SOAL: 2019 BMW C650GT – Just What Is A Scooter Anyway?

The C650GT at the 2011 introduction in Paris

This did not start out as a midlife crisis purchase, I swear. It was my wife’s idea, believe it or not.

On a recent two week, 5,500 mile trip out west in our RV (which I will try to write up eventually), we hatched this plan.

We didn’t want to pull a car all that way, so we took our mountain bikes on the back of the RV. We weren’t planning on touring around on them, though some people certainly could. We mainly thought they would be handy around the parks, campgrounds and that sort of thing.

And they were, to a point. But everything was much more spread out than we expected. We didn’t have a car for Badlands National Park, or Grand Tetons. But we toured those in the RV just fine (as well as drove it all the way to the entrance of Mount Rushmore).

We did know that we needed a car to get around Yellowstone, and we knew we needed a car to drive the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. We picked up a 2019 Corolla from Avis at West Yellowstone Airport, and kept it for about a week in Yellowstone and Glacier. My wife then followed me down to Great Falls, Montana as we headed home, and returned it at that airport.

“You know”, she said as she hopped in the RV at Great Falls, “we need a scooter on a rack on this thing to tour these parks”. It was a good idea. Though you can dolly tow or flat tow a car, we didn’t like the added length in the places we intend to travel while we are still “young”.

The interstate is one thing, but trying to find a place to park for lunch in Ennis, Montana in a 26 foot Class C RV pulling a car is problematic. Or finding parking for the mock gunfight in downtown Deadwood, South Dakota. Or pulling into the tiny grocery store lot in Dubois, Wyoming. All of these were stops where we were able to park more or less as easily as a Suburban, with nothing behind us.

The swing mount drive of my scooter. The white spring has an adjusting tool for 1 or 2 riders. The bare metal behind it is the CVT. Chain drive encased in an oil bath goes to rear wheel.

So I set about researching scooters. The general defining characteristics of a scooter, as opposed to a motorcycle, are (A) a step-through design (meaning the gas tank is not between your knees), (B) a lack of shifting (via a CVT), (C) a swing-mount drive system that uses the engine and transmission as a stressed structural member, and (D) some sort of “trunk” under the seat, maybe for one helmet and not much else. Aside from that, however, there is a huge variety among what are loosely grouped together and called “scooters”.

If you are like me, your mind goes to a “liquorsickle” when someone mentions a scooter. These are the slow, smoky, two cycle scooters that are a hazard in traffic, not able to go 35 mph unless there is a tailwind.  These are available new, usually from China, for several hundred dollars on eBay. Used ones can be found for $200 or so. Though laws vary from state to state, generally they are capped at 50cc of output, and require a license plate (stamped “MOPED” in my state). But, they require no insurance and no driver license, and can be operated by anyone 16 or older (even someone with a revoked license, hence the liquorsickle nickname).

My wife and I did not want one of those, because we wanted to be able to keep up with traffic, with two people aboard, and up some steep hills such as we saw in Yellowstone.

Coleman 50cc scooter at Sam’s Club

Among the 50cc two cycle scooters, there are literally more brands than you can name (Sam’s Club sells one with the Coleman name, even).

Flip flops are not recommended foot protection at any speed.

The Yamaha Zuma was sold in the U.S. up to 2011 and can still be found in some quantities on the used market. It has a 49cc, air cooled, two cycle engine with one cylinder. It is still sold in many other countries around the world, and is a top seller in France where it is known as an MBK. MBK is what Motobecane is known as now, after being bought out of bankruptcy by Yamaha in the 1980’s.

These usually have single digit horsepower ratings, hence the low speeds and lack of insurance or licensing.

Motobecane, as far as I can tell, deserves a lot of credit for birthing the scooter genre in the 1940’s. A well known French bicycle manufacturer by that point, they added engines to what was by all accounts a bicycle (complete with pedals) and a new mode of transport swept over post WWII France. These were made without much modification at all for 48 years, through the bankruptcy and into the Yamaha years.

We actually had one of these, a yellow one, in the mid 1970’s. I asked my Dad what he remembered about how that came about. I just remember him pedalling it furiously down the driveway, trying to get it to start (I was 4 or 5). He says a bunch of guys at work bought one, after the first oil crisis. Some bicycle shop in town started selling them. You needed the pedals for starting, but also to help the engine get you up hills. He rode it to work a handful of times, but it seemed like a hazard in any traffic over 20 mph or so, so he left it parked until it wouldn’t start. He has no recollection of how he got rid of it.

Above the 50cc class, there are two broad categories (I’m greatly simplifying here for brevity):

KYMCO 300cc scooter

(1) One cylinder, four cycle gasoline scooters, of 250cc to 350cc. KYMCO is a big player in this arena. These are the most common scooters in Asia, but attempts to bring them to the US have been halfhearted at best, due to slow sales. Think of them as the Smart ForTwo of the scooter world. Fundamentally great devices, they aren’t suited to US driving needs as much as other parts of the world.  Clogged urban cities, they would be great. The other 97% of our roads, not so much. They have one front disc hydraulic brake but may have cable-operated rear brakes, drum or disc. They have a longish seat that can seat two in a pinch. Horsepower is generally in the teens or low twenties.

Suzuki Burgman 650

(2) Two cylinder, four cycle gasoline scooters of 500cc or more. These are called “maxiscooters” and are really are more of a motorcycle with a CVT. Honda had one here but dropped it in 2017 after two model years. The Suzuki Burgman is a big seller in Asia, and has been a consistent seller in the US as well. The Yamaha T-Max is another competitor. Count on horsepower in the forties, or more.

C650 Sport on the left, C650GT on the right

BMW has the best selling maxiscooter in Italy, Germany and Spain with the C650 line, the “Sport” version built more for one, and the “GT” version built more for two. All the BMW scooters are built alongside their legendary motorcycles at the same Berlin factory, lending a little cachet. Fully 75% of the C650’s sold stay in Europe, where I imagine they may serve as one’s primary transportation pretty well in many areas. There is also a smaller C400X one cylinder version…

…as well as a plug-in electric version, the lime green job seen here. I considered the electric version, as the 100 mile range would work for us. They sticker for thousands more than the gas versions, but were discounted to where they were cheaper out the door.

But I can’t plug it in at night if I am at a campground with no connections, like Yellowstone. You can’t run a generator after 8pm generally, either.

So I wound up with a C650GT. Full disclosure: if I knew what I was doing, I would not have bought it. I’m growing into it, but for a first time rider, it’s too much machine. It’s 575 pounds ready for the road, actually lighter than the Suzuki Burgman but still pretty damn heavy. Calling it “just a scooter” is like calling an M3 “just a compact car”. I somewhat fault the dealer for not guiding me more about the appropriateness of it, but I’m an adult and responsible for my own decisions.

It is a great machine, and loaded up with about everything you can pack into and onto one of these: 650cc liquid cooled parallel twin, DOHC engine with 4 valves per cylinder and dry sump lubrication, EFI, 60 horsepower, 49 foot pounds of torque, CVT, ABS front and rear with three meaty hydraulic discs (two front, one rear), traction and stability control, heated grips, heated seat front and rear, electronic parking brake that goes on when you put the sidestand down, power windscreen (it raises and lowers like a power window), tire pressure monitoring…

…and a locking “trunk” under the seat with room for two full face helmets and one riding jacket, with room to spare.

Yamaha T-Max, with a 530cc Twin

Pricing? Well, the C650GT undercuts the Suzuki Burgman and Yamaha T-Max a little. So why not have the BMW, is what I thought. You CAN buy a lot of great machines for less money, though, especially if one was going to ride solo. I would probably get the G310R like in my rider class for a lot less.

And you certainly can buy used for less. I paid about $11,000.00 out the door, with tax, tag, dealer prep, and a couple of dealer installed options I wanted. That was after a $1,000.00 discount for the 2019 model year closeout (this was the last C650GT in the East Coast distribution center in New Jersey). I got 0% for 36 months with zero down through BMW Financial, so you can’t beat that.

The top speed is a claimed 112 MPH, though BMW advises not to exceed 80 MPH with two riders aboard. Not to worry, as 55 MPH thus far is about my comfort level. The power windscreen, which sounds ridiculous, is great in creating a windproof cocoon even at that speed.

Together with the clunky-looking front cheek and leg fairing, when the screen is fully raised there is no buffeting at all. I rode the other day in 40 degree conditions, and I even left the visor open on my helmet. Between a lined, armored jacket, my armored gloves, the heated grips and heated seat, I was more comfortable than any convertible car would have been that day.

My biggest mistake so far was riding it anywhere, at all, prior to taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Rider Course. I did not have any mishaps involving traffic in about 100 miles of putting around town, but, it’s a miracle I didn’t. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

The course was great; nine hours a day for two days (Saturday and Sunday) at the local community college. Some motorcycle dealers offer it for free with a purchase, or rebate the course price with a purchase. Some locations spread it out over three days instead of two. It’s just the basics, of course, and you don’t leave there ready to do stunts.

The class was limited to 12 persons; one didn’t show, and three dropped out after taking a spill, so eight of us completed the class. Completion of the class in my state allows you to get your motorcycle endorsement with just a written test, as opposed to completing an obstacle course with a DMV officer.

They had a stable of bikes for the class; everyone ran to the older, cool looking Harleys and Hondas, ignoring a new one-cylinder BMW G310R bike with 200 miles on it. I grabbed it, even though it was numbered “13” for the range course! I figured the controls would be like my scooter, and I knew it had EFI, so it might be a little easier to learn on. Indeed, one of the biggest struggles the other students had as the weekend wore on was stalling and other rough running due to the other “cool” bikes having a carb and a manual choke. So I was grateful for the lack of interest in the Bimmer.

Although, it had a manual gearbox like the others, and so I had to learn that even though I did not need that skill for the scooter. As David explained in his recent MOAL, 1st is down with your left foot, then lifting up with your foot takes you to N then through gears 2 through 5, and vice versa.

There are differences between scooter and motorcycle controls:

Left hand scooter = reach for rear brake

Left hand motorcycle = reach for clutch

Right hand is the same for both: twist grip for throttle, then reach for the front brake

Left foot motorcycle = gear shift

Left foot scooter = nothing

Right foot motorcycle = rear brake

Right foot scooter = nothing

It went fine in the end though, and I admit having a clutch you can slip at low speed maneuvering is an advantage the CVT lacks. I am getting better with “feathering” the CVT, but it takes some very small movements of the throttle to avoid an “on/off” situation which can put you on the ground at the wrong moment.

Speaking of which, the old saying is there are those who have wrecked or “dropped” their motorcycle, and those who have not YET done so. I have done it, so I’m in the club. If you stop without paying attention to the wheel being straight ahead, it’ll go down. I did that prior to the class in an empty parking lot while practicing my panic stops. I got stopped alright, on a dime, but I didn’t have the wheel straight enough. Panic stopping in a curve is one of the topics we covered in the class, so maybe better luck next time.

Turn your head and look where you want to go

I also dropped it in a parking lot due to “target fixation”. A motorcycle will go where you are looking, every time. Like a lot of newbies, I stared at a curb that jumped out of nowhere, instead of turning my head like a barn owl and looking where I wanted to go. Bam, I hit the curb and down I went on my right hand, knee, elbow and shoulder, and my ankle was stuck under the scooter. I was A-OK though, due to the armored jacket and pants, and motorcycle boots. All the gear, all the time, as the saying goes.

My wife and I have practiced riding “two up” at the local community college parking lots on the weekends, and have graduated to riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway before it gets too cold. The BRP is a great place to ride as beginners, since the speed limit is never higher than 45 mph, and at least this time of year there’s not much traffic. The leaf looker traffic is over, and most of the campgrounds and amenities closed Nov. 1.

Yes, that is a player piano. Ran when parked. Free to a good home.

One of the topics covered in the class was why people tend to not see motorcycles. They are smaller and narrower, of course, compared to what we are looking for and expect to see on the road. You should wear a light colored helmet and a high visibility jacket instead of the “cool” all black look.

Many studies suggest that a key problem is the human brain has trouble discerning movement and depth of a single light source. Makes some sense, as you can tell a car is coming towards at night you when you see the two headlights getting closer together. Think about how you do a double take at night, when a car with only one headlight burning comes towards you. At least I do; I can’t quite tell, it is moving? Which side of their car am I seeing? Are they in my lane or not?

So, I added some LED lights front and rear. About $15 each end, and 30 minutes or so to install. It’s worth a try, anyway, and gives me a little more confidence even in the daytime, with the headlight on. It’s just a single bulb at a time on the C650GT, one side low and the other side high beam.

I tapped into the license plate lamp wiring on the rear, positive and negative. The license plate light is on at all times when the key is on, for some reason, even with the headlights off.

Since the fuses were adjacent to the front end (you can see the side cheek flaring removed on the “passenger” side, that’s how you access the battery, fuses, OBD connector, and air filter), I used a fuse splitter in the keyed fuse space for the front running light. That’s the three vertical white LED bars between the headlamps. They are on whenever the key is.

The fuse tap allows you to use one fuse space for two circuits. I removed the 4 amp fuse for the LED DRL, plugged the splitter in, and then plugged the factory fuse back in the first slot. That feeds the factory circuit.

The second slot, with no fuse, is feeding the pigtail for the new circuit. You place a fuse in the second slot according to what you are doing; I used a 3 amp fuse for the new orange LEDs. I connected the positive lead of the orange LEDs to the crimp connector on the pigtail, and connected the negative leads under a screw on the metal bike frame for attaching the front fairing.

I’ll write up some trips we hope to take it along on next year. Who else out there has a scooter or motorcycle they haven’t told us about!?