by Bart Madson

2009 Honda Ruckus

After a couple dicey blocks dodging minivans and pickup trucks, I pull over to take stock of the situation. First, I realize the initial five minutes of my maiden Honda Ruckus voyage are five minutes too many. Second, I make the grim recognition that either I turn around and re-run a gauntlet of near misses and sketchy left turns back to the office, or navigate a half-mile stretch of 45-mph surface street to get home.

Anxious, I pull up to the right hand turn and head home – the 45 mph speed limit sign right there taunting me. Traffic is busy, so timing is critical. With a half block gap I wick up the throttle and pin it, slowly spooling up to 20 mph, 25 mph, 30 mph… 30 mph… 30 mph. I see the stoplight ahead – but good lord that’s a long, long ways away…

The Ruckus is abysmal for street riding, unfit for the majority of public roadways.

There, I said it. Not what Honda, or prospective Ruckus owners, want to hear – but it’s the truth. This isn’t the 250cc-powered Big Ruckus of years past. Nor is it a buzzy 49cc 2-stroke powering the bare-boned Honda scooter design. The 2009 Ruckus sources a 49cc liquid-cooled, 4-stroke Single, which is simply too small for real-world roads.

The low-30s top speed severely limit the practical turf a Ruckus is fit to prowl. A lagging throttle and meager acceleration complete the overall poor engine performance. And it only gets worse with the slightest elevation change, as top speeds drop to freakish levels – not even 20 mph in some instances.

On top of it all, the Ruckus is cold-blooded. During one week-long layover (one of many rider-less gaps, such was the disdain it generated…) the little scoot only started after about 20 frustrated minutes of deft throttling to warm up – even with its internal choke. Oh, and did we mention it’s really, really slow?

As for the reason why such a pitiful motor powers the scooter, our best guess is that some states don’t require a permit or training to operate sub-50cc scooters – making the Ruckus a popular, easy sell. The perverted logic makes less sense the more you analyze it: Give a completely un-roadworthy machine to riders yet to prove their riding ability. In fact, they may be purchasing one specifically to avoid doing so! It used to be sub-50cc scooters were more potent 2-strokes, but now 4-strokes are the default, casting the road-worthiness of the whole class in doubt – at least if the Ruckus is a fair representation.

“After my first few rides I could hardly find the words to describe how disappointed I was,” says Motorcycle USA Dirt Bike editor JC Hilderbrand. “There’s simply no power. Big Red makes a 50cc, 4-stroke dirt bike that will stomp this thing in a drag, and they sell them to kids who aren’t old enough to read. Why would you strap a full-sized adult on it and throw them into city traffic?”.

Stick a 125 or 150cc motor in the Ruckus and this review would be quite different.

At first the Ruckus drum brakes seemed a perfect counterpoint to the anemic acceleration! Coasting stops were met with amused disbelief, but after an adjustment and a modest amount of commuting miles (modest because we honestly avoided riding it) the dual drum units scrubbed in, somewhat. But the overall braking performance almost made us grateful the Ruckus is so slow.

“The brakes are woefully underpowered, not that it matters since it barely gets up to residential speed limits before the next stop sign,” deems JC. “We haven’t formulated a way to accurately quantify the drag coefficient of sneakers, but I would estimate putting your feet down offers an additional 30-50% stopping power.”

At this point, bagging on the suspension and riding position doesn’t quite seem fair – like kicking the little Ruckus on the ground after a bully just stole his lunch money. True, it’s a tiny scooter, with a low 28.9-inch seat and short 49.8-inch wheelbase. And, yes, it feels small in the saddle. The suspension units, a front fork (2.2 in. travel) and rear single shock (2.6 in. travel), aren’t meant for test riders of our size (180-205 lbs). But to be honest, we don’t have many complaints here, as the suspension/riding position is the least of your worries while rolling down the road.

By now compassionate readers are begging for clemency. Stop baggin’ on the Ruckus, right? I mean it has to do something well…

“It actually turns quickly, but only if you throw your knee out like a road racer to avoid having the handlebar hit your leg,” confirms JC after riding the lightweight Ruckus (197-lb curb weight – 89 front/108 rear), before adding. “Bulbous tires aid in shock absorption but it still rides like a scooter, not a Caddy.”

The big tires on the small 10-inch wheels do deserve some props, as they deliver good feel and even allow for some mild dirt excursions. In fact, the most fun we had aboard the Ruckus was after I made it home and spun it around in my backyard garden – of course, I was in a euphoric/celebratory mood having survived the treacherous ride home. Lightweight and maneuverable, apt descriptions all. If you never left a parking lot, the Ruckus would rule with absolute authority, parking wherever it pleased.

But back to the negatives… One of the regular perks of a scooter is the built-in storage capacity, of which the Ruckus has zero. Well, you can strap things down or jam it into the open space under the seat, but nothing even close to helmet storage.

“A complete lack of storage is the next major issue, and the ultimate deal-killer for me,” admits JC. “What’s the point in riding this thing around town if you still have to wear a backpack? The only ruckus this causes is with the owner who wishes they bought something else.”

Enough, enough… Mercy please.

“On the bright side (pun intended), it has awesome headlights,” continues JC. “Considering how wimpy the rest of it is, these Baja-inspired twin beams feel like overkill, but when it comes down to it, there’s no substitute for illumination.”

True, the dual lamps are bright, though you should stop sniffing glue if you compound the safety factor by willingly riding it in the dark.

“Oh, the horn is loud too,” adds JC. “Honda apparently realized after they built this cute little folly, that if riders wanted to stay alive they had better be seen and heard. Well, thanks for that.”

For all its negative traits, we get the Ruckus’ minimalist stylistic appeal – it’s one of the reasons we requested a test unit. That and the promised gas-sipping fuel efficiency, which in our limited mileage registered above the 75 mpg mark.

The Ruckus could shine in limited applications as a micro-commuter. Zippy scoot for the college campus? Yeah, maybe. Ride for grandpappy to roll down the dirt road from farm house to mailbox? Sure, it’ll do that. Be the coolest guy in the RV park? No question. But pit bike is the true calling of the Ruckus and we’d like to believe the majority of them are used in such ancillary transportation functions.

The problem is Honda pitches the $2499 Ruckus (2008 MSRP was $350 lower) on its website as a capable street machine with marketing tags like “it struts onto the urban scene” or that “zipping around town couldn’t be easier.” Trust us, the Ruckus doesn’t strut anywhere, and zipping around could be easier. Much, much easier!

On a more positive note, Honda is adding more variety to its 2010 scooter lineup with the 100cc Elite and 150cc Honda SH150i. In Europe the Honda SH is an incredibly popular mount, confirmed by a recent trip to Barcelona. Judging from our sidewalk view of the downtown Barcelona scooter GP, the SH150 is a far better street mount for real-world urban commuters.

In fact, we look forward to sampling the SH150 in the near future (provided Honda is still speaking to us…). As for another Ruckus test ride, we’ll pass.