Monday, June 8, 2009

SYM Citycom 300i

I’ve always felt that the sweet spot for scooters is in the 125-200cc range. 50cc bikes have always seemed like a letdown, and Barcaloungers like the Honda Helix (at a whopping 250cc) and its descendants (pushing towards 1000cc these days) were just not interesting to me. Obviously, different people have different tastes and needs, and it’s great to see such a wide range of scooters available these days, but to get around the city and the occasional longer ride, 150 cubic centimeters was always sufficient for me.

For reasons an engineer might be able to explain to me someday, 300cc is a rare displacement, and SYM’s new Citycom 300i (and its only “300cc” competition, the Vespa GTS 300 Super,) actually feature notably lower-than-300cc displacement engines (262.8cc and 278cc, respectively). The next step up, 400cc, is equally rare, with 500cc being a more common benchmark. But the lack of 300cc scooters is a shame, because the Citycom is a joy to ride, and features more than enough power for anything short of extended highway touring.

Commuting on the highway (especially on Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway) is a bit frightening on any 150cc scooter, but on the Citycom, it was downright pleasant, with quick and even acceleration on the ramps, a balanced and comfortable ride at highway speed, and no problem keeping up with moderate traffic (top speed is allegedly 80mph, I hit 70 a few times with plenty of throttle left). In fact, I felt every bit as confident on the interstate as I did on Piaggio’s MP3 250.

Ergonomics are good, if you prefer the upright seating position of mid-sized scooters, as opposed to the laid-back, feet-forward design of larger touring scooters. Like most modern scooters, there’s not a lot of footroom (the gas tank is located in the channel), but it seems well-placed. Controls are well-designed, and the console is easy to read. I generally don’t care for windscreens, but the Citycom windscreen was a good height and shape, and I didn’t find myself smacking my faceshield into it, like I did on the Kymco Bet&Win, for instance. (Actually, if you liked the Bet&Win but hated the screen and seat, you may really like the Citycom.) My only complaint about the screen was that the curved plastic made it hard to see obstacles on the ground when travelling at very low speeds on uneven ground (like the pothole-riddled alley behind my office).

The seat was very comfortable, after a 30-mile ride, I hopped off the saddle and realized that the seat had never crossed my mind, and my crotch hadn’t fallen asleep. (Ron thought it tilted forward a bit too much.) The seat is also great for 2-up riding, the passenger has a good deal of room and isn’t sitting too high. At a hair over 33″, the seat height might be troublesome for smaller riders, I’m 5′10″ with a 32″ inseam, and I was able to sit on the seat flatfooted, but just barely.

Handling and suspension were good, especially for a scooter this large. Despite the somewhat-high riding position, the center of gravity was low and the bike was quite maneuverable. While not as nimble as a smaller bike with smaller wheels, it certainly didn’t feel as big as it looks. The suspension was great, an invisible pothole on Lake Shore Drive that might have been bad news on a lesser scooter simply bounced me into a graceful arc and a clean landing. The front and rear disc brakes were solid enough, though Ron and I both felt the front brake could have been beefier considering the speed and weight of the bike.

At first glance, storage seemed to be a big problem. the locking glovebox might fit a pair of gloves and the cellphone that’s charging therein, maybe even at the same time, but not much more. There’s no rear rack, and thus nowhere to place a topbox. So the only storage area was under the seat. With no helmet hooks (!?), you’d expect to be able to fit a helmet under the seat, but our fullface helmets (we tried a few) didn’t fit. A 3/4 helmet fit easily, and I suspect some smaller full-face lids might just fit, but if you wear an XL, I’m not sure where you’d put it.

The good news is that what the underseat storage lacks in depth, it gains in width. It’s deceptively large, big enough even to fit a stack of 12″ records or a couple 12-packs of cans. The battery takes up the front section of the storage, but there’s still a lot of room under there (and an extra ignition killswitch to prevent hot-wiring, which is kind of a neat idea). Though the lack of a rear rack means no third-party topbox could be mounted, SYM says a custom topbox is in production, it’ll be interesting to see how it’s mounted.

A couple of other features worth mentioning: The ignition lock, as usual, also locks the steering column and pops the seat open, and the top of the key can be used to protect the lock with a pivoting metal cover. Vintage motorcycles and scooters often had a similar cover, presumably to prevent rust, this one would prevent tampering or lock-picking as well. The locking gas cap is located in the center channel between your feet, when unlocked, it comes all the way off and isn’t tethered to the bike. Once you’ve been spoiled by a pop-up fuel cap (opened with the ignition switch), it’s a bit of a drag (especially in gloves) to remove the key, open the gas cap, and keep track of it while you’re filling up.

Here’s where I admit
that the Citycom 300i is the highest-displacement scooter I’ve ever ridden for any length of time. At 262.8cc, it’s a good deal more powerful than my usual 150, and it was strange to ride for a few days without ever touching the throttle stop. It’s a good deal larger too, but unlike some scooters in its range, the Citycom preserves the seating position and rider experience of a smaller scooter, while offering the speed and comfort of a larger scooter. It’s a nice compromise, and after spending a few days riding it, I’d consider extending my “sweet spot” to 300cc on the high end.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that we feel Taiwanese scooters are generally the best value for the money, usually featuring most of the benefits of European and Japanese scooters (aside from brand recognition and top-tier styling) at a lower price (and none of the false economy found in most mainland Chinese scooters).

Even in that context, at $5498 MSRP, the Citycom is perhaps a hard sell. Many riders may prefer to save a few hundred bucks and have their choice of several great 250cc scooters that compare favorably with the Citycom’s performance. Even SYM’s own competition is tough, their RV250 offers a higher top speed for $500 less, and their very popular HD200 (actually 171.2cc) is $1500 cheaper, and not all that far off, performance-wise.

Those who wouldn’t balk at the Citycom’s price tag may be likely to look at more expensive higher displacement scooters, or consider the Vespa 300’s arguably superior styling, brand recognition, and resale value. The Citycom is a good-looking and thoughtfully-designed bike (the turn signals are particularly well-integrated, for instance) but not particularly “stylish” or distinctive.

But even if the styling doesn’t do it justice, a ride on the Citycom may justify the price. It’s a very powerful, well-engineered, and fun-to-ride scooter, with all the benefits of electronic fuel injection and very impressive build quality. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about it, it will never spawn a subculture, but for a suburban commuter facing a stretch of highway and fluctuating gas prices (SYM cites an impressive 94.1mpg), it’s like a confidence-inspiring 2-wheeled Toyota Corolla.

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