I’m a bit of a scooter snob. I only ride “major market” bikes. Why? Well, because I enjoy breathing and really don’t want to die on a Chinese POS made in the same fashion you make toasters or Hello Kitty rice cookers! I also dislike companies that make deathtraps and purposely lie to gain sales, and who copy designs simply to mislead you from your money.
“But, they’re cheaper! You must have something against the Chinese. Or, perhaps you’re just a snob!” is the usual response I get. I also hear many claim Chinese scooters are superior to Vespa for the low, low price of $999, but by people who still have the 30 day plate on their bike. I have yet to hear this argument from anyone with a Chinese scooter older than 1 year. Also, the most vocal of those insisting people NOT buy bikes from companies like Honda or Vespa are the ones selling them, and insist it’s a “plot” by the oil companies to keep scooters expensive to keep the poor from having efficient transport. But, there’s always a line…
I always insist that if you have either never heard of the bike, or you cannot find MULTIPLE brick-and-mortar dealers within one state that have a legit company and product line behind them, don’t buy. But, how do you know what’s Chinese-made and what’s not? And, what makes Chinese bikes so bad? If you’re new to the scooter scene, you may not of heard of a lot of the vintage bikes like Heinkel, Lambretta or Italjet that everyone keeps raving about… so what makes Chinese scooters like Roketa, Lance and TN’G any different?
Long story short: China is currently the masters of mass manufacture. They have the ability to copy, retool and produce at an alarming rate. When it’s something like a Microwave or computer components, that’s a good thing since they are easy to quality check and don’t normally have lives on the line. But, the more complex the machine, the more quality control is needed. The problem is that many scooters made in mainland China are slapped together and use copies of copies of old engine designs from Honda or Yamaha. And, they use the cheapest materials in order to bring the price point down. You get bikes made like bargain basement dishwashers and Wal-Mart TV’s that you’re supposed to trust your life to at 55mph? They have ZERO delaership networks too! You won’t find parts for a Chinese scooter, because once they crank out a few hundred thousand of one model, they scrap the ENTIRE line and re-tool from fresh for the new model. That means they don’t have compatible parts on hand, since dead-stock=no profit.
Another trick they use is to claim the engine is “Honda Made” or “Same as Honda”. This has some origin: 99% of all Chinese scooters are powered by a copied variant of an engine developed by Honda called a GY6. Now, this was a very innovative engine and pretty high tech… for 1989. It’s a good engine when you have an engine blueprinted, built and inspected by the high-tech plants at Honda of Japan and when high-end metals, rubbers and electronics are used. Chinese copies are just that: Copied plans that have been copied several DOZEN times. Ever put a picture through a Xerox machine a dozen times? Then you know what I mean when I say that once you copy something too many times, the end result is pretty messed up and garbled. Things get changed along the way, and the quality of materials gets worse each time in order to cut down on costs. Soon that “Honda Engine” has a sort-of similar shape, but not one part will fit it from the original engine design, and nothing will look the same on the interior.
They will even ripp off the names and appearance of well known bikes! One Chinese scooter company even bought out the Shwinn bicycle company just to get it’s copyright to sell electric kick-scooters AND China-made motorscooters under the same brand! Needless to say, they both failed. This aping also applies to the exterior look, with designs from Kymco, Honda, Vespa and even Harley Davidson applied to make the bikes look as much as their Asian and European cousins in order to con people into thinking their bike is in any way related to the big guys.
Also, most Chinese bikes don’t even pass basic DOT road worthiness inspections or air-quality standards. How do they get around it? Well, they sell them as “off road only” bikes, and don’t give a buyer a title. You get what’s called an MCO (Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin) and the dealer leaves it up to YOU the buyer to fight the DMV to get a real title. And in the US, without a title you don’t really own an automobile or motorbike, and can’t get it registered for street use. If the ‘dealer’ makes you get the title yourself and doesn’t provide you with actual plates, then you are at a China-bike dealer!
Other “major market” bike builders like Vespa, Honda, Kymco, Genuine/PGO, LML and the like think different. They put the money into inspecting the bike and using QUALITY components first, and know that the true money is repeat service with reliable supplies of parts to keep bikes on the road for a long time. This keeps the rider coming back for upgrades and parts, and that makes good money. It’s good business. And, unlike no-name Chinese scooters bought from Habib at the corner tire shop or from Pep Boys, you can go to a DEALER who has direct contact to the manufacturer if there is a problem. Good luck trying to get that park-n-swap guy to service your Chinese copy of a Kymco/Ruckus/Vespa.
But, I can only extol the dangers so much. The man who can accurately describe WHY is a legend in the Scooter scene: Phil from Pride of Cleveland Scooters. His shop deals in the best of bikes, and are renowned nationwide for not only their service, but aftermarket support for all things scooter. Be it Vespa, Buddy, Stella, Lambretta or Honda, they see it all and Phil can fill you in. He’s responsible for making a series of “public service announcement” vids that show what a Chinese scooter looks like, what it is, and why they are dangerous! Once you see his run down on what to look for, you’ll start to spot Chinese scooters all over the place and will begin to understand why they are so cheap, and so reviled by the scooter community.
Check these few out:
A great example of the “low grade” materials issue”
You hear a lot of Chinese scooters claim “Anti-Lock Brakes”, but in truth they are FAKE and actually are dangerous! Phil explains why in this classic example of a Chinese scooter style very popular in the US…for about 100 miles
This is the BEST example of what a true “China bike” is, and what to look for. Phil knows his stuff, and probably sees HUNDREDS of these. Heed his words!
Are all cheap scooters bad? Well… yes!!! But, there are inexpensive major market bikes that will blow these China-rific scoots out of the water. In fact, one of the biggest bike manufacturers in the world, Kymco, is constantly ripped-off by China and two of the three bikes in the videos above are clones of their own Cobra-Cross! Their bikes start at a low $1299 and go all the way to $8,000. But, unlike the bikes made in China, Kymco has a long reputation, hard dealerships and excellent quality. They are also based out of Taiwan, which is NOT subjet to mainland China’s lax laws and ignorant copyright approaches. Did I mention Kymco is also a manufacturer of a bunch of engines and components for other bike companies such as Yamaha?
PGO is another company that sells great bikes that you may not know off the bat. But, if you have seen the Genuine Buddy or Blur, you’ve seen their bikes! In fact PGO under partnership with Genuine Scooters currently makes the most popular scooter in America! And, they’re so good that even Vespa dealerships sell them next to their Italian wares. And, unlike Chinese scooters that may come with a 30 day “warranty” Genuine’s Buddy and Blur come with a 2 YEAR warranty! And, since they’re sold all over the world, the aftermarket is huge for them. And, like Kymco, they’ve even built scooters for other bike companies you may of heard of, such as Vespa!
So, while a cheap scooter is tempting, ask yourself: Would you hurl yourself down the road on a bike with the same build quality as a Wal-Mart blender (and on a bike that probably uses the exact same bearings as previously mentioned blender)? Or, would you rather have a bike you KNOW is going to work and is sold worldwide legally? While many of us can’t afford a $4700 base model Vespa, you don’t have to resort to a $999 Pep Boys China clone. Research is your best friend, and don’t be afraid to join popular scooter club message boards and to even stop the average rider on the street. If they genuinely love their bike, they’ll gladly chat about it. I myself have owned a $500 Chinese scooter all the way to a top of the line Vespa GTS25oie with every engine upgrade imaginable, dropping nearly $10,000 on it over all. And, I learned the same way: Asking others, researching like mad and getting my hands on as many bikes as possible.
And, in the end, even my happy butt is picking up a Genuine Scooter Company bike next month! Be it the Stella 150 or the Buddy 125 (not sure yet… both are VERY tempting), I’ve learned that in some cases, you get what you pay for but it doesn’t hurt to try to get a good deal when it’s a SMART deal!