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SYM Symba scooter offers alternative in a sea of Vespa wannabes [Updated]

December 9, 2009 | 12:08 pm

You may recognize the machine -- but not the manufacturer. It’s the classic Honda Cub as made by the Taiwanese company SYM. It’s called the Symba, which, any parent who’s watched "The Lion King" 100 too many times can tell you, is a clever, Asia-cute riff on one of Honda’s best-known, best-loved and bestselling products – a product that hasn’t been available through American Honda since the '80s.

What’s different about the new Symba is that it hails from a different island country and has modernized some, but not all, of the technology. Like the original Cub, the Symba employs a carbureted, air-cooled single cylinder, but its displacement has been bumped up to 101 cc. Its semiautomatic transmission gets an extra gear, and the front suspension has been upgraded with a telescopic fork.

What isn’t different is the look, which is true to the classic with its two-tone coloring and a body shape that is half moped, half scooter and entirely unique. In the sea of Vespas, Vespa wannabes and otherwise design-challenged scooters that define the small-displacement market, the Symba offers a refreshingly retro, much-wanted alternative.

More powerful than a moped but trickier to operate than a scooter, the Symba is a semiautomatic. There isn’t a clutch, but riders still have to shift, using a lever that’s operated with the left foot. That makes the Symba less of a scooter and more of a motorcycle, only with less control. Lacking a clutch, shifting among the four gears can be a bit jerky on the Symba – not so much on the up shift, but when the rider doesn’t slow the bike sufficiently before shifting lower. Long story short: You don’t want to engine brake on the Symba because it jerks your body forward and makes you look like an idiot. So newbies: Consider yourself warned.

The shifting pattern on the U.S. version is different from what’s available in Asia, where this bike comes with an even funnier name, the Wowow. Here, the shifting is in a linear configuration with neutral at the bottom and the four gears "up," or stacked on top. To shift into higher gears, riders click up. To shift down, they click down. This is different from the Wowow, which has three gears arranged in a circular pattern, so riders can click in a single direction, from neutral through to the third, ad nauseam. The reason it was changed for the U.S. is safety. Although there is no gear-shift indicator on the Symba, the linear shift pattern gives riders a better sense of when they’re in gear and when they’re not.

My only problem with this scenario is that I wanted more gears, but that’s the motorcyclist in me. For a 101 cc single, this bike offers more than enough speed for city-street riding and enviable fuel economy. SYM claims a top speed of 56 mph for its Symba. I got it up to 65 mph, but that was going downhill and through a tunnel. Going back up the same hill the other direction, it topped out at 50.

Mileage-wise, SYM claims 153 mpg at a sustained speed of 25 mph, which is a ridiculous and completely worthless figure because no one rides that way. According to the importer, 110 mpg is more accurate. I wish I had my own mpg number to report, but gassing up this bike is problematic, so I wasn’t able to. The input to the Symba’s 1.08-gallon tank is a tiny hole that is only large enough to fit the end of a gas nozzle. It also has a metal flap, so it’s impossible to see inside. The combination of the small input hole, the rapid speed at which most gas comes out of its nozzle and the tank’s small size means riders are likely to experience some wasteful up-splash along with their gas-up until they get the hang of it, and I just didn’t have enough time or practice with this bike to get that down. [Updated Dec. 10: An earlier version of this post did not include the importer's mpg estimate.]

Along with the jerky shifting, that was probably my biggest issue with this bike. Otherwise, it's clear why this machine, in its various incarnations over the past 50-plus years, is the world’s bestselling motor vehicle. More than 60 million have been produced worldwide since 1958, when Honda first introduced it. The Symba is stylish, inexpensive ($2,598), lightweight (209 pounds ready to roll) and easy to operate once you get the hang of shifting. Its 17-inch wheels make the ride feel stable, and, though the drum brakes front and rear are practically prehistoric, they get the job done for a bike that will never be going that fast to begin with.

For a small machine, this bike comes with a lot of optional accessories that speak to its use as primary transportation in other parts of the world and its potential use as a practical commuter here in the U.S. A top box, front basket, rear rack, side cases and bench seat all expand its carrying capacity, which shouldn’t exceed 199 pounds total. Such limited poundage means this isn’t a bike for big riders or even smaller folk who intend to carry adult passengers, but groceries should be just fine.

If only the Symba were available in California.

Distributed inside the U.S. since spring 2009 through the Alabama-based Go-Kart manufacturer Carter Brothers, Symba’s sale in California is being held up because of various carbs. The California Air Resources Board had been waiting for SYM to send it a Symba carburetor for further testing, according to the firm that is handling the bike’s California emissions certification. The Air Resources Board is currently doing confirmatory testing of the vehicle. [Updated Dec. 10: An earlier version of this post said the bike's emissions tests were conducted in China. Carter Brothers say all testing was conducted in California.]

So if you live in California and have the Symba on your Christmas list, chances are you won’t be getting it. For 2009, that is. According to Carter Brothers spokesman Pete McIntosh, the Symba should be available in California in early 2010. [Updated Dec. 10: An earlier version of this post said the bike would "perhaps" be available in 2010.]

2009 SYM Symba
Base price: $2,598
Powertrain: carbureted, 4-stroke, air-cooled, single-cylinder, semiautomatic transmission, 4 speed
Displacement: 101 cc
Seat height: 29.9 inches
Curb weight: 209 pounds
Claimed maximum speed: 56 mph
Claimed mileage: 153 mpg at a sustained 25 mph

-- Susan Carpenter

Video credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times