If you’re looking for more up-to-date scooter information, please visit ScooterFile, which I founded in 2012 partly in response to creating this guide. Also keep an eye on that space for ongoing updated versions of this content.
This essay was originally posted August 26th, 2008. Updated September 30, 2009.
People keep asking me about scooters. I’m hoping that they’re drawn to the practicality and fun of it as well as the economics, but I know better. Gas has been expensive this summer. But that’s a perfectly great reason to get into scooting.
So I thought a primer was in order. My obsessive researching tendencies and ongoing work to be a wealth of all semi-useless knowledge can now benefit YOU! So let’s get into the meat of it and answer the basic question of what is a scooter?
A scooter is not a motorcycle. A scooter is not a moped.
A scooter is indeed a motorized, two-wheeled vehicle. As such it is ridden in much the same way a motorcycle or moped would be ridden, but there are a few key differences. So let’s have some definitions.
Large wheels and thick tires, the engine is between your legs and you straddle the whole thing like you would a horse. Generally the engine is open and exposed – thus exposing you to the grit and heat from the engine. Motorcycles tend to be at least 250cc’s in engine size, but go upwards of 2000cc’s. Motorcycles also tend to weigh at least 350 lbs without a rider.
- Pros: lots of power, very stable, highway capable, easily carry two people, lots of cultural cache.
- Cons: heavy and more complex to ride, although more fuel efficient than a car you’re probably only going to get around 40-50 mpg on most. Motorcycles require a separate endorsement on your driver’s license in order to ride. The vast majority of motorcycles also require you to manually shift gears.
This is basically a bicycle with an engine. Large wheels, thin tires, small tubular frame much like a bicycle. Most mopeds are 50cc’s or smaller, and top out around 30 mph. I personally wouldn’t want to go faster than that on a moped anyway. I think mopeds are awesome, but they do have a more limited use.
- Pros: mopeds are generally cheap to own and operate, they get fantastic gas mileage (upwards of 120 mpg), no harder to ride than a bicycle, and usually no special license endorsement is required.
- Cons: severely underpowered – which is dangerous in traffic, hard to find good models with dealer support, often hard to find parts for, and just plain strange looking. A moped is much more a toy than a truly practical way to get ’round, unless you’re twelve years old.
Ranging in engine size from 50cc up to ’round 650cc’s, scooters differentiate from motorcycles in a couple of key ways. On a scooter, the engine is under your seat, rather than between your legs. This means that instead of straddling the vehicle, you sit on top of it. This “step through” design also means that you don’t have to throw a leg over most scooters like you would a motorcycle. You can just step on and off. Your feet sit on a floor board instead of foot pegs. This has a couple of advantages. All of the hot and messy bits of the engine mechanicals are out of the way and you generally have a “leg shield” in the front of the scooter that keeps a certain amount of the wind/rain off of your legs as you’re riding. Scooters also, at least these days, are almost exclusively automatic CVT transmissions. You simply twist the throttle and go – no shifting. This means one less thing you have to think about while riding, and I’ve found this to be a huge advantage as riding in traffic will require your full attention. There are a couple of models still available with manual transmissions, and vintage Vespas are all manual transmission bikes. Scooters also tend to have smaller wheels than their motorcycle cousins. This makes them much more “zippy” and maneuverable, but can also mean a little less stable and solid feeling at higher speeds.
Scooter history and geography
Where scooters came from really helps us understand the market today. So how did this all start? Actually, one of the first vehicles fitted with an internal combustion engine was not a car or a horseless carriage, but rather a bicycle. Its configuration very closely resembled what we now know as the scooter. Leave it to those Germans.
Scooters as we think of them have their birthplace in Italy just after WWII. Italy was on the axis side of things, and was subsequently laid to waste when the allies came to town. After the war, Italians had a serious need for cheap transportation, and its war machine industries desperately needed something peaceful to produce. Taking some basic design cues from the american Cushman scooters being used by the invading GIs, airplane manufacturer Piaggio built a prototype scooter in 1948 based on some specific criteria. That criteria is what we know today as the defining characteristics of a motor scooter.
- The engine should be hidden beneath the rider.
- All the controls on the handlebars – including the gear shifter
- The step-through frame and seat design.
- Ablility to easily swap the front and back wheels
- An overall mechanical simplicity so that anybody could own and work on one.
The final Piaggio prototype design had the classic hips we’ve come to associate with Italian scooters. From above, these hips looked like an insect stinger and the handlebars looked like antennae. So the scooter was called “Vespa”, the italian word for “wasp.” To this day, the word Vespa is synonymous with scooters. However, unlike its unassuming proletariat origins, the Vespa of today is much more the Lexus of scooters, but we’ll talk more about scooter brands later.
The Vespa soon became ubiquitous throughout the world as an easy and chic way to get around. In the states, the movie Roman Holiday started America’s on again / off again infatuation with scooters and solidified Vespa as the only brand name most Americans have every heard of even today.
The Vespa and scooters overall remained relatively unchanged until the early ’80s. That’s when we started to see the rise of asian manufacturers like Honda introducing scooters of their own, including models with automatic transmissions. These “twist-and-go” scooters have since eclipsed the old shifter scooters to the point that Vespa doesn’t even produce a manual transmission scooter anymore. The center of the scooting world also shifted away from Europe toward India and Asia where scooters are often more common than cars in most areas.
So with that brief background, who are the major players today? Most of the major Japanese motorcycle manufacturers have at least one scooter model, but their scooters have only been a marginal part of their business in the states. Believe it or not, the center of high quality scooter manufacturing is not actually Japan, or even Italy. It’s Taiwan. The three scooter manufacturers with the best reputation worldwide all come from Taiwan — SYM, Kymco, and PGO. Thankfully, all three are available in the USA.
Why scooters are awesome, and why you should totally get one.
Okay, so the scooter craze is officially on. Shops are selling scooters faster than they can un-crate them and by the time I finish typing this, the local shop will have probably sold out completely. Why are scooters awesome? Here’s my list.
- Gas mileage: Depending on the scooter, you’re looking at between 60 and 120 mpg. No really, it’s that good. The rule of thumb is that the smaller the engine size, the better the mileage. However, keep in mind also that the smaller the engine, the slower the scooter. But you really can save a lot of money on gasoline. Understand also, that even riding a lot you won’t recoup the cost of the scooter for at least 2-6 years. It’s not going to have a huge or immediate impact on your yearly balance sheet, but in the good weather months, it can cut your fuel costs way back and help your cash flow tremendously.
- Simple, practical transportation If you’re just trying to get yourself around, a scooter is perfect. You can’t haul plywood, you can’t haul four passengers, and they’re kind of miserable in the rain and/or cold. But for just getting from here to there, you really can’t beat the simplicity of the scooter. You can even grab several days worth of groceries. Most of all, it’s perfect for your every day commute. Unless you live in a very temperate climate it won’t replace your car, but it can sure put a big dent in your transportation costs.
- Low cost of ownership: If you don’t fall into the “$800 chinese scooter death trap” (which we’ll discuss later) and instead buy an actual scooter with good dealer support and intact warranty coverage, your cost of ownership can be very low. You can expect insurance to only be about $10-$15 a month. Scooters are also very mechanically simple, relatively easy to work on, and the good ones are very reliable. Keep the oil changed on a regular basis and it’ll just run like a top for years and years. There’s an initial investment in accessories, safety gear, and other miscellaneous things, but the ongoing costs are much lower than a car.
- The culture of scooter riders: Scooterists, as they’re called, are simply awesome. It’s such a diverse group of people of all ages and all backgrounds with varied interests. This one thing brings them all together in an incredibly binding way. Scooter people are simply fun. You don’t even have to own a scooter to have a good time at a scooter rally. Did I mention that there are scooter rallies? There are. Seriously. People get together by the hundreds from all over the country for good times, group rides, scooter obstacle courses (I’m not making that up), and lots of good food and fun. There are numerous, highly active online communities where people swap ideas and experiences and just generally yack about scooters. The culture is truly bottomless and a whole lot of fun. See the end of this post for links to these communities.
- It’s so much damn fun to ride! Who needs a destination? There is a nearly indescribable joy you feel when riding out in the open air on a two-wheel machine. It’s as close as you can feel to flying without actually leaving the ground. And pointing back to the fuel economy, it’s cheap fun. $5 for a whole weekend’s worth of riding goodness? You can’t beat that. The Sunday drive lives again!
Now that said, scooters are not for everyone.
You there. It would probably be best for all involved if you just didn’t get a scooter.
There are several groups of people who should not buy scooters. For some, it’s a question of their own safety, and for others its a matter of not doing undue harm to the scooter community at large. It’s very important that the driving culture in this country take scooters seriously as practical transportation. This way the people in cars that we scooterists have to share the road with see us as having a real right to be there. I don’t want anybody getting killed, and I want to start undoing this notion that scooters are just toys. So these are the folk who should avoid scooter ownership, at least for now.
- People who can’t really afford it
This was me for a long time. I wanted a scooter, but simply didn’t have the cash. Realistically, you’re looking at an initial investment of no less than $1500 in the scooter itself when buying used. Buying new, expect to pay at least $2000 for anything worth having, plus setup fees, taxes, and licensing. That’s just for the scooter. You’re going to need $300-$400 worth of riding gear – i/e helmet, armored jacket, boots, etc. So unless you can swing $2500 or so, then it’s not scooter time yet.Now here’s where the $800 chinese scooter death trap comes in. Last year the market was flooded with a plague of cheap, chinese-made motor scooters that were all priced at least 50% below the MSRP of the major market players. So many well-intended people bought these scooters because they couldn’t afford better ones. It’s really unfortunate. First of all, you get what you pay for. We’ll talk about safety in a moment, but suffice it to say that riding anything two-wheeled in traffic is dangerous enough without the machine being a hazard in and of itself. Additionally, many of these scooters do not truly meet EPA regulations, which has led to a lot of states actually revoking their registrations and making them illegal to ride. So now you’re out $800 and you’re not allowed to ride the thing. Furthermore, the dealer support on these imported bike is little or none, and parts availability is even worse. So if something breaks or wears out, you’ll have a tough time getting replacements. Many of these scooters offer only a 90 day warranty on parts. Doesn’t that tell you something? The bottom line is, if you can’t afford a proper scooter, don’t waste what money you do have on something unsafe, unsound, and unsupported. New scooters from the big boys come with at least a full year of warranty support, if not more, and many include roadside assistance.
- Bad drivers
You know who you are. If you’ve been the cause of more than a couple not-so-minor accidents in your driving career, you need to seriously reconsider scooter ownership. Riding anything on two wheels in traffic requires your undivided attention, a real gut instinct for where cars are around you and what they might do next, and a certain level of physical coordination. If you easily fall off of bicycles, stick to your car. On a bike you’ll scrape your knees, but on a scooter you can all too easily get yourself killed. You have to be able to drive for yourself and every other car around you. It’s not advanced calculus, but it isn’t riding a bicycle.
- If you’re attracted to scooters solely as a fashion item
Then get yourself a Vespa branded toaster or lamp and spend your money on a good cruiser-style bicycle. Scooter riding is a whole lot of fun, but it needs to be taken seriously. If you’re unwilling to wear a real helmet or other protective gear because “well, it’s just a scooter” then you’re a danger to yourself and others. What’s more you’re going to be disappointed at simply being seen on a scooter. The riding experience is awesome, but it’s engrosing. You won’t have a whole lot of attention left to notice people noticing you. My first scooter purchase was more about style than the actual ride, but thankfully I was able to trade that old Vespa in on something I actually enjoy riding. Had I not made that realization though, I probably would have wound up with a very expensive piece of interior decorating that happened to be road worthy. Don’t go down that path. Have realistic expectations of what it really means to ride a scooter, not simply have one.
The reality of scooter safety, necessary equipment, and rider training.
I saw a video on YouTube a few months ago that was a compilation of motorcycle crashes and their aftermath. At the end of the video was an impassioned plea. “For God’s sake, John, don’t get a Vespa.” This was such a strange non-sequitor. Here’s all these videos of “crotch rockets” and Harleys going ass-over-tea-kettle and it turns into a “don’t get a scooter” beg-a-thon? It didn’t make sense to me. Then I read some statistics about how the number of motorcycle riders has increased over the last few years and that motorcycle deaths climbed right along with it. All with no mention of how that related to scooters. Are scooters safer? Less safe? Since a scooter is so much smaller than a motorcycle, are the risks the same? Do I even need a helmet? If the top speed of my scooter is only around 60 mph, do I need to be all decked out like a Moto GP racer? More fundamentally, is riding anything on two wheels just asking for a funeral? So I set out to wrap my head around the whole safety issue. Here’s what I’ve concluded after my research.
Firstly, let me lay a fact on you. Riding a scooter is 100% as dangerous as riding a motorcycle. Period. There is no aspect of riding a scooter that somehow makes it a safer or less dangerous machine to operate. Regardless of size, the real risks of riding anything on two wheels remain the same. You’re just as prone to injury as the guys on Harleys and the dudes on Ducatis. Many people see scooters as less risky and this is simply false. In fact, since scooter riding is mainly relegated to urban areas, it could be argued that riding a scooter is more dangerous. Is it because they’re slower? Many scooters today are easily capable of freeway speeds. Believe it or not, speed actually has less to do with your risk than you might think, but we’ll explore that later on. Bottom line: a scooter is not a toy, and the dangers are real.
So is that it? Don’t ride? It’s just not worth it? The dangers to a scooter rider are indeed the same as the motorcycle rider, but what counts is what exactly are those dangers and how do I mitigate them? Once you break down what the hazards are, they’re much more manageable.
Newton’s three laws are a bitch. Riding something on two wheels is inherently very different from driving a car. You turn differently, you brake differently, your simultaneously more and less maneuverable than a car, and if you run into something, there’s no cage of steel and glass around you. No air bags. No seat belts. The second part of the physics equation is what happens if your body comes in contact with those hard surfaces like pavement or car doors, even at low speeds. We’ll talk more about gear later, but think about this: not wearing a helmet is the single most contributing factor to head/spinal injury and death in motorcycle accidents. Seems like a no brainer to protect your brain, but more than half of fatal motorcycles accidents involve people who weren’t wearing helmets.Dumb.
The answer: Gear up. Also, take the time to become a really good rider.
Two-thirds of fatal motorcycle accident happen as follows. A driver at a normal urban intersection doesn’t see you, or misjudges your speed, then either turns left in front of you or merges into your lane as if you weren’t there. They either impact you, dart into your path so abruptly that you hit them, or they force you to evade out of your lane or into other evasive maneuvers that take you off the road, into other obstacles, or cause you to lose control of the bike and lay it down – sending you sliding and rolling across the unforgiving roadway. “Damn cager!” [shakes fist]The answer: Approach every intersection as though it’s hazardous, and ride beyond invisibility. As fellow scooter wacko David Harrington says, “ride as though they’re trying to kill you.” Basically, realize that you’re going to have to ride for yourself, and drive for everybody around you. You have to anticipate their obliviousness to you and their poor decision making. Believe it or not, if taken with the right mindset, this actually becomes a fun part of riding. I look at it like battle. Me against the “cagers” (scooter-speak for people who drive cars).
- The Road
The remaining one-third of fatal accidents are single-vehicle accidents. The rider loses control of the bike and impacts a fixed object such as a tree, a parked car, or a road sign. Ouch. There are a number of factors that account for this kind of accident.
A. Rider inexperience
Something like 70% of fatal motorcycle accidents occur within the first five months of ownership. This factor is also believed to be at fault for the increase in deaths in the past few years. More and more middle-aged riders are buying motorcycles, not taking the time or getting the instruction to become truly proficient riders, and then wrecking their bikes because they’ve overshot a turn, or carried too much speed into a curve, or tried to brake and swerve at the same time. All of these things are avoidable with proper rider training and controlled practice.
B. Road conditions
Our old friend physics can do a number on us when the road gets wet, slick with snow/ice, or simply when there’s loose grit or gravel on the road. I’ve heard of people dumping their scooters at stop lights by putting their foot down on a bit of oil or on the white stripe! If you come upon an unexpected patch of sand or gravel, especially in the middle of a curve, you could be in for a wild ride. There are things you can do, such as loosening your grip on the handlebars and slowing down as much as you can before you get there, but much of the time you’re simply at the mercy of physics and gravity.
The answer: You have to simply be good at riding your machine. Be humble about your abilities. Take things slow. Practice in a big parking lot for a few weeks – do all your big maneuvers and panic stops over and over again until they’re second nature. Take the MSF rider course. Then venture out onto light-traffic back roads and work your way up from there.
- The Machine
If you blow a rear tire at 60 mph, hang on! You’re not going to automatically dump the bike, but it’s going to get hairy! Thankfully though, mechanical failure causing serious accidents and injury is actually very rare. The larger hazard can be simply being unfamiliar with the bike. For example, having to look down to see where your turn indicator switch is can get you into trouble very quickly because you’re watching your hands and not the road.The answer: Know your controls by feel, get to know your bike, and keep your bike immaculately maintained. Airplanes have a really good safety record because every time they fly — every time — the key components are inspected and no worn out parts are allowed to remain. Think of your scooter this way. Check your tire pressure, make sure your turn indicators and brake lights work, check your major fluids (oil, brake fluid, coolant) at regular intervals, and keep current on all preventative maintenance.
So if the danger comes from physics, cars, the road, and the scooter itself, those are all manageable factors. Then what’s all the fuss about? Why did my parents freak out when they found out I bought a Vespa? First of all, I think a lot of people operate under the logical fallacy that cars are safe, and therefore motorcycles are very unsafe. This simply isn’t true. Cars are only crash tested at 45 mph. How well does that airbag work at 70 mph? The number of people killed in automobile crashes is in the tens of thousands every year. True, you’re safer wrecking a car than wrecking a scooter. But you’re also safer wrecking a car than wrecking an airplane. Or wrecking a tractor. Or wrecking a semi truck. Or wrecking a hang glider. Safer doesn’t equal safe. For me, I needed to embrace this fact, and scooting was a great way to do that. “Somethin’s gonna get ‘cha.” Be smart about things, but I know I for one have done many, many more stupid things in cars than I have on my scooter. At some point, as you follow the super-safety train all the way to the station, you’re living inside your panic room eating nothing but organic bananas surrounded by a small arsenal of automatic weapons. Let go. Wear your safety gear, watch your intersections, maintain your bike, ride like you’re in enemy territory, and get really good at riding — then go have fun.
Let’s talk about specific safety gear.
You need protection against (A) impact and (B) sliding abrasion (also known as “road rash”). Concrete is not forgiving stuff. It’s hard and it’s a bit scratchy. However, protection is actually pretty easy. You’ll need to have the following gear and wear it every time. (ATTGAT = All The Gear All The Time)
- A full-face helmet
Your helmet when you ride your scooter is like your seatbelt when you drive your car. If you’re not wearing it, you shouldn’t be riding. There are half helmets and 3/4 helmets, 3/4 helmets with visors, and everything in between. People wear these partial helmets much of the time because they think a scooter doesn’t carry the same risks as a larger motorcycle. This is false. As we’ve said already, the reality is that you need just as much protection as “the big boys.” Why would you leave your face exposed? I won’t go into the gory details, but there are specific, fatal injuries you can receive from taking impacts to the face that can be avoided by simply wearing a proper full-face helmet. But even before we get that far, do you really want to take concrete to the face at 50 mph? I sure don’t.That said, speed isn’t actually the big issue in wearing a helmet. It’s the vertical fall. For example, you can put your foot down at a red light, step in some oil, slip, fall over, hit your head, and give yourself a pretty nasty concussion if you’re not wearing a helmet. In this case, you would be going zero miles per hour. Zero! Yet you’ve still hurt yourself pretty badly. Likewise, if you fall off your motorcycle at 100 mph, it’s the vertical fall that’s actually most immediately hazardous to your head. You need the abrasion protection as you slide and roll and slow down — and especially if you slide into something. But it’s your height, not your speed, that is immediately hazardous to your skull. Think of it this way. Which will be more dangerous? Jumping out of a car at 50 mph or jumping out of a plane at 50 mph? How fast the vehicle is going doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore does it? Crash studies have shown that it’s falling down that’ll get your head, not speed. Appropriately, they test and certify helmets with a simple, free fall drop test.
- Armored Gloves
Back to our slippery fall at the stop light. You can tear your hands up pretty bad simply falling over. Add speed to that equation and you can easily lose fingers falling at 30 mph and less. I wish that were an exaggeration. I’ve seen post-fall armored gloves that nearly have all three layers of leather torn off of them. I can’t imagine what that hand would have looked like without the glove. It’s especially important to have extra layers of leather or even hard armor over your knuckles. Punching the roadway wouldn’t feel good at all.
- Armored Jacket
If you go down you’ll need impact protection for your joints/spine and abrasion protection for your hide. A good jacket will let you roll or slide and keep your vertebrae, elbows, and shoulders protected. Having some gnarly man-made materials between your skin and the pavement is good stuff too. Road rash takes more than aloe to heal up well. Tough leather jackets are great for abrasion protection, but they won’t protect your joints from impact unless they’ve got armor in them. For summer there are great mesh material jackets with armor in the shoulders, elbows/shins, and spine. Mine even has slide pads that cover the tail bone and flanks. Surprisingly enough, you can also get a great variety of safety wear that doesn’t look like you’ve just come from a biker bar or the racetrack. Options abound, so find something that suits your style and saves your hide.
- Heavy duty leather boots that come well above your ankles
A good pair of lace-up Doc Martens at minimum. Just like you’ll tear up your hands without good gloves, your feet will go to waste very quickly if you come off your bike. There’s a girl who works the scooter shop in Richmond, VA who lost a couple of toes and just completely mangled her foot because all she had on were a pair of Converse All-Stars when she went down. It makes sense. Toes are tender things, and ankles are so boney that they’re not going to take much impact or abrasion before bad things start to happen. The high-ankle boot will help keep you from twisting your foot in a bad way and the thick leather will help you keep your toes and skin intact.
- Long pants
At minimum you should be in jeans, although armored alternatives are available and preferred. You’re a rock star, and it’s time to put on your leather pants. Joint protection for your knees is highly recommended.
- Eye protection
If you’re wearing a full-face helmet, it should have a visor or face shield built in. If not, you need a good set of goggles or safety-rated glasses. Remember that you’re out in the open. Taking a piece of road gravel to the eye would not be pretty. But at a more basic level, getting bugs, wind, or just grit in your eyes blurs your vision and takes your eyes off the road. That’s bad.
The last thing I’ll mention about safety gear is that your visibility as a rider is one of your best defense mechanisms. If cars can see you, they’re that much less likely to run you over. Black is “bad ass” but more visible colors are your best bet. A white helmet, for example, dramatically increases your visibility. Pair that with a white jacket and maybe even one of those orange road worker vests and you’ll be that much safer (safe is sexy, right?). White garb will also keep you cooler in hot weather. There’s no A/C on a scooter but to keep moving!
So switching subjects from gear back to what you’re riding. You’re probably wondering which scooters you ought to be looking at. This is my list of manufacturers to consider. If it’s not on this list, avoid it.
Keep in mind that the worth of a scooter manufacturer is more than just the scooter itself. There’s the dealer network, the history of the company, parts availability, the stability of the company importing the scooters, and the stability of the companies oversees producing the scooters. Stick to scooter shops or powersports and motorcycle dealerships where they specialize in things on two wheels. Don’t buy your scooter at the local tire shop. When it breaks down, they’ll want nothing to do with you. Keep that in mind, and go with these folks:
- Genuine Scooter Company (visit their website)
Genuine is “America’s smallest scooter company.” They import a classic Vespa clone from LML in India, and a sampling of PGO scooters from Taiwan. Genuine is a spin-off sister company of Scooterworks, the Chicago-based parts supplier for classic Vespa parts and scooter accessories. Genuine has the largest scooter-only dealer network short of Vespa/Piaggio in the states. They also sell some of the best scooters available anywhere, with the longest warranty, at extremely competitive prices, available financing, and even free roadside assistance. There were two Genuine scooters in my garage when I originally wrote this post. I really can’t recommend them enough.
- Kymco, PGO, or SYM (Kymco’s website, PGO’s website, SYM’s website)
The Taiwanese “big three” are reputed to make the best scooters in the world. Kymco and SYM sell under their own name in the USA, but PGO is imported and rebranded exclusively by Genuine Scooter Company. Kymco has defined the “modern” scooter market around the world with its fleet of sporty, not-at-all-cute scooters. SYM is a relative new comer to the US market, but holds a solid reputation as being the performance leader in the international scooter world, offering unique features such as ceramic coated engine cylinders, immaculate fit-and-finish, and the same paint process as Mercedes Benz. PGO is recognized around the world for its quality, innovation, and reliability. All three of these Taiwanese builders offer a diverse range of scooter styles and sizes.
- Vespa/Piaggio/Aprilia (Vespa’s website, Piaggio’s website, Aprillia’s website)
The brand that defined the scooter as we know it is still a major player in the worldwide scooter marketplace. Vespa continues to design and build its scooters using the aircraft methods of its heritage. Steel bodies, landing gear style front shock absorbers, and those classic curvy lines. I consider them essentially the Lexus of scooters and they’re priced accordingly. They truly are a very fine line of scooters, but you’re going to pay for what you get, including that famous Vespa name. Vespa has probably the highest level of design and craftsmanship of any scooter available. Their engines are tuned to be powerful, and therefore aren’t quite as fuel efficient as most of their competitors. However this isn’t actually much of a trade off. Although the difference between 60 mpg and 90 mpg sounds like a big deal, the mathematics (specifically the “law of diminishing returns”) show us that the fuel savings between 60 and 90 aren’t actually very much at all. (Side note: the sweet spot is actually right around 60 mpg. Anything below 60 is a significant cost difference, but anything above 60 is pretty marginal.)Vespas are expensive, at least relatively speaking. The price point can be twice what you’d pay for a Taiwanese scooter of the same size. However, I really do think you’re getting what you pay for. You get the monocoque metal frame/body, premium paint and upholstery work, single sided swing arms, and adjustable suspension components on many models. Vespa scooters also offer a handful of very nice creature features that really do help set them apart as the premium scooter choice, such as push-button storage compartment releases and electronic anti-theft ignition immobilizers. Bottom line, Vespas are gorgeous pieces of Italian moto sculpture. Nothing else on the market matches the detail, features, and character of a an authentic wasp. “It is so choice. If you’ve got the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
Although more famous for its Vespa subsidiary, Piaggio now sells a whole line of separate scooters under its own name. The parent company of Vespa is now also running Aprilia. The Piaggio line of scooters is slightly more economically-priced than Vespa, but also includes some very unique offerings such as the 3-wheeled MP3. Price point is generally lower than Vespa, but still more expensive than arguably better scooters from Asia. Powerplant sharing with the Vespa line means lots of power, but the same lackluster fuel economy as their prettier cousins. Piaggio scooters also lack many of the premium features of the Vespa line — most notably the all-metal monocoque construction.
Aprilia is Piaggio’s sport line. The fit and finish on these bikes is immaculate for tube-and-plastic machines. The style is not for everybody, and do remember that you’re buying an italian bike. As David Harrington says tongue-in-cheek, “Italian motorcyles: making riders into mechanics for generations.” Much like the major Japanese manufacturers, scooters are a side interest of Aprilia, whose main focus is in proper motorbikes. Yet what few scooters they do make are unique and generally high performing.
- Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki (Honda’s website, Yamaha’s website, Suzuki’s website)
For these well-known Japanese motorcycle producers, scooters are a bit of an afterthought, but the quality and reliability are undeniable. Another major plus is that there isn’t a Vespa or Genuine dealer in every city and especially in more rural areas. However, you can find a Honda motorcycle shop almost anywhere that could work on your Silverwing or your Ruckus. That’s pretty valuable. Their product offerings are pretty thin, but some have become class leaders and sub-culture hits.
Now we know the names, but what kind of scooter should you get? Let’s break down your options.
Size does matter
Size classification in scooters refers directly to the displacement size of their engines, measured in cc’s (cubic centimeters). The size of the engine will actually clue you in on the relative physical size of the scooter. There are essentially four size classes of scooter.
- 49cc Scooters
Generally referred to as “a fifty”, this smallest class of scooters are legally considered mopeds in most states, even though their physical configuration makes them scooters.Pros
You usually don’t need a special motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license
You can park them anywhere it’s legal to park a bicycle
Gas mileage can be upward of 120 mpg!
New ones start at about $1700
These are physically small scooters, so if you’re a taller rider, these will rarely be a comfortable fit for you
They’re often mechanically limited to be less than 2 hp and/or have a top speed of 30 mph – not very practical in real traffic
These scooters also often have the smallest wheels in the scooter family, making them a bit darty and rough-riding
(recommendations in bold)
Yamaha: Vino Classic, C3, Zuma Honda: Metropolitan, Ruckus SYM: Mio, Fiddle II, RS, JetEuro 50 Kymco: People, People S, Agility, Super 9, Vitality Genuine: Buddy 50, Rough House Vespa: LX 50 Piaggio: Fly 50
I’m partial to the Honda Ruckus because it is just so basic. But be warned, it’s a dog – just barely gets out of its own way. However, there is a huge tuner community and aftermarket support to make a Ruckus scream if you’re looking for something to tinker with. If I were going to buy a 50 cc scooter and mostly leave it alone, I’d go with a de-restricted SYM Mio. It’s got the most power and performance for any 4-stroke 50cc around and a very nice price point. A de-restricted Genuine Buddy 50 is also a great choice because it’s a 2-stroke. A scooter friend of mine here in the twin cities has her Buddy 50 kitted out to 70cc with all the trimmings and she can almost hit 60 mph!
One trick you can pull with a 49cc scooter is that you can get it registered as a moped and then de-restrict it and get upwards of 45 mph out of it. That will make it much safer in traffic. I really consider being “in the way” a bad thing when you’re at the mercy of other drivers. You can also “kit out” a 49cc scooter with intake, exhaust, and transmission upgrades or even do a “big bore” kit out to around 70cc’s. These kinds of modifications can produce a top speed of 60 mph or more. However, by the time you’ve done it, you could have just bought a bigger scooter for the same money. Disclaimer: It is your responsibility to follow (or not) the laws where you live!
- 80cc – 150cc Scooters
This class of scooters is what everyone usually thinks of when they envision a scooter. The classic vespas ranged from 90cc all the way up to 150cc, although larger engines were available later on. This is the ideal engine class for the beginning rider. Most scooters in this size have enough power to get out of their own way and let you flow either with or ahead of most urban traffic. These scooters fall into two basic categories: retro/vintage and modern/sport.This 80cc-150cc category is the range of scooters that I recommend most, especially to new riders. You’re going to get the best performance, the best economy, for the least amount of money. You won’t be able to really road trip on a Buddy (although people do), but for economical transport and good clean fun, it can’t be beat.
Top speeds range from 50 mph to 70 mph depending on the scooter.
The physical size of these scooters is comfortable even for me at 6’4″ and most of these scooters can comfortably carry a passenger.
Bigger wheels, for a more stable, comfortable ride
Still get great mileage: 60-90 mpg in real-world conditions
Still very affordable starting around $2,500 new
You’ll need your motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license to ride one. But this really isn’t that difficult. Most states allow you to get a rider’s permit for up to a year without a riding test.
You’ll move great through urban traffic, but these are not freeway scooters. You can cruise above 60 mph on most 150cc scooters, but that’s all it’s got. You won’t be able to pass anything and you won’t have any power left if you need to make a quick maneuver.
(recommendations in bold)
Yamaha: Vino 125, Zuma 125 Honda: Elite 80 SYM: HD 125, Symba Kymco: People S 125, People 150, Bet & Win 150, Agility 125 Genuine: Buddy 125/150, Rattler 110, Blur 150, Stella 150 Vespa: LX 150, Vespa S Piaggio: Fly150
In the retro/vintange category, I must highly recommend the scooter my wife has, the Genuine Buddy 125. I especially like the new International Series Buddy 150 It’s the best introduction to scooters I think anyone could ever have. It’ll do 65 mph, gets 90 mpg on a daily basis, and has great, semi-vintage looks. The price point is also fantastic at $2,499. If you’re willing to pay the premium, the Vespa S is downright sexy. The economy isn’t quite as phenomenal as the Buddy, but still very good. You’re looking at $4,199 to buy new, but it’s just a work of art. The Vespa S is, in fact, a Vespa LX-150 with some simpler body work, but there is a small cost savings in that simplicity. I do firmly believe that you get what you pay for and that the all-metal body structure and paintwork of the Vespa is worth the premium price. I also recommend the Yamaha Vino 125 as a great alternative to the Vespa S or the Buddy for those who don’t have a Genuine or Vespa dealer near them. The mileage isn’t as good, nor is it as quick, but the price point is the same at $2,499 and chances are there is at least one Yamaha dealer near you. In the modern/sport category, I’m very partial to the Genuine Blur 150, since that’s what I rode all of the 2008 riding season. I don’t think there’s a better 150cc scooter available anywhere. However, the Blur didn’t come back for 2008 or 2009. There are ongoing rumors of a return of the model in the next couple of years and if that happens, put the Blur on your short list. In the mean time, Blurs are available second hand from time to time. The scooter that started the american scooter renaissance as we know it, the Genuine Stella is one of my absolute favorites. Its 150cc 2T engine is mated to a fully manual 4-speed, complete with left-hand clutch and shifter. Manufactured by LML in India, the Stella is almost bolt for bolt a vintage Vespa PX-150 with a handful of modern amenities and an upgraded engine. If you’re into vintage italian iron, but want something with a warranty, the Stella may be just the ticket. A newcomer for 2009 is the Yamaha Zuma 125, the big brother to their iconic 50cc Zuma. It’s not really my style, but with fuel injection and Yamaha dealer support, it would be a great purchase for someone who digs its particular mojo. There is a growing stable of modern clones of classic scooters. The SYM Symba, is the latest and perhaps greatest. A premium reincarnation of Honda’s iconic Super Cub, the Symba features a clutchless 4-speed manual mated to a 100cc 4T engine — all with SYM’s renowned fit and finish. I want one.
- 200cc – 300cc:
Scooters in this size range tend to be simply bigger versions of their 125cc or 150cc siblings. However this is where you start being freeway capable in a truly practical way. These scooters are bigger in physical size, but only just. This range of scooters is at the bottom of what are commonly referred to as “maxi-scooters” – maxi being the opposite of mini.Pros
Top speeds range from 70 mph to 100 mph, so real freeway use is within reach
Lots of extra power for urban riding
Still small and manageable for the most part
Bigger wheels = more stability
Price point at least $4,000 new
Gas mileage not as good as smaller bikes, usually 40-70 mpg
Larger, heavier scooters a bit less agile and easy to maneuver
(recommendations in bold)
Yamaha: nothing in this size Honda: Helix,Reflex SYM: HD 200, RV200, CityCom 300 Kymco: Xciting 250, Grandvista 250, People S 200/250 Genuine: nothing in this size right now (although there are rumors of a 200cc Blur or even a 200cc CVT Stella) Vespa: Granturismo, GTS 250, GTS 300 Super, GTV Piaggio: MP3 250, BV250 Aprilia: SportCity 250, Scarabeo 250
My first choice in any of the scooters is Vespa’s GT line, such as the Vespa GT-V. I ride a Vespa GT 200L, which didn’t come back for 2009, but shares all the chassis, suspension, and brake components as its 250cc+ descendants. The GT-200L, GT-S 250, GT-V 250, and GT-S 300 Super are each superb machines and are in my opinion the quintessential premium modern scooter. Unlike most of the bikes in this class, the GT series Vespas have 12″ wheels, which in my opinion strike the perfect balance between high-speed stability and light, nimble handling. Even the smallest of the powerplants, the 200cc L.E.A.D.E.R. engine in my 200L, propels this sizable and comfortable scooter well over 70 mph. You can read more of my thoughts on the GT in my NS first ride post. I also highly recommend the Aprilia SportCity 250. It’s compact yet fits taller riders, is downright fast, has massive brakes, and is hands down better looking than similar offerings from Taiwan or Japan. With a price point of $4599, it’s also one of the lowest priced scooters in this class. The SportCity is also not much heavier than my Blur 150, but with all the big scooter advantages. Its only real downside in my mind is somewhat meager under-seat storage. I have yet to ride one, but on paper my third choice would be the SYM CityCom 300i With what appears to be massive amounts of under-seat storage. Great looks and key features. My biggest complaint is that it’s nearly $1000 more expensive than the Aprilia and it’s not a true 300 (268cc’s). But with SYM’s reputation for performance, I bet it just goes like stink.
- 400cc – 650cc
The largest remaining class is essentially to scooters what the Honda Goldwing is to motorcycles. Big cruiser scooters that you could easily road trip cross-country with a passenger. They’re often called “sofas on two wheels.” It’s not really my style as I like the zippy nature of smaller scooters, but I understand the appeal of being able to ride the highway in comfort.Pros
Very comfortable to ride, even for long distances
Lots of power on both city streets and the highway
Bigger wheels still = really stable high-speed riding
Lots of storage for gear, helmets, luggage, groceries, etc.
Large, and much heavier than smaller, more traditional scooters
Less maneuverable – definitely not “zippy”
Expensive – at least $5000 new and as expensive as $14,000 for some models
Fuel economy not much better than a motorcycle – 40-60 mpg
(recommendations in bold)
Yamaha: Majesty, T-Rex Honda: Silverwing SYM: nothing in this size Kymco: Xciting 500 Genuine: nothing in this size Vespa: nothing in this size Piaggio: MP3 400/500, BV 500 Suzuki: Burgman 650
I can’t really ever see myself on a big scooter, but for those who are into that, I really like the Piaggio MP3 500. It looks like something out of Mad Max and the three-wheel format is just so innovative. It gets basically motorcycle gas mileage and tops out around 80 mph, but geez it looks mean! Otherwise the Kymco Xciting 500 is a really nice bike for a lot less money than its competitors. I must admit no real interest in these big maxi scooters whatsoever, so they all kind of look the same to me. The Kymco is at least very reasonably priced and available in interesting colors. For 2009, the Yamaha TMax boasts sport bike handling in a maxi-scooter format. Good looking, but a bit pricey, even for this segment. Not too many twin-cylinder scooters out there, but I think there’s a reason for that. I’m sure it’s a fine machine, but again, it’s a big lumbering beast of a thing and it just doesn’t interest me.
- All-electric scooters
Right now there is just one choice – the Vectrix. It’s the size and basic outline of a 500cc maxi scooter, but it’s all-electric.
This segment is sure to grow. Although not on the market yet, I’m keeping a very watchful eye on the KLD E-165 electric scooter set to debut next season.
So that’s my view of the scooter world.
Let me emphasize that these are my opinions. Do your research and choose the best scooter for you. All the factual information is available online and from the manufactures. I’ve included links to much of that information at the end of this post. The biggest thing in choosing a scooter, especially your first one, is to have realistic expectations. Only get what you need and what you can handle as a new rider. Don’t make aspirational purchases. Start simple and move up over time. I’m actually on my third scooter. When you visit your local scooter shop, make sure you sit on all of the scooters you’re interested in. Rock them off the center stand and make sure your feet touch without leaning or tip-toeing. Imagine yourself sitting on that bike for hours on end. Will you be comfortable? Comfort matters more than character. Sure, you may love the look of that scooter over there, but the seat is hard as a rock and your feet don’t touch the ground when you sit on it. Not a good choice. Use your head, then put a helmet on it and have fun!