PIERRE, S.D. — Gasoline pushing $3 gallon? Why worry? Buy a motor scooter like thousands of other Americans and stretch that single gallon of gas a week or more.
"As people start driving them, they start finding more reasons to use them," said Doug Day, owner of Scooter Centrale and Vespa Hartford in Plainville, Conn. "They're practical, easy to park and get great gas mileage. I put $5 worth of gas into mine when it's totally empty, compared to $50 in my SUV."
As gasoline prices soar, the popularity of peppy, fuel-sipping motor scooters -- most easily get 50 miles per gallon and some of the smaller ones get as many as 80 mpg -- is soaring. Sales, estimated at 86,000 last year in the U.S., have doubled from 2000, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
"I put about 20 miles a day on mine, and I only have to fill it up twice a month," said Jessica Meuchel, 23, who uses a scooter to deliver daily newspapers in Pierre, S.D. She bought the two-wheeler this spring because it was costing her $200 a month to fuel her truck.
Even the larger scooters are more economical to drive than cars, Day said. He said sales at his shops climbed nearly 200% last year and were doing well this year too.
Motorcycle council spokesman Mike Mount said the market gained momentum when upscale Italian scooter maker Piaggio reentered the U.S. market with the legendary Vespa scooter in 2001. Motorcycle makers such as Honda Motor Co. and Yamaha Motor Corp. also began offering new lines of scooters in recent years.
Scooters were pioneered in postwar Europe by Piaggio, which made the first Vespa in 1946.
Gary Christopher, an executive with American Honda Motor Co. in Los Angeles, said Honda heavily promoted U.S. scooter sales in the 1980s, but annual U.S. sales peaked in 1987 and slumped after advertising was pared. They have long been popular in coastal areas and warmer climates, but more also are being sold in states with colder weather, he said.
"It looks like this new resurgence of interest in scooters is something that can stand on its own without massive injections of advertising and promotion," Christopher said.
Although scooters are economical, the fun factor cannot be overlooked, Christopher said.
"There's just something about a scooter that invites you to jump on it and go," he said.
Dwight Turner, owner of GS MotorWorks in Frisco, Texas, a large seller of imported motor scooters from China, attributed the popularity in part to rising gasoline prices and the coming of age of youngsters who have graduated from foot-propelled sidewalk scooters.
"Many 10- to 13-year-olds bought those scooters, and then got hooked on the idea of riding scooters instead of bicycles and are moving up the scooter food chain," Turner said.
Scooter sales at his firm climbed 300% last year, and they increased 50% last April alone, primarily because of high gasoline prices, he said.
"We sell to many teenage customers, college students as well as people in bigger metro areas looking for more economic travel and parking options," Turner said. "I would estimate that 50% of our customers buy scooters for primary transportation and 50% buy them as a toy."
Ross Petersen, a motorcycle and scooter dealer in Pierre, said scooters had become a fashion statement for some teenagers.
"It's kind of cool," he said. "You'll see a little group of them riding around together, and that feeds it."
Small scooters, especially those made in China, South Korea and Taiwan, sell for as little as $800 to $900. Larger scooters, capable of legal highway speeds and more, can cost $4,000 to $6,000.
Scooters, although fun to drive, can be dangerous. Other motorists often don't notice the small two-wheelers, and that can land scooter drivers in the hospital -- or the morgue.