FOR THE RECORD:
Scooters, on the other hand, are selling as fast as their little wheels can carry them from showroom floors. Sales have jumped 23.6% in the first quarter of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007, and they're likely to continue their quick and upward trajectory.
Daily headlines and the signs at your nearest Chevron already give the reason, but I'll spell it out: G-A-S. Depending on the displacement, a scooter gets between 40 and 120 miles per gallon, compared with 27.5 mpg for the average car and about 50 for a motorcycle.
I thought I'd sample the lower and upper ends of the displacement range to show the breadth of the segment. With scooter sales so strongly tied to gas prices, I chose the 125-150 cc class for its fuel efficiency, price and speed, which is fast enough to keep up with city traffic, and the 400-650 cc "maxis," because even the largest of the large are more fuel efficient than most cars or motorcycles.
The Minis: 125-150 cc
2008 Vespa S: Best for . . . saving money with style.
Legacy brands have a habit of ripping themselves off. They have the luxury of delving deep into their own histories to develop new models, so they do, which is the case with the Vespa S. The minimalist 150 cc scoot, with its rectangular headlight and mirrors and piping-trimmed saddle, harks back to its Vespa Special and Primavera models of the '70s, only it's outfitted with a bigger motor and technology that brings it into the 21st century.
Vespa claims a maximum speed of 59 mph. I got the S up to 72, but, like all the minis I tested, that was hard to maintain without some positive thinking and a tailwind because a bike this small is so susceptible to winds and inclines. Even so, the Vespa S was the only one of the minis I tested that I felt even moderately comfortable riding on the freeway, which is legal on scooters 150 cc and up. I just needed to stay in the right lanes.
Riding a 150 on the freeway isn't my idea of a good time, but it's nice to have the option of doing it, and the Vespa's high-speed handling put me somewhat at ease. Part of my comfort, if you can call it that, was due to the scoot's wheels, which are puny in diameter but wide in tread to help stabilize the S at high speeds. The suspension, which uses double-acting hydraulic shocks front and back and adjusts for preload, was also plush enough that I wasn't bouncing out of the saddle whenever I ran through a rut.
Almost everything about the S is a cut above, from the performance enhancements offered by its steel monocoque frame to its style and storage components, such as the coil-exposing mudguard and under-seat area that's roomy enough to hold a full-face helmet.
The Vespa S costs quite a bit more than its competition, but it's still a reasonable $4,199 -- an investment that will pay off in the short term with 70-ish mpg as gas prices spiral out of control and over the long haul since Vespas tend to hold their value.
2008 Yamaha Vino: Best for . . . no-frills, fuel-efficient street commuting.
It's clear from looking at the Vino's lines or even just acknowledging its vintner's name what the Japanese Vino aspires to be, but nobody's fooled. The Vino's style is classic, chromed and simple, but it doesn't inspire smiles like the Vespa. At least it doesn't inspire smiles from strangers. Riders, however, are likely to be grinning on the inside as they gas up the Vino, which got about 80 mpg per my test.
Twenty-six cc's smaller in displacement than the Vespa S, the Vino features many of the same engine enhancements, such as forced-air cooling to help prolong the scooter's life.
My top speed on the Vino was 60 mph, which, like the Vespa, was difficult to maintain but not as imperative because the Vino isn't freeway legal. Riding city streets, I found it had enough speed and power off the line to keep speed with surrounding cars.
The Vino weighs the least and has the shortest saddle of the scooters I tested, which is nice for the vertically challenged. It's also the only scooter from a major manufacturer in this class that's capable of carrying a passenger, though the seat is a bit small to carry two comfortably. Cargo is all I wanted to carry on the Vino, which has a small luggage rack and an under-seat storage bin that's large enough to fit a full-face helmet.
Where the Vino really shines is economy for its class. Of the minis I tested, it's the least expensive, which may be why it's the bestselling model in Yamaha's scooter lineup.