Sunday, June 15, 2003

Offbeat Bikes, The MZ Skorpion

Are you looking for a lightweight bike that corners like a dream and comes stock with stainless steel braided hoses, Grimeca disc brakes, Paioli forks and Metzler racing compound tires? Are you more interested in the perfect execution of a set of twisties than in setting record quarter-mile times? If this sounds like your ticket, then haul your elitist ass down to the local MZ dealer and check out the MZ Skorpion line. Where is your local MZ dealer? They are probably sharing space on the floor at your local Laverda dealer, or Guzzi dealer, or should I say Aprilia dealer (Aprilia owns both Guzzi and Laverda, but that's another story).

I first learned of the MZ Skorpion a few years ago while purchasing a vintage Honda at Bikeworx in Maynard, Massachusetts. The owner, Galen Miller, had a few of these peculiar German bikes on the sales floor as well as his own race-ready Sport Cup in the parking lot. Miller is a regular on the Sport Cup circuit and he appears to be one of the most knowledgeable MZ enthusiasts around.

I found a small MZ/Laverda/Guzzi dealer on the West Coast called Moto International (MI) in Seattle. The one thing I have found in common with dealers of these off-beat bikes is that they are very knowledgeable about the product and they seem to be in the business for the love of the sport - not the money. The guys at MI were so laid back that they gave me the keys to a Sport and a Traveler and wouldn't have cared if I attached a plow to the triple clamps and bulldozed all of civilization into a pothole.

There are three main Skorpion models: The Sport, the Traveler and the Tour. The Sport also comes in a race-ready flavor and is coined the "Sport Cup" after the racing series. While they all share the same motor, suspension and frame, the ergonomics are quite different between models. The Sport models have a maxi-pad style seat, low clip-ons and either full or half fairing. The Traveler has higher clip-ons, a standard seat, a full-fairing and hard bags. The Tour has the same seat as the Traveler but has regular handle bars and looks rather bland in its unfaired form.

The entire Skorpion line shares a simple yet highly functional tubular steel frame designed by Seymour Powell, the famous European design house. This practical steel tube design is well matched with the overall package and has as much to do with the bike's amazing handling as the suspension. The rear monoshock can be adjusted for preload, but the Paioli 41mm telescopic forks are one-size-fits-all. If you really need to tweak the front end you can change to a heavier fork oil or drop some spacers in the tubes. Like a few other motorcycle companies with low R&D budgets and lunch-money bank accounts, the engine is outsourced from Yamaha.

Calling this engine a power plant would be a misnomer - the 660cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, four-valve thumper makes 41 horsepower at the rear wheel. This mouse of a motor not only fits in a soup can, it doesn't even rattle the lid. Power-junkies can fix this by adding a 42mm Flatslide Mikuni Single Carb Conversion Kit and a Vortex slip-on from Dale Walker. The carb will set you back $600 but it buys you an additional five horsepower, and the Slip-On Exhaust will help pinch out a few more horsepower like flatulence from a well-fibered horse. Despite the lack-luster lump, you get time-tested reliability, and you'll be able to stoink liter bikes as soon as the road gets twisty.

In stock form, the engine has a fairly narrow power band. It does have more torque than a GS500, but getting the most out this 660cc thumper requires flogging the throttle and constant shifting of the five-speed tranny. I found myself bouncing off the rev limiter like an unruly poodle in need of a muzzle, but a quick upshift restored order. The transmission is one of the nicest I've ever experienced, with very positive short clicks from gear to gear. If you do get one of these bikes blazing, the powerful four-piston Grimeca caliper, floating disc brakes and braided steel lines combine to give tremendous stopping power. I found the brakes on the Skorpion Sport and the Traveler to be excellent and feedback was superb.

The Skorpion Sport comes with extremely low clip-ons and very racey ergos. The Traveler's clip-ons were a little more accomodating for those of us who are doing our best to avoid wrist and back problems, but the bars are not interchangable between the two models due to the Sport's fairing brackets. It may be possible to swap the stock bars for Telefix adjustable bars, if they are available for 41mm forks. Telefix bars adjust in several planes of motion - lower, higher, wider, narrower or even a different angle from stock - possibly the perfect solution for riders who spend more time in the street than at the track.

Every bike in the Skorpion line will handle the twisties as if it were capable of teleportation between the entry and exit points of a curve. No matter what you throw at them or how hot your corner entry speeds, these machines will leave anyone foolish enough to shadow you wishing they were jumping logs on Christopher Reeves' horse. What these bikes lack in neck-snapping power they make up for with sheer-footed agility.

With race-bred handling, quality components and a well-mannered motor, the Skorpion line has appeal for both experts and beginners alike. And at $5790 for a Skorpion Sport with a two-year warranty, these bikes are a fairly inexpensive way to step into exclusivity - something hard to find in an age where trend-surfers have even managed to transform the Ducati into a seasonal fashion accessory.