The first thing I bought after I got my motorcycling endorsement was a Genuine Hooligan 170. I bought it under the theory that motorcycling of some kind seemed like fun, dealing with a clutch seemed like a pain in the ass, and that 170cc was all anyone really needs to do what I wanted to do, which was never leave city limits on it. The Hooligan was fun. It had great brakes, it could hold its own during rush hour, and it was small enough that it just sort of flitted around.
As I got my confidence up, I wanted something I could take on the highway, so I sold the Hooligan and bought a Honda Rebel 500. I bought it under the theory that it would be small enough to commute on, but powerful enough to take me places with better scenery. I did take it on a few country road trips, and up Mt. Hood, but storage was an issue and I didn’t really like the cruiser geometry for my kind of commute. It felt a little cumbersome to me.
So next up was a Yamaha X-Max 300 – back to scooters – and it has been okay. It can keep up on the local interstates, has plenty of storage, and it has a great pillion seat that works well for Al. Where it falls down is … fun. It’s not the most fun. I like riding it, and riding it is better by far than driving a car, and it is fun to take Al around on it. It is not fun for going to the store, or just taking a spin. It’s big and plasticky, and while it can get a lot of power to the wheels, it is contemplative about that.
So, enter the Grom.
I’ve known about them for a while, but they’ve always existed between my use cases: They’re motorcycles and have a real clutch, but tiny (125cc) and hard pressed to go faster than 55, so they’re out for highway rides. Also, the motorcycle journalism surrounding them makes me feel uncomfortable, because people are really, really hoping small displacement “mini-motos” and other “friendly” bikes will spark some sort of renaissance in motorcycle riding in the way Americans want people to ride motorcycles (in uneasy coexistence with SUV-dominated roads, and as some sort of cultural signifier) instead of the way most of the rest of the world rides them (as a small, efficient, maneuverable way to get around). So there’s a lot of talk about fun, and “grinning as you wring its neck” and “twisting the throttle bringing a smile to your face” that is just … no. See also the heavily gatekept and inward-looking photography world, which both wants there to be enough people buying cameras to keep making standalone camera ownership possible, but also despises new photographers and spends most of its time writing blog posts about how you’re doing it wrong and sternly informing you that you should stop taking pictures of certain things (like people under umbrellas and sunsets, according to a recent article) when it isn’t angry about filters and Instagram.
Anyhow, I recently picked up the habit of sort of skipping around YouTube at night, and I came across a few Grom videos that just looked like fun. Some of it was stuff I’d never do – Grom hooligans by the dozen buzzing cops, doing wheelies, and fleeing down sidewalks; and some of it was exactly stuff I wouldn’t mind doing – putting on some decent street/dirt tires and riding forest roads. The message that got through to me, ultimately, was that maybe it is more fun to ride a slow bike fast.
So I started looking around for them (and Honda Monkeys and Honda Trail Cubs). They’ve been hard to find in stock this year, and I walked into one dealership the second they opened hoping to buy a new 2022. I test drove one, but the sales guy came out of the business office looking embarrassed and said there’d been a mixup and someone else had claimed the thing. However, they had a 2018 sitting on the floor, with just 120 miles, and they’d take another $300 off the used price just for putting me out.
I drove it around the lot and immediately noticed that the 2022 Grom’s seat was way better. 2018 seats sort of force you against the gas tank and up over the dash in a way that forces your head down pretty hard to check your speed (or neutral). So while I was waiting for the sales guy to come back over I googled “2018 Grom replacement seat” and saw plenty of four- and five-star reviews of flatter seats. It was also a model with ABS (that’s good), so I decided I didn’t mind losing the extra gear the ‘22s have packed in and bought it.
In the week I’ve had it, I’ve swapped out the seat, added a tiny cargo rack that can hold a soft tail bag, and replaced the mirrors. I’ve taken it downtown, and around my extended neighborhood.
Headed south the back way out of my neighborhood, there’s a pretty steep hill with a 35mph speed limit. If I can hit it at speed, I can stay in fourth gear all the way up and not give anything up. If I get stuck behind a car I’ll probably end up down-shifting, but it keeps up then, and can even accelerate.
Headed downtown, I’ve taken the inner-southeast route, sticking to Foster, 50th, and Belmont to get me to the Morrison Bridge. It holds its own on the Morrison just fine.
It is, indeed, fun. It’s tiny, and there’s something a little absurd about it because of that. You’re not in full-on monkey bike mode, but there is definitely a sort of “Ant Man didn’t quite resize the motorcycle to full-size” thing going on. Where I can get a wave back from the big bike people on my X-Max, and even more often did on my Rebel, it is beneath the dignity of many Harley people to wave back to someone on a Grom. Tiny and Japanese is just too much for them. They read their own indictments.
It’s way less cumbersome than a “full-size” bike for grocery runs and the like. Easier to maneuver at low speeds in the parking light, but the only cars it doesn’t leave behind at stoplights are the ones operated by people who have sat at the light staring at the side of your head who want a contest of machines.
The one thing I don’t like about it, when it comes down to it, is that its smallness and popularity make it a pretty easy collector’s piece for bike thieves: At about 230 pounds, it can go into the back of a pickup truck easily and quickly, so unlike any other ride I’ve owned I have a disc lock and alarm, and I shackle it down and cover it up at home. If nothing else, I’ll be able to collect on my comprehensive insurance policy with a clean conscience on the day someone just hucks it into their truck and drives off with the disc lock squealing.
Verdict: It’s fun, I like it, and it makes me come up with excuses to run to the store or not care if Ben has the car. Al is going back to get her motorcycle endorsement, and seems to have her heart set on a Monkey or Trail Cub, at which point I can see trading in the X-Max to fund her ride and see how well she likes it. In terms of aesthetics, I think I’m more of a Cub or Monkey person, and if you’d asked me three years ago if I’d have any time for a tiny sport bike with less power than my first scooter, I’d have laughed at you. But here we are: I like the little beast.