#17: Choosing a scooter on a budget
August 7, 2008
Today’s question for Dr. Buzz and his panel of experts comes from From Erica P. from up in Wisco:
I am looking for a 150cc scooter, but have a very limited budget of 2,000.00 including T/T/L. I would be using it for small trips within 15 miles of my house. My selections are very obviously limited, and I have been looking at the Vento models, but don’t have any information on their quality. In fact, I can find no information on reviews for scooters in this size and price range. You seem to be very knowledgeable on the topic, could you suggest any models that would fit my specs?
Dr. Buzz: Let’s go first to Havelock VanDerHook for a typically brash and direct response:
Havelock VanDerHook There are zero quality new 150cc bikes in that price range. Look for a good condition used bike. Don’t be afraid of sloppy seconds. If I had, I’d never have met Mrs. VanDerhook. And like Mrs. V., maintenance will be an expense to consider. This goes for new or used vehicles though the used vehicle will not have a warranty. Other than for insurance or parking purposes, you may be better off with a used car, or applying your budget to such services as ZipCar or other car-sharing services. I sometimes feel this would have been a better route to take instead of going with my dear wife.
Dr. Buzz: As you’ve probably read, the quality of scooters (and their prices) varies widely. Chinese scooters have a bad reputation, and for the most part, they deserve it. I’ve ridden only a handful of them, not including the Vento, so I could tell you a lot of reputation and hearsay about specific brands, based on the mostly-trustworthy opinions of my dealer friends and years of wasting too much time on the internet, but instead of doing that, I’m going to give you some general information that will hopefully steer you in the right direction.
A lot of discussions about this topic get snarky, so I’m not going to mention a single nation or manufacturer, but these generalizations usually hold up.
- If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. See also: “Caveat Emptor” and “You get what you pay for.” There are “bargains” to be found out there, but the “bargains” are bikes that maybe cost a couple hundred bucks less than comparable bikes, not $1000 less.
Here’s a good way to think about it, Follow the money: Think about the critical components of a motorscooter and how they add up. Think about the middlemen that make money, and the shipping costs, and the EPA/DOT approval testing costs. There are many people out there selling 150cc scooters under $2000. Assuming roughly half of that is profit* going to the dealer, distributor, and manufacturer, ask yourself how they designed the bike, had it tested by the EPA/DOT, built tooling, manufactured the engine, sourced tires, brakes, electrical components, bodywork, and a battery, and shipped it across the ocean, then across the country, for under $1000? They cut corners. A lot of them. They stole the engineering and design from someone else, they used cheap metals, plastics, wiring, rubber, and electrical components, they skimped on quality control, and in many cases, used shady or outright illegal DOT/EPA paperwork to bring it into the country.
*Amazingly, the cheaper the bike, the higher percentage of profit. A lot of the more expensive scooters have a surprisingly low dealer margin compared to some of the cheapest bikes, some of which bring the dealer, importer AND manufacturer 100% markup.
- Find a good dealer. Your dealer, in many ways, is more important than your scooter. No matter how bad the scooter is, it’s up to the dealer to serve as the middle man between you and the manufacturer, and in most locations, he’s legally responsible for the setup and paperwork. (DON’T BUY A SCOOTER ONLINE, it’s always a bad idea, and often illegal). A good dealer with a good parts supply, a good relationship with the manufacturer and importer, and a knowledgable staff is your only ally in this process. Many newer dealers are illegally operating without a state dealers’ license, and they’re selling the aformentioned 100% profit cheap scooters, knowing they won’t even be in business by the end of the year. Many motorcycle shops treat scooterists like second-class citizens.
Find a dealer who rides, who has ridden for a long time, that knows his or her product well. Even good dealers often test the waters on questionable brands, but they won’t sell them for long, and they’ll be there to help you out if your scooter turns out to be a dud, because their reputation is on the line.
How can you tell? Go to the dealership and listen. Ask your salesperson about his experience with various brands. Ask about local events and clubs. If they know scooters, they’ll know the local scene. Don’t be shy to ask to see their dealer license. Search the internet for nerdy factoids, and casually quiz them. You know the answer. Do they? Ask them to explain how a CVT works. The salesman might have no idea, but the mechanic better be able to describe it pretty well. “Isn’t this the same design as the Estrada Erica? Why is it so much cheaper?”
- Follow up on the service and parts supply. Don’t waste their time, but ask to see their spare parts supply and service area. If you’re looking at a certain model, they should have a decent (and organized) supply of OEM parts in back. The service area should look lived-in, but organized. Are there dozens of broken bikes sitting around with nuts and bolts piled up around them? Ask about the service procedure and scheduling. A good dealer won’t let you bring your bike in until they’re ready to work on it, they’ll schedule you, fix it, and get it back to you. Less-organized shops usually have a backlog of bikes waiting around. Ask them about their relationship with the manufacturer, how long have they been selling them? Have they had any warranty claims? How were they resolved?
If they do service “offsite,” go visit their service facility. Is it a local mechanic who doesn’t specialize in scooters? Is their “service area” a converted office in back, with a gas-soaked carpet and a pile of cheap tools? Find another dealer. Remember, a good warranty or a good parts supply matters little if the bike and/or dealer is no good to begin with. If the parts in your bike are junk, the parts on their shelves probably are, too. If the dealer and importer aren’t going to be around in a year, the warranty is useless. Even if they are, do they have the parts, skills, and support to fix the bike correctly? This is hard to figure out, but again, you can tell a lot by seeing how organized the dealer is, asking about the experience of their mechanics. “Aw, he’s been hoppin’ up dirtbikes since he was a little kid” isn’t a good answer! Nor is “Eh, they’re easy to work on, basically the same as a lawnmower.” Were the mechanics factory-trained? Do they have workshop manuals? Scooter lifts? Engine stands? Factory tools?
- I honestly think that you can tell as much about a bike from the dealer than you can from looking at the bike, but there are visual clues, too. Are the welds neat? Is the paint evenly applied? Check vents and holes and seams to see if the paint covers everything it should. Are the plastic panels straight and symmetrical? Do they feel flimsy? Are they firmly fastened to the frame? Inspect any “chrome,” few scooters feature real chrome anymore but even chrome-plated plastic varies in quality. Look at used bikes and see if the paint and “chrome” keep their shine over time. Are the tires a respectable brand? do the switches and levers feel responsive and sturdy? Do the brakes or suspension squeak? Do they work? (If you see the letters “ABS” on a scooter that costs less than $4K, run away.)
Does the bike have superficial features that the dealer seems to be focusing on a lot? Fake “ABS,” Alarms, remote starters, etc., are usually the sign of a cruddy bike squeezing in features to look more appealing.
Look at the signage and sales literature, did the importer put any thought into it? Most manuals are pretty dismal, even from the good companies, but they’re worth a look-through. Stuff like that may seem superficial, but it signifies an attention to detail and a committment to the U.S. market that says a lot about their scooters, too. Check the manufacturer and dealer’s website. Find out the “real name” of the scooter and google it. Often, you can find several other companies selling the same scooter (with different names) for wildly varying prices. That’s a bad sign. If you’re really sneaky, contact the manufacturer (look at the first three numbers of the VIN and check this chart. and tell them you’re interested in becoming an importer. They should refer you to the distributor you’re already dealing with, but some have several distributors, or even dozens, and are looking to add more. You might also find out the wholesale price. If the manufacturer’s selling them to the importer for $600, that bike cost $300 to make. Good brand-name tires and a battery cost almost that much, do you trust your life to a scooter that cost $300 to make?
- Remember, even at low speeds, this is a motor vehicle, and somewhat inherently unsafe even in the best conditions. Your life depends on it working reliably and safely. It’s just not worth cutting corners. And there are insurance costs, maintenance expenses, (highly recommended) riding classes, safety gear (helmet/gloves/jacket) costs, accessories (if you plan to carry groceries), etc. to consider, too.
As Vandy pointed out above, I just really don’t think you’re going to find a really well-made 150cc bike for $2000. If spending a bit more, saving more cash, or financing are out of the question, I’d look at used bikes or step down to a 50cc scooter (there are a few decent options around $2000), or look at other transportation options. Many people would accuse me of scooter snobbery, but it’s not that at all, I just think when you get into that price range, it’s a waste of money to spend that much on something that you’re likely to regret buying. Lots of people do buy them, and some end up satisfied with them, but knowing what’s out there and what the riding experience can be like, I wouldn’t want you to have to spend that much on something that’s unsafe and/or unreliable, and likely to cost you more cash and headaches) in the future.
Sadly, used bikes are in pretty short supply right now and prices are high, and Wisconsin isn’t known for public transportation. If you can hold out until winter or spring, a lot of used bikes are going to start turning up, mark my words.
Another great read: POCphil’s “$999 scooter” page. Adjust that figure to $2000 for the 150cc market.
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Note: Dr. Buzz is an unlicensed, mostly-fictional doctor. Take his advice, and that of his team of experts, with a grain of salt.