Will Honda's Eterno succeed in the barren, geared scooter segment?
When Big Red says something, you sit up and take notice. And you take it very seriously. Not because they haven’t
got a sense of humour, but because Honda isn’t given to making unconsidered statements and almost always deliver what they promise.Despite all of which, the Eterno release targeting sales of one lakh scooters in the first year raised lots of eyebrows.
The metallic grey Eterno which rolled into our parking lot, therefore, had a lot to prove. It was supposed to be the chariot that will bring the geared scooter back into business. It was also the Indian Honda carrying the highest initial sales target so far. And it competes in a segment where sales have been falling end over end for as long as anyone can remember, and there hasn’t been a new geared scooter in the last two years.
The geared scooter market has always been a tradition-charged market and players have opted not to revolutionise any product, happy to let the product evolve slowly into whatever the customer seems to want. So, instead of the sleek neo-retro scoots in the mould of the Vespa ET2 and ET4 we’ve had the Bajaj Chetak gaining little more than reshaped indicator and tail lamps over the years. Honda has chosen to stick to the same beaten path. The Eterno is, thus, a natural descendant of the Activa school of modernism. The looks is very much Honda, very much traditional and yet fresh.
But the big surprise is the size. When Honda refer to the Eterno as a full-size scooter, they have a point. Park the Eterno next to a Chetak or LML and the Honda is significantly larger. Despite which, the Honda has such a strong family resemblance, that almost no one seems to notice that the scooter that just blew by is Honda’s latest, not that anyone ever
purchased their trusty Chetak to get noticed.
Large as the scooter is, its demeanour is the typical Honda blend of lightness, refinement and performance. The 147.7 CC engine makes 8.2 bhp, but far more importantly, a full 1.06 kgm is available at just 4,000 rpm. Initially, you will find yourself revving the scooter up and slamming the hand shifts only to get a friendly kick that says you should have shifted much earlier. The swiftest way to maintain forward progress is to short-shift. The gear shifts are smooth and when you’ve learnt the nuances, 0-60 times of around 8.9 seconds are easy, two-up. Revving and riding will net you just 38 kpl, a figure which rises to55 kpl with engine speeds in tight check.Honda have to be commended in that they’ve got their first side-engine scooter so right. More than once, you get the feeling that if Bajaj had built a scooter with this kind of refined performance a few years ago, two-wheeler sales figures and segment numbers would have been quite different.But refined as the powertrain is, the gearshifts are far from Honda-slick. But whenever a regular Chetak or NV rider has borrowed the Eterno for a spin, they’ve come back raving about the slick shifting geartrain, among other things. So, there’s nothing but accolades for the all-down shifter, though faint clicks and thunks accompany most shifts.
Let her rip in top gear and the speedo will blink back with 95 kph on the clock. Which is quite fast. Another 5 kph is there to be had if you are willing to take it lying down. However, high speeds highlight the first of the Eternos flaws – crosswinds. Find a windy road, and the Eterno finds it difficult to maintain a straight line. Get a pillion on and the problem worsens. The scooter also feels unsettled when you ride behind another vehicle – anything larger than a Santro will create enough turbulence to make you back off. And this is when the road surface is clean and dry... Then again, such speeds are not expected to be the Eterno’s playground. Most will get loaded with baggage and kids which automatically obviate such speed and behaviour.
Another thing not really expected of this Honda is cornering prowess. But find a round-about and the Eterno will go around confidently, inspiring confidence without losing the agility typical of small-wheeled two-wheelers. Obviously without the directional accuracy of a motorcycle.Riding along on smooth urban tarmac, the Eterno feels sublime, absorbing minor irregularities and keeping things very smooth. However, find a bumpy road and you’re likely to have your pillion complaining. The ride quality on poor roads isn’t harsh, but the entire package becomes too bouncy for comfort. The twin-rate spring at the rear is ill-equipped to handle rough roads and while you are bouncing around on the capacious seat, the inclined spare wheel also digs into the pillion’s back (or love handles if s/he has decided to go side-saddle).
But the biggest worry and the most repeated question is always the brakes when discussing side-engined scoots. Which prove to be a revelation. The normal ride itself feels very balanced, but the brakes are one notch above. Stand on the brake pedal and the 130 mm drum will lock the rear wheel in a hurry. The Eterno shows no propensity for hanging out its tail. Walk back and examine the skid marks and they’re always arrow straight. Nice job!
Honda have also paid attention to detail. Under the seat lies a storage compartment, a first in the segment as far as we can tell. There are two hooks apart from the clip-hook below the seat. The sub-frame that carries the spare-wheel has tabs to anchor bungee cords or cargo nets should you want to carry some stuff on the pillion seat. There is also a large, flat foot-board that will take a size 10 shoe lengthways without touching either end.But the signs of cost cutting are, for once, evident. The switchgear feels distinctly cheaper than the Activa/Dio units. The horn is a useless buzzer variety that is a nod to the Chetak and mounted next to the throttle, so you cannot use it without rolling off the power. Thankfully, the cheap switches still light up bright lights all around and the headlamp is impressively bright with a good spread, despite the lack of a battery.
All told, the Eterno does have almost all the right bits in place, but will it sell? Among the many factors supposedly responsible for the decline of the geared scooter are the lack of alternatives in the segment and the vastly superior fuel economy that motorcycles offered. The Eterno is the only new product in the segment and in the foreseeable future, that isn’t going to change.Furthermore, 55 kpl in everyday use will be acceptable to the family man who is the intended buyer. With Honda pursuing an aggressive expansion plan for the dealership network and service points, there should be no reason why the Eterno should not be an Activa-style success of even greater proportions.
Honda will price the Eterno at around Rs 35,000 and for that money you will get all that you see in these
pictures. Unlike the Activa/Dio, the only dealer accessories are the front box, leather covers for the side panels, spare wheels locks and the like. Everything else is already in the package. One lakh Eternos a year? Hell, Honda might have set themselves too easy a target.