2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F First Ride

October 11, 2011
Gabe Ets-Hokin
Gabe Ets-Hokin
Contributing Editor |Articles |Articles RSS

Gabe Ets-Hokin is a well-known motojournalist, but he knows scooters well, too: he's been a factory sales rep for Derbi scooters, re-built a Vespa motor in room 107 at the Elvis Presley Motor Lodge in Memphis, TN and has edited several scooter buyer's guides. He unapologetically loves da' scoots.

Photos by Nelson and Riles

Stop! Slick red-painted caliper and 180mm wave rotor work as good as they look.
The immensely popular Yamaha Zuma 50F was fitted with a 49cc four-stroke Single for 2012 to reduce emissions.


No, that’s not Frank Sinatra coming to visit. That’s the sound of a two-stroke 50cc scooter motor zipping up one of San Francisco’s hills. It can make it up that hill because a two-stroke powerplant makes roughly twice the power as a four-stroke mill of the same displacement, which means that for many of San Francisco’s tens of thousands of scooterists, a cheap, cheerful, simple 50cc two-stroke steed was all they needed for years of transport-ainment.

And then along comes the mean old Man, in his many iterations – state, local and federal agencies looking to clean up the air and quiet things down. Two-strokers make good power, but they also dump a lot of unburned fuel and burnt-up oil into the atmosphere. Sure, cleaner-burning two-stroke motors can be built, but for whatever reason, the number of two-stroke scooter models available in the USA has shrunk to almost nothing.

The latest victim was Yamaha‘s second-generation Zuma 50. Immensely popular, with almost 64,000 sold in the U.S. since 2002, the Zuma offered sporty performance at a decent price. Two-stroke fans will lament the passing of its light weight, low price and surprising power for such a diminutive engine size.

Not too fast! Yamahas three-valve Single provides adequate  but not very exciting power.
Not too fast! Yamaha’s three-valve Single provides adequate, but not very exciting power.

Or will they? For 2012, Yamaha brings us the Zuma 50F, choosing my hometown of San Fran to show off how suited it is for the dense urban environments it will call home. At the tech briefing, Aaron Bast, one of Yamaha’s product planners, illuminated what went into the design.

Yamaha conducted focus groups in the U.S. and Canada to find out how 50cc scooter buyers wanted their rides to look and perform. Turns out that the Zuma’s audience is diverse, with almost 30% female and a huge distribution in age. Usage is broad too – 53% use it primarily for transportation to work, school or errands, but a third use it mostly just for fun. When asked why Zuma buyers purchased their mounts, styling, fuel economy and price were heavily represented responses. What did they want the bike to look like? Rugged, dirt bike styling and image kept coming up – along with a conflicting message about a desire for rider roominess and comfort.

Instrumentation is minimal but adequate. Old-school analog odometer is ready for 99 000 miles of cheap thrills  but makes recording fuel economy challenging.
Instrumentation is minimal but adequate.

So there aren’t a lot of surprises packed into the 2012 Zuma 50F. The basic platform is lifted from the late and maybe not-so-missed Yamaha C3 (say “sea cube”), which looked kind of like a baby casket on wheels and was unceremoniously dropped from the 2012 lineup. Still, as bland as that bike may have been, it had a pretty good engine – a three-valve, liquid-cooled Single with fuel-injection and triple-digit fuel economy. And the four-stroke design offers advantages beyond better fuel economy. It’s also cleaner burning (it’s even got dual catalyzers to meet the toughest environmental standards), runs cooler, has better torque off-idle and warms up faster. Yamaha claims 132 mpg, although that insanely economical figure is based on exhaust-emissions testing, not actual city riding.

The chassis is a tube-steel design under plastic bodywork that offers some new features the C3 and old Zuma lacked. There’s a telescopic fork in front with a chunky, semi-knobby 10-inch tire in front, with a 180mm wave-style brake rotor and snappy red-painted single-piston caliper. Handlebars are now moto-style, with an exposed, replaceable tube handlebar like the Zuma 125‘s. The rear suspension is by non-adjustable monoshock, and braking is handled with a mechanical drum on the 10-inch rear wheel. Seat height has

2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F
The Zuma even includes a cup holder for your cappuccino.
2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F
If there’s a better way to get around a dense urban environment than a 50cc scooter, we haven’t found it yet.

crept up a bit to 30.7 inches, but the scooter is basically the same size. Surprisingly, claimed wet weight is actually two pounds less than the 2011 Zuma’s 207 pounds.

Comfort and styling weren’t ignored. Clear turn signal lenses lend a Euro look and the front brake disc, caliper and rear spring get hip red highlights. A luggage rack, cup (or glove) holder, folding bag hook and 23 liters of underseat storage add practicality. A fuel gauge lets you know when the 1.2-gallon gas tank (located under the floorboards) is empty. Unlike the C3, there is room for a passenger, so long as nobody is in a particular hurry.

The fun began when Yamaha’s Tim Olsen explained the format of the demo ride. Instead of your usual lead-and-follow jaunt along a pre-planned route, a scavenger hunt was laid out, with photo stops and orders to be back by 5:00 pm. A cake walk for me – I drove a taxicab in San Francisco for seven years, and I knew that a small scooter was the best way to negotiate S.F.’s warren of narrow, traffic-choked byways. But would the new four-stroke mill be enough to keep me alive and happy?

Not a problem. The Zuma’s torquey motor has good response off the line (although it seems to be tuned more for top end than off-the-line acceleration) and will carry most riders up even the steepest hills in S.F. – 18% grades in some cases. The Zuma’s rugged looks were matched by brakes and suspension up to the challenges posed by S.F.’s potholed, bumpy streets and criminally inattentive drivers. There was no spot in the City’s 49 square miles I couldn’t reach, and I had a great time doing it.

Sure, I often wanted more power, especially when I had to haul my pregnant wife to the hospital for an appointment, but with a Zuma 50F, as slow as it is, you’re still going to get anywhere in San Francisco faster than by bicycle, bus, car or train. The Zuma will get up to an indicated 40 mph or so if you give it enough room and will give you back 109 mpg (I measured fuel consumption after riding an unbroken-in example hard for 50 miles), even if you’re riding flat-out, and believe me, you will be riding WFO.

Yamaha C3
Yamaha’s C3 was economical and fun to ride, but had a face only a mother could love. It’s gone from the ’12 lineup.

Sure, you could soup up that two-stroke Zuma and leave the four-stroker in the dust (or more accurately, a big cloud of blue smoke), but you will not make friends with neighbors, cops, old ladies crossing the street, small children, or anybody else sensitive to the pollution and noise a tuned two-stroke emits. It’s also probably going to give up a little reliability when you swap out the stock parts and start bolting in those expensive, delicate kit exhaust and motor components.

Because a scooter like the Zuma isn’t about blasting around as fast as possible. It’s about reliability and function. Hop on it, thumb the electric starter and go. When you get to your destination, squeeze it in between two cars, toss your full-face helmet under the seat and wait for your bus and car-confined friends or co-workers to arrive. Gas is cheap – I spent $1.36 riding around all day – and maintenance is affordable too, with 6000-mile valve-check intervals and a tiny amount of oil to change.

But it’s not just all about cheap and practical transportation – even the most penny-pinching CPA likes to have fun. The Zuma 50F is every bit as fun to ride as the older, less socially responsible model. It’s so light and steers so fast you almost forget you’re riding anything. It’s fast enough to keep up with most traffic (although you should pull over to get out of the way on very long, steep uphill grades), and it can fly through corners in ways a larger motorcycle can’t imagine.

Bug-eyed lamps carry on the Zuma styling theme weve seen since the 80s. Focus groups rejected other styling options.
Bug-eyed lamps carry on the Zuma styling theme we’ve seen since the ’80s. Focus groups rejected other styling options.

It’s not perfect. The seat did get a little dreary (but to be fair, I was riding it for hours on end, which isn’t its mission) and it’s really too slow for a passenger, unless you live somewhere flat and slow-paced. And I hate to bring it up, but at $2540, it’s not exactly a bargain (although it is just $50 more than the 2011 Zuma). There are a lot of high-quality scooters, also built in Taiwan, that offer similar or more performance for the same price – or a lot less. But Yamaha’s products exhibit a high level of quality in design, performance and engineering that justifies the premium pricing. Because of that there are scooterists who love the rugged looks and sassy character of the little Zuma, and will accept no substitutes. Eighty thousand of them since the first Zuma was brought to the USA, to be exact.

Two-stroke fans may lament the end of the oil-burning Zuma, but for the rest of us, Yamaha’s distinctive bug-eyed scoot lives on. The four-stroke has all the fun, character and economy of the old bike, in a slightly more eco-friendly package. Zumas will continue to climb San Francisco’s steep hills and get riders to work and school with smiles on their faces, even unaccompanied by the cheerful buzzing and heady aroma of tuned two-stroke exhaust.

Check out the 2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F Specifications and rate this motorcycle in our Buyer’s Guide.