It takes a lot to catch the jaded eye of a typical New Yorker. But here we are in the metropolis astride Piaggio's second wave of funky 3-wheeled MP3 scooters, drawing long stares everywhere we go. One urban hipster eyeing the passel of Piaggios exclaims, with just the right amount of mock irony, "Are you guys from the future?"
No, son, we are from the past - 2006, to be precise. That's the year Piaggio first unleashed this ingenious scooter upon U.S. shores. The front-end of the MP3, if you recall, features two wheels linked by a clever suspension that allows motorcycle-like leaning (counter-steering) while maintaining car-like levels of front-end grip. First launched with a 250cc motor and with very cautious sales goals, it managed to become Piaggio's bestselling scooter in just one year. That success begat the 2008 launch of two new models - younger brothers, if you will - featuring 400cc and 500cc motors to address American rider's seemingly unquenchable thirst for more power.
With these larger models, Piaggio hopes to capitalize on the growth of the maxi-scooter market, a segment that's grown 65 percent in the last three years alone. Scooters in general are seeing an upswing in sales, with some suggesting the high cost of gasoline as a primary motivator, and Piaggio invited us on an overnight trip from New York City to the wilds of Connecticut to ride them.
MP3 400 - The Bigger Little Brother
The MP3 400 is the younger, stronger brother of the original 250cc model, boasting over 50 percent more power (34hp vs. 22.5hp) from the 398cc Master single-cylinder, four-stroke motor. The larger rear wheel, now 14 inches, helps accommodate the increased power and the increased avoirdupois, nearly 90 pounds gained in the transformation. The 400 retains many of the features that made the 250 a provocative scoot: euro-sedan styling, generous underseat storage, trunk with remote key release, and a well-finished, automotive-style dashboard. The two scooters are still strikingly similar, but a trained eye can spot the differences: the larger motor hanging on the rear swingarm, the slightly reduced storage space, and the subtle badging on the front shoulder.
MP3 500 - The Wild Child
The MP3 500 is another story entirely, the younger, even stronger brother with a nose ring and an attitude. Brash where the others are sleek, bold where the others are smooth, the 500 features a quartet of bug-eyed headlights peering over a black steel tube, metal-mesh snout and a low-slung matte flyscreen completes the picture, looking particularly menacing in "Demon Black." The only thing that betrays this wild child's lineage are the two front wheels.
Under the skin though, the 500 follows the same formula as its kin - a double cradle steel trellis frame connected to a twin steering tube, parallelogram, cantilevered front suspension and combined swingarm/engine rear. The motor is the 493cc Master single producing 40hp (6hp more than the 400). The 500 adopts the 14" wheel of the 400, and shares the same 538-pound dry weight. A twist-and-go automatic transmission transmits power on both models, and each one also has the clear dashboard, two-passenger stepped seat, and underseat storage with accessory power outlet. What's missing on the 500, however, is the trunk, replaced by a small rack suitable for a duffle or tail bag. Twin round red lights finish the rear, evoking afterburners or the taillights of the first generation Aprilia RSV Mille.
It's no accident that Piaggio's three three-wheelers share many qualities. All of them lean like motorcycles but take a little getting used to; but the short (5-minute) learning curve has more to do with perceptions than actual ability. If anything, the 2-wheeled front-end inspires a lot of confidence and smoothes out the cratered streets of New York. While you're on the MP3, potholes, tar snakes, and glossy manhole covers elicit little more than a nonchalant shrug, not two-wheeled panic. As one wheel is swallowed by a pothole, the suspension articulates, keeping the other wheel planted. And with twin 240mm disks applying the braking power through two contact patches, both scooters stop faster than a New York minute.
The MP3s are less successful handling road imperfections that affect both front wheels simultaneously. Speed bumps taken at speed, for example, will quickly consume the 85mm of unarticulated suspension travel in the front forks. The rear suspension lacks the magic carpet ride qualities of the front, and can quickly use up its 110mm of travel. Overall though, the MP3s possess the attributes that make two-wheeled scooters such great urban runabouts - the ability to squeeze through gaps and park in places where others do not dare - with the addition of confidence-inspiring handling.
Out on the Palisades Parkway, the 400 and 500 conduct themselves well, maintaining highway velocities without undue strain. Passing is possible but requires some planning. And though the 500 has a slight power advantage over the 400, the differences may only be noticeable when the models are ridden back to back.
Urban alacrity aside, the MP3s are most at home on rural roads, where the motors settle into the heart of their powerband, with the scooters turning in quickly and assertively, without fuss. This is maxi-scooter territory, and here the MP3s acquit themselves quite well.
One feature that continues to be an acquired taste is the suspension locking system. When parking, it can be used to lock the front suspension and prevent the scooter from falling over, making the sidestand unnecessary. It may also be engaged when stopping at a red light, allowing the rider to keep his feet on the floorboards. This turns the MP3 from a vehicle that leans into turns (like a motorcycle) to one that doesn't (like a car). When the light turns green, the scooter momentarily steers like a car until the engine reaches 2,000rpm, at which point the system unlocks and the scooter begins to countersteer. Sounds simple in theory but is more complex to master.
There are subtle differences between the two models. Maybe it's the aggressive design, maybe it's the low windscreen, but the MP3 500 certainly can goad one into more enthusiastic use of the throttle. It's difficult to explain why, but the front end of the 500 feels more planted in turns - another subtlety that riders may only notice when comparing the scooters back to back. And the motor, with just a little more power up top, gives the 500 a slightly harder edge to its character.
Back to the Future
As I'm returning to New York City the following morning, one of "New York's Finest" is on the side of the road in his squad car, intent on identifying and tracking lawbreakers great and small. His eyes are squarely affixed to the MP3 with a quizzical "What is that?" look as I pass. Minutes later he's on my six, and then on my four, taking long, hard stares at the vehicle before him. I've been through this drill countless times, so I maintain the speed limit, keep looking straight ahead, and hope that he goes away.
And then it dawns on me that I'm stuck on past modes of behavior while others, this cop included, think that they've just seen the future. In that future, gasoline is $ 5 and more per gallon and people are seriously thinking about other modes of transportation. More fuel-efficient than most cars and less intimidating than motorcycles, maxi-scooters fill a niche that should continue to experience significant growth. As Piaggio's intriguing entrants in this market, the MP3 models are unique and extremely entertaining - for both the rider and those who have close encounters (of the 3-wheeled kind) with them.