Best Motorbikes for Thailand's Cities
by Jack Corbett

What you need to know about the reliability of small motorbikes, automatics, and what
 makes  them handle the way they do, etc before buying a motorbike in Thailand

Yamaha Nouvo and Honda Click
Honda Click in the foreground.  Behind it is the 115 c.c. Yamaha Nouvo MX similar to my first
 bike  in Thailand which I replaced with my present 135 c.c. Yamaha Nouvo Elegance. 

The purpose of my Thailand Motor Bike Reviews is to separate the bull from the real facts to help you choose the best motorcycle for your needs while living in Thailand's cities.  My reviews will therefore focus upon the types of bikes that truly represent reliable, inexpensive transportation that are easy to park, fun to drive and handle well in a variety of urban driving conditions no matter how bad the traffic gets.  I already have a number of full reviews available in the Looking Glass Magazine to which I'll be adding more as time goes on.  But since one of my goals is to separate truth from fiction and all that B.S. so many Know it alls are spouting, I thoroughly expect to upset a lot of people so I'm going to get right down to it, starting right now. 

Myth number one--bikes such as the Honda Click and Honda Scoopy are equal to or better than a Yamaha Nouvo, Nouvo Elegance or Yamaha Nouvo SX

They cannot begin to compare with Yamaha's various Nouvo offerings in terms of handling prowess or all around durability.  With Honda's flagship PCX selling in the vicinity of 80,000 baht to a Nouvo SX's 55,000 baht they have been designed for only one purpose and that is to sell well at a much lower price point than the PCX at a level that is competitive to what Yamaha's offering.  But to compare say  a Honda Click's all around prowess to a Nouvo's is like trying to compare a the physique of a Charles Atlas body builder to that of a 90 pound weakling.

To understand why this is so it's important to understand the concept of scooters versus underbone style motorbikes.  A typical scooter might best be represented by an Italian Vespa which started to become very popular a few years after the end of World War II.  Compared to traditional motorcycles a Vespa was characterized by small diameter wheels with a large open area in front of the driver where a true motorcycle's gas tank normally resides between the driver's legs.  Instead the gas tank was placed underneath the seat which allowed for a large flat area upon which the driver could place his feet.  This area helped keep the driver's feet from getting wet in the rain.  Click here to view pictures of a Yamaha Nouvo Elegance with its plastic panels removed to reveal its underbone contruction.

Although they were cute and user friendly compared to the much more powerful motorcycles of the day such as Harleys, Triumphs, Nortons, and BSA's the main problem with such small scooters is their roller skate sized wheels and tires caused them to be very unstable in comparison with "real motorcycles" that in those days were often closely identified with undesirables such as the Hells Angels and other motorcycle gangs.   

But in 1958 Honda revolutionized the industry when it introduced its Super Cub, which implemented an underbone design that utilized a cowling that ran from the bike's handle bars to just below the rider's foot pegs.   This arrangement served several purposes, one of which was to enclose the engine as well as to add rigidity to the bike's chassis while also permitting much larger 17 inch diameter wheels instead of the 10 inch wheels that were typical of the motor scooter of the day.  But like a scooter, the underbone setup helped to keep the driver's feet dry in bad weather while improving the image of its owners.  And while its engineers designed ever new permutations of its revolutionary small displacement underbones Honda's marketing team transformed the motorcycle industry forever with its slogan, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda."  

The scooter's chief advantages are user friendliness.  With their large flat areas or floorboards which help keep the driver's feet dry, they can be quite practical and comfortable to drive around town.  One can also hang grocery bags from a hook just above the driver's knees and have a lot of room for them to hang downwards.  One can do the same with an underbone, but due to the hump between the driver's legs any bags hanging from a hook must be swung off to one side or the other. 

But in return for this concession, one gains a lot more torsional rigidity overall due to the metal braces inside the hump like structure welding the front of the bike to its rear so that the whole thing feels all of one piece. 

Now, take a look at that first picture at the top of this page.  Note the difference between the Yamaha Nouvo MX and the Honda Click.   The Click's better for hanging all those grocery bags in front of the driver but there's simply no comparison between the two when it comes to overall chassis rigidity.  The Click with its 14 inch wheels might have larger diameter tires than a Vespa, but it's simply not in the same league as an underbone.  Just think of it the way you think of a truck pulling a trailer or a locomotive pulling a train.  The bike's front and rear are altogether two separate components with only a single flat area holding them together at the very bottom of the bike.  There is a reason why one feels as if the bike's an extension of the driver when one drives any of the Yamaha Nouvo's, whether it's the older model Nouvo MX with its air cooled engine, the water cooled 135 c.c. Nouvo Elegance which replaced it or Yamaha's latest offering, the 125 c.c. Nouvo SX which is both fuel injected and water cooled. 


Yamaha Fino
Yamaha's Fino

 

But don't think for one minute that I've got it in for Honda while feeling that Yamaha can do no wrong.  A manual transmission Honda Wave for example is a true underbone whereas the Yamaha Fino above suffers once again from scooter syndrome.  The Yamaha Fino is a pretty bike, but has the same floor board arrangement of the Vespa that is shared by all scooter styled motorbikes such as the Honda Scoopy, Yamaha Filano, Yamaha Mio, and Honda Click.  Just take a look at that picture. 

There is no denying the obvious that everyone of these bikes is going to flex decidedly more than an underbone styled motorbike which employs at least one more brace than the floorboard to sandwich the front and rear portions of the bike together which puts the handling of an underbone far in front.

Myth number 2.  The single off centered shock of Yamaha Miios, Finos, Filanos, Honda Scoopys and Honda Clicks is equal to the dual rear shock arrangement found on Yamaha Nouvos, PCX's, Suziki Hayates, Yamaha Sparks and Honda Waves

Just take a look for yourself and use that brain of yours to draw your own conclusions.   The Springs on such small bikes are no larger or more sophisticated than the duo Springs found on the later bikes I've just mentioned.  Both Yamaha and Honda are banking on your not noticing a difference while doing your errands to the local 7-11 and back.  But consider this.  Many Thais mount contraptions on their little Honda Waves which they use to cart around all those eateries they're selling, clothing, shoes and so forth to such an extent that many of these small motorbikes virtually become kitchens on wheels.  Do you really think that a single shock Honda Click or Yamaha Fino will stand up to this kind of hard treatment?  Or how about those few times when you really push your bike to its outer limits such as when I might haul my girlfriend, myself and a 250 pound friend three up to a bar?  I really don't think the single shock arrangement is equal to the twin rear shock setup when it comes to hard use.   There's not a doubt in my mind that it's just another cost cutting measure that sacrifices quality for cheaper production costs. 

Myth Number Three--Small automatic motorbikes using drive belts are unreliable compared to manual transmission bikes as the Honda Waves.

What a load of bunk.  I've been living here in Pattaya for over seven years now.   I drove my first Yamaha Nouvo MX for three years before replacing it with my present Yamaha Nouvo Elegance which I've now had for four years.  These things are as reliable as it gets.  Even if your battery runs down, you still have a kick start which will fire your automatic right up provided you keep using the bike day in and day out.   Aside from oil changes, a headlight bulb replacement every now and then, the occasional replacement of the spark plug and a possible replacement of my bike's rear brake pad for six dollars or so, and an occasional tire puncture, these bikes require minimal maintenance.   In fact, I have not met one bike owner who's had any problems with his automatic.  There are no drive chains to adjust or to keep lubed.  They just keep going and going for something like 30,000 kilometers after which one has to expect to change the drive belt for  something like 26 bucks. 

Myth number Four--Automatics use a lot of fuel compared to their manual transmission  counterparts

Once again--That is so much B.S.  After now having done a handful of road tests of various 125-150 c.c. automatics, I'm finding that most of them are going to get something on the order of 115 to 120 miles to the gallon or 50 kilometers to the liter provided one gets them out of city traffic.  Now perhaps a 100 c.c. manual transmission Wave will better that.  But if it does who cares?  It's still got only 100 c.c's.  It's got skinny little tires that make it unsuitable for any type of highway driving at speeds close to what I can take my Yamaha Nouvo Elegance up to.  And you have to keep shifting them which is no fun at all if you have to deal with heavy city traffic day in and day out.  Furthermore you are going to go through drive chains a lot more often than I'm going to go through drive belts.  Poor Thais living out in the village use them because they can't well afford to drive anything else.  But if you ask them what they'd really rather have, they are going to tell you they'd much rather have automatics.  

Myth number Five--What you really need is a real motorcycle so that you can also do a lot of highway driving.

Keep in mind that the driving conditions here in cities such as Pattaya are totally different than they are in such places as the U.S. and Europe.  A good automatic such as Honda's 150 PCX or a Yamaha Nouvo will get you all over Thailand so long as you are content to keep your speeds down to 90 kph or less.  That's roughly 55 miles an hour which not too long ago had been the U.S. national speed limit.  The upper limit of the 150 PCX or my Nouvo Elegance 135 is around 115 kph speedometer indicated which is still over 65 miles an hour even if the speedometers are a little too optimistic.  A real motorcycle such as a Kawasaki Ninja 650, Honda's 500 CBR or even the much smaller Honda CBR 250 are going to handle the highways much more comfortably.  Still, the much smaller two underbones will get up to 90 kph pretty quickly.  The braking and ride of the much larger "true motorcycles" will be much better.  But consider two things.  First, the average driver here in Thailand whether he's driving either a motorbike or a car is a complete idiot and the police are not about to try and make him change his ways.  I've oftentimes had motorists pass my car on the shoulder of the road at over 70 miles an hour because they couldn't wait for me to pull over from the fast lane to a slower lane.  Too many of the drivers here are rude and they are stupid.   What this means to you is that driving a motorbike here is going to be at least five times more dangerous than it is in the U.S. or Europe.  So even if you have the finest handling sport bike you can buy with the best anti lock brakes in the world, your brain cannot possibly assimilate fast enough all those ridiculous things the drivers around you are doing to you.   Furthermore many of the better highways will simply not allow motorbike traffic on them no matter how large or roadworthy the motorbike is.  If you still want to go out and buy a "real motorbike" by all means do so.  But chances are that if you do you cannot expect to live as long.  When you have all that extra power you are going to want to tap into it, and believe me, after seeing all that I've seen from over seven years of living here,  the faster you drive the less able your brain is able to keep up. 

Myth number Six--I think I'm better off driving an automatic so long as it's a much bigger automatic

Here we are talking about such bikes as the Yamaha 500 T Max, the Sym 300 or 400 or Honda's new 300 c.c. Forza.  From what I have read the Yamaha T Max is a brilliant highway cruiser in such places as the United States.  However, here in Thailand a T Max is going to cost at least as much as a Mazda M2 automobile which his roughly $20,000.   A T Max will weigh roughly 490 pounds to a Yamaha Nouvo's 230 pounds.  It's going to be comparatively unwieldy in city traffic and far more difficult to park.  To me the Sym 300 and 400 looks godawful which might mean they look just fine for those who like the idea of having a houseboat on two wheels and the Honda 300 Forza is not much better.  Even the Forza at roughly 160,000 baht, is still three times more expensive than a Yamaha Nouvo and it's not going to be nearly as good on the city. 

Myth Number Seven--The Honda PCX 150 completely outclasses the Yamaha Nouvo

No it doesn't.  Not if you are looking for the utmost in quick responsive handling and a bike that's the easiest to park or to slither through tight traffic.  Furthermore it costs roughly 80,000 baht to a Nouvo's 55,000.  Consider that the 135 c.c. Nouvo Elegance had a reign of over four years with virtually no changes to it other than the color of its paint even though it had a carburetor and nearly all the competition was using fuel injection by the time Yamaha finally decided to replace it with the new Nouvo SX.  The truth is the Elegance was and still is a terrific bike.   And so it the smaller displacement Nouvo SX.  That's why it hung in there for over four years.  If you don't believe me, take a close look at the following picture and consider what I'm about to say about the two bike's handling capabilities.  

 

  

Yamaha Elegance 135 and Nouvo 125 SX
My 2009 Yamaha Nouvo Elegance, carbureted, 135 c.c's, water cooled with Michelin Pilot tires one size
 larger than stock Behind it is the Yamaha 125 c.c. water cooled, fuel injected Yamaha Nouvo SX

To some casual observers both the Yamaha Nouvo Elegance and the slightly smaller displacement 125 c.c. Nouvo SX might seem overly long and perhaps a bit ungainly.  But take a closer look.   Compared to a lot of other bikes the Nouvo series employs a relatively long wheel base.  A longer wheel base gives it a better ride.  Moreover, by increasing the distance between the front and rear tires, Yamaha is able to make the Nouvo want to drive in a straight line instead of switching from side to side.  The entire Nouvo series from the 115 c.c. Nouvo Mx to the 135 c.c. water-cooled Elegance that replaced it to the new fuel injected Nouvo SX all ride on 16 inch diameter wheels and tires.  The long wheel base combined with large diameter wheels combine to give such bikes a lot of stability.   Honda Clicks, Yamaha Finos and Mios, the Honda Scoopy and even the Honda PCXs all use 14 inch diameter tires  all of which are inherently less stable than what the Nouvos are using.  For that matter the Honda Wave employs even larger diameter wheels (17 inch).  Even so, tire diameter in itself doesn't tell the entire story.   Most Honda Waves come standard with narrow tires that detract from the bike's true handling capabilities were it equipped with better rubber.  And as for the Honda PCX, there is simply no comparison between its wide 14 inch tires and the small tires one finds on Honda Mios and Finos.  The PCX is in fact a very stable bike on the highway when one compares  it to practically anything else in the 125-150 c.c. class. 

But take a look at how close the seat is of the two Yamaha's to their front wheels.  What this means is that so long as the driver is sitting towards the front of the seat he's practically sitting on top of the front wheel.  This forward placement of the Yamahas' seat makes the bike incredibly responsive as the driver shifts his weight around.  The seat is also higher than the seat of the PCX.  And for that matter when you compare the seat of both the Yamaha Nouvo Elegance 135 and the 125 Nouvo SX to the seat of the older 115 MX Nouvo the seats on these two latter bikes are two inches higher off the ground as well as being placed two inches closer to the front wheel.  Ever notice how much higher the seating position is of a dirt bike over a street bike?   The reason is that it is critical that dirt bikes turn very quickly and when you are sitting two inches higher than the bottoms of your tires, you get more leverage to the tires when you move your body around. 

There is no question in my mind that Yamaha did all this deliberately in order to provide the more recent Nouvo offerings the utmost in responsiveness combined with good stability.  A Honda PCX simply cannot compare to a Nouvo when it comes to quick responsive handling.

Myth Number Eight.  A Yamaha Nouvo is a much better choice than the overly heavy Honda PCX

Although there is no way that a Honda PCX will turn with a Yamaha Nouvo, I believe that Honda deliberately designed the PCX so that it would not turn too quickly.  The seating position is lower than that on a Yamaha Nouvo while the driver sits several inches further back from the bike's front tire.  This takes away from the PCX's overall responsiveness.  However, what one loses in handling quickness one gains back in highway stability.  The PCX is a noticeably easier bike to drive quickly on the highway than a Nouvo simply because it does not respond so alertly to the driver's bodily inputs.  Drive a Nouvo Elegance and move your butt just a little and you can feel the Nouvo behave as it it's part of you.  It shifts to the right or to the left instantly.   But try shifting around at sixty miles an hour on the highway and that instant response to every bodily motion becomes a distraction.  Don't get me wrong, you can still do it, it's just that doing it on a PCX is so much more relaxing.  One must also keep in mind that the PCX at roughly 280 pounds, is roughly 50 pounds  heavier than a Yamaha Nouvo.  The weight of the PCX combined with its wide tires inspire a degree of confidence in the driver that lesser bikes cannot begin to offer.  So although one can tour Thailand with a Yamaha Nouvo the overall steadiness of the PCX makes it an even better choice.   A lot of guys hate the PCX because it seems overly large for its modest power output.  For instance a Yamaha Nouvo 125 SX seems downright svelte by comparison.  The reality, however, is that the PCX isn't that large a bike.   The Nouvo might weigh a mere 230 pounds to the PCX's 280, but since the PCX 125 originally came out Honda increased its engine displacement to 150 cc's which gives the PCX a noticeable performance boost.  50 pounds is only a 50 pound difference whereas the Forza weighs 422 pounds or roughly 136 pounds more than a 150 PCX and a whopping 186 pounds more than a Yamaha Nouvo.  Yet a Forza only has 279 cc's.  Talk about a boat. 

I recently road tested a Honda PCX 150 against my friend, Peter's 125 c.c. PCX.  We both loved the 150 finding that it offered a noticeable improvement in performance while offering the same fuel economy.  The next day Peter rented the Forza, reporting back to me that it used three times as much fuel as the 150 PCX.  It won't be long before I rent a Forza to see if I get similar results.  But getting back to the PCX 150 I have a friend who's recently bought a Nouvo SX.  He considers the PCX to be the ugliest motorcycle in existence and he keeps threatening to form an online "Hate PCX Club."  For one thing he claims that the PCX has a rather ugly front end that is overly large compared to the rest of the bike.  I tend to agree with him there.  However, as to the rest of the bike I find its lines to be quite attractive.  Moreover, in the 125 to 150 cc. class Honda's the only bike that offers attractive color choices.   Peter's 125 c.c. PCX is jet black with a contrasting chocolate brown colored seat.  I personally like the cherry red colored PCX with its contrasting black seat.  With the PCX Honda chose not to gaudy up the colors.   All those stripes and decals that practically all the other bikes in this class have regardless of manufacturer belong on an Indy 500 racing car and not on something I'm going to buy.  Decals and stripes are about as attractive on a motorbike as tattoos are on a woman. 

Conclusion

I love both the Yamaha Nouvo series and Honda's PCX, considering both bikes to be absolutely the finest all around bikes for driving in and around Pattaya Thailand or places similar to it.  Neither handles better than the other--they just handle differently from each other.  Both are true underbones that are designed to take just about anything you can throw at them.   Although the PCX will get along very well in heavy city traffic the Yamaha Nouvo SX will get along a little bit better.  And although the Nouvo is a competent performer out on the highway so long as one does not drive more than 90 kph or so or expect it to equal much larger bikes, the Honda PCX is definitely the better choice there.  As for all the scooter types bikes out there, if they have a floorboard, that means they aren't a true underbone so you cannot expect them to perform with either the PCX or Nouvo.  These are the bare facts. 

Jack Corbett

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