Thursday, April 10, 2008

My first bike; how I chose it and why?

1. Need a bike; zeroing in !

I am quite new to bikes and biking. In fact I didn't know how to ride a bike an year back. I am based in Bangalore (A city in Southern India officially known as Bengalooru which is famous world-wide as an IT hub and at the same time notorious for it's chaotic traffic) at present and I was tired of the tantrums thrown by the auto-rickshaw-wallas (three wheeler cabs) especally during the rains. This coupled with rumors of my office shifting to a distant place forced me look for a bike. I wanted a reasonably powerful and decent looking bike that could be used to commute to and from work, comfortable to the rider and pillion, at the same time be reasonably fuel efficient. Most of my friends advised against going for a rather heavy bike. Instead they asked me to go for either an second-hand Suzuki/rx 135 two stroker or a light 100 cc bike as I was of average height and build and was yet to learn to ride a bike.

The RE (Royal Enfield) Bullet was my first love. No other bike has the classic look and charm of a Bullet. Bullets are touted to offer the best ride quality and their stability is legendary. But these thumpers are low on mileage, high on maintenance and unsuited to heavy slow moving city traffic. I was also put off by it's enormous size. Finally the head took over the heart and I ticked Bullets off my list. I zeroed in on the 150cc segment as it offered me everything I was looking for in terms of style, power, performance and mileage. Since I had crossed the wrong side of thirty by that time, I felt that Pulsars were a bit too flashy for me and it's ubiquity was always at the back of my mind. Though sturdy in build, Bajaj bikes tend to go higher on maintenance over the long haul. TVS (T. V. Sundaram) Apache was my next choice since it's size was matching mine. Even though the Indian bike guru (Dilip Bam) recommends Apache I had heard many rumors about the problems in that bike. Gone were the days of the good old TVS (Suzuki) Fieros and RTR wasn't released then(if you ignore the extra 10 cc). Maybe these were just rumors,but too strong to ignore; plus the seat was also a bit short for a pillion rider and the bike (especially the red one) appeared too gaudy for my taste. HH(HERO Honda) CBZ was ruled out because some of my friends disposed off their bikes within 2-3 years because of it's high fuel consumption. Other clones like HH Achiever were out of contention because I simply couldn't see any value add in them; maybe the recent HH Hunk is an exception. Yamaha,Suzuki or Kinetic didn't offer any model in the 150cc segment. Meanwhile rumours were thick about the release of a new Unicorn model that would supposedly iron out the shortcomings in the old one. Honda showrooms in Bangalore confirmed this unofficially but they refused to give any dates. I decided to wait for Honda's new model before taking the final decision and my wait stretchedddd on for over three months.

2. Why go for Honda ?

Initially I was not really in favor of the Unicorn because I was intimidated by it's sheer bulk and it's high saddle. Then one of my cousins who works as a sales rep. in Mumbai recommended this bike to me. His job requires him to travel atleast 25-30 kms per day. He had upgraded from a 100cc HH Splendor to the Unicorn. It offered him the best ergonomics on riding along with a decent mileage. Still I was undecided. Finally I started digging a bit into the history of companies and was impressed by Honda's commitment to the environment. When 2-stroke outboard motors (mainly Yamaha) were ruling the power hungry market, Honda switched to 4-strokers to minimize the damage to marine life. It was only in 2005 that the number of 4-stroke outboard motors exceeded the sales of 2 strokers. Meanwhile Honda simply took a hit in their sales. As stupid as it may sound this was one of the factors that influenced my decision to go for a Honda. Honda doesn't just change the fuel tank, increase the engine displacement, come up with circus stunt ads or cookup the mileage figures to sell it's bikes. Take a look at the Unicorn (Sports) engine, Honda has retained the top portion's silvery aluminum finish as opposed to other popular models in the market with an "all black engine". The top portion gets the hottest when the engine is running and a lighter color dissipates heat better thereby cooling the engine faster. This goes on to show that Honda doesn't compromise on it's engineering just to improve on looks. It does it's homework and brings really good quality models into the market. Just check the brand of it's individual parts like alloy wheels and disc brakes etc. They are outsourced from the market leaders. Mind you this also means costlier spares if something goes wrong with your bike.

3. Purchase and initial niggles.

I was one of the first customers of the Unicorn sports in Bangalore. The Haiku Honda (Domlur) guy, one Mr. Subramanian called on the 26th of March last year to inform me of the availability of the new sports model of Unicorn for booking. I used to pester him for months on enquiring about the release of the new model. Finally he took down my number offered to update me instead, and that he did ! I went the next day with a friend of mine who was considered knowledgeable about bikes. But the sports model was unavailable for test rides. Three models were available that day: Black one with blue stripes on the fuel tank, a red and a silver one. The red looked too gaudy to me, the silver looked like an alien bike, but the black looked really cool to me (would have picked the black one with gray stripes had it been available then). Next day I went again with my friend to take the delivery of the bike with my friend ( mind you I didn't have the skills ride a bike yet). The bike arrived with a temporary number scribbled with a marker pen; I got the registration number the next day.

Initially the gearbox was hard and the clutch applied suddenly. I wondered if I had really bought an Unicorn, my cousin used to sing praises to it's butter-smooth gear shifts. The gears would be hard to shift and the bike would give jerks on accelerating slightly. The self start button failed after a week. At first I thought that it was probably due to my lack of experience of biking, but my "experienced" friends confirmed that my bike indeed had these problems. The suspension was also ineffective for pillion rides. The first service was an experience in itself. After 45 days of purchase I had gone to the service station at around noon. Initially the folks there refused to accept my bike saying that they were full and had no place for extra vehicles. Instead they told me to come next day morning early at 9. I had a hard time persuading them to accept my vehicle for service the same day. They listened to my complaints patiently. Nevertheless I got my bike back lighter by 6 liters of petrol. Back then I didn't know that one should not give a bike for service on a full tank :( But they also rectified the gearbox and adjusted the clutch settings. The loose connection in the self start was also sorted out. The suspension settings were changed from soft to medium and that made the pillion ride bearable. You can do it yourself (provided you know what you are doing), The toolkit includes a short rod to do the adjustments. Suddenly the bike was very enjoyable.

In retrospect these were just the initial niggles, initial batches of new models always have some. For eg. clutch adjustment is just a trifle for any roadside mechanic. But it made me go through a lot of post purchase anxiety

4. The Unicorn advantage.

The engine is so smooth and muted that initially in slow moving or while idling at a traffic signal I would think that the engine had turned off. Even when you raise the throttle the engine doesn't sound harsh, it still runs muted. If not for the wind hitting your face, you wouldn't even realize that you are going at high speeds. I virtually learned to ride on this bike and I can vouch for the fact that is comfortable to handle and maneuver even though it is the heaviest of all bikes in it's class (146 kgs dry weight), Pulsars included. It has not given me any worries after the first service till date. I don't race my bike and have seldom gone over speeds of 60. The bike is a bit tall for me, I have to wear high heeled boots in order to ground both my heels when the vehicle is at halt. Pushing it in manually the opposite directions on one way roads (we have many one wayers in Bangalore) can be tiring. I mostly drive at low speeds in low to medium gear in the lanes and bylanes (mains and crosses as we call it here) during peak traffic hours. It has good pulling power (low end torque) at low gears for this kind of riding. The mileage I get during this type of gully driving is fortyish. On open roads at high speeds (50 to 60 km/hr) and high gears (mostly 4th and 5th gear) the mileage shoots over 55kmpl. It all depends on where and how you ride.

5. The new and the old

The new Sports model is said to share the same engine and gearbox as the old one. The changes are alloy wheels, a fatter rear tread, push locking (aviator) fuel cap,a louder horn and cosmetic changes to the front fairing and the flanks. The plastic covers on the flanks match the bike colors with a dash of silver as opposed to the dull gray ones in the old model. Also some problems in the older version like vibrations in the front fairing and the tail have been eliminated; infact the old model has been discontinued alltogether. The paint job on the tank appears to be more lustrous than the older ones.

6. Crib ! Crib ! Crib !

Now the sore points. No review will be complete without it. I had to pay Rs. 141 for the registration plates because as per Honda they are not standard accessories. Thank God they didn't charge for the rearview mirrors ! Others even give away helmets for free on purchase. The Unicorn fuel tank has a sticker job with lacquer finish to top it. It must be improved upon. I feel that old Unicorn tank with just the wings (minus the stripes) looked much better. Hot or cold, I always have to start the bike by applying the choke; in fact the service center mechanics recommend starting the bike on choke in the mornings for 15 secs. The metal pivot that joins the handle assembly to the chassis and the adjoining metal lack in finish, the welds are ugly and too apparent. The pillion seating height is quite high, a short pillion will have to "climb" on to it. So If you are planning to buy this bike, take your wife or parent or girlfriend or anybody who rides pillion along with you and have them personally check out the seating height. A rather short pillion rider may find this high seating a bit disconcerting.

7. Not runaway hit eh?

Unicorn doesn't lead the market in 150cc segment the way activa does among scooters. Actually it lags way behind the legendary pulsars in sales even though the sports model was priced a whole 1000 bucks below the 150cc DTSi model at the time of it's launch. Well there are several reasons for this notwithstanding it's rather sedate looks. First of all this bike was and still is marketed poorly. If you recollect the earliest ad for the Unicorn (old model), it featured a doctor who simply ignored a beautiful lass on the way to attend a medical emergency. Morally correct, isnt it? But do we buy bigger bikes to perform community service ? No ! It is to live our childhood and adolescent dreams and satisfy our egos. How else can you justify a 125 cc cruiser (Yamaha Enticer) in this country ? Most of the working professionals at whom Unicorn was targetted, already had a "decent" four wheeler with a scooty or an activa to supplement for commuting short distances or for their wives/parents to ride. And look at the age group that goes for brand new 150cc++ bikes (If you ignore the RE Bullet). Most of them fit into the 20-28 years range.

Unicorn torque peaks at 5500 rpm (same for Sports model) while in a Pulsar the torque peaks at 6500rpm. Which means that in an Unicorn the torque will flatten out at higher RPM while in a Pulsar the power will peak progressively and reach the maximum at a much higher speed. Thus Unicorn will have more initial pickup than the Pulsar and will be ideal to commute in the city while Pulsar will perform better at higher speeds. It was the commuter segment that Unicorn was targetting but they put monoshocks which are standard on racing bikes. Inspite of this the ads showed a guy riding solo on a relatively smooth road and banking at low speeds. What a slip! The waiting period (for the old model) was initially 2 months. If you have the desire and the mooolah why would you wait two frustrating months if a better looking bike is available next door ? Honda took three years to upgrade to a fatter rear tyre and mag wheels and provide the much-needed facelift. By then Pulsars had gone miles ahead in sales.

Honda bike ads (new sports model ones too) are consistently dull and lack passion. Had the new Unicorn been marketed using a peppy ad that included racing on rough roads with a stunning chick in tow,I am sure the bike would have sold better. TVS went over the board tried to oversell the Apache while Honda put it's bike to shame with it's usual plain unispiring show. Meanwhile Bajaj sold the average youngster his pet dream with the "definitely male" and "distinctly ahead" catch even though it was distinctly lagging in many departments. Bajaj understands the Indian customer mindset so well. Kudos to the marketing team at Bajaj Auto; they have done a fantastic job. Remember Bajaj's old promo for Pulsar 200 ? (an Arabic number if I am not mistaken). Or the old "feel like god" one for it's Avenger. I simply loved it, what a pity they have stopped airing it. Solid engineering must be backed up by an equally effective marketing strategy for any product to be a success.

I am not saying that Unicorns don't sell. In fact I see more and more new Unicorns on Bangalore roads and in parking lots every day. This bike sells inspite of Honda's staid advertising only because the discerning customer realises and appreciates the solid engineering that has gone into it's design and build.


Update: June-18-2008

Gave my bike for service yesterday. It was my 6th (last) free service. Nowadays they seem to have stopped robbing petrol; anyway I don't leave much behind for them nowadays. The brake light had stopped flashing on applying the rear brake. This is fixed and starting problems have somewhat reduced. I found that many other bikers who owned the Unicorn had similar starting problems. In fact I met one person yesterday who rides his bike on choke for a few hundred metres (not recommended) to warm up his bike and save petrol at the same time.

Just got a chance to check out the latest Unicorn model. The main differences that I could make out were the raised HONDA wings logo on the tank minus the stripes (thank God they got rid of the stripes for good) and ofcourse an all-black engine (whatever happened to Honda's legendary uncompromising engineering; in case you are wondering check out my "Why go for a Honda" segment above), and maybe an all black saree guard. Black saree guards were available prior to this release too though I couldn't manage to get one.