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2021 Honda PCX Review: Alternative Transportation

I think it started when I picked up a test scooter from Honda two years ago. I read the last PCX150 MO had “tested” before the 2019 topped out at 63 mph, so I wanted to ride the new one back home to the OC from Honda’s Torrance, California, HQ without getting on I-405. The 405 is the easiest and most direct route, but also with the greatest chance of being rear-ended if you can’t do 80 mph. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been up and down I-405 and I-5 and whatever, you wouldn’t be reading this because I’d be retired. I know those freeways the way Mark Twain knew the Mississippi River. I never really saw myself living near the epicenter of a major megalopolis, but here I am 30-some years later. I must like it?

When I tried to ride that PCX home two years ago, I had a good idea of my no-freeways route, but had not yet mastered my Cardo Pack Talk Bold. Really all it does is tie into your phone to announce GPS directions into your helmet speakers, but I couldn’t get it to announce, and I got lost, turned around, and pissed off a couple times.

Now that I’ve mastered the Cardo – or figured out how to turn up the sound at least – nothing can stop me and the mighty PCX as the nice lady whispers directions into my ear: Left on Torrance Blvd, under the 110, L on Vermont, R on Del Amo…

This house seems familiar…

Before the Freeway

As it turns out, LA and Orange County below it were here long before the freeway system was built, and people still managed to get around on a massive grid system of surface streets. LA County, according to Wiki, is 4,753 square miles, and LA’s Bureau of Street Services says that area contains over 6,500 miles of streets. Like the song says, you can drive all day and never leave LA. Or, cross over into the OC where I live, another 948 square miles, about 900 of it paved. I think what happened is when the freeway system got completed (if it is completed?), everybody just rapidly adapted to going where they needed to go on the freeway. In old movies it was a literal breeze, cruising along in your Packard with the top down. The freeway was so quick and convenient, lots of people (most of who moved here from somewhere else) forgot all about all those wide boulevards except the ones in their own little pocket of the city. And as the city grew more congested, there we still sat on the freeways, frogs heated slowly in a giant melting pot. 

In the grittier parts of “the Southland” as they like to call it, getting off the freeway for gas will expose you to some of the less pleasant fallout of income inequality, and it’s easy after years of that to assume the whole place is impoverished. But lots of times it’s just those few blocks hard up against the freeway, where everybody who was able to leave, left. Penetrate a little farther and you’ll find nice little pockets of urbanity marbled throughout the whole giant city, like fat in a nice piece of Kobe beef.

In the days before GPS, though, it was just as easy to steer your Ducati 998 into truly frightening parts of town. Bumpy alleys, no steering lock, barking dogs, grabby clutches, and gathering darkness aren’t a good recipe for urban exploring. It never seemed like a good time to whip out your Thomas Guide to get your bearings, which you never had on a Ducati anyway. It was all terra incognita.

I did enjoy my 50-mile freeway ride to Motorcyclist magazine in the old days, when the sportbike wars were topping out. You weren’t supposed to split lanes faster than a certain speed, but that rule was more observed in the breech on a 998 Ducati or CBR1100XX. I remember drafting along behind CHP motor officers more than once, who seemed to want to show off their splitting skills. There’s double double-yellow markings along most of the 405 to separate the carpool lane from the left one, and the two or three feet between the double yellows might as well be called the motorcycle lane. Getting to the office was bracing enough that I never missed having in-flight entertainment, like the Cardo communicator I can no longer be without. (It’s too bad that saying I like to listen to NPR will generate nasty mail. I’ll say it anyway.)

But when you’re commuting, you’re always in a hurry. Even if you’ve got plenty of time, the fact that everybody else is in a hurry puts you in one too, and cranks up your stress level. The ‘94 Northridge earthquake forced me to get a bit creative on surface streets, cutting through parts of LA I’d never seen and opening me up to the world outside my personal high-speed transportation corridor. Once that damage was put right, it was back to the freeways and the rat race.

Fast forward to 2021

Now, I work from home, and seldom have to be anywhere on time. With no commute, now I need excuses to go for a ride. Nobody will give me a Ducati or a CBR1100XX anymore, but Honda did just loan me a new and improved 2021 PCX, which is supposed to be even faster than our 2019 PCX that went 70 mph! So, I probably could ride the new scoot home down the freeway, but I no longer want to. I have that last PCX to thank for helping me learn to slow down and smell the roses. Roses and lots of other smells, some of which could be toxic. 

Seventy miles-per is too slow for safe travels on the freeway for me, but it’s more than enough for East Del Amo Blvd, which you can pick up just east of the 110 freeway in Torrance and take all the way to Anaheim after it becomes La Palma Boulevard. Hey it’s Knott’s Berry Farm! Or hang a right on Atlantic and drop down to Carson Avenue, which takes you right through Lakewood Golf Course, then past Heartwell Park on the right for more than a mile. Or down to Wardlow, which cuts through El Dorado Park and jumps over the 605 before it becomes Ball Road and takes you to Disneyland! Katella becomes Willow Street before it becomes Sepulveda Blvd to take you all the way across LA and the OC.

I’ve got Carson Avenue all to myself. Heartwell Park on the right.

The 405 freeway through Long Beach is billboards and sooty walls; Del Amo Blvd and Carson Avenue are actually intermittently scenic, with actual people out doing things and walking their dogs. Even the dingier strip malls are more interesting than looking at a sea of crawling cars, and here’s the kicker: There’s way less traffic. 


Miracle of GPS

All brought to you by the miracle of Waze or Google maps, or whatever you use. Type in where you want to go, choose Avoid freeways, plug in Motorcycle for your vehicle type (not sure it matters in the city), and away you go. Now that you’ve got a navigator, all you have to do is enjoy the ride.

On a Panigale V4, you’d get tired of having to stop for lights and of being on fire. On the PCX, it’s no big thing. Take in the scenery at red lights (after filtering to the front of course). Check your messages. Have a sip from your sippy cup in the PCX glovebox, where there’s a USB port (that needs a C-connector now). People want to chit-chat at stops if you flip up your modular. The whole time, you’re listening to interesting stuff on the radio, a podcast, music. It’s what you would do at home, but you’re doing it all over town on a small motorcycle. And I’m on the clock, so…

Chapman Avenue leaving Fullerton, on its way to Downey, birthplace of Wayne Rainey and home of the first McDonald’s.

Even with less traffic, having to stop for red lights usually does take longer. But there are also long stretches on the big boulevards where there aren’t many lights, or you just hit them all right, and cruise merrily along at 50 or 60 for miles. Green light frequency is inversely proportional to how big a hurry you’re in. A sportbike would have you going too fast for safety. The PCX happy place is around 50 mph and, in general, makes it all way more relaxing and scenic than the freeway, and leaves me with a much more positive vibe about my place in the world compared to a lesser amount of time on a freeway. I imagine it would be the same in Houston or the Bay area or any of our finer megalopoli with a mostly temperate and dryish climate.

It’s adventurous

I’d always wanted to go visit Watts Towers, but I’d never got round to it until the PCX inspired me. Usually places that have a reputation for being sketchy don’t seem that way once you get there. Not Watts Towers. It is sketchy.

Hey, ahhh, Waze, are we sure we’re going the right way? Just as I was questioning, I saw the towers poking above the horizon. Actually the area itself seemed fine, but there were more than a few people hanging around who seemed angry and not in complete control of their faculties, which is probably how I’d be if I was living in an old RV at the side of the road. Especially if all but one wheel had just been stolen, and I was now living in an old RV on rickety jacks and pallets and things. The park itself was closed for Covid anyway, so I snapped a few pics and beat it.

Across the street from the Towers sit a few sweet little houses. I wonder if one belongs to Louis Sauceda, who Simon Rodia willed the Towers plot to when he left Watts in 1954?

Serena and Venus learned to play on these courts in Compton. Nobody believes such a swoopy brand new Honda can be had for just 3800 bones.

A few days later it was off to meet Evans at the Urth Cafe in LA’s arts district to shoot some photos, because we’re hep that way. It’s the arts district because it used to be the only place artists could afford to live, but it’s gentrifying now. Some parts of old LA are not so scooter friendly, namely the ones full of thousands of trucks moving millions of containers onto trains from the port of LA, over a street grid that was built for ox carts and now has deep tire-track depressions in the pavement like the Appian Way. There’s not even room for a scooter to squeeze through on some of them – though I’m sure if you lived there you’d work around the tight spots. Instead of passing through golf courses and parks, these dirty streets are lined with junkyards and liquor stores and many more RVs that haven’t turned a wheel in holiday mirth in a long time. Still, it’s a nice place to visit if only to make wherever you live seem positively bucolic in comparison.

There’s always a lot going on. We’re building a new 6th Street Bridge over the scenic LA River.

Through it all, the PCX’s digital trip computer says you’re getting around 90 mpg, a number borne out by my own calculated average of 88 mpg. For 2021, there’s a bigger, more oversquare 156.9 cc single with eSP+ technology (enhanced smart power), using a new, four-valve head and higher, 12:1 compression. There’s also a new hydraulic cam-chain adjuster to eliminate that maintenance point. And Kevin Cameron will have to explain why the new engine gets an old-school roller-bearing crankshaft, but “low friction” seems to be a major theme. 

The new PCX is a bit peppier to 60 mph than the previous one, and puts the hurt on all the cars leaving red lights. Sadly, it’s all over at an indicated 70 mph indicated on the new PCX, same as the old one… seems like there’s a top-speed governor there. 

Front wheel travel remains the same as before at 3.94 inches, but out back the twin shocks provide more wheel travel than before – 3.72 inches. That and the Honda’s 14-/13-inch wheel combo means she remains dead stable through whatever the pavement gods throw up, at the speeds you’re able to achieve, but still turns instantly and in a tiny radius. The seat’s thick enough to be 30.1 inches high, which makes it pretty dang comfy for an hour or two at a sit, and the floorboards let you bring your feet rearward enough when you see bumps coming to take some load off your rear end and even stand up.

It’s a nice place to sit, and underneath there’s a bit more storage than before. And two helmet hooks.

Out back, my number one passenger has surprisingly few complaints when she’s along for the ride, or maybe I just can’t hear them – too bad I’ve only got the one Cardo. The contrast between what a safe motorcycle rider Rog says I am once we’re stopped, and what a terrible driver I become when we’re in a car communicating in real time, is interesting.

Unfortunately, the day I met Brasfield in the arts district was the wrong day, so I wound up seeking out the world’s oldest surviving McDonald’s, corner of Lakewood and Florence in Downey.

Yes, this is exactly how exciting my life has become. It’s still a blast to get loose on a fire-breathing sportbike for a howl up the Angeles Crest or a nice roost in the woods on an ADV bike. But on days when those things aren’t in the cards but you feel the need to get out on two wheels, it’s a lot of fun in a completely different way to ride 30 or 45 minutes and be someplace you’ve never been before, even if you’ve lived here 30 years. Or, if you have an office to go to but only have to do it a couple days a week, I highly recommend the roads less travelled. I’m gonna call it Urban ADV. I mean, my house is ancient in Orange County terms, built way back in 1963. In historic terms, though, we’re discovering virgin territory for the first time. I have no plans to wrest it from the indigenous peoples. I come in peace, seeking only a burrito or a calzone… the occasional Sausage McMuffin. You barely need the senior citizen discount when you’re getting 88 mpg. 

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