The Ultimate Debate

“Four thousand dollars! For a scooter? Why not just buy a motorcycle?”

That was the reaction a lot of folks might have when told the price tag of a premium, European-built scooter like a Vespa or the Honda SH150i you see here. After all, a $4000 motorcycle will give you more handling, performance and (most importantly) fun than a scooter. Or will it? That’s the question I wanted to answer when my lovely assistant – also an experienced moto-commuter – and I got our hands on the SH150i and a brand-new 2010 Kawasaki Ninja 250R for a month of testing in the San Francisco Bay Area. We rode to work, shopping, errands and for fun with the goal of finding out if a motorcycle is always a better buy than a similarly priced scooter.

Honda’s SH150i is noteworthy not because it’s packed with the latest technology, or that it’s the fastest scooter on the market. I picked it for this test because it’s stylish, fun to ride and has specs that are in the sweet spot of scooter design. It’s not too big, not too small and offers what may be a perfect balance of performance, economy and handling.

The SH is actually a European product, despite the Japanese name on its sleek plastic flanks. It’s been built in Honda’s Atessa, Italy assembly plant since 2005, and if you blur your vision you could be looking at a Piaggio or Aprilia design. It uses a sturdy tube-steel chassis with dual shocks in back and a 33mm fork in front. The 16-inch wheels get skinny bias-ply tires, a 100/80-16 in front and a 120/80-16 behind. Braking is performed with a 220mm disc in front and a drum brake in back, linked with Honda’s Combined Braking System (when you apply the rear brake it applies some front, but applying the front only actuates the front calipers). This allows for sporting use of the front, but safe, proportionate braking when the rear alone is used.

One hundred and fifty-three cubes may not seem like enough to get you around, but Honda has made billions and billions of dollars selling small high-performance four-stroke engines – Big H knows what it’s doing. The little liquid-cooled Single is almost “square,” with a 58mm bore and 57.8mm stroke – the better to balance top-end power with mid-range throttle response. A sporty 11.0:1 compression ratio and programmed fuel-injection wring every bit of potential out of the little feller, so the rider always has the right amount of power on hand whether trolling along in stop-and-go traffic or blasting away toward top speed. It can safely mix with 65 mph freeway traffic, even with a passenger, although going much faster than 70 requires a downhill slope.

The rest of the bike has standard scooter accouterments. There’s a small windscreen covering the analog instruments and digital clock. A fuel and temperature gauge flank the speedometer and tripmeter. A clip in front of the rider’s feet is there to hold a bag or purse, and there’s more storage (but not enough for a full-face helmet) under the seat and on the included parcel rack. A topcase can be easily mounted back there as well. It weighs in at just over 300 pounds gassed up, and the MSRP is $4499, although since there won’t be any brought in for 2011 (probably because Honda didn’t sell enough 2010 models), bargains are sure to be had.

In the other corner, about as different as you can get while still staying on two wheels, is Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R. Kawasaki has had a 250cc Ninja in its catalog since 1986, and it wasn’t really revised until 2008, and even then the modifications were more details than complete redesign—a testament to how good the bike was decades ago. At the heart of it is a dual overhead cam, liquid-cooled, four-valve-per-cylinder Twin that, back in the good old days, would rev to almost 14,000 rpm, mimicking the top-end hit of a two-stroke powerplant. Of course, that made it difficult for beginners to ride, as there was little throttle response or power on hand below 7000 rpm, so the revised version lost some of its top-end tuning to make it more user-friendly. It also has a more modern shim-under-bucket valve actuation, for longer stints (7500 miles) between services. There is no fuel-injection – carbs were good enough for grandpa, right? But at the end of the day, for a 250cc four-stroke, the Ninja makes around 26 horsepower at the wheel, practically unmatched in its class.

Don’t let that 21st-Century bodywork fool you; the motor goes into a similarly traditional chassis. It’s a diamond-style cradle made of thick-walled steel tubing, with a steel swingarm in back and a 37mm non-adjustable fork in front. The rear suspension is Kawasaki’s Uni-Trak design, with five spring preload positions. The wheels are 17-inchers, shod with budget IRC Road Winner bias-ply rubber, a 110/70-17 in front and a 130/70-17 in the back. A 290mm petal-style rotor gets gripped by a two-piston caliper for front brakes, and a 220mm disc takes care of business in back.

The rest of the bike gets finished in traditional sportbike clothing. The slick bodywork looks like a much bigger bike – if you’re a Ninja owner you’re used to people acting surprised when you tell them it’s a 250. It includes a small passenger seat, a windscreen and simple analog instruments. There’s no temperature gauge or clock, but there is a large fuel gauge. A 4.8-gallon tank means plenty of range, and that stylish exhaust system hides two catalytic converters. The wide, comfy seat perches the rider just 30.5 inches off the ground (almost half an inch shorter than the SH), about as low as you’ll find in the sportbike class.