Americans are learning quickly what took Europeans decades to learn—how to cope with high gas prices. Automakers aren’t reacting quickly enough, so many of us are left to fend for ourselves. This has led many Americans to consider buying a scooter.
In Western Europe, scooters are everywhere. In cities like Barcelona, they swarm around cars like a school of fish surrounding a whale. Americans are shedding our machismo “Chopper” aesthetic and finally accepting the small plastic wonders.
If you're thinking about buying a Scooter, here are some things to consider:
1) They get amazing gas mileage. For example, a champion performer, the Honda Metropolitan 50, gets 100+ MPG. Small scooters (50–150cc) naturally get better mileage than bigger ones (200–700cc). Even the largest scooters, like the Honda Silverwing, get 52 MPG.
2) They're cheap. You can pick up a Kymco Agility 50 for $1,599 new. If you buy used, you can save even more. Most used scooters have low mileage because they were just used casually.
3) Sales are up. Scooter sales are up nearly 24 percent for the first quarter of 2008 (compared to 2007), so you won’t be alone when scooting.
4) They're free to park (or nearly free). More cities are accommodating the increase in motorcycles and scooters on the road. In San Francisco, new motorcycle-only parking meters are sprouting up in downtown areas and they only cost around $3/day, compared to $30/day for a car. Many parking lots offer free parking for bikes and many meter maids turn a blind eye to illegally parked scooters. You can usually park very close to your destination. Scooters also fit nicely between cars—just leave the cars enough room to get out.
5) They're cheap to insure and maintain. My personal scooter insurance is $90/year for basic liability (USAA). My motorcycle’s coverage? It’s $500/year—for the same coverage.
6) Some actually look cool. The Italian scooters—Vespa and Piaggio—have some nice-looking models. Fans of the Quadrophenia will especially dig Vespa’s “S” model, with its Euro square headlight and chrome trim. If you are searching for a more modern look, the Piaggio MP3 has a nice, aggressive stance complete with crash bars.
7. You will get the bonus of weather protection. When it rains, you stay unusually dry on a scooter and you aren’t affected by most puddles because of the leg shields. There are even accessories like the “scooter skirt” that increase protection.
And some of the disadvantages:
8) Small wheels aren't stable. Smaller scooters especially suffer from small wheel diameters and widths. Many scooters have 10-inch wheels, which are fine at low speeds, but above 40 MPH, things can get unwieldy. Even the larger-diameter scooter wheels have narrow tires. (For comparison, motorcycles often have 17–21-inch wheels.)
9. Might not the best choice for freeway commuting.
Some scooters might claim high top speeds, but that doesn’t make them stable at those speeds. The geometry and weight of scooters make them unstable for high-speed driving; most scooters under 150cc aren’t even legal for freeway driving.
10. Are still perceived as “wimpy.” Unfortunately scooters still have the stigma of being “wimpy” compared to motorcycles and many men find them emasculating.
Taking it a step further: Electric and Hybrid scooters.
Italian scooter manufacturer Piaggio recently announced a line of hybrid scooters that will achieve upwards of 150 MPG for large freeway-legal models.
There are already a handful of manufacturers producing electric scooters. Vectrix scooters are designed in the U.S. and built in Poland. They offer a large zero-emission scooter for $11,000. It’s a bit steep, but a nice offering considering it gets a 60 MPH top speed and sixty miles between charges.
A smaller electric scooter, the "Zapino" rings in at $3495 and offers 30 miles between charges with a top speed of around 30 MPH.
Even more affordable, EVT offers a line of electric scooters starting at $2499 with a 45-mile range and top speed of 45 MPH.
Why you might consider a motorcycle instead:
Many scooters appeal to first-time bikers because they’re cute and approachable. However, motorcycles are safer in nearly every regard. Unlike motorcycles, scooters suffer from small and thin tires, poor brakes, slow acceleration, twitchy handling, high-speed instability, and uneven weight distribution, which results in less effective front brakes.
A motorcycle can be purchased for nearly the same cost, offer nearly the same gas mileage and other benefits, yet it offers much greater safety and visibility over most scooters. But many people wouldn’t make the leap to two wheels if it weren’t for scooters, so they're still an important first step for getting a bike.
The most important part of buying a scooter:
If you’re a first-time biker, please consider taking a MSF Rider Safety Course. It’s easy and fun, and chances are there is one near you. Also, please consider proper safety gear as an essential part of riding. Armored jackets and pants, boots, gloves, and a full-face helmet are essential for surviving even a low-speed crash. Any scooter dealer worth his salt will offer good gear to go along with your scooter. And please stay away from open-face helmets—they offer much less protection than full-face helmets. Nobody wants to rub his face on asphalt at 50 MPG.
Scooters in America are bound to enjoy a resurgence and I hope the trend continues. Whether or not they’ll gain the acceptance of Europe is yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure—we’re going to see a lot more buzzing around the streets in months to come.