Review: BMW C400GT Maxi-scooter in Lisbon, Portugal


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Story: Harry Fisher
What makes cities interesting? Being able to discover them on two wheels, that’s what! Travel to any European city and the motorcycle is a large part of the urban transport solution and they are ridden by young and old, male and female. Take a closer look and you see that a large proportion of the machines are scooters, which makes sense. Small, nimble, nippy, park anywhere, cheap to run, insure and repair and with a certain style all of their own. 

What is also popular are larger-engined scooters, known as maxi-scooters. Yamaha has been in that market for years with the 500cc T-Max and there are others from Taiwan in the form of KYMCO and SYM, both also around the 500cc mark. Even Aprilia got in on the act with an insane 850cc, v-twin-engined maxi, the SRV850. 

Once upon a time, it would have been a far stretch of the imagination to think of BMW heading down the scooter road but, in 2000, they tried and got it spectacularly wrong with the roofed-in C1. It was gone by 2002 and it was only in late 2010 that the company dared to look at the class once more, this time without trying to re-write the rule book along the way. Interestingly, the 647cc parallel twin engines that powered the C600 and C650 were built by KYMCO. 

If looked at from a South African perspective, the new ‘C’ models were not a success. South Africans have never taken to the maxi-scooter, the ingrained machismo among motorcyclists here choosing to ignore the benefits that such a machine can have in urban riding conditions. In fact, South Africans have never taken to the motorcycle as a means of mass transport, when it would seem that we are a country tailor-made for such utility. 

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So, while the C400GT will make it to these shores, it’s in all likelihood not going to set the sales figures alight so we have to look at Europe for reasons why the maxi-scooter class is thriving. 

We were lucky enough to be in Lisbon, Portugal, for the launch of the BMW S1000RR. While we were there, said BMW, didn’t we want to spend a day riding around this ancient city on the C400GT? Now, never let it be said that we can’t see an opportunity when it is presented and it seemed to make so much sense to ride the bike in the conditions for which it was designed in the first place.

As with so many European cities, Lisbon is a mixture of ancient and not-so-ancient. You can go in an instant from a wide, two-lane boulevard running along the coast overlooking an azure sea into narrow, winding, cobbled streets barely wide enough for the smallest small car. Traffic is always a problem and there are few opportunities to use a highway. Looked at in that light, a motorcycle is essential but even a motorcycle can be too much at times. It’s a bit like choosing an automatic transmission in your car over a manual; the enthusiast will always go for the manual but an automatic is so much easier when bogged down in the rush hour madness. It’s the same with a scooter or maxi-scooter and the urban environment. 

The thing about a conventional small scooter is that, while it is great for the hop-on, hop-off tasks of going to the shops or threading your way through maze-like streets, show it anything that requires a bit of speed and middle-distance comfort and you’re sunk. 

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Hence the popularity of the maxi-scooter; it’s the best of both worlds. Nippy, nimble, practical, light on fuel and easy to ride but with a fair turn of performance to make dual carriageway or highway work not quite so intimidating.

The C400GT follows on from the C400X launched last year and adds a dose of extra comfort, a taller screen and, in my opinion at least, improved looks at the front. 

The engine is a 350cc single, producing 34bhp and 34Nm of torque, driving through a CVT transmission. ABS and traction control come as standard, and heated grips and seat and a fantastic full colour 6.5-inch TFT screen, allowing Bluetooth connection with your phone, are optional extras (although the bikes will probably come into SA fully equipped). Under seat storage is generous and there is a power socket in there as well. One surprising omission is any form of handbrake, which is usually deemed essential on a machine that can’t be left in gear when parking on an incline. I looked in vain for the wheel chock in the cubby hole. Not quite sure how BMW expect these bikes to be parked facing downhill. Maybe you just don’t! 

Comfort is a strong point, for both rider and pillion and, with the larger (non-adjustable) screen over the C400X, it’s not an impossible stretch of the imagination to use the C400GT for a long-ish trip. It will cruise at well over the highway speed limit and the suspension, brakes and handling would make it an enjoyable experience. While we’re on about it, the performance is more than enough for the traffic light drag strip and the suspension is firm enough to feel taut and controlled without being harsh over uneven surfaces. 

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But the real joy comes from not really having to think about riding; just twist and go, concentrate on where you’re going and, more importantly, what you are travelling past. There is always so much to see in a city, especially if you look up, that it is a shame to hide away in a car. Of course, the locals don’t ride scooters so they can look around as they ride; they ride because they are the perfect means of transport where performance means nothing but practicality means everything. We all know the benefits to mental health of not sitting in traffic in a car, day after day, and it seems to me that a stylish, well-made, fast and comfortable scooter is the ideal antidote.

If you can do it in a European city, then all the better, but why not give it a go in Johannesburg? Even the N1 can look attractive as you speed along it while everyone else sits and stews. 

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