“When I am here, I always ask American people: Do you know Kymco?”
Well, do you?
That’s what Kyang-Yang Motors Corporation (KYMCO) Senior V.P. Kou-Chang Su wants to know, which tells us that Kymco, is at least trying to understand the American market and stay in the game for the long term. That market includes a few cheaply built, poorly supported, copied designs schlepped by sleazy, fly-by-night importers selling their shoddy products for a few hundred dollars on eBay-and then disappearing.
Kymco is not one of those guys. It’s been busily making millions of high-quality small-displacement machines in Taiwan since 1963 and now makes a huge array of scooters, motorcycles and ATVs for customers in 88 countries, as well as making vehicles and components (like powerplants for BMW) for other OEMs. In the USA, the brand has developed a reputation for value and reliability among its 700-plus dealers, and its distributor, Kymco USA (of which the factory owns a 50-percent stake) is staffed with motorcycle industry veterans from brands like Aprilia and Bombardier. And like other serious companies, Kymco treats the U.S. moto-media like the rock stars that we are, flying us out to gorgeous Asheville, North Carolina to show off its newest products.
The biggest news is the Downtown 300i. Unveiled at the 2008 EICMA motorcycle and bicycle show in Milan, Italy, the 300i is notable for its sharp, European design, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected 33 hp (claimed, and serious power for a scooter this size) 299cc motor and giant seat that encloses enough stowage for two full-face helmets. It also features a 12v socket to charge your cell phone, relatively large tires (a 120/80-14 in front and fat 150/70-13 in back), dual disc brakes (with floating rotors in front), an anti-theft locking ignition switch, tachometer and a giant (by scooter-standards) 3.3-gallon gas tank. At 367 pounds of claimed dry weight, it’s a lot lighter than most other maxi-scoots. The 60.8-inch wheelbase is long, but a full inch shorter than Kymco’s Xciting 500Ri.
On the road, the Downtown handled as crisply as it looks. Kymco USA’s President Eric Bondy called it a “GSX-R, except it’s a scooter.” I’m not so sure about that, but it was very fun to ride: quick turn-in and good stability, with good cornering clearance and little of the annoying scooter handling quirks. The brakes worked well, too, and power was impressive given the bike’s displacement. High-speed commuting shouldn’t be a problem with this scooter: it’s comfortable, has great wind protection, lots of storage space and Kymco claims 65 mpg from the very similar 250cc motor in other models. It will be available in late 2010 as a 2011 model: no word on pricing, but expect an MSRP somewhere between the $4499 Grandvista 250 and $5249 Xciting 250 Ri.
Additionally, there’s the Yager 200i. It’s been available in other markets, but is now in the USA as a 2010 model. It’s powered by a zesty 175cc four-valve, liquid-cooled Single wrapped in styling that is distinctly Chinese, rather than being a take on a European or Japanese model. I really like riding this bike; a liquid-cooled, 200cc scoot is a perfect blend of light weight, price, and power. The Yager fills the bill. Handling is great, thanks to a claimed 308 pound dry weight, short 56.2-inch wheelbase and good suspension. The smaller wheels (a 13 up front and a 12 in the back) don’t spoil the fun, since the bike doesn’t feel unstable at high speeds yet is still ultra-nimble at low speeds. Power is impressive, too: it happily cruises at an indicated 70 mph and accelerates briskly. But the best part is the value. At $3499, it’s only $500 more than Honda’s new city-streets-only Elite 110.
Also coming as a 2011 model is the Like 200. It’s a retro-styled air-cooled four-stroke, and it looks more like a Lambretta than a vintage Vespa: apparently Quadrophenia trumps Roman Holiday in Taiwan. Despite its good looks, the power was disappointing, with the two-valve, 163cc Single struggling to climb hills at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s posted 45 mph speed limit. It’s 49cc two-stroke little sister, the Like 50, was almost as fast and at $2099 should be an able around-town runabout. Look for that little mill (cleaned up by a catalytic converter to make The Man happy) to appear in the sport-styled 2011 Super 8 50 2T as well.
I was also eager to try out the Quannon, Kymco’s 150cc sportbike. It’s now Kymco’s sole U.S. motorcycle offering, as the Venox, a 250cc cruiser, was dropped for 2010. The Quannon has a twin-spar, tube-steel frame, 17-inch wheels, disc brakes and an air-cooled, four-valve, sohc single-cylinder motor. The wheelbase is a tidy 53.3 inches and claimed dry weight is just under 300 pounds. I wasn’t expecting overwhelming performance, but did it have enough pep to ride safely in traffic and have fun on twisty roads?
Sure, as long as you temper yourself with low expectations. The Quannon gets up to 45 mph as quickly as most cars (as long as they don’t know they’re racing you). The motor revs quickly up to its 11,000 rpm redline, with a surprising little hit of power over 9000 rpm. With a long downhill grade and a tailwind, I was able to see 80 mph on the big digital speedometer readout. This was all on a motorcycle that had essentially been pulled out of a crate from Taiwan and had the front wheel bolted on by Kymco USA’s technicians the day before: I saw one mile on the analog odometer when I started it the first time, and it held up well to two days of abuse.
The Quannon’s handling is what you’d expect from a 300-pound machine with a 53.3-inch wheelbase. Steering is quick and the spring rates are just right for this 155-pound rider, although damping was too light. Also, the bar position and steering geometry are conservative, but it’s hardly an issue with such a feathery bike. The seat is comfortable enough for an hour or two, the bars set you in a slight forward lean and there’s even some wind protection. Seat height is a claimed 31.5 inches, but feels much lower since the bike is so narrow at the seat-tank junction.
The downside to the Quannon is the lack of power: it struggles on long uphill grades and cruising speed on flat ground is about an indicated 65 mph. But the motor felt like it was being corked up by a restrictive exhaust, and I wonder what a little tuning could do. What I really wonder is how much fun this bike would be with the zippy liquid-cooled mill from the Venox cruiser, or the 500cc motor from the Xciting 500Ri: it would add a lot of weight, but would still be lighter and potentially cheaper than Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R. Are you listening, Mr. Su?
There are other little nits I could pick: the tiny front brake caliper is lacking in both force and feel, suspension damping is largely absent (as I stated earlier), and at $2999, it would be a hard sell against a decent used bike. But this isn’t meant to be a hard-core mini sportbike: it’s a bike for laid-back commuting and weekend fun, and it’s a cool grand less than the 250 Ninja, with twice the Ninja’s warranty. It delivers all the performance and fun of the Euro-market 50cc two-stroke sportbikes that we can’t get here, and would be a fine first bike for a teenage rider, or someone who just wants something to tool around on. After all, I spent two hours enjoying the beautiful roads of scenic North Carolina and even though I could have used a little (okay, a lot) more power, I never felt endangered or in anybody’s way as long as I stuck to two-lane roads, city streets and short hops on the Interstate.
We also had an opportunity to settle an old debate: are bigger wheels better than smaller-diameter ones? Kymco set up an MSF-inspired cone weave course and U-turn box so we could test all the varieties of wheel sizes. Riding the 17-inch-wheel-equipped Quannon 150 back-to-back with the 12-inch-shod Like or 16-inch-wearing People S and other models makes me think that vehicle weight, wheelbase and chassis geometry are much more important than just wheel size. As for high-speed stability, the 13-inch front hoop on the Yager 200i felt just as stable as the 15-incher on the Xciting 500Ri, even at freeway speeds. A good addition to the test would have been some strategically placed two-by-fours to see how much better a 16-inch wheel handles bumps and obstacles than a smaller rim.
Spending two days riding its products showed me that Kymco’s model lineup isn’t the sexiest, flashiest, most innovative or even the lowest priced. What it does offer is a broad (with 13 models ranging from 50 to 500cc) mix of well-designed and -built scooters that riders can confidently enjoy for years.