OF ALL the aberrant things I do with my time, riding scooters is probably one of the most controversial. The step-thru beasties split bikers right down the middle, with most of 'em cursing the small of wheel and auto of transmission creatures. ‘Get a proper bike’ is the cry from the moto massive, when you try to explain the benefits of a good scoot.
Now, for most of the time, I’m on their side. I like a powerful motor and a sharp chassis as much as the next middle-aged Gixxer fan. You can’t wheelie or stoppie a scooter (unless you’re really good…) So what’s the point?
Part of it is no doubt time and place. If I lived out in the sticks and spent a lot of time on fast A roads and motorways, the delights of a scoot – even a big ‘un like my Burgman 650 or this Kymco AK550 – would pale quickly. But living inside the M25 as I do, with plenty of jaunts to the city, and Gatwick or Heathrow airports, means a jump-on, twist ‘n’ go bike with decent weather protection and good onboard storage space makes loads of sense. My Burgman, with Givi topbox bolted on is, as I’ve said before, just supremely useful for moving kids (one at a time, usually), luggage, and me about the place.
Enter this AK550. The good folk at Kymco have let me buzz about on this sharp scoot for the past few weeks, and while I’ve been away a fair bit, I’ve spent some fun miles on it. It’s very much a ‘sporty’ scoot, and the flagship of Kymco’s range, with some very high spec parts and advanced design. It’s got a built-in tyre pressure monitoring system, a Bluetooth link from scoot to your smartphone, no less than three colour LCD display panels on the dashboard, heated grips and keyless ignition. On the chassis front, there are upside-down front forks, with radial Brembo brake calipers and a top-end Bosch ABS system, a very decent-looking laid-down rear monoshock, and a sort of ‘high step-thru’ frame layout, where the footboards have a large tunnel between them. That counteracts the big flexible hinge which can appear in the middle of more traditional layouts. The frame is also aluminium, which isn’t the norm in scooter land…
The motor has a belt final drive which needs occasional adjustment, and the motor itself uses a CVT transmission, plus a centrifugal clutch for easy automatic use. It’s similar to the Burgman setup, but with a belt instead of gear final drive. The motor is a 180° parallel twin, with DOHC eight-valve heads, fuel injection, and even a dry sump lube system – very impressive tech all round. There’s also a low-power ‘rain’ mode, should you feel the need.
The AK is brilliant to ride – for a scooter. The steering is sharp and agile, the relatively low weight, suspension and brakes all show through in a lively, fun ride. Kymco reckons there’s a 50-50 weight distribution, and you do feel like you’re more connected to the front end than on a Burgman, say. The 53-odd bhp motor puts its power down impeccably, but it feels discernibly slower off the mark than a Burgman 650 I’d say. Top end is down a little too – a good 650 will do 118mph on the clock, on the limiter, while the AK struggled to get past 114mph… I jumped off it and straight onto a Honda X-ADV, and it is a good bit quicker than that too.
You can lean it like a dervish, with no ground clearance worries, and the Metzeler rubber is packed with grip in wet and dry conditions. Round London, the AK is a proper hooning tool, and you’ll be beating up sportsbikes left right and centre. The seat is a bit on the high/wide side right enough – if you’re on the short side, it might put you off a little.
Out of town though, the AK is less compelling. As part of the ‘sporty’ performance drive, it’s lost out a bit on some usability features which I’d prefer it to have. An adjustable screen would be a real boon – the stock fairing and screen is a bit minimalist, and I’d like the option of more protection. Similarly, the underseat storage is too small. It will take one and a half helmets (one full face one open face), which is a bit lame really. Sure you can add a topbox, but the basic capacity is too small to my mind for a super-scooter like this. Ditto the small glove boxes in front – they’re only just big enough to take an iPhone 6 sized phone in a case. The USB socket is good, though it would be better if there was a generic cigarette lighter socket option too so you can use other things (tyre pumps, heated kit, satnav chargers etc).
The other problem is there’s nowhere to mount a satnav or phone mount. The handlebars, master cylinder mounts, top yoke – they’re all covered in smooth plastic panels, so it’s impossible to clamp anything on anywhere without modifying it somehow. Kymco’s software has just been updated to give you a phone satnav display on the dash now, which is a good step, but there’s still no way to control the phone, so you really need it mounted somewhere you can access it.
While I’m moaning, the keyless ignition is, like all of these systems, a bit crap really. Okay, it’s operator error in some ways – I always (always) mislay the key during the pre-ride faff on my drive. With a normal bike, the key goes in the ignition and that’s it. With keyless, the fob goes in your pocket, on top of the bin, in the pannier/under the seat, in your tankbag, on the hall table, any one of a million fucking places. I locked it under the seat more than once, and panicked for ages before finding it. Additionally, I could never get this Kymco one to respond quickly. Again, no doubt my error, but it always (always) took like 45 seconds for the bike to switch on, as I hit the keyfob button, the power-on button, the steering lock knob, etc. Keyless is the definition of a solution in search of a problem, especially with bikes, I say.
The AK does show the way forward with its high-tech systems though. It really does integrate with your phone in a smart way, and if you were an owner, I think it would be a real boon long-term. The centre display panel can switch between showing notifications from your phone, plus navigation, weather, and lots more. The scooter actually downloads system updates over your phone’s data connection, so in theory, the whole infomatics setup can be totally redesigned over time. I’m not sure how far that extends into the rest of the bike’s systems – I don’t think you could download a new fuelling map or transmission gearchange setup, say. But it’s impressive even just as it is.
So. Kymco’s AK550 is a very impressive super-scooter, with a great dynamic package that’s a hoot to ride hard. It’s got a very high spec level, the build quality is good, and stuff like the tyre pressure monitor, hot grips, colour LCD screens and smartphone app integration is impressive.
For me, though, a scooter has to be much, much more practical than a bike – otherwise, you’re as well just buying a bike in the first place. The handling and engine are good for a scooter – but a Suzuki SV650 is faster and sharper. The underseat storage and weather protection are okay, but no more – a tall screen and a topbox on our hypothetical SV650 would match it, just about. I love the AK550 as an enjoyable ride – but would want something a bit less focussed on the sporty side for my practical scooter needs.
Coincidentally, a little birdie tells me Kymco could well be expanding the AK550 range outwards soon, with a more touring-biased version that has extra storage space and better weather protection. Sounds like just the job for my weird scooter habits…
Engine: 8v DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin, 550.4cc
Max power: 53.5bhp@7,500rpm (claimed)
Max torque: 55N m @5,500rpm
Transmission: CVT automatic, centrifugal clutch
Frame: cast aluminium cradle type
Front suspension: 41mm USD forks
Rear suspension: preload-adjustable monoshock
Brakes: twin 280mm discs, four-piston radial Brembo calipers (front), single 260mm disc, single-piston caliper, Bosch ABS.
Wheels/tyres: cast aluminium, Metzeler FeelFree 120/70 15 front, 190/55 17 rear
Wet weight, (claimed): 226kg
Fuel capacity: 15 litres