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THROTTLE JOCKEY / SUSAN CARPENTER

The time is right: OK, now scoot!

More than ever, mid-range scooters offer a great way to zip past gas lines. We put five to the test.

July 19, 2006|SUSAN CARPENTER

WHENEVER I pull up on two wheels, I can count on one comment: "You're crazy," strangers tell me. "Riding is dangerous." The comment is usually accompanied by a horror story about some neighbor's friend's gastroenterologist or other distant acquaintance who had a spectacular crash.

But a funny thing's been happening lately. In addition to the usual comments on my sanity and safety, I'm hearing envy, and the horror stories they tell are their own. "What kind of gas mileage are you getting?" they ask. The question is typically followed by the price tag on their latest fill-up, usually about $60.

While the average U.S. passenger car chugs gas at a rate of 22.4 miles per gallon, two-wheelers average about 50. So it shouldn't come as too huge a surprise that sales are up for the lightest drinkers: scooters -- by about 17% in 2005 (though the rate has slowed to single digits this year).

The appeal over motorcycles? For novice riders, they're a less intimidating alternative. Scooters are lower in weight and lower to the ground, with automatic transmissions, step-through designs and exhaust pipes that won't burn a leg.

We tested the most recent crop of scooters, which come in all styles, from lawnmower-esque 50cc models to 650cc bruisers.

I decided to split the difference for our scooter shootout, selecting the mid-level 250cc class because the engines are large enough to get decent speed yet small enough for better-than-average fuel efficiency. Of the models tested, all of them go at least 70 mph; according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, 250cc scooters average 60 to 80 miles per gallon.

Overall, the scooters I tested for today's Ride to Work Day were good for street riding, if a little flimsy for freeway travel. They're presented in the order of preference.

Vespa GTS250

I've never felt so much like Audrey Hepburn as I did riding the new GTS250. Not only did its classic lines and elegant styling up the ante on my usual riding attire -- prompting me to invest in a Gucci knockoff jacket -- its upright positioning demanded perfect posture.

Sixty years since its inception, Vespa is still the gold standard. It is the iPod of scooters. The icon. And its reputation is well-deserved.

The only scooter on the market with a body built from a single sheet of stainless steel, rather than a tubular frame covered with plastic, the Vespa is Italian design at its finest. Gently rounded and chromed in all the right places -- the mirrors, a folding luggage rack and retractable passenger foot pegs -- the GTS250's retro styling recalls every other Vespa that's been built over the years, but the throwback exterior is misleading.

Under the hood, it is the most technologically sophisticated scooter the company has ever built. The liquid-cooled, four-stroke single is the first Vespa to include electronic fuel injection. Coupled with a continuously variable transmission, it made acceleration far quicker than I expected for an automatic.

Tooling along L.A.'s streets as if I were on a Roman holiday, I had no trouble keeping up with traffic. But because the scooter is so tall, with a relatively short wheelbase of 54.9 inches, it felt slightly top-heavy in turns.

Its 12-inch wheels also felt a bit spindly, especially on the freeway. Scooters of 125cc and above are legally allowed on the freeways in California, but there's a reason you don't see many of them out there.

It's creepy.

On the 5 Freeway, I felt like a gnat among hippos. The GTS250 didn't skip a beat at low speeds, but it started wheezing at about 75 mph. The going speed of traffic being 85 mph, I was forced to move into the middle and right lanes, where I was fair game for a flattening by some over-caffeinated semi driver -- if the potholes didn't get me first.

Aprilia Scarabeo 250

Like the race bikes Aprilia is famous for, the Scarabeo is zippy and performance-oriented. Of the scooters I tested, it was the only one I felt genuinely comfortable riding on the highway.

No one ever accused scooters of being at all torque-y, but the throttle packed more punch than I was expecting, and it topped out at a higher speed than the other rides I tested. I got my little Scarabeo friend up to 80 mph, at which point the left mirror started to loosen and bend in toward me, which I took as a sign -- along with the heavy breathing of this four-stroke single -- that it isn't designed to go this fast consistently.

At high speeds, the 16-inch wheels felt stable. And slowing down, the linked disc brakes on the front and rear gave it better than average stopping power.

Aesthetically, the Scarabeo is another example of high Italian design, though the simple lines of the bike are thrown by a small windshield (that only barely kept the wind at bay) and a bulbous storage bag on the back that, though roomy enough to fit a sack of groceries, was ugly as a sore on a newborn's bottom.

Yamaha Morphous

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