Motorcycling for the 21st century

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Honda Silverwing

Honda Silverwing: The superior two-wheeled commuter vehicle.

I’ve been a fan of motorcycle transportation, ever since I was left without a car for a short time in my forties.  Over the years, I’ve owned a standard-configuration bike, a sporty-standard and a cruiser, and I’ve used them for commuting and recreation.  I donated my last bike when public transportation to my job was so convenient that I found myself not riding it (my wife was uncomfortable on the back seat, so it had limited recreational value).  I think about bikes every so often, and I can see myself buying another one someday.

But God, how I want my next bike to have joined the rest of civilization in the 21st century.

Motorcycles are nice, compact, convenient methods of transportation; but most of them are still designed around 1950s technology and aesthetics, which is a shame.  As we develop more efficient hybrid engines, electric motors and alternative fuel vehicles, it seems bikes are forever landlocked to the old internal combustion engine.

And not a very efficient one, at that: I was once told by an executive member of the American Motorcycle Association (of which I was once a member) that the average motorcycle, with its lack of emissions control technology, pollutes more than the average Hummer.  And they look like it, by and large: Cruisers and big bikes, the most popular with older riders, look like they were parked next to your dad’s 1965 Bonneville.

The speed bikes that the younger riders like are a little bit better: At least they try to hide all that 1950s plumbing with fiberglass bodies.  But it’s still an old ICE under there, and the kids don’t care because of the big benefit to internal combustion: It goes fast.

But what about those who don’t care to ride like a bat out of hell, but don’t want to look like they borrowed their ride from their grandfather?  Who want inexpensive transportation and a little comfort and convenience?  What’s out there for the 21st century rider?

One thing is the scooter.  (I’ll wait until you’re done laughing.)  The scooter is designed with a smaller, less powerful internal combustion engine, but it’s a much more efficient engine, and with the scooter’s lighter body, can bring the scooter up to highway speeds.  A few scooters, like Honda’s Silverwing (top), look like scaled-down motorcycles, but are much more efficient (and easier to ride, sporting anti-lock brakes and automatic transmissions compared to old motorcycles’ clutches and manual hand-brakes).  A Silverwing, or indeed any scooter, is a much better choice for city riding or commuting.

Scooters also tend to share that mid-20th century aesthetic.  But designers are working to modernize them, and a lot faster than the effort to modernize the motorcycle.  Part of the reasoning is that a great deal of the world’s 2-wheel-riding population is good with scooters, whose lower prices and smaller sizes are much better suited to daily use.

But many of these people look forward to modernization and modern design, which is why the Asian region will be getting Honda’s new Vultus (below).  This bike is mostly scooter, built lower to the ground than most cruisers and with scooter-derived auto clutch, linked breaks and full dash readouts… but with a 21st century design that suggests a much more powerful and exciting motorcycle.  Other bike manufacturers are following suit with similar designs, and it can only be hoped that some or all of them will eventually make their way to U.S. shores.

Honda Vultun

Honda Vultus, with kick-ass 21st century styling. Shut up and take my yen!

I, for one, like the more modern styling.  (It’s designed to emulate anime designs, such as Kaneda’s bike from Akira, and it’s expected to be very popular with the younger set.)  And I hope to see more modern engine designs in there as well, from more gas-efficient hybrids to electric motors, all of which are being worked on for smaller vehicles, and should find their way into these modern scooters eventually.

Maybe if motorcycling picked up in this country, with more exciting and more practical bikes and scooters, we’d see a significant improvement in traffic, gas consumption, air pollution and personal economy nationwide.  It’s a goal worth pursuing, and one I’d support by picking up a ride of my own again.  I may even decide to go with only one family car upon our retirement, with a scooter (or two) picking up the rest of the driving load; that would work for me just fine.

Especially if it looked like that Vultus.  Meow!

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7 thoughts on “Motorcycling for the 21st century

  1. I own a Honda Silverwing and have also owned three other scooter models. They are very unappreciated here in the U S. But from my experience they are great motorbikes. Of course, they don’t have the looks and sound of classic looking cruisers –but I don’t care, modern scooters of motorcycle engine size (over 250cc engines) are just fun to drive.

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  2. I test-drove a Silverwing, and loved it. If, tomorrow, I had to start driving into D.C. to work, I’d buy one in a hot minute. I never cared about loud engine noise, and I certainly don’t have a problem not looking like a 1950s retiree. It’s a shame Honda puts no effort into promoting the highway-rated scooters in the US; I think they’d be a natural sell to young urbanites and suburbanites.

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    • Victor

      Most motorcycles do use less gas compared to the average car. Some comparisons will be bad. If you try to compare a very large bore motorcycle against a small engine compact (Yaris, Smart car, Fiesta) then the motorcyle will come off bad. If you compare a small or midsize bike, then the bike should come out ahead. You have to realize that the bigger bikes are designed not for fuel efficiency, but power. And any vehicle designed for optimum power will be less fuel efficient.

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    • Yes, they do use less gas; however, motorcycles also tend to have fewer modern emissions add-ons (electronic fuel injection, digital spark plugs, catalytic converters, heat exchangers, etc, etc), which are what make internal combustion engines clean-burning. So bikes use less gas, but pump more pollutants into the air… a lot more (or significantly more than the smaller amount of exhaust pollution from a car or truck).

      It’s the primary reason why I donated my cruiser to charity: I decided that if I was going to ride, I only wanted to ride a more efficient vehicle. Highway-rated scooters like Honda’s Silverwing and Suzuki’s Burgman have electronic fuel injection, mufflers and catalytic converters, like the biggest bikes… much cleaner and better gas mileage. Unless I go for one of those big touring bikes, I’d get a big scooter before a standard bike.

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      • For sure, I was embarrassed when I heard it! And if it had been anyone other than an AMA executive, I would’ve said “No way.” Today I own a hybrid car… I almost bought an electric car. I take a commuter train to work, and when I’m able, ride a fold-up bike from the station to my office. Heck, I use an electric mower on my lawn.There’s no way I want to use a vehicle that pollutes more than a truck!

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