Halfway into 2012 and the fast emerging scooter segment has already witnessed four new entrants. But which one of them will manage to rattle the cages of the long-standing king of the hill, the Honda Activa?
Scooters are boring. Period. Even if their exterior make up is funky and snazzy, under the skin they all are slouchy and well, essentially dull. Not to mention, the constant variable transmission (automatic gearbox) as found on most of them consumes half of the power produced by the engine and then goes onto guzzle more gas than necessary resulting in low fuel efficiency. So why do they even make them? And why does anyone even consider buying them? Both questions have one clear cut answer – functionality. The practicality and functionality that a scooter brings to the table does not have an equal, atleast on this planet. Right from the era of the Vespas and Lambrettas, scooters have shown incredible expediency for low-cost mobility across genders and age groups.
And especially in the present day and age where roads are getting congested every hour, saving time is critical and convenience comes at a high price, scooters manage it all at a bargain price. Today there are rather impressive models in the market and all of them carry peculiar USPs to cater to the burgeoning demand for scooters. Barring the old hat in the game, the Honda Activa, there are four new scooters that have entered the space this year with the Suzuki Swish 125, the Hero Maestro, the Vespa and newest entrant, the new Mahindra Rodeo RZ.
So the perennial question, ‘which scooter to buy?’ has just gotten a whole lot more difficult to answer than ever before. Is the Honda Activa’s reign going to remain or is the long waiting period going to be the chink in its armour? Or is it going to be the Suzuki Swish 125 that will rattle its Japanese rival? It could also be the desi duo of the Hero Maestro and the Mahindra Rodeo RZ that may slowly yet steadily crawl past the leaders. And what about the Vespa you ask? The Italian wasp’s price-tag of Rs. 66,660 (Ex-Showroom Mumbai) puts it in a different league altogether where numbers are not in focus but the brand is, but, it is still in contention and opens doors to a new class which could see more entries from other manufacturers.
Who’s got the look?
When this question cropped up on location at the shoot, the index fingers belonging to Muntaser, Ravi, Abhishek, Rahul and yours truly collectively pointed towards the Vespa, almost like there was nothing else in competition – which to some extent is the truth, sadly. The wasp-like silhouette that gave it the name Vespa (Italian for wasp) stands out from the rest of the pack with its retro-modern styling matched with fine attention to detail while maintaining its elegant and sophisticated form to suit the modern era. The only other serious contender for design to the Vespa amongst our line-up was the Suzuki Swish 125, thanks to its sharp and edgy lines flowing smoothly and helped largely by the dual-tone paint scheme adorning it with a sporty demeanor.
The Honda Activa even in its ‘refreshed avataar’ looks bland to appeal to any of the testers. Blame it on the age or the excessive testosterone levels generally found in the ZigWheels squad, the Honda Activa just doesn’t cut it for someone who is looking for flash and funk in a scooter. While the Honda Activa’s twin, the Hero Maestro does shed off more than just the Honda tag, while employing the same skeleton as the Activa. But the Maestro gets more muscle on the exterior with buffed up body panels, sleek design and body-coloured mirrors giving the Maestro the bearing of a much larger scooter than it really is. That is a brilliant job by Hero MotoCorp handing the Maestro with superb street presence that is further helped by the jazzy colour options on offer.
Least ominous with regards to size and street presence is the Mahindra Rodeo RZ. It carries a slim and trim physique of an athlete and the neatly done cuts and curves tend to go unnoticed due to its slender frame when compared to its company. Looking at it individualistically though the Rodeo RZ’s design is quite sporty and funky to appeal to a youngster and its lack of over-hangs and no extra bulk means it’s easier to park in tight spots as well as a boon when snaking through bumper-to-bumper traffic. Barring the Vespa, none of the other four scooters really break new ground in design and carry forward conventional design fundamentals that have been around since two decades.
Fuel for Thought
When it comes to scooters plying in the Indian scenario, power figures on paper don’t really translate into great sales numbers. Instead what works is peppy and smooth power delivery coupled with good fuel efficiency and to top it all, strong engine reliability. And no points for guessing, it is the Honda Activa that clearly leads the bandwagon of scooters in the country. The 109cc engine which replaced the dated 98cc motor on the Honda Activa in 2009, has shown incredible refinement in its new form and provides brilliantly smooth power without denting the fuel efficiency. The deficit in engine capacity over its major 125cc rivals has helped the Activa return a class leading overall fuel efficiency figure of 46.8kmpl.
With regards to the balance of performance and fuel efficiency running a close second is the Honda Activa twin, the Hero Maestro, which employs Honda engineering under its Hero moniker but boasts a slightly different engine tune resulting in better mid-range grunt than the Activa. However, the chunkier mid-range has marginally affected the fuel efficiency as the Maestro ran 45.1km on one litre of petrol. Surprise of the lot was the new and improved Mahindra Rodeo RZ, which despite posting a brilliantly quick time of 8.94 seconds in the 0-60km/h dash, returned us a fuel efficiency figure of 43.7kmpl under mixed riding conditions to take the third spot. The 124cc engine powering the Rodeo RZ has always impressed us with its strong performance, but the earlier version of the Rodeo was mightily thirsty for fuel and that has been bettered in its latest avatar along with some other changes that we shall speak about a bit later.
The Italian wasp’s entry has rather shaken the scooter segment and while some consumers might have thrown a fit, most of them are looking at the gorgeous scooter as rich boy’s toy. But there is more to the Vespa than meets the eye and it has certainly energized the rather bland scooter sector in the country. And at its price-point the Vespa is certainly not placed alongside the leader Honda Activa or the latest entrant, the Mahindra Rodeo RZ. But plying in the same space of scooters, the Vespa rides like a dream with a very healthy seamless throw of power right from the word go and despite being the bulkiest scooter amongst the crop weighing 114kg, the Vespa did exceptionally well with regards to performance, posting a time of 8.94 seconds in the 0-60km/h run. But the energetic 124cc engine pumping out impressive 10.2PS of power and 9.6Nm of torque is not exactly frugal as the Vespa only managed 42kmpl during our test. Couple the fuel efficiency to the premium pricing and this Italian lad here is certainly not for the average Joe Indian commuter but for the spender with taste in everything exotic.
So while I pretended to enjoy most of the scooters, (I admit liking the Vespa on occasions because it made me feel like a flamboyant movie star), the Suzuki Swish 125 changed my very perception about scooters on sale currently in the Indian market. Over a second faster than its rivals, the Swish 125 recorded a blisteringly quick 0-60km/h time of 7.7 seconds! But the obvious victim of this performance gain of the Swish 125 has been fuel efficiency with an overall consumption figure coming considerably low at 38kmpl. Factor in the rising fuel costs and the Swish 125 is a difficult proposition for the mileage conscious Indian buyer.
Moves like Jagger!
Honestly, all of the scooters are not too far off from each other with regards to fuel efficiency and cautious use of the right wrist will ensure each one of them adhere to the allotted monthly fuel budget. When riding on our traffic-clogged streets, of greater important is that the scooter is easy to ride and comfortable for daily commuting. It doesn’t have to impress with speed but has to deliver in matters of convenience and functionality which is deep-rooted amongst the Indian commuter. And the Honda Activa’s has managed all of it and more in one smooth sweep instantly winning over the Indian hearts with its neutral handling and rock solid stability despite running the smallest wheelbase of 1238mm. The Activa might not be the smartest looking scooter of the lot, but it sure does bring a host of impressive features along with it like puncture-resistant Tuff-up tube on the rear tyre and the Honda-patented Combi-Brake System. Though we wish Honda gave it telescopic front forks to bring the scooter up to pace with modern day equipment.
But then even the Vespa employs traditional anti-dive single-sided trailing arm suspension that has been serving all Vespa scooters since 1945 till present day, and it still does an excellent job at damping the road undulations and providing smooth ride on our roads. The well-mannered Vespa is a breeze to ride and while it boasts the longest in-class wheelbase of 1290mm, thanks to the exceptional dynamics of the monocoque frame, the Vespa turns in with minimal effort while its minimal over-hangs complimented by peppy power delivery make it a breeze to ride through traffic. The chink in the Vespa’s armour is not really the price tag it sports but the service network, which Piaggio will need to expand rather quickly if it has to match the might of its existing rivals.
Similar is the case with the Mahindra Rodeo RZ, which in our opinion is a brilliant product in its revised form offering nimble handling, increased ground clearance and improved stability. But the Rodeo RZ will need strong service backup and some more improvement with regards to parts quality in order to be a top runner in the scooter space. But knowing Mahindra 2Wheelers and the significant improvement on the new scooter, it shouldn’t be a problem for the Indian bike-maker to get good after-sales service and better parts quality in place rather soon. Aping the Activa, the Hero Maestro does offer similar level of handling and stability but offers slightly better value than the Honda as it sports a semi-digital console, combi-brake system borrowed from the Activa again, snazzier styling as well as fancy colour options, all for a marginal premium. Not to forget, the vast spread Hero service network that is present in remotest of locations in the country only strengthens its case furthermore.
The Suzuki Swish 125 on the other hand has performance written all over it. The only other scooter besides the Rodeo RZ in the comparo to sport telescopic front forks, the Swish 125 is a different animal altogether. Targeted at young people with its funky styling and young appeal, the peppy engine is matched by an equally able and potent chassis and superb suspension setup. A bit stiff ride quality one may complain but that’s just you being old, for the Swish 125 manages to thrill even the most dispassionate rider. Quick to turn and sure-footed, the Swish does not wallow or lurch at any given time. I stand corrected then. If it’s a scooter made like the Suzuki Swish 125, it certainly is not going to be dull and boring.
Clogged with 110-125cc scooters, the Indian space is opening up to peppier scoots that are not merely a mode of transport but a lot more fun to ride and exciting in their appeal. With regard to speed and performance, the clear winner amongst the five scooters here is the Suzuki Swish 125. Japanese giant Suzuki has been known for motorcycles like the Suzuki GSX-R1300 Hayabusa and the GSX-R1000, two icons of the motorcycle world. And believe me, the genes are prominently visible in the Swish 125 too. The 124cc motor pumps out 9PS of power and an impressive 9.8Nm of torque, but all that power is delivered in a creamy smooth manner with a constant surge thrown at the rear wheel. A whole lot quicker than its competition, the Suzuki Swish 125 also boasts an equally potent chassis and suspension set-up to offer an exceptional riding experience that is rare in the scooter arena. Well balanced and incredibly quick, the Swish 125 is the most exciting scooter of the lot, suited for those who like it fast!
The Indian market is looking for a reliable and comfortable mode of two-wheeled transport and despite a slew of launches this year, the Honda Activa still reigns supreme with its perfect packaging and excellent value-for-money helped by Honda's countrywide service network. The Vespa comes very close with its brilliant design, good performance and comfort but the price tag puts it way down the bang-for-the-buck meter. Better pricing and the Vespa would be a serious threat to the Activa. A surprise entry is the new Mahindra Rodeo RZ that does everything well at a bargain price, which gives it the third spot!