There's no bit of technology that made me happier last year than the brand new Honda Grom motorcycle. Is it cheating that it's not strictly a gadget? I don't care. Even if the Grom still breaks fast on old-fashioned dino juice, its diminutive size paired with street legality changed the way I think about city transit and my personal motive needs.
The Grom is simple, (probably) reliable, inexpensive to own and operate. ($US3000 purchase price, if you can find one; around 30-40km/L, according to Fuelly.) It's fun. So fun. The few weeks I had with the Grom were the most fun I've ever had commuting in New York City — even more fun than bigger, faster bikes. And certainly more fun than cars, whether I was in the driver's seat or not.
What's a Grom? It's a 125cc motorcycle, the same engine size as many mid-range scooters or dirt bikes. (For comparison, most motorcycles these days have a 500cc engine or larger; some big cruisers are powered by engines that wouldn't be out of place in a small car.) It's got a 4-stroke engine (unlike your chainsaw's primitive 2-stroke), a decent instrument panel, and everything you'd expect on a real motorcycle, because it is a real motorcycle, just in miniature.
The Grom isn't the first tiny motorcycle to ever find its way to our shores, but it's the first modern one in a while. (Honda made its name in the US selling small motorcycles like the legendary CT90. In fact, its first manufacturing plant in America was for motorcycles, not cars.) As motorcycles got larger and faster, small motorcycles, a staple of commuting in less-developed countries around the world, couldn't keep up with American's thirst for speed and long highway commutes from the suburbs.
But tiny frame and engine size means the Grom is light — nearly light enough for a burly person to lift fully off the ground, at around 102kg. Light enough that even the weakest rider can easily push it around in small parking spots or flick it back and forth around potholes with ease. (Although the latter is also a function of how well it handles, which is pretty darn well considering its size and the rake of its front forks.)
That light weight changes the "intimidation factor" of the motorcycle. Riding the Grom doesn't feel like you've just swung your leg over a headstone with an exhaust. Everyone larger than a toddler can easily put both feet on the ground at a stop; keeping the bike upright when it starts to lean over takes little-to-no muscle. It almost feels like a toy.
But then somewhere in the top end of second gear the little 9hp engine overcomes its trifling torque and gets some real speed under your butt, cruising between 50km/h and 70km/h with ease. (You'll be lucky to touch 90km/h in a straight, though I did hit that once going downhill.) And just like there are few things as fun as driving a slow car fast, riding a slow motorcycle fast… and low to the ground… at about eye-level with taxi drivers… It's a rush. In fact, the bike's so light that it sometimes feels like you're not riding a motorised vehicle at all, especially when you lean just slightly forward so that your helmet blocks any vision of the tiny handlebars far below your head.
The suspension travel isn't anything as forgiving of potholes and rough city streets as those found in dual-sport or off-road motorcycles that many city motorcycle commuters use, but it ate up most of what I threw at it in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, although I will admit that my first night on the Grom left me with a sore back the next morning before I learned to steer around the worst roadway offenders.
In an ideal urban metro, the Grom is the perfect city commuter vehicle, especially in a relatively near future when electric powertrains are less expensive and greater sensor awareness by other vehicles make getting creamed between two inattentive car drivers less likely. That said, a top speed that just barely reaches the minimum limit of most highways, the Grom is a terrible choice for a long-distance commuter, even if its 40km/L fuel efficiency might make the idea tempting. (I did ride the Grom about 16km down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and found it relatively comfortable, although traffic was somewhat congested that day; I wouldn't have wanted to be on the BQE with cars passing me at 120km/h.)
I weigh around 90kg, and the Grom definitely struggled to get me moving from a stop light (although keeping it revved up helps considerably). I'd welcome just a hair more power; fortunately aftermarket upgrades are already plentiful, from new exhausts to bigger bore kits that increase the displacement to over 200cc. (The Grom is based on a series of engines and bikes that have been around in Southeast Asia and Japan for a long time, so there have been years of tweaking and modifications explored by companies and enthusiasts.)
It's definitely a one-person bike, although it is possible, if not advised, to ride two-up. My girlfriend and I rode from the Navy Yards to Greenpoint on evening on the Grom with my testicles nearly in the handlebars and her tailbone hanging over the tail light. I had a blast; she didn't enjoy the feeling of nearly falling off every time I accelerated, even if I did remind her that the fall would be less than three feet down. For a commuter, a rear-rack would be a great addition, although having the full length of seat available to move your butt around gives you quite a bit more riding position flexibility than you might expect.
The Grom excites me in the same way the incremental improvements to smartphones have affected computers: in the pursuit of finding the minimum viable product size, the essentials of the device are revealed. There's no perfect vehicle for everyone — an electric bicycle is lighter and more efficient; a minivan does better for trips to Costco — but with the Grom, Honda has revealed a new sweet spot for urban commuting that encompasses the utility of a scooter or moped with the modern styling and more enjoyable handling capabilities of a motorcycle.
Plus it's named the Grom. Grom. Grom!
Pictures: The Grom in author's apartment after riding up in a cramped elevator; your author pretending he is hooning.