Sick of seesawing gas prices and an uncertain economy, Americans have discovered a new ride: motor scooters. These traditionally small, easy-to-drive motorcycles (such as Vespas, the original scooters) are very popular in Europe and Asia. Experts say you can get a good one for less than $3,000, and some scooters claim to deliver 100 mpg or more. That's the main reason the U.S. saw record-high scooter sales in 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. (A federal tax deduction applies to all new motorcycles and scooters purchased between Feb. 17 and Dec. 31, 2009; see our What to Look For section for more.)
Unlike a motorcycle, you don't have to straddle a traditional motor scooter. You sit on it like a chair, with your feet on a floorboard. Most scooters have body panels to hide the frame and engine parts, protect riders' clothing somewhat from splashes and grime, and provide some storage space (one model might fit only a purse, while another might have space for a couple of bags of groceries or a briefcase). Scooters are usually low- to medium-powered, with "twist-and-go" automatic transmissions; they're meant more for city commuters than for road trips, but some do pretty well on the highway.
Scooters have also traditionally had zero street cred. A Vespa was cool for Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in "Roman Holiday," but if you weren't in Italy, you probably didn't ride a scooter. "Scooters are for Mods, '60s retro types, and... well, girls," writes motorcycle blogger Michael Edelman. "Or so it used to be."
But recently, The New York Times' Stuart F. Brown was surprised when motorcyclists waved to him on the road as he tested a Vespa. "That's right, a motor scooter, which used to be considered -- let's not mince words here -- a sissy among two-wheelers, so far as real motorcyclists were concerned," Brown says. "It's my best guess that the newfound cordiality had something to do with the scooter's good fuel economy, something everyone is thinking about these days."
Some new scooters look -- and drive -- more like powerful motorcycles. Several motorcycle publications, including Motorcycle.com, Cycle World, MotorcycleNews.com and Motorcyclist magazine, now review scooters.
We also found excellent reviews at websites devoted to scooters, including TheScooterReview.com in New Zealand (if you're considering trading your car for a scooter, check out this site's fun and informative video test of the commuting time and cost of a scooter versus a car). Susan Carpenter, the Los Angeles Times' motorcycle columnist, provides expert tests and video reviews of popular motor scooters, including several Vespa scooters. And with fuel-weary consumers clamoring for information about scooters and motorcycles, Consumer Reports conducts its first such test since 1981. Experts here go to great lengths to design accurate, scientific tests of everything from speed and fuel economy to comfort and noise.
You do have to watch out for quality, critics warn. Established brands that you buy at brick-and-mortar dealers (Vespa, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and the other brands covered in this report) are safe bets, reviews say, and some upstart brands are making good scooters, too. But experts are leery of scooters that you can buy cheaply on the Internet. These are usually made in foreign countries, and there are no U.S. dealerships to fix them when they break. "I've had a couple people call and say their bikes broke down, and the factory closed and they can't get parts," says Massachusetts scooter dealer Barbara McDonald in an E Magazine article about scooters.
Safety is also a concern. Scooters are five times less likely than motorcycles to be involved in a fatal crash, The Wall Street Journal reports, but scooters still offer no protection in a wreck. "Scooters and motorcycles...provide nowhere near the safety of even the smallest car," Consumer Reports says, adding: "We approach these products with grave concern for rider safety and caution readers against a hasty decision to move to two-wheeled transportation without proper training and safety gear."
Finally, there's the question of pollution. Although they don't often live up to their optimistic mileage claims (50 to 80 mpg is more realistic, tests show), almost all motor scooters and Vespas are more fuel-efficient than even a hybrid car like the Toyota Prius. Because they burn less fuel than cars, scooters contribute less carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, experts say.
However, when it comes to other pollutants -- smog-producing nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, to name two -- some scooters don't scrub their exhaust as efficiently as cars. Particularly dirty are the old two-stroke engine scooters that burn a mixture of oil and gas like a lawnmower. But major-brand scooters no longer use two-stroke engines. Most new scooters use cleaner-burning four-stroke engines. To be truly environmentally friendly, experts recommend looking for a scooter with a catalytic converter -- or, better yet, one of the very well reviewed new electric scooters like the Vectrix (MSRP: $5,195 to $10,495).
The pricing information shown in this report reflects each scooter's manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP). While these prices are generally negotiable, many dealers tack on additional fees that are not reflected in the MSRP. These can go by many names, such as shipping and assembly, pre-delivery inspection, document fees, and the like. The dealer fees can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the purchase price, and they vary from dealer to dealer. When shopping around, always be sure to ask the salesperson what the scooter's final "out-the-door price" is after all fees and taxes are factored in.
Traditionally, mopeds were bikes with "helper" motors attached to the frame. The first mopeds showed up after World War II, but the moped craze didn't peak in the United States until the gasoline crisis of the 1970s. Mopeds fell out of favor once the crisis died down; one website devoted to moped history blames licensing and insurance laws and the 1980s recession.
Today, each state has its own laws defining the difference between a moped and a scooter. Mopeds usually must be weaker -- for example, no more than three horsepower and with a top speed of less than 30 mph, versus four horsepower and 39 mph for a mini scooter like the Vespa LX 50 (MSRP: $3,300). Some states require mopeds to have pedals. Unlike scooters, mopeds may not require inspection or a helmet, and they may be permitted only in the far-right lane of traffic. Mopeds also usually use a two-stroke engine and lack any sort of scooter-like body panels. The scooter-enthusiast group IScootNY.com outlines the blurry differences between motorcycles and scooters, and between scooters and mopeds.
Few mopeds are manufactured today; many of the mopeds you might see on the road are leftovers from the 1970s moped craze.