A scooter or a motorcycle can be a tough decision for a beginner. Begin by looking at what the machine would primarily be used for and compare the pros and cons of each.
On the other hand, the Ninja isn’t exactly a WWI battle cruiser. It’s not that much heavier, has more pep off the line and its quick steering and light controls make it almost as fun in tight quarters. And get it out of town, to a twisty, bumpy, (maybe downhill) road, and look out. You might not be able to have as much fun on anything with two wheels. If you don’t believe me, do a trackday on a Ninja 250 and experience passing open-class motorcycles on the outside. Can you do that on a scooter? Yes, but only if you rent the whole track and there is nobody else there. In fact, a scooter, even one as versatile and good as the SH, does have limits to its functionality. But a motorcycle like the Ninja? Hey, it tops out at around 90 mph, go-to-jail speeds in most places and can hold its own against much larger bikes if properly ridden. That means if you can do it legally on a motorcycle, you can do it on a Ninja 250R. You may have a little more fun in some situations on a scooter, but you can have more fun, in more ways, on a motorcycle.
Many motorcyclists have a sort of benign bigotry towards scooters. The perception is that scooters have a design that’s inherently dangerous. They’re too light, too top-heavy, the wheels are too small to be stable, the front end doesn’t have enough mass over it, they don’t have enough power to escape a road-raging SUV, and so on. Many of the statements I’ve heard or read reveal massive ignorance about scooter design, physics or even the actual fact-based world. “Scooters lack visibility,” said one guy, as if motor vehicles have little eyes built into them somewhere. “With your feet placed side by side [on a scooter’s floorboards]…you will be much less stable,” posits another self-appointed expert. I have no idea what that means, but I now ride my motorcycle with my feet end-to-end for maximum safety.
The truth is that although there have been no studies specifically comparing the safety of scooter vs. motorcycles in any country (so far as a five-minute Google session could discern – I invite readers to send me evidence to the contrary), a giant European study of motorcycle crashes (MAIDS) found that “whilst scooters represented the majority of accident cases [because scooters are the majority of powered two-wheel transport in Europe], scooters were not over- represented in accidents.” Anyone who has ridden both types of vehicles knows that there are good and bad design choices for both motorcycles and scooters. Tiny 8-inch wheels? A good way to get swallowed up by a pothole. Ape-hanger handlebars and a 10-foot wheelbase? Try making a quick swerving maneuver on that one, Easy Rider.
Granted, the basic scooter design that puts most of the vehicle’s weight on the back tire limits the vehicle’s capabilities, but it’s far from inherently unsafe. And true, scooter brakes often don’t compare to a motorcycle’s, but the modern designs provide more than adequate stopping power. A top-quality, well-engineered product like the Honda is every bit as safe as a motorcycle. The fact that low-quality imported junk from no-name brands or the badly abused ’87 Razz you rode in college actually are deathtraps doesn’t prove all scooters are unsafe, any more than the crash of a Soviet-built airliner means that you should never get on board an airplane again.
Another safety hazard of scooters doesn’t actually have anything to do with the scooter’s engineering. It’s the carefree, adventurous nature of the scooterists themselves. The perception is that while a motorcycle requires full roadracing gear and lengthy training and preparation, one can ride a scooter with no training and minimal (or no!) clothing, let alone motorcycle-specific protective gear. It’s a syndrome that even I confess to succumbing to, but I urge everybody who rides a scooter, or wants to ride a scooter to understand that if you crash at 40 mph, the laws of physics don’t care if you fell off a motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, or were just pushed off the back of a moving train – the results will be the same. Attend an official motorcycle or scooter training program (start out by going to www.msf-usa-com) and wear a full-face helmet along with abrasion and shock-resistant, motorcycle-specific jacket, boots, gloves and trousers every time you ride. My number one rule? Don’t be an idiot, which applies to all transportation modes.
There are also lots of folks who automatically gravitate towards scooters because they are intimidated by working a clutch and gearbox. To these people I say do not go out and buy a scooter. Or a motorcycle. The first thing you need to do is be properly trained. The MSF’s Basic RiderCourse is 15 hours, of which less than 90 minutes are spent just learning how to shift gears and modulate the clutch. What about the other 13.5 hours of potentially life-saving skills
you’re skipping out on? Just getting a motorcycle or scooter started out and rolling in a straight line doesn’t mean you know how to ride; it’s just one skill of many. Get trained! After a month of having a choice between the two vehicles, we’re still undecided. The easy answer is to buy both, of course, but there are folks out there who can’t do that for whatever reason (just sell your car!). To them, I would say look at the features and benefits of any vehicle to decide if it meets your needs, but don’t be a moto-bigot and decide you have to have a motorcycle because they are somehow inherently cooler or better than scooters. Making mostly inner-city trips with a few high-speed hops? A scooter may be the best choice. Do you live in the suburbs and mostly use your car for errands? The motorcycle could serve your needs better.
So, here we are with our $4500 to spend. Does the scooter still seem overpriced compared to our Ninja? Granted, there are similar scoots (like the Kymco Yager I tested earlier this year) for a lot less, but there’s a far greater differential between a Honda Accord and a BMW 528, and like the BMW, the Honda is a European-built, premium product – the Kawasaki is not. People also point out that $4000 will buy you a lot of used motorcycle. The Suzuki SV650s and other models can be had for that by the bucketload – but $4000 will buy you way more used-scooter value, so it’s kind of a wash, isn’t it?
Things are priced according to supply and demand. If you’re in the market for a scooter, the SH150i, with its great fuel economy (Honda claims 95 mpg—we saw around 70), excellent quality and good performance is right in the hunt. The Ninja 250R is surprisingly capable as a motorcycle and lots of fun as an urban weapon, too. Whatever you ride, you’re out of your car and having a ball, and that’s what matters.