Scooter, motorcycle or moped?

Of all motorized bikes, mopeds are the least powerful. Few are manufactured today; many of the mopeds on the road are leftovers from the 1970s moped craze. Traditionally, mopeds consist of a bicycle with an exposed, two-stroke motor attached to the frame to boost the pedals' power. Some "no-peds" leave off the pedals. Each state has its own legal definition of a moped, which may exempt the owner from inspection and helmet laws. Mopeds may also be restricted from some traffic lanes. Commonly, mopeds must not be able to go faster than 25 or 30 mph, although laws differ. A secondhand moped may cost $75 to $400, but owners caution that you'll probably wind up doing all repair and maintenance work yourself, as a mechanic might charge more than the bike is worth.

Scooters are more powerful than mopeds; 39 mph is a common top speed for a small scooter, which can cost less than $3,000 new. Classic scooters have small wheels, a frame covered completely by body panels, and a step-through design with a floorboard for the rider's feet (rather than an exposed frame that you straddle like a motorcycle). But some bigger scooters such as the Honda Silver Wing (MSRP: $8,500 to $9,000) have big wheels, very high step-throughs and top speeds of 90 mph or more, just like a motorcycle; these machines usually keep their scooter-esque footrests and automatic transmissions.

Some users say scooters are easier to drive than motorcycles, and their body panels provide convenient storage cubbies and protect the rider somewhat from engine heat and oil, wind, road grime and splashes, etc. However, all but the smallest scooters are subject to the same helmet, licensing and other laws as motorcycles are.


Choosing a scooter

Scooters can get 50 to 80 mpg or more, cost less than $3,000 and can be easier to ride than a motorcycle, making them more popular in the U.S. than ever before. If you're shopping for a scooter, you'll be confronted with a wide range of prices and power. Here are some expert tips to help you choose the right scooter.

  • Small scooters are convenient for city driving. If you plan to ride only on 40 mph-and-under city streets, a scooter with a 50 cc engine will give you the best gas mileage for the lowest price. These small scooters are also the lightest and easiest to park; some cities even allow you to park them right on the sidewalk. However, they can't be ridden on the freeway and they don't offer much storage space.
  • Bigger scooters can take the freeway. If you want to keep up with 55-mph traffic, reviews say you'll need to step up to a 100 cc to 200 cc scooter. Although some of these are freeway-legal, experts say a 250 cc scooter that can travel 75 to 85 mph feels safer on the freeway. For the best high-speed stability and the comfort of a big touring motorcycle for long trips, reviews suggest a maxi scooter with at least a 400 cc engine. These scooters are heavy and they drink much more gas than a 50 cc mini scooter -- although at around 50 mpg, big maxi scooters still get better gas mileage than cars.
  • Good scooters don't have to be expensive. Major-brand scooters (including all of those covered in our Full Report) are the most reliable choices; experts caution against cheap foreign scooters that you can buy over the Internet. Reviews say a good, name-brand 50 cc scooter can be had for about $2,000, and a big maxi scooter for less than $7,000.
  • Don't forget the license and insurance. It costs an average of $300 per year to insure a scooter, The Wall Street Journal reports. You'll also need to register your scooter and get a special motorcycle endorsement on your driver's license (for a 50 cc mini scooter, some jurisdictions require only a regular driver's license and no registration or insurance).
  • Think about storage space. Some scooters can stow only a half-helmet under the seat and maybe a cell phone in the glove box. Others can easily swallow two full-face helmets and some rain gear (or some groceries, or a briefcase). Some scooters offer a trunk box as an accessory.
  • Consider your passenger. Most scooters can carry a passenger, although they do this with varying degrees of comfort. Testers usually find the bigger maxi scooters the most comfortable for long rides, but even within this class, comfort is a very individual thing. A test drive is essential.
  • Factor in safety gear. When you're weighing the cost of a new scooter, experts say you should remember that you'll need a helmet, a reinforced jacket, gloves, boots -- everything a motorcyclist needs for safety and comfort in cold and rainy weather.

IRS tax breaks for scooters

If you buy a scooter or motorcycle between Feb. 17 and Dec. 31, 2009, you can probably deduct the state or local sales taxes on your federal income tax return. The IRS provides details of the New Vehicle Tax Deduction, including income limits.

If the scooter you buy is electric, such as a Vectrix, you can probably take a federal tax credit for 10 percent of the scooter's cost (again, income limits apply). The Plug-In Electric Vehicle Credit applies to two- and three-wheeled electric scooters and motorcycles purchased after Feb. 17, 2009, and before Jan. 1, 2012.


Midsize Honda scooter coming in June 2009

Honda has announced it will start selling the Honda SH150i (MSRP: $4,500) in the U.S. in June 2009. This 153 cc scooter will fill a big gap in Honda's current U.S. scooter lineup, which has consisted of two small 50 cc gas scooters -- the Honda Ruckus (MSRP: $2,500) and Metropolitan (MSRP: $2,400) -- and the big, powerful, 582 cc Honda Silver Wing (MSRP: $8,500 to $9,000). Honda says the SH150i is the best-selling scooter in Italy. Read more here.


BMW mega-scooter?

BMW is working on a scooter, a company official is quoted as saying at VisorDown.com. Bloggers and the European press speculate that three big-engine models are in the works -- 500 cc, 650 cc and 800 cc gas scooters. Rumored concepts range from a three-wheeled scooter with a roof (similar in concept to the short-lived BMW C1 that was discontinued in 2002) to a motorcycle-like sport bike. Read more about the buzz at Autoblog.com and MotorcycleDaily.com.

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