Honda Activa 125 vs Honda Activa i vs Yamaha Alpha vs TVS Jupiter vs Suzuki Let's vs Hero Maestro vs Suzuki Swish

Shubhabrata Marmar  /
12 Sep 2014 11:15:49 IST

When someone starts talking scooters, the eyes glaze over, the brain switches to dreaming about motorcycles and interest dissipates like rain clouds facing El Nio. Who wants to be drawn into a conversation on the similarity of design (they look the same don't they?), underseat cavities (upholstery dentists?) and floorboard space (two-wheeled realty?).

But Valentino Rossi, to quote an example, terrorised Tavullia on his scooter before he became the GOAT. Take a scooter to a go-kart track and it transforms into one of the most fun wheeled things extant. You can lean them forever, they hardly ever give up and all this at a speed where falling off is a laughing matter not a hospital visit, usually.

There have been a lot of new scooters in the recent past so we decided to head back to the Downtown Racing track in Pune and find the most fun scooter in India. The most fun, not the most practical. The scooter for the 18-year old inside you rather than an appliance for the grownup you're forced to be.

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Obviously we started at Suzuki. Their 8.5PS, 125cc Swish won last time and they have a delightfully small, light and power

ful 110cc Let's as well. Honda finally has a 125cc Activa that at 8.6PS is the second most powerful on this test, and we asked for the wee Activa i as well - it's stiff and light which should be fun at the track. Hero gave us a Maestro and from TVS we asked for the Jupiter which has a good powertrain, 12-inch wheels (potentially a huge advantage) as well as something mysterious called body balance. Yamaha was represented by the sensible, larger Alpha. Could it have lost all the agility and spunk of the Ray in the transition to becoming the family scooter?

What we could not get were the Rodeo and the Vespa S. The Vespa stood second last time out on the fun-meter and we were looking forward to the disc-braked S, but the logistics just didn't fall into place. On the other hand, Mahindra's reluctance to sort out a Rodeo for us suggests they have an update coming shortly.

Since Alan and I were the only ones riding, we drafted in Varad More, an ex-racer and moto-journalist who is fast, light, young and knows this particular track almost too well.

All set? Here are the scooters in the reverse order of their fun quotient.

Honda Activa i

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It's a surprise that the Activa i - which has the same core attributes as the Let's isn't further up the list. As all scooters like to do, the Activa i can be cornered very hard and the stiff suspension should make for a lovely platform that you can really push. But the reality is that no one really went back to ride it after the basic laps were done. In the corners, it feels adequately equipped but has no sense of excitement that draws you back in. This is unfortunate, because outside of the lack of enthusiasm it offers, this is actually a well-made scooter with very good acceleration from the proven Honda 109cc engine. As in, if this were the usual left brain comparo, the Activa i would be far, far higher up the list. But fun, unfortunately, it isn't a whole lot of.

Hero Maestro

2014 scooter comparo (27)The Hero Maestro is all work and very little play but the chassis balance is excellent. This kind of lean angle is confident and easy. Practical but we wish it was a little more cheeky in nature

This was not a surprise. Like we found last time, the Maestro is an odd scooter when it comes to having fun on it. The first thing that strikes you is that it's got a very likeable chassis balance. Whether it is on the turn in or in the middle of the corner, you'll easily find trust and confidence in the tyres and the set up and cornering is easy, calm and potentially very quick. I say potentially because at 110kg, this is amongst the heaviest of the scooters and that costs it in terms of acceleration. So if you turned up at a scooter track day - Varad organises these at this very track - on a Maestro, you'd have fun but you'd get passed on the corner exits a lot. So the scooter has floorboard space, underseat storage, very good ride quality et al, but acceleration is decidedly slow.

Honda Activa 125

2014 scooter comparo (17)The Activa 125 has grunt and pulls well, but it handles with restraint and the sharp, linked brakes upset the chassis quite a bit at the track which makes riding it hard work more than fun

To be perfectly honest, I was not expecting the 8.6PS Activa 125, the most powerful scooter on the test to be in this position. And the problem is simple. First, this is a grown up scooter that has responsibilities. That means it doesn't know how to let its hair down. So it's a competent scooter in every respect but fun is not part of its agenda - which is probably the correct thing to do commercially because I'm pretty sure Indian customer want utility from their scooters, not fun. So it is among the quickest of the scooters to 60kmph, braking is excellent in pure stop distance terms and all but there's a problem.

One of the biggest challenges with the Activa 125 became the linked braking system. A problem that I've faced even on the public road. The linked brakes activate, effectively a third of the front brake when you use the rear brake alone. This is great for new riders who don't know the correct technique. However, for those of us who do know what to do, it makes the braking more violent causing more chassis pitch. The soft setup on the front forks - which has ride quality benefits - doesn't help and all this diving and pitching made the 125 feel more nervous every time you had to brake into a corner. At Downtown Racing, this means every corner. The solution? After the laps needed for notes and photography were done, the 125 was largely also ignored.

Yamaha Alpha

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The Alpha has the lowest power output of the lot here but at 104kg it is also the second lightest scooter on test. In pure performance numbers terms, it isn't all that slow. What shines through on the track, really, is that same agility and quick reactions that we so loved on the Ray. Yamaha has backed off the reflexes a bit on this heavier, larger scooter but still, this is involving, great fun. Into turn 3 of the track - the long left that tightens endlessly before you need to turn right into an opening, fast section - the Alpha feels rock solid and planted which means going up that mountain road with friends, you could use the chassis to make up for the relative lack of displacement easily. Scooters can be a lot of fun, and the Alpha is tangy enough to retain the practicality (have you seen how much goes under the seat?) without turning into a blunt appliance.

TVS Jupiter

2014 scooter comparo (24)TVS' Jupiter is lovely. Big wheels means great stability and handling and the engine has grunt and is very willing to play. But it feels heavy and it's great in the real world but not at the track

Bigger wheels. They're a huge big deal because they change the stability of the platform by heaps. In the left-right transition I mentioned above, the Jupiter feels the least top-heavy and almost like a motorcycle in how confidently you can go from scraping something on the left side of the scooter to something on the right side of the scooter. It's brilliant. With 8PS, it also happens to be reasonably quick out of the corners and the only thing we noted is that, ridden back to back with the Suzukis, the Jupiter tended to feel a little longer and slower to turn. No dealbreakers those feelings, especially when you consider that by a small margin, the Jupiter is the cheapest scooter on this test. It also has the useful external fuel cap on the back and it looks pretty good as well.

Suzuki Swish

The Swish is awesome. The last time we did this, it was amongst the newest scooters. But it used its 8.5PS engine and more importantly 9.8Nm of torque to brilliant effect. It feels the most urgent of this whole lot when you open the throttle and this is the only scooter in this bunch where even on this tight and twisty 400m track, you feel like you're really hustling along.

2014 scooter comparo (26)Last time's winner, the Swish is an eye-opener. It pulls hard, corners hard and genuinely enjoys this strange non-utility experience. Reiterates why it won last time with grace and power

What we especially loved was that the Swish blended this power with a narrow and compact feel and a chassis that is impossibly planted even when leaned over with lots of stuff scraping away. It's a satisfying scooter when it comes to cornering before you discover that it can really grind away the edges of the side stand and stuff as if they're your mortal enemies.

The Swish is a pretty practical scooter and in our normal 125cc scooter shoot out last month, the Activa 125 proved to be the better overall scooter by a small margin. But here, trying to have fun, the Swish has few equals and the Activa 125 isn't even in the same league.

Suzuki Let's

Which means our winner is the Let's. It's got an odd name and you will have to get past that. In practicality terms, its focus on the young and girl-type riders gives it diminutive dimensions. This manifests as a relatively smaller footboard, less space two up etc. But for the fun on the scooter part, this is a 98kg scooter - the lightest on this test - making 8.7PS, the most on this test. It's the only scooter that actually crosses a (genuine) 90kmph flat out and guess what, it has all of those things we like about the Swish built into it as well.

Small, light and lovely. The powerful, wee Let's is a revelation. Exceptional cornering and lovely power spread make the Swish feel big and heavy. Then there's the price - second cheapest on test!

Yes that means from the moment you swing into turn one, you can tell that the chassis is up for fun and games. The Let's was almost never allowed to rest on our test and the reason was simple. The light weight makes it extremely flickable while the engine - definitely revvier and more highly strung than the Swish - gives it good thrust. Both these attributes combine brilliantly at this track. The speeds here range between 20 and 65kmph which, if you think about it, are urban street speeds for scooters. There's a lot of value in scooters that offer quick acceleration when you roll the gas back on, something the Swish and the Let's do noticeably better than all of the others except for the Activa 125, which also has the same kind of acceleration.

But in the corners, the Let's is so planted before showing an impressive agility to flip over confidently to the other side that you cannot help but start smiling two corners in and continue to laugh with this little firecracker for the rest of the lap. And then do it again and again until someone comes along to wrest the keys from you.

But aren't scooters supposed to be utility vehicles?

But you'd be right at this point to say that no one actually buys scooters to have fun with in India. I'd say that could be true but I also see that a third of two-wheelers being sold in India are now scooters. And I belong to the camp that believes that eventually half or more of the two-wheelers on sale will be scooters.

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That means two things. One is of course, that these generic do-it-all scooters will shortly evolve into more specialised scooters that aim for a more specific role than being all-things-automatic-to-everybody. More importantly, I cannot believe that everyone of such a large number of riders want nothing to do with having fun when on their sets of wheels. A large chunk of the scooter buying demographic are the youth and where there is youth, there usually will be a little adventure. Buying a fun scooter might not make as much sense as the Activa i or the Activa 125 for sure, but I know that I'd rather buy something fun so I can enjoy riding it rather than something practical which will make a lot of sense four years down the line when it stuns me with its resale value. Life's not always about a great future, sometimes it's about the here and now. And I'm ready to have fun now. Blast Alan and Varad have taken the Swish and Let's and gone out for laps. Hmpf.

Alan's opinion


Honda Activa i: The Activa i felt light and composed. It has a smooth refined engine but felt like it lacked a little grunt compared to the faster scooters Hero Maestro: The Maestro could be leaned over the furthest without scraping and I had a lot of fun on it. It could do with a little more grunt though Honda Activa 125 The Activa 125: It's strength is its engine that's refined and smooth with lots of power. But it just didn't like to turn into corners and wasn't so much fun on the track Yamaha Alpha: I liked the way the Alpha handled. It felt nice and nimble and this was great on the last section where it had to be flicked from max lean on one side to other quickly TVS Jupiter: The big 'softie' with gracious ride quality and lots of power, it wasn't exactly at home on track but was still quite a bit of fun Suzuki Swish: It was so popular that it ran the whole time. My favourite this year as well as the last - both for its grunt and for how rewarding it is on track Suzuki Let's: The Let's builds on what's right with the Swish and is a smaller, sharper looking package. It was hard to choose between the two on the track - they are really a lot of fun
  

Alan's opinion


Honda Activa i: The Activa i felt light and composed. It has a smooth refined engine but felt like it lacked a little grunt compared to the faster scooters Hero Maestro: The Maestro could be leaned over the furthest without scraping and I had a lot of fun on it. It could do with a little more grunt though Honda Activa 125 The Activa 125: It's strength is its engine that's refined and smooth with lots of power. But it just didn't like to turn into corners and wasn't so much fun on the track Yamaha Alpha: I liked the way the Alpha handled. It felt nice and nimble and this was great on the last section where it had to be flicked from max lean on one side to other quickly TVS Jupiter: The big 'softie' with gracious ride quality and lots of power, it wasn't exactly at home on track but was still quite a bit of fun Suzuki Swish: It was so popular that it ran the whole time. My favourite this year as well as the last - both for its grunt and for how rewarding it is on track Suzuki Let's: The Let's builds on what's right with the Swish and is a smaller, sharper looking package. It was hard to choose between the two on the track - they are really a lot of fun
  

Images by Varun Anchan

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