Most reviews classify scooters with small engines (less than 250 cc displacement) as mini scooters. These are the ultimate fuel misers, and they're the least expensive, too. However, although some mini scooters are freeway-legal, most testers find they don't have enough power to feel safe in high-speed traffic.
Reviews indicate there's plenty to love about 50 cc scooters: sidewalk parking (in some cities), no registration or insurance (in some states) and 60 mpg or more. However, with top speeds below 40 mph, these low-powered scooters are for city streets only.
If you're mainly looking for a small scooter for city commuting, the Vespa LX 50 (MSRP: $3,300) is the critics' favorite 50 cc scooter. With its curvy, retro styling, small wheels and low, flat floorboard, this classic scooter "seems to exemplify the phrase 'Ciao bella!'" writes Tania deLuzuriaga at The Boston Globe. As with all Vespa scooters, build quality is top-notch (all are built in Italy), reviews say. "Most entry level 50cc scooters feel like they are about to break the day you ride them out of the store," writes Ketzal Sterling at TheScooterReview.com. "Not the LX."
The Vespa LX 50 is one of the heaviest 50 cc scooters you can buy. That makes for a relatively smooth ride, but it can also make the LX physically hard to move: "I see plenty of women riding them but I've also watched quite a few struggling to move them around," Sterling says. The Vespa LX 50's wide seat offers plenty of room for a second rider, but reviews say that will slow it down even further. The Vespa LX 50 mini scooter tops out at 39 mph and delivers a manufacturer-estimated 95 to 100 mpg, although it posted only about 65 mpg in mixed city/highway driving in one top test.
Vespa also makes a slightly different mini scooter, the Vespa S 50 (MSRP: $3,200). Styling is the main distinction here. While the LX 50's rounded front, headlight and mirrors evoke the original 1940s Vespa scooters, the S 50 takes its squared-off styling cues from a 1970s Vespa. The Vespa S 50's trimmed-down body panels make it lighter than the Vespa LX 50, but the S 50's estimated fuel economy is slightly lower.
Reviewers say these Vespa mini scooters are great, except for their prices. You could get a very good 50 cc Honda or Yamaha scooter for about $1,000 less. "Here's some very good advice," TheScooterReview.com says. "If you're going to drop many thousands of dollars on a scooter ... buy a bigger bike that can actually be used on the freeway. Remember, a 50 cc bike is supposed to be cheap to buy, cheap to run and cheap to register."
Critics do recommend some cheaper 50 cc alternatives. The Honda Metropolitan (MSRP: $2,400) and Yamaha Vino Classic (MSRP: $2,050) borrow their styling cues from Vespa scooters. The boxy Yamaha C3 (MSRP: $2,100) offers more storage space than most, thanks to its big body panels. By contrast, the Honda Ruckus (MSRP: $2,500) omits the body panels entirely, making it look something like a dirt bike.
If you're willing to give up a few miles per gallon, you can step up to a bigger mini scooter (100 cc to 200 cc) and get a bike that can keep up with highway traffic. The Kymco People 150 (MSRP: $2,800) costs less than a 50 cc Vespa, goes faster and still gets 55 mpg in one real-world test -- all of which makes it the best choice for shoppers on a budget, according to reviewers.
"It's a lot of fun to zip around city streets," writes Los Angeles Times motorcycle columnist Susan Carpenter of the Kymco scooter. But although it's freeway-legal, "I don't recommend taking it there." Carpenter reports that the Kymco scooter's skinny tires didn't hold uneven pavement well at high speeds, a feeling that was "more than a little unsettling." On city streets, however, testers find the Kymco People 150 mini scooter very stable.
Critics say the Kymco People 150 scooter doesn't offer as much storage space as a similarly sized, '70s-inspired Vespa S 150 (MSRP: $4,200), the '40s-inspired Vespa LX 150 (MSRP: $4,400) or the chrome-and-leather Vespa LXV 150 (MSRP: $5,200). "A half helmet or purse is pretty much all that will fit" under the Kymco scooter's seat, Carpenter says, and the fit and finish isn't quite as nice as a Vespa scooter. But the People 150 costs $1,400 to $2,400 less than those Vespa models, and it claims better gas mileage (84 mpg versus 70 to 75 mpg). As with the smaller scooters, expert tests show mixed city/highway fuel economy is actually lower than the manufacturer claims -- about 45 to 55 mpg in real-world tests of 150 cc mini scooters -- but it's still better than a car.
For slightly more power at about the same gas mileage, reviews recommend two more Italian scooters from Vespa's parent company, Piaggio: the Aprilia Scarabeo 200 (MSRP: $3,500), which actually has a 181 cc engine, and the Piaggio Fly 150 (MSRP: $2,900), which boasts a top speed of 61 mph. It should be noted that the Scarabeo 200 was the subject of a recall early in 2009. About 1,200 2008 and 2009 Scarabeos were recalled because of carburetor problems, a potential safety hazard. An additional 400 or so scooters were recalled because of faulty windshields that did not meet safety standards.
If you're willing to give up some power to get better gas mileage, some critics like the Yamaha Vino 125 (MSRP: $2,900). With its smaller engine, the Vino 125 purports to get 96 mpg (real-world tests range from 55 mpg to 80 mpg). Although some testers find the Vino 125 underpowered, Susan Carpenter at the Los Angeles Times finds it accelerates well enough to keep up with traffic. Like the Kymco scooter, the Yamaha Vino 125 takes a good stab at Vespa style but comes up a bit short, Carpenter says.