by Gabe Ets-Hokin, Contributing Editor

Honda’s iScooter?

I will admit that I was one of those schlumpy-looking geeks lined up outside the local Apple store a couple of weeks ago in the pre-dawn chill, comparing apps with the other geeks as we waited for our new iPhones. I’ve had an iPhone for a couple of years now, and while it’s not perfect, (hey, who would think a consumer would actually hold a phone while he’s talking on it?) there’s something very right about Apple’s products, as if the company actually thinks about how its devices will be used. What a concept, right? That seems to be a core element of Apple’s success, along with brilliant marketing, skillful use of component sourcing and inexpensive labor to provide nicely finished, high-quality products to market for affordable (if not exactly bargain) pricing.

For cell-phone and consumer-electronics fans, these might be mind-blowing concepts, but for those of us accustomed to two-wheeled travel, it’s old news. Honda Motors has been using a very similar formula for most of the last century: bring a well-engineered, utilitarian product to market at a decent price, add a dash of clever marketing, and watch the Yen roll in. In 2009, Honda sold 14 million two-wheeled motor vehicles worldwide. Consumers have been clamoring for Honda scooters before Steve Jobs was out of diapers.

So this review of the 2011 PCX scooter won’t be too surprising to those of you familiar with Honda’s products: it’s predictably well-engineered, carefully marketed and pleasing to ride. But it still reflects the dynamic nature of the Japanese company.

We told you about the new scooter a couple of months ago when Honda announced a worldwide launch of the new product. That’s a little remarkable: Honda develops smaller models like scooters for other markets and then brings them to the USA a year or three later. Not this time; the PCX is set for an international launch, with only a few small differences between what US buyers will get from their counterparts in India, China and elsewhere.

The PCX fits into what may be the sweet spot for a global scootering product. At 125cc, it fits right in between the smaller entry-level models and the bigger freeway-legal commuters. It’s not too fast, not too slow, not too small and not so big that it will discourage newbies. In fact, Honda expects 60% of PCX owners will be first-time buyers. It’s a range with the most sales potential – a nod to a slowing economy and even more sluggish bike-sales numbers, I’ll bet – as well as offering fun and frugality to the consumer.

What’s interesting is the technology included in the PCX’s $3399 MSRP. That 125cc motor is a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, single overhead cam design with an 11.0:1 compression ratio. Honda’s V-Matic automatic transmission gets power to the rear wheel. The frame is steel tubing with a unit-construction swingarm and the wheelbase is a lengthy 51.4 inches. Wheels are 14-inchers with skinny bias-ply tires, a 90/90-14 in front and 100/90-14 in back. Braking is handled by a 220mm disc and three-piston caliper in front, and a drum in back. For a twist, there’s an interesting combined braking system on the PCX. The rear drum is linked to the front three-piston caliper with a delay-spring mechanism that prevents the front brake from being activated before the rear, maximizing braking by evenly distributing stopping force between the front and rear wheels. How do they pack that much tech into a budget-priced scoot? Simple: the PCX is Honda’s first offering to the USA market from its Thailand factory.

One technological trick left out is an “idling stop system” that automatically stops the motor during prolonged idling and restarts it as the throttle is turned. It’s claimed to net a 5% savings in fuel economy but was left off the US version because riding here tends to be a mix of urban, city and rural riding, which would minimize the benefits of the urban-intended system.

I got to ride the PCX through the Beach Cities south of LAX and then along the cliffs of Palos Verdes. It was a good mix of twisty residential roads, fast, busy, multi-lane arterials, and bumpy, two-lane cliff-side roads. The speed limits ranged from 15 to 55 mph, a good sampling of modern traffic conditions.

Like all Honda products, the PCX felt well-made, familiar and friendly. Build quality is very good, with nice paint and lots of interesting details to take in, like the chrome handlebar and bezel around the steering head that contrasts stylishly with the ultra-modern plastic bodywork. The seat isn’t too low (at 29.9 inches), but it is narrow at the front, making the bike easy to handle, even for shorter people. Operation is predictably simple: twist the throttle and you’re off.

Underway, the PCX is zippy, responsive and easy to ride. The motor is happiest at lower revs, where it provides instant response and surprising torque from a standstill. Steering is quick and light – no shock, given the PCX’s 280-lb ready-to-ride weight. Coming to a stop is just as easy as starting with the combined brakes, and though the bike stopped as quickly (maybe even quicker) as the other scooters I’ve ridden in this category, it was difficult to lock the rear brake; ideal for new riders.

Out on the open road, the PCX is just as friendly. Thanks to the long wheelbase, the bike still feels stable in higher-speed turns, without losing that magically fast steering. Lean angle is sufficient to have fun, although the centerstand tang scraped in the very sharp left-hand turns. The suspension has more damping and travel then I’ve found on other budget scoots, giving a compliant ride – even on the landslide-punished bump-fest coastal road around Palos Verdes. The seat is comfortable for a while, there’s ample legroom for average-sized people and there’s even a bit of wind protection at the max speed of around 60 mph. High-speed cruising isn’t its forte, as the motor got a little noisy and felt buzzy and strained at maximum throttle; not surprising for a 125. A small price to pay for the claimed 110 mpg economy, which means the PCX could squeeze 176 miles out of its 1.6-gallon tank.

When you get where you’re going, the convenience of a scooter is hard to beat, and the PCX is no exception. The 25-liter trunk has room for a full-face helmet (not every full-face helmet, but my Nolan N43 made it in there) and a small bag of groceries. A helmet hook provides back-up in case your lid doesn’t fit, and there’s a small non-locking glovebox under the instruments. An accessory rack and trunk offers even more capacity. The instrument panel is small but complete, and its fuel gauge didn’t decline by a single bar in our 50-mile test loop. A parking brake – handy on a sidestand-equipped scoot, as you can’t leave it parked in gear like a motorcycle or car – makes sure the PCX stays where you park it.

Although I didn’t get too much time on board the PCX, I could tell it’s an innovative and highly functional transportation device. The 14-inch wheels offered a good compromise between stability and quick steering, while providing a good ride over bumps and potholes. The fuel-injection gets the most out of the little motor while returning model-airplane-like fuel economy, and storage and passenger-carrying capability is on par with much bigger scoots. But most importantly, it’s fun and easy to ride, and thanks to the Thailand outsourcing, it’s priced in line with its competition without sacrificing a lot of quality.

So is the PCX the iScooter? Sadly, motorcycles and scooters are not must-have items in the USA, so don’t expect to see widespread iPhone-like adoption of the PCX, or lines of scooter fans in front of Honda dealers when it hits the showrooms in August. But at least Honda scooter shoppers will have plenty of choices, with the PCX, in red or white, fitting right in with the Ruckus and Metropolitan, Elite 110 and SH150. Maybe you can’t download apps off the Honda website, but the PCX still nicely rounds out the small end of Big Red’s scooter lineup.