For the curious, riding motorcycles has a habit of developing at least a passing interest in engineering. It’s all physics, a grand lesson in classical mechanics. To mix meaning, “Ducati, making mechanics out of riders since 1953.” Exchange “Ducati” for the marque of your choice and pick classical mechanics or classic mechanics. It’s all there.
A friend said he was selling his 2014 model Honda PCX. Would I like it? A scooter armed with the moral squalor of a fully automatic gearbox. What? I hear you. But around town, it’s hard to beat a bike that Honda has engineered for comfort, convenience and fuel efficiency (c.100mpg). Yes, I said.
Now the truth is we all want to know what a bike is like to either add it to our list of, “Bikes I Want,” or “Bikes to Avoid At All Cost.” And then we want to know what the bike is like at the far end of the spectrum. When pushed.
A couple of days after receiving the bike a trip to see our friends at Chiang Rai Saddlebags provided the perfect opportunity for a proper test. A friend, a fellow PCX owner, suggested a few mods. With less than 24 hours before departure, I scoured Chiang Mai for a large windscreen and a flat seat.
Getting a custom seat made, an option that is quite inexpensive in this part of the world, would take a couple of days. Instead I unbolted the notorious seat “hump” and added a trusty SAS-TEC hot weather back protector, held in place with a 3D spacer-mesh seat cover. There was no time to do anything more.
Between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai is 120 miles (200km) of mountainous and hilly countryside. North Thailand is home to arguably some of the best motorcycling roads in the world. Comparatively speaking Route 118 to Chiang Rai is a garden variety challenge. A sweet road rarely level with a confection of low grip tarmac and surface irregularities. Included are numerous instances of my least favourite surprise, reverse camber on savage corner at the bottom of a steep descent. Plenty of potential for an unexpected slide into the scenery.
The journey took about four hours, including a long coffee & fuel stop each way. Add to that time spent sheltering from a tropical downpour since the heavy rain caused zero visibility. The outbound leg was into the teeth of a storm that had gathered speed over the South China Sea. On the way home it rained for the first half of the journey before drying.
Poor weather riding in the mountains calls for every technique one has mastered just to keep upright. The hills are steep. Descents can be 10%+. There is little to no “run-off.” Red mud cakes corners, junctions, and entrances from fields onto the road. Conditions can be a tad slippery.
Bear in mind, too, the chance of receiving qualified first aid in the critical fifteen minutes after an accident are as remote as the surrounding mountains. There is no state sponsored ambulance rescue service. Any journey to hospital is likely to be in the back of a pick-up truck. Which isn’t going to be quick. Or smooth.
The journey started with heavy rain just north of Doi Saket as soon as the climb into the mountains began. I stopped in the shelter of a tree and pulled on fluorescent waterproof jacket and pants. Conspicuity can’t hurt, right? Underneath the waterproofs I was wearing an Assero Air-Speed jacket with SAS-TEC hot weather back protector, a synthetic T-shirt, and Tropical pants with Daytona Toron XCR boots. A pair of Assero Arx Keprotec gloves protected my hands. In these conditions the chance of a crash was high and I wanted as much protection as possible. The fact I was riding a small bike didn’t make any difference. A crash at fifty miles per hour on a scooter is the same as a crash at fifty miles per hour on a sports-bike.
The air was cool, around 14C I would guess. I felt dry, comfortable, and I didn’t feel cold. Underway again the PCX’s large windscreen must have helped since on other bikes I have often felt a chill riding across this stretch of mountains.
In heavy rain on a steep, slippery descent with a corner at the bottom, two cars had come into contact. I passed one car which had been travelling uphill. It had severe impact damage to the off-side front. After checking there were no vehicles behind me I slowed to walking speed. A debris field spanned thirty yards. At the bottom of the hill, just around the corner and out-of-sight, was a second car that looked like it had spun multiple times before coming to a rest in the carriageway. How it had not left the road was something of a miracle. Police were already in attendence so I picked a path very carefully through the glass and plastic strewn all over the road. It was the only accident I saw that day. On a previous journey in the rain, on the same stretch of road I saw four accidents.
The rain continued. I stopped for a coffee and fuel after 85km and removed the waterproof pants. This proved ideal. The problem with waterproof pants is they are slippery and tend to slide in the saddle. Even on a scooter. Back on the bike and I was surprised by the way the DWR coating on the Cordura 1000D pants shed water. My underwear got damp eventually but only after another massive tropical downpour. Then the rain slackened to heavy drizzle. I was entirely comfortable and could concentrate on driving.
On a motorcycle anticipation is a key survival skill. Other road users and any type of corner can pose a challenge. But today was a day for anticipation + concentration. Even with a new, crystal clear Shark visor in my helmet, the view through the heavy rain and the rugged terrain demanded full attention.
That said, I was surprised when I arrived in Chiang Rai. I felt much less tired than when I have ridden the same route on a sports bike or super-naked. The upright position of the PCX proved comfortable (provided one has adapted the seat for more front to rear movement). The large windscreen had done it’s job and deflected the worst of the weather. What’s more I had noticed much more of the countryside. A slightly slower pace had revealed what everyone knows. Thailand is beautiful.
So how was the PCX?
Let’s start with the bad. Above city riding speeds the PCX’s rear suspension can lose composure. At 90km/h a couple of high frequency bumps in quick succession caused a momentary loss of control. So as with most motorcycles, upgrade the rear suspension for the best handling.
Braking hard from 100Km/h to stop took forever. Since there was sufficient lever travel, and leverage, it felt like there wasn’t enough friction. In standard form, it’s not a bike I want to do an emergency stop on. The next modification is to fit some EBC HH high friction brake pads.
In wet conditions, the connection between the road surface and the bike’s tyres are the critical factor. At 90km/h I felt there wasn’t enough power to keep putting it down through the back wheel on long sweeping corners. The lack of power forced me to trust the tyres. Which is never the best feeling (the front was a newish cheap chinese tyre, the rear the original Dunlop). Consequently I backed off on entry to lower the speed so power could be wound on through the corner. Ideal corner exit speed was in the range 90-95km/h. Go faster and the lack of traction makes the bike feel a bit loose as it begins to float on the suspension.
There’s no perfect solution to fast corners. The PCX has a fully automatic gearbox. A semi-auto option, so one could change down a gear before going into a corner, would have been useful. Or one might be tempted to use a bigger bike for this type of terrain. Adding better, more sticky tyres such as the Pirelli Diablo Scooter may improve trust, and decent rear suspension should help keep the rear wheel speed and road speed more closely coupled. There were a couple of occasions when I felt the rear skip over bumps. Of course, the PCX isn’t designed for long distance adventures across rugged mountains in a heavy storm.
Nonetheless, the PCX does have plenty of strengths. One huge advantage is its’ carrying capacity. There’s room for one full-face helmet under the seat plus a small camera case. With careful packing I could fit a change of clothes and wash kit, shoes and waterproofs. All that was needed.
Then there’s the fuel economy. The PCX managed an indicated 210km per tankful of 95 Octane gasohol. That’s to nearly empty. You’ll need to carry a can of fuel before running the bike dry.
While the big screen was an advantage there is, of course, no-where to rest one’s chest when crouched in its’ shelter. On a sports-bike one can lie on the tank. But on the PCX this is not possible. The advantage was I could appreciate the spectacular Thai countryside. Deep red earth against bright green foliage. Paddy fields stretching to the horizon. Case to point, a giant Buddha statue I had never noticed before a few kilometers north of a famous hot spring. Where did that come from? Apparently it’s been there for decades. And, so hard have I been concentrating on faster bikes, that I had not noticed it until now.
Overall, on these roads the bike could keep a pace above that of the average car. Not that I was going hard. The conditions were too bad to even think about it. But the PCX has enough zip in the 30-50mph range to work it’s way efficiently through convoys of cars. Which I did several times on the return leg of the journey.
From an engineering perspective the PCX is proof of Honda’s ability to design a bike to a specific brief. As a town or city bike it excels. It is easy to ride, comfortable, the engine is quiet, and there’s practical luggage space under the seat. From listening to other owners, with scheduled servicing I would expect the bike to be reliable. The build quality and finish is above that of other scooters. So there’s not much for a classic, oily handed mechanic to do.
As for classical mechanics, the rear suspension is the weak link. Upgrade the rear shocks and the PCX can handle a wide range of road conditions with comfort. A large windscreen is nice to have.
The Honda PCX is optimised for city riding and high reliability.
The Good: Comfort, carrying capacity, smooth engine, fuel efficiency.
The Bad: Rear suspension, relatively low friction brake pads.