Symba Madness

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Here's a look at Jamie's "performance modifications." Photo: Jamie Leonard
Words: Jamie Leonard   Photos: As credited   Title photo: Alliance Powersports
Words: Jamie Leonard. Photos: As credited. Title photo: Alliance Powersports

Anyone who hasn’t been locked in a cave for the last half century will find the Sym Symba familiar – it’s a 101 cc clone of the venerable Honda Cub. It comes from the same genetic stock – Sym was a contractor for Honda for many years producing (among other things) the Cub.

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So it looks like a Cub, smells like a Cub, makes noises like the Cub and likely tastes like the Cub. But I’ve been told by CMG bigwigs not to lick the bikes anymore so I can’t comment on that (though unofficially … it really does).

The Symba is a four-speed, large-wheeled (17-inch) scooter with an auto clutch. A lightweight at 95kg (209 lbs), it has a four-litre fuel tank which gives it a range somewhere past 130-140 km. The listed mileage is 100 mpg, but I didn’t run it empty to confirm this.

Price-wise the Symba is also a lightweight at an MSRP of $2599, which makes it cheaper than several of the mainstream 50 cc scooters, but with more punch in the engine department.

“You meet the nicest people on a Sym.”

I picked up the Symba from Old Vintage Cranks in Hillsburgh, Ontario. They are the kind of multi-line dealership that is vanishing in many places. To enter, you slip past the studious inspection of a three-legged bulldog, stepping into a room that at first seems like a history of the modern motorcycle – from Ural sidecar rigs to Royal Enfield bikes, from modern scooters to the Sym Symba and Sym Wolf. There isn’t an espresso machine or branded clothing, but there is good mechanical service and advice.

Jamie hadn't gotten very far before a batch of bad gas gave him problems; the staff at Old Vintage Cranks fixed him up. Photo: Jamie Leonard
Jamie hadn’t gotten very far before a batch of bad gas gave him problems; the staff at Old Vintage Cranks fixed him up. Photo: Jamie Leonard

I needed that service and advice shortly after leaving;I had to return after discovering I’d picked up some horribly bad gas. And not from my usual convenience store burrito either.

The Symba rolls on 17-inch wheels, with drum brakes front and rear.
The Symba rolls on 17-inch wheels, with drum brakes front and rear. Photo: Alliance Powersports

The Symba, to its credit, did well when you consider the gas was probably 10 per cent water. It would stall, then pick up again – better than many bikes would have managed, considering the water content. After returning to OVC, the mechanic flushed the fuel system, replaced the bad gas, and I continued on my way again (it should be noted the bike was not from OVC, but was a press bike supplied for review purposes).

Back on the road, filled up to the brim (with gas from a different station), the Symba proved to be on the peppy side for a 101cc – getting up to an indicated 85-90 km/h (80-85 km/h in actuality), even with my not-so-lightweight frame aboard.

That’s not bad when you compare it to my 1975 CT90, which is a Cub variant, an elderly and distant cousin to the Symba. In stock form, that bike would be lucky to hit 80 … downhill. The Symba was definitely better able to keep up with traffic, and while it wasn’t ideally powered for an 80 km/h road, it was able to at least maintain the speed limit generally.

While the Symba wouldn't break any speed records, Jamie found it kept up with traffic on secondary highways rated ar 80 kph.
While the Symba wouldn’t break any speed records, Jamie found it kept up with traffic on secondary highways rated ar 80 kph. Photo: Sym

The braking, while not spectacular, is functional with front and rear drum brakes. While most bikes use a front disc, the drum bakes do an adequate job of stopping the bike and keep costs down and maintenance simple.

Jamie had the red Symba, but it's also available in black or blue in Canada.
Jamie had the red Symba, but it’s also available in black or blue in Canada. Photo: Sym

The ergonomics of the bike are better than the Cub’s. Modern telescopic forks do a decent job of absorbing pothole impacts, 12-volt lighting does a reasonable job of lighting up the road again, and generally the bike rides quite well.

The stock saddle/buddy seat configuration is definitely not something I recommend keeping if you’re average height or taller. The saddle is a bit on the hard side, but the real problem is a metal grab bar between the front and rear seat which seems precisely placed to damage a taller rider’s posterior.

A bit of padding wrapped around the bar made it manageable for the short term, but if you are thinking of getting a Symba and are above average height, get the optional bench seat.

The Maddest test of all

The Symba's ergonomics are better than the original Cub's says Jamie. Photo: Youtube
The Symba’s ergonomics are better than the original Cub’s says Jamie. Photo: Youtube

It isn’t easy being a complete bastard on a cheery red-and-white bike that brings people running, makes them smile and point, and gets all types asking about it – from hardcore bikers to little old grandmothers. But this was precisely what I would have to do for the Mad Bastard Scooter Rally, an 800-km 24-hour endurance rally mixed with a scavenger hunt and Halloween party. I’d need to throw out all notions of common sense and cover myself in the mantle of madness.

The Symba's gauges are simple and classic.
The Symba’s gauges are simple and classic. Photo: Alliance Powersports

To achieve this I decided to give the Symba a steampunk look, for maximum mad points. Off went the buddy seat to reveal the rear luggage rack (removal of the seat being accomplished by the turning of two small levers under the seat.)

I strapped my “Steampunk Engine” which consisted of a wooden trunk with assorted dials, gears, lights and buttons to the rack, and added metallic gear decals over the front legshield. The handlebars got a brass “Oooga” type horn for that authentic Victorian “Get out of my way jerk!” feel.

This, when added to the tall boots, woolen jodhpurs, Victorian peacoat jacket and heavily decorated Steampunk helmet, added up to an outfit guaranteed to get me odd looks from anyone I passed, which is the point of the rally, really.

Jaimie in full Steampunk garb and decorated Symba
Jaimie in full Steampunk garb and decorated Symba. Photo: Mad Bastard

The next morning my wife Cindy (riding an 80’s Vespa PX125) and my brother Jonathon (riding a Kymco People S200) set off from Ajax, Ontario to ride over to Belleville, Ontario, which was the start point of the rally.

The controls, as you'd expect, are simple.
The controls, as you’d expect, are simple. Photo: Alliance Powersports

The Symba attracted attention at almost every stop for gas, with people reminiscing about renting similar machines during vacations, or asking questions about the bike itself. Many were surprised to find out it was a current model, having believed it to be a vintage machine.

At the MBSR riders’ meeting, Editor ‘Arris announced the route would be hilly (code speak for “You will be driving off cliffs and then winching your bike up the next”).

We also had rain in the forecast, which meant, given my luck, I should expect to slide over a cliff and likely eaten by some kind of vicious rural Ontario wildlife – maybe rabid deer or squirrels of unusual size, my half-consumed, corpse to be found oddly costumed, and accessorized in Victorian style, just to add to the mystery.

You don't see many Symbas on the road here in Canada, but they're widespread globally. In some Asian markets, the Symba is called the Wowow ... Sadly, this version was unavailable for testing, although Jamie was adamant that he preferred this paint scheme over the red one he borrowed.
You don’t see many Symbas on the road here in Canada, but they’re widespread globally. In some Asian markets, the Symba is called the Wowow … Sadly, this version was unavailable for testing, although Jamie was adamant that he preferred this paint scheme over the red one he borrowed.

 We left the start line, grabbed some quick gas and then fell in behind the Blues Brothers and a gnome. The next few hours were a blur of hurried riding, frantic GPS checks, running wide open throttle on the plucky 101cc Symba whenever possible.

Jamie's got a gun! Cue song ...
Jamie’s got a gun! Cue song …

Coming into a gravel-dusted turn, the pace and fatigue caught up with me – I over-estimated traction, slid on the gravel into deep sand, then went into a tankslapper (can you still have a tankslapper with the tank under the seat?).

The front end was bouncing all over the place, while I yelled in alarm and prepared for a sideways slide into the tree line.

At the last moment, I pulled the classic Fred Flintstone maneuver, putting down my feet which allowed me to bring the little Symba to a less than graceful stop. After a few moments of heavy breathing, allowing the adrenaline to fade, and letting the dust settle – I continued on.

I was growing rather fond of the little red and white machine. The engine took all the abuse I was throwing at it and came back for more. The occasional missed shift (being an auto-clutch, you had to be careful matching revs when downshifting or you would chirp the rear tire for an instant and put a bit of strain on the gearbox) didn’t phase it in the slightest.

A mad steampunk engineer takes to the roads. Photo: Mad Bastard

We were well on our way when the back end of the Symba literally threw a wobbly and I had to pull over in the middle of nowhere. Being in the middle of nowhere there was no cell signal and little sign of life, save for a cloud of mosquitoes that were in the process of carrying off a small moose.

Alas, Jamie's MBSR ride came to an early end when the nut fell off his swingarm bolt. Photo: Jamie Leonard
Alas, Jamie’s MBSR ride came to an early end when the nut fell off his swingarm bolt. Photo: Jamie Leonard

On close inspection I found the nut had come off the bolt that secures the rear swingarm. This, as you would likely agree with, is a serious safety concern, and rendered the bike unrideable. Not knowing where or when the nut had come off, there wasn’t much we could do at the side of the road – so my wife rode ahead and found a friendly house to borrow a phone from and called the sweep truck.

My rally was over.

I returned to the hotel via CAA flatbed, and the Symba was returned back to Toronto in a trailer. It was an oddly sad thing; I felt the machine itself had deserved to finish. I wasn’t even as upset at my own DNF as I was that the little machine hadn’t made it.

Dave Mackenzie, Sales Manager of Motorsports Canada (the Canadian distributor for Sym) had this to say when told about the swingarm incident: “Sorry to hear of the swing arm issue. I will take the blame on that. To my knowledge the swing arm was factory torqued and OVC had nothing to do with it.”

He went on to explain that he thought it was more of a standard bike review “I didn’t take into account the mileage that you were going to put on the unit. I realized after that you were going to run the Mad Bastard rally. The bike should have received a 300-km check and that would have been picked up.”

 

Jamie had some bad luck with his Symba, but it seems to have been a rarity; other users take them everywhere - even, apparently, Alaska. Photo: Binh Cheung
Jamie had some bad luck with his Symba, but it seems to have been a rarity; other users take them everywhere – even, apparently, Alaska. Photo: Binh Cheung

Conclusion

All in all I find myself in a bit of an odd spot in reviewing this bike. Up to the point of the swingarm bolt coming loose, I would have given the bike quite high marks for value for money, for fun factor, and for having a decent fit and finish at a very reasonable price. I’m quite fond of the little machine, and if I decided to replace my cottage CT90, it might be a serious contender.

Jamie was disappointed the Symba didn't finish the MBSR; he wasn't able to find any other stories of swingarm bolt issues, so he doesn't think it's an endemic problem. Photo: Jamie Leonard
Jamie was disappointed the Symba didn’t finish the MBSR; he wasn’t able to find any other stories of swingarm bolt issues, so he doesn’t think it’s an endemic problem. Photo: Jamie Leonard

On the other hand, the swingarm nut coming loose is a serious safety issue, which normally would rate a bike an automatic fail. However, I do have to temper this with the fact that I have not been able to find other reports of this occurring, and that generally the Symba has a decent reputation for reliability.

It’s even been the choice of one couple for an around the world trip – see Colin and Rebekah’s blog about the trip can be read here. So I don’t feel the bike is fundamentally unreliable or unsafe; it seems this was an error in bike assembly, not a flaw in the motorcycle itself.

All in all, I would have to give the bike a conditional rating – I think it offers great value for the money, and is a versatile machine that’s easy to service and I like it quite a bit. But at the same time, you do need to follow the maintenance intervals recommended, and (as I found out) check the nuts and bolts regularly.

Still, if I had only $2599 to spend on a small motorcycle, I’d seriously consider the Symba.


GALLERY

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SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  2013 Sym Symba
MSRP  $2599
Displacement  101 cc
Engine type  Air-cooled single-cylinder, four-speed semi-automatic transmission
Power (crank)*  N/A
Torque*  N/A
Tank Capacity  Four litres
Carburetion  Carburetor
Final drive  Chain
Tires, front  2.50-17 38L
Tires, rear  2.50-17 38L
Brakes, front  130 mm drum brakes
Brakes, rear  110 mm drum brakes
Seat height  760 mm
Wheelbase  1220 mm
Wet weight*  95 kg
Colours  Black, red, blue
Warranty  24-month limited warranty
* claimed  

4 COMMENTS

  1. The swing arm nut/bolt loosening is a common thing with the Symba. Mine came off up in Canada BC just before getting to the Stewart-Cassiar on my Alaska trip. I was about 150miles from nowhere.

  2. Just to add some clarification to the swing arm issue. SYM builds a very high quality and reliable machine, as evident in the around the world chronicles mentioned in the article and the fact that this motorcycle started its review by being treated to water infested gas. The bike that was provided to CMG was a brand new unit fresh out if the crate. We were under the impression that this bike would be used for a review and did not know that it would accumulate as much mileage as it did causing it to miss it’s scheduled service. The owners manual states that during this service the swing arm bolt should be inspected, torqued and greased as necessary. If this had been accomplished I am certain the bike would have proven capable of completing the rally.

    Michael Wells,
    President, Motorsports Canada
    Distributors for SYM and Zaeta

  3. Good article. And nice to see a cub look-alike now available. Sym seem to have a good reputation for quality. So it’s disappointing to hear that there may have been an issue with the bike. Might need to dip some extra parts in locktite if you buy one of these.

    The Colin and Re trip report on the Syms was one of the best trip reports I’ve read on ADV Rider. Once you begin reading it – be prepared to be up all night – as the writing and events they encounter are incredibly captivating.

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