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You meet the nicest people on a Symba

May 16, 2009
Symba envy

‘Hmm… maybe I should get one of those…’ (Orin O’Neill photos)

PORTLAND—While it technically isn’t a scooter, the SYM Symba is definitely old-skool. Old-skool Honda, actually.

The original Honda Cub was introduced in 1958, and at over 60 million units is the best-selling motorized vehicle of all time. The story, in a nutshell, is Vespa 2.0: a cheap, simple 2-wheeler for an impoverished populace in need of personal transportation.

Of course, there’s a bigger question of what to call the Symba. SYM (short for Sanyang Motors) got its start building the Cub under contract, so the Symba is not a clone, or a knockoff. I’m pretty sure Honda’s okay with this whole thing, since they quit selling the Cub/Passport in the U.S. a long time ago. Both companies have lots of lawyers, after all.

Yeah, the price of gas is way down compared to this time last year, but the Symba (aka the WoWow) performs a valuable marketing function as a “halo” vehicle, something that brings attention to the company in the same way as Chevrolet’s Corvette and Volkswagen’s New Beetle.

I showed a picture of the Symba to a barista at the coffee shop where I write these posts. Her reaction: “Whoa, that’s TIGHT! I am so getting one of those!”

SYM Symba

Many of you must feel the same way, given the number of hits on my last Symba post.

I think Portland, Oregon is a perfect place for the Symba. It’s built on a smaller scale than Seattle; the Rose City’s often compared to Boston, which the name would have been, had a coin toss gone differently.

But on a beautiful late spring day, downtown Portland can seem almost European. MAX and the Portland Streetcar definitely contribute to the ambiance, but that scale gives the place an intimacy downtown Seattle just can’t match. There’s more leafy green, and there’s more street life, with outdoor cafes, kiosks and more activity in general. Of course, you don’t have to climb giant hills as you would in downtown Seattle, and you don’t have to walk as far to get, well, anywhere.

Yamhill Street, downtown Portland

The Symba just belongs in a setting like this.

I thought it appropriate that I’d be riding a Symba on Bike to Work Day. It looks like a bicycle, doesn’t it?

In fact, I was thinking a lot about my first bicycle when I sat on the saddle. This would be like that red single-speed-with-coaster-brake sidewalk cruiser, I had told myself.


The Symba feels more like my departed Trek 7500FX, light as a feather even though it’s only a few pounds shy of a Vespa PX 150’s curb weight.

You probably know it has a clutchless (or maybe I should say clutch-leverless) 4-speed manual transmission. Be not afraid, this thing is cake.

For starters, the sequence is N-1-2-3-4. The lever is on the left, and it’s like a Harley’s—shift up with your heel, shift down with your toe. My feet are fairly big, so I can get sufficient leverage without having to move my left foot from the peg. There’s a neutral light in the instrument cluster, but it’s hard to see in bright sunlight.

Thing is, you really won’t need neutral when you’re on the road. It’s that clutchless thing, don’tcha know. You can stick it in 1st gear at a red light, then give it gas when the light changes, and you’re off. Easy.

So easy, by the time I’d gotten to Interstate Avenue & Rosa Parks Way I realized I wasn’t thinking about shifting gears at all. Except for downshifting. While not difficult, I only managed one perfectly smooth downshift. With practice, you’ll figure it out. But definitely wait until you’re almost stopped before going from 2nd to 1st.

You may find, as I did, that your default downtown crawl gear will be 3rd. The Symba’s 101cc engine is quite flexible, so if you don’t quite catch the gear you were looking for, no biggie.

I saw 40 mph in 4th gear on the gentle uphill slope of Interstate Avenue. My tester had less than 20 miles on it when the keys were handed over, so I’m sure with more miles it will feel more powerful. At high rpm the engine feels a bit gritty, but more miles should cure this, too.

Once you get the hang of stirring the gearbox, the Symba’s lack of mass will have you doing things in traffic you never dreamed possible (unless you’ve done rush hour in, say, Hanoi). I zipped into tight spaces on Broadway. I nipped around corners with bicyclists. I lane-split!

While Portland’s pavement is generally in much better shape than Seattle’s, there are still potholes and heaves. The Symba’s 17-inch wheels and compliant suspension soak it all up with aplomb. Running with the herd on the main drags, it’s rock steady (that would also be due to those wheels).

Symba exposed

And it would stay that way, no matter how much you flog it. The Symba is one very nice piece of work. As you can see from the picture above, the bike’s guts are neat and tidy. The frame has a paint job that looks a quarter-inch thick, the stitching on the seat is BMW-perfect. The tires are grippy, and totally unfazed by streetcar tracks (didn’t do bridge grate, sorry). It’s made of parts that have been intensely developed over 50 years, so they don’t make the Symba like they used to… they make it much, much better.

In fact, this bike will make you smile with its “surprise and delight” factor. The buddy seat is attached to the rear rack with three clamps that are a doddle to remove. There are a bunch of accessory cases and bags, or you could go the milk crate route.

Nervous lawyers, tsk, tsk

Even better, when you do have a cupcake, adjusting the preload on the dual rear springs only requires a simple flip of a lever on each spring, which has one restroom icon on the solo side, and two on the pillion side. No tool required. Freakin’ brilliant! But the sticker is a bit puzzling, since your pillion is probably going to weigh more than 10 kg (that’s 22 lbs). Unless he/she’s a dog..?

My trepidation over the front drum brake was unfounded. It worked very well. The rear drum worked well, but required a lot more pedal travel than I would have liked. A cable adjustment would probably take care of this, however.

But that was my only quibble. Otherwise, I was grinning so hard my cheeks hurt. The SYM Symba is a thoroughly lovable basic transportation tool that you could probably pass on to your grandchildren. Definitely consider making room in your toolbox. Favicon

UPDATE: Susan Carpenter of took the Symba for a spin. She even rode it on a freeway! Here’s her review.

Plus: Light, nippy, easy to ride, clever features.

Minus: No storage, neutral light invisible in bright sunlight.

The details

MSRP: $2,598
Built in: Taiwan
Construction: Steel trunk frame, plastic legshield
Length: 75 in (1905 mm)
Width: 27 in (686 mm)
Height: 41 in (1041 mm)
Seat height: 29.9 in (760 mm)
Curb weight: 209 lbs (95 kg)
Capacity: 199 lbs (90 kg)
Front suspension: telescopic fork
Rear suspension: swing arm
Front brake: 130mm drum
Rear brake: 110mm drum
Engine: 101cc single cylinder, air-cooled w/carburetor
Power/torque: 6.7 hp (5 kw) @8500 rpm/5 ft-lbs (6.8 nm) @6000 rpm
  1. hardd1 permalink
    May 19, 2009 2:42 am

    Too much money at $2600.00….after producing “cubs” for 50+ years no special tooling was necessary. So the Symba should be priced under $2000.00 …imho

  2. Mike permalink
    May 19, 2009 6:25 am

    What’s interesting is the sticker behind the front legshield that read “Never Carry Passengers”

  3. motocrossed permalink
    May 19, 2009 6:12 pm

    Agree big time with hardd1, 2600 is way out of line for 100 cc 50 year old design. For a few buck more I am buying small street bike with more power and almost same mpg.
    There has to be an incentive in this economy, 2k purchase price is that incentive

  4. landoid permalink
    May 21, 2009 1:37 pm

    yes, too much money for a nice bike. you can get a real decent motorcycle for that price. and is the load capacity really under 200 lbs? also: two drum brakes. wtf. front disc is standard on any scooter that price. otherwise, i would buy one in a second.

  5. May 21, 2009 6:10 pm

    I own a Symba and love it. I didn’t want a People, or a Buddy, or a Stella (none of which are cheaper, BTW) or anything else for my money even if it cost a bit less or was more bike for the money – I wanted a Cub, and the Symba is the only one available in the USA at the present time. It’s also an excellent bike! I look at the build quality and smile; I ride it to work and smile; I look back at it after parking it in the garage at night and smile. Ain’t that worth a few hundred extra bucks than I could have spent just to get “something” (and what could I have gotten cheaper? A “Made in China” scooter sold by some ebay store with corresponding poor quality and no dealer network for service and parts)?

  6. Bub permalink
    May 23, 2009 2:34 pm

    I’m with Nate on this one. I own 2 Symbas and think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. There are thousands of scooter enthusiasts out there that loved the Cub. Honda has missed a huge opportunity in not bringing the Cub back to the U.S. Kudos to SYM and Carter Bros Alliance Powersports for making it happen! SYM has released an upgraded model of the classic—-yes, it’s better than the original. I could have bought faster and bigger, but that wasn’t the draw. I wanted a brand new “Cub.” It materialized here as the SYM Symba. Yahoo!

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