Traffic Muncher


Traffic Muncher

Honda’s SH300i scooter: a sports bike in a commuter body?

Once upon a time, scooters knew their place in society. They were never bigger than 150cc and were strictly confined to the congested inner city. Except maybe on a quiet Sunday they would potter off — slowly — into the countryside with a picnic basket fastened to the rack and Molly on the pillion with her pretty summer frock fluttering in the breeze. They never, ever, tried to compete with motorcycles. In fact, they were anti-motorcycle. They were invented to hide away all that dirty, oily, mechanical stuff the greasers loved so much.

Then along came motorways and maxi scooters — 250cc, 400cc, 600cc, even 800cc machines to challenge the scooterist’s identity. But these machines soon clustered into their own niche: “big-booters” rather than scooters, with their semi-recumbent riding positions and far horizons attitude. They are the Winnebagos of the scooter world.

Now there is a new and more serious challenge to the scooter orthodoxy. The Honda SH300i is described in a Honda press release as “a sports bike in a commuter’s body”. Unlike the “maxis”, the 300i has the upright riding position and dead-flat floor of the traditional scooter. It rides on 16in wheels, which is as close as dammit to a motorcycle. The brakes are single 256mm discs front and rear with a triple-piston caliper on the front and single at the rear. These have more than enough power to quickly haul up the 300i’s 170-odd kilo kerb weight. The specifications say the brakes are “combined”, which I take to mean “linked”. In any case, they work very well.

The engine feels meaty and willing and makes a nice reassuring thudding sound as it spins out. It belts off the line with surprising enthusiasm. It’s a water-cooled, four-valve unit with direct fuel-injection. According to Honda, it borrows directly from the technology used in its CRF motocross engines. This includes a sealed crankcase system that not only makes the unit more compact but boosts power by reducing internal resistances. This is done via a sump design that keeps the oil reservoir away from the crankshaft and eliminates “windage” (the crankshaft churning the top of the oil into dense foam) and stops internal oil and air pressure build-up by venting through a one-way reed valve. The net result is a sweet-spinning motor that pulls hard and, we are assured, provides good fuel economy and low CO2 emissions.

Most impressive, though, is the handling. It feels poised and balanced in a most un-scooter-like way. Honda claims to have put a lot of work into making the frame more rigid while keeping it as slim as its 150cc model. It has also utilised “a new three-piece articulating floating link system that hangs from a single pivot point under the back of the lower frame” for the swingarm. This apparently helps suspension action while keeping the wheelbase short. Whatever the technicalities, these things seem to have worked. It steers so precisely and confidently that it invites you to go on the attack and play racer whenever you come across a few nice corners.

But not too much. The riding position perches you up high, which is great for sighting aggressively through the traffic, but not for indulging serious Stoner fantasies. When you push it hard you also start to feel its 60 per cent rear-weight bias. This is its “commuter’s body” eventually asserting itself.

Which brings us to the styling. It puzzles me. To my eye, it’s rather bland and uninteresting. If it had been designed by the Japanese this would not surprise me because I don’t really pick up on their design cues at all. Their designs just look unnecessarily fussy in a cartoonish attempt to be a bit futuristic. Sort of Transformers meets Astroboy, but without the flair.

What is surprising, though, is that it was actually designed by the Italians, who obviously like the look because they buy a lot of them. Calling it an SH doesn’t help me much, either. Not terribly meaningful. What does it stand for? Shiny Honda? Sit Up High? Safely Home? Sporty Hopeful? Suggestions on the back of a postcard, please.

So where does that leave us? The looks please the Italians, so it must have some style credentials. Nonetheless, whatever your taste, it becomes irrelevant when you step aboard and wind the throttle on. This will instantly put a smile on your face. It’s a smooth, powerful and planted machine that inspires immediate confidence.

The workmanship is typical Honda — neat, precise and solid — so you know it will start every time and is unlikely to let you down on a rain-soaked journey home. It’s not a sports bike, or anything like one, but it is a cut above its peers in that it handles in a way that is engaging and entertaining. The engine pulls hard in the low and mid-range to effortlessly plug any traffic gaps. It also feels like it will whirr happily all day at motorway speeds. For this you sacrifice some underseat storage, but the integrated top box makes up for this.

If my distance to and from work was any more than 5–10km, the SH300i would be my first choice of two-wheeled transport. Comfortable, roomy, grunty, agile and engaging, it’s a real traffic-muncher. In fact, I’ve just worked out what SH stands for. It has to be “Suburban Hypercommuter”. I’ll settle for that.