Can Scooters Make Motorcycling Better?

. By Lance Thruxton

By Jon Row

An afternoon school bus blocked me as I waited to exit a narrow alley in Costa Mesa, California recently. When the gaggle of 4th, 5th and 6th graders came out the door on their daily escape, forty percent of them, mostly boys, abruptly stopped in their tracks, creating a curbside log jam as they spied the twin front wheels of my ride— Piaggio’s three wheel MP3 500. “Whoa”, “Check it out” and “Cool” resonated from the energetic adolescents as the bus driver looked out the door to see what deserved such attention. Ten blocks away, at Piaggio’s California technical center, CEO Paolo Timoni had to be smiling. As president of Piaggio Group Americas (PGA), one of Timoni’s missions is to ensure those young bus riders eventually discover and choose to ride scooters or motorcycles. Timoni wants more of America’s adult populace on two wheels too. Since Piaggio owns Vespa and Timoni is Italian, he naturally believes scooters are the ideal tool to accomplish this goal. With the MP3, Timoni and Piaggio can offer three wheels to ease nervous non-riders' transition from four wheels.

The MP3 is indeed an unusual “scooter” both visually and functionally. One of several Vespa and Piaggio units I recently sampled at media ride day in Newport Beach, the MP3 comes in 250cc, 400cc and 500cc sizes. As you might imagine, it has great stability in stop and go conditions and, thanks to independent front suspension that also allows it to lean, it can corner with the feeling of a single-track machine. Perhaps more importantly, even a novice can expertly utilize its hard braking abilities without fear of losing control. The MP3 and many of the features found on Vespa, Piaggio, and Aprilia’s two wheeled scooters are excellent efforts to remove barriers of entry for the non-riding public.

Piaggio Group also owns Moto Guzzi which, along with Aprilia, continues to offer customers both conventional and modern motorcycles. Enthusiasts and media have reacted positively to the last several years of Aprilia and Guzzi model introductions. Aprilia especially is setting new standards in Superbike technology and proving a formidable World Superbike Racing contender, an opportunity Piaggio has capitalized on with a Max Biaggi “Replica” Aprilia scooter. Labeled the RS50, the EPA legal 2 stroke sports number plates and an exhaust note so raspy, Newport residents may have thought their raucous neighbor Dennis Rodman was whizzing by them. For Piaggio the RS is more than just Biaggi’s pit bike, it's also another reminder to enthusiasts that scooters are cool. That’s important because while Piaggio does not think existing motorcycle owners are likely scooter buyers, it knows they can influence some scooter buying decisions.

A long-term challenge

Piaggio’s goal to get more people on scooters either as basic or supplemental transportation is not new. Other companies including Yamaha and notably Honda have invested millions in scooter products, promotion and advertising in the 1980s. The results were only semi successful for lifetime owner adoption. Since 1987, the U.S. Motorcycle Industry Council (aka MIC), has promoted motorcycling and scooter awareness through its excellent “Discover Today’s Motorcycle” program . As a current MIC member and board chairman, Timoni makes sure scooters continue to be represented in it. Timoni affirms that Paggio and its U.S. brands are on board for the long ride, intent on providing the American market with both hard-core enthusiast bikes and expansion-oriented scooters.

PGA did well globally in 2009 and certainly in the U.S. Scooter sales exceeded 30% market share while Aprilia and Moto Guzzi share has tripled since 2005, although Piaggio acknowledges it’s from a small base. For the economically challenged motorcycle industry, Timoni cautions that 2006’s industry high of 1,200,000 motorcycle sales will likely not be reached again for years. The economy will recover, but baby boomers, the main customer of the past four decades, are now riding into their sunset years. The industry, which created great products and experiences for boomers, relied on them too long and now has to look forward. In Timoni’s view, looking forward means an industry that needs to leave its comfort zone to compete for Gens X, Y & Z in a sure to be greener, different, and digital world. A world where electronic entertainment and communication gadgets tempt young consumers with virtual experiences vs. real ones. As Piaggio and today’s enthusiasts already know, motorcycles and scooters both offer unique experiences for the real world.

Piaggio is willing to expend significant resources and efforts to achieve its goals. Product placements in youth movies like The Transformers and demo ride programs are some of the tools PAG is using to reach target audiences. With the MP3 and other products like upcoming hybrid scooters, they’re intent on removing the physical, emotional, and even social barriers to riding. Their web presence like for example, features a comprehensive summary of the economic and rational reasons to go scootering. Timoni’s confidence in scooters is bolstered by Piaggio’s research which shows first time scooter owners are extremely happy with their rides and overall ownership experience. And not just when gas is $5 a gallon or the climate is California style year round sunshine; Vespa’s top three markets are Boston, Chicago and Denver.

So…what’s in it for you?

If Piaggio and other companies want to get more people on scooters, should you care? Perhaps. There are plenty of voices and forces in America that would like nothing better than to restrict or minimize two wheelers in any form and your ability to enjoy them. The more people riding, the tougher it is for that to happen. The consumer benefits that come with a large healthy industry have also been well demonstrated over the past four decades. As a current rider you may think “That’s nice but not something I can really do anything about.” Well, maybe… or maybe not.

Many of today’s riders learned to ride on bikes that while big or small, were “real” motorcycles in the 60s and 70s. Some of us feel we’ve earned our stripes and skills the old fashioned way, so other people should do the same. It’s easy for U.S. motorcyclists to be dismissive of scooters, thinking of them as second-class products because the required clutch and shift skills are easier than traditional motorcycles. Even if unintentional, negative enthusiast scooter perspectives probably deter some prospects from getting into motorcycling via the scooter route. That’s unfortunate because new riders of any type can help the industry keep giving all owners more of what they want.

As I rode and compared Piaggio’s enthusiast motorcycles and their novice rider offerings, I found the scooters, especially models with bigger wheels, were surprisingly stable and roadworthy. Modern suspension, power trains, and brakes make them highly suitable for a newbie and actually a lot of fun for seasoned motorcyclists. Even if you wouldn’t buy one for yourself you should feel comfortable endorsing or recommending them to almost anyone wanting to get on two wheels.

School buses introduce kids to the pros and cons of public transport at an early age. When those kids get their license and find they can’t quite afford a car or its insurance, a scooter just may be their best investment in independence, freedom and fun. I'm sure Paolo Timoni would agree--that’s cool!

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