Breaking the Mold
The view from the top of the "steepest road in Texas" is, well, OK. San Antonio lies out there somewhere in the hazy distance, as an early October sun pegs the thermostat at 90+ degrees. Riders from similarly "mountainous" states - like Kansas and Delaware - may be impressed, but as soon as I've chugged down a bottle of water, I'm ready to go.
The ride down is revealing as I'm on the throttle, plunging down the steep road, braking hard to scrub speed, flicking right, leaning deeply, and rolling-on past the apex to pursue the leading Moto Guzzi. In games of "cat and Guzzi," confidence is key - in your abilities and in your machine. Today, I'm astride Piaggio's latest, a scooter with one big trick up its sleeve: a third wheel that provides one more contact patch, one more disc brake, and one more reason to lean into that next turn with confidence. Piaggio hopes to catch the eye of new and seasoned riders alike with this three-wheeler (called the MP3 in Europe but, as of this writing, without a final U.S. name). Piaggio believes that three wheels will offer a sense of stability to those people curious about scooters but uncertain about their own ability to keep one upright. If the reaction at the press launch in San Antonio and the online buzz that it has created are any indication, they may be onto something.
The buzz starts with the look, which is one part maxi scooter and two parts European subcompact. Twin headlights stand guard from atop an inverted trapezoidal grill, as black-edged fenders incorporating the turn signals arch over the front tires. The look flows to the rear in a series of taut, tensioned surfaces, terminating in a curt trunk that incorporates a pair of integrated taillights and passenger grab handles. The trunk is one way to gain access to an underseat storage area that's large enough for a laptop bag, a full-face helmet, or a couple of half helmets. Like the original Vespa and the iPod, the scooter has an approachable chic aesthetic.
In a departure from other three-wheeled scooters (remember the Honda Gyro?), Piaggio designers placed two wheels at the front and one in the rear. Unlike the more common Gold Wing and cruiser trikes, this model counter-steers into turns like a two-wheeled vehicle.
The front end consists of twin 120/70 12" front wheels, each with a 240mm disc brake. Each wheel is attached to a leading link, single-sided front fork, in turn attached to cast-aluminum control arms (similar to the suspension arms of an open-wheeled racecar). The control arms meet via pin and ball bearings at the steering axis. This entire system provides 3.35 inches of travel and a lean angle of 40 degrees. Think about it this way: stand with your arms at your side and imagine holding a 12" wheel in each hand. Now grow a handlebar mustache. If you were a scooter, your arms would be the forks, your shoulders the control arms, your neck the steering axis, and your handlebar mustache the handlebar. Place your hands on a table (representing the road) and rock left and right. Now you're leaning - and learning!
Most intriguing is the unique system that enables you to wait at a stoplight without putting your feet down, or to park without the use of a sidestand or centerstand. A switch on the right handlebar activates an electro-hydraulic suspension locking system that freezes the components that enable the front to lean. The system can only be activated while the scooter is on and at a standstill or walking pace, and is accompanied by a steady amber light on the dashboard and an audible beep. The locking system deactivates under two circumstances: when the scooter has accelerated beyond a walking pace, or when the motor is revved beyond 2,500rpm.
This innovative front-end is connected to a traditional rear-end via a steel-tube frame. Like the very first Vespas, the motor is attached to the rear swing-arm, which holds a single 130/70 12" wheel and 240mm rear disc brake. The scooter will be available in 125cc and 250cc displacements when launched, and there are rumors of a possible model with a larger engine (maybe 400cc). The 22hp, 250cc single-cylinder, four-stroke was available during the launch and gets nearly 60mpg from the low-mounted 3.2 gallon tank. A brake, activated by one of the most elegant parking-brake handles ever devised, prevents the scooter from rolling when parked.
All of this innovation adds up - the bike weighs a hair under 450 pounds.
It's hard to form a complete picture of a bike after just a day's ride, but one word keeps rising to the surface when talking about the Piaggio: stable. Whether puttering along at a walking pace or at top speed on the highway, the scooter just flat sticks to the road. At no point during the day did the front-end feel unsettled, even after repeated attempts to make it do just that: not repeated heavy braking that had the front tires squealing in protest; not front braking while leaned over; not riding over large paint stripes with the rear tire struggling for traction; not while pushing the 250cc motor to the limit of its performance ability. This stability is combined with agility befitting a 12" wheeled scooter, and the Piaggio changes direction with ease. Much of the day was spent turning with a late braking, late apexing style that emphasized quick reflexes and grin-inducing lean angles. The extra contact patch also helps braking - Piaggio claims a 30 percent improvement.
One feature that creates repeated confusion is that unusual suspension locking system. Learning to use the system to stop at a light without putting my feet down proved challenging and unnerving. If activated while rolling to a stop, the scooter switches instantaneously from counter-steering to steering more like a trike, causing the scooter to head off in an unintended direction more than once and requiring corrective steering input.
Similarly, slowly rolling forward or revving the motor with the brake on can deactivate the suspension locking system. Until familiar with the system, this can come as a surprise and start the scooter leaning over unexpectedly. My advice to new riders: put your feet down at lights - you have enough to think about.
In 1946, Enrico Piaggio asked Corradino D'Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer, to design an economical, comfortable, and elegant two-wheeled vehicle to satisfy the transportation needs of post-war Italy. While others might have based the design on a motorcycle, D'Ascanio did not. He hated motorcycles - he found them bulky, uncomfortable, and with messy drivetrains. Instead, he threw away conventional wisdom and applied his unique perspective to the challenge. The result was the first Vespa, a design that, like the original Mini and Beetle, redefined mobility for the masses.
Piaggio is clearly trying to channel the innovative, out-of-the-helmet thinking that begat the first Vespa in the creation of this new scooter. It's too early to tell if, in the next sixty years of their history, this three-wheeler will be remembered as a design icon or historical footnote. Sales projections, understandably, are very conservative. But even now, Piaggio should be given credit for challenging our preconceived notions as to what a scooter is. After all, they wrote the book on scooters, and have as much a right as anyone to throw that book away.