seat: a full-face helmet fits just fine with careful positioning. There’s no rack, just a grab handle, but a rack is available in Yamha’s accessory catalog. It’s rated for just 10 pounds, so it may not be the best mount for an aftermarket topbox, limiting the Zuma’s cargo capacity. There is also no bag hook in front, although Yamaha’s accessory catalog does include a Big-Ten-ready beverage holder.
Starting and going is as easy as it gets. Fuel-injection and electric start ensure the engine fires quickly and is instantly ready to roll. Acceleration is snappy, with noticeably more torque down low than the two-stroke 50cc Zuma. Staying ahead of cars and SUVs is no problem, and the bike keeps a stable, substantial feel at speed. Top speed is just under 60 mph tucked in, and although I may or may not have been able to barely keep up with slow-moving traffic on Orange County’s slow-moving 405 freeway, the 125 is not legal for use on divided roadways in California and other states. Instead, like the Honda Elite 110, it’s perfect for fast-moving suburban arterials that might swallow up a smaller scoot. Stopping from the tiny front disc and rear drum is adequate, if not eyeball-flattening.
Handling is, as you’d expect, similarly trouble-free. Although the 125 weighs in about 60 pounds heavier than the 50, the wheelbase is just a half-inch longer at 50.8 inches, so quick steering and a light feel is in full effect. The bigger tires don’t really slow steering much, but they do go over potholes, curbs and landscaped college quads nicely, and the quasi-knobbie tread gives confidence (if not that much actual grip) on dirt and gravel. Psychological or not, that apparent dirt-readiness makes the Zuma 125—and 50—a leading choice for the RV crowd.
The main difference between a scooter review and a motorcycle review is that practical, day-to-day functioning is center stage when you’re writing about scooters. If the Zuma was a motorcycle, I would have a hard time getting excited about it: 55 mph, which is close to top speed on the Zuma, is where an open-class sportbike shifts into second gear. But can you put your helmet under the seat? Can you ride it while drinking a beverage? And how are you feeling about that insurance payment, bunky? For day-to-day, run-of-the-mill trips around town, nothing beats a scooter, and a ruggedly built, low-maintenance scoot like this Zuma especially fits the bill. Should you maintain a bike like this by the book? Of course. Do you have to? Probably not: I worked in a scooter shop in San Francisco, and the profusion of wretched-looking Yamaha Riva and Zuma scoots that still staggered here and there, zombie-like, after years—decades, sometimes—of abuse was a daily surprise. Will a highly-tuned sportbike stand up to the kind of neglect and abuse that is sure to befall a two-wheeled vehicle used as daily transportation? It can, given enough time and energy. Or you could just get a scooter and occasionally check the oil. Or not: it’ll probably run for years anyway.
A good example of how to not get good gas milage from the Zuma. Although fun per gallon is through the roof!
It won’t use much gas in that time, either. Yamaha claims 89 mpg in EPA testing, which isn’t real-world: expect more like 50-70 mpg, depending on how you ride. That should be good enough to squeeze almost 100 miles out of the 1.6-gallon tank. That’s a lot of trips to the video store or other short-to-medium-range hops.
So given this attractive, low-cost, fun and easy transportation alternative, why aren’t the young folk buying cheap, cheerful scooters and small motorcycles like their parents and (I hate to say this, fellas) grandparents did in the ’60s and ’70s? Maybe it’s money: although a new 2010 Zuma 125 is just $3190 (adjust it for purchasing power and it’s the equivalent of about $560 in 1970 dollars), the recent financial crisis (remember that?) has tightened up credit, making it likely that a younger buyer won’t be able to “finance the steam off a hot bowl of soup,” as a crusty old sales manager of mine liked to say. Sure, scooter and motorcycle prices in real dollars haven’t gone up too much, but the cost of other things—medical care, tuition and housing—have really shot up, making purchases of “fun” things like motorcycles tougher.
Another reason may be distractions: there are a zillion things young people can spend money on. From snowboarding to BMX bicycles to Cancun vacation packages, everything is relentlessly marketed to youths 18-30. And that marketing is sophisticated, with many billions of dollars spent annually to reach youth buyers. Yamaha and the other motorcycle manufacturers are as forward-thinking as the next guy, but fighting such odds must be daunting.
It’s a shame. The Zuma 125 is as good a scooter as you’ll find; tough, durable, flexible and a blast to ride. Forty years ago, that was enough to get a whole generation onto two wheels: today, you can’t even get their attention, and that’s a shame.