Vectrix electric scooter: Just in the nick of time

With interest in alternative-energy vehicles reaching an unprecedented fever pitch, Vectrix couldn't have timed its arrival any more perfectly. Its new Vectrix Maxi Scooter, which has been in the works for more than 10 years, was approved for sale in California just last week and is now officially on the market.

Cue excited screams here.

In San Francisco, where I had the chance to ride the Vectrix for a day, people were so giddy to see this highly anticipated scooter in action that they practically clapped when I rode by. For the most part, I agree: The Vectrix is worthy of applause.

At first glance, it looks like your average, all-angles maxi scooter, but take a closer look: There's no tailpipe. Turn it on, and it's virtually silent. That's because the Vectrix is powered by a 125-volt pack of nickel metal hydride batteries that charge with a three-pronged power chord coiled under the seat.

The Vectrix is electric, so it doesn't have an exact corollary in the gas-powered scooter world. Its weight (462 pounds) and profile (large) are similar to a 400 cc machine, but its freeway-legal maximum speed (62 mph) is similar to that of a 150 cc.

Where it's truly unparalleled, however, is acceleration. The Vectrix is faster off the line than any scooter I've ridden and experiences almost no power loss under load. Riding it up and over San Francisco's multitudinous roller-coaster hills, it didn't strain.

Vectrix isn't citing a maximum load capacity. Its spokesperson would say only that it can carry a pair of 250-pound linebackers without busting the Sachs shock and Marzocchi telescopic fork. Why does the company know this? Because an East Coast police force was testing the Vectrix for a possible fleet buy and put two of its doughnut-eating finest on a single scooter.

To say people are hungry for a product like this is an epic understatement. As Toyota has proven with its Prius, they are ravenous.

Within 24 hours of Vectrix's West Coast debut at a daylong consumer test ride event in San Francisco last week, the company had "lots of orders," even though the Vectrix costs twice as much as a regular scooter -- $11,000.

Whether Vectrix can meet demand remains to be seen. Vectrix, based in Newport, R.I., won't say how many scooters it's making or selling. More accurately, it isn't allowed to say. Vectrix is legally prohibited from revealing production and sales numbers because the company is publicly owned and traded on the London AIM stock exchange and rules prohibit that disclosure until May.

Everything about the Vectrix is a bit unconventional. Not only is it coming from a barely there state that isn't known for two wheels, its scooters are built in Poland, 500 miles from the company's primary market, Italy.

In California, which Vectrix expects to be its largest U.S. market, there is only one brick-and-mortar dealer -- an automotive outfit in the Bay Area called British Motor Cars. Anyone in the L.A. area who wants to take a test ride or who buys one and later needs service has to call a toll-free number [(877) 832-8749], and Vectrix will come to them with what it's calling VIP Direct Service.

The new Vectrix scooter is such a high-interest product and so new to the market that Vectrix's VIP treatment wasn't available to me. I had to go to them, where a barely ridden scooter was ready and waiting -- with a significantly lower range of travel off a single charge than the company has been billing. Vectrix claims a maximum range of 68 miles at a sustained 25 mph on a full charge, but: 1) that doesn't reflect reality because people don't ride that way, and 2) that can only happen once the bike has been conditioned with three full charges. Mine had been charged only once, so its estimated range was lower: just 45 miles, according to the digital dash.

There is something comforting and unsettling about knowing how far I could travel before needing to plug in. On the up side, it was empowering to be given a specific number of miles. But on the down side, it felt like I was constantly running on empty because the bike's range is so much more limited than it is with a typical car, motorcycle or scooter.

The best way to use the Vectrix is commuting to a destination where you'll be staying a while and are guaranteed a power source at the other end.

The Vectrix takes three hours to fully charge but can be charged 80% in two hours. Using the scooter's throttle to brake (instead of the lever-actuated front and rear discs on the wheels) can also add to the batteries' life.

One of my favorite parts of the Vectrix is its patented multi-function throttle, which operates like a traditional throttle and then some. Rolling the throttle beyond the closed position -- backward, essentially -- does two things. When stopped, it puts the bike in slow-speed reverse, so I could park the scooter nose in and down sloped at a curb and still get out. In motion, the same movement can also slow the bike. I found that over-closing the throttle was easier than squeezing the brakes; it also slowed the Vectrix faster than the Brembo brakes and helped recharge the batteries by as much as 12%.

The Vectrix's batteries account for a lot of the scooter's weight, but they're low and centralized, and the scooter is otherwise well balanced. The only time I was aware of the scooter's heft was on that wind tunnel otherwise known as the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was a good thing because the Vectrix held its own. Wheeling through congested city traffic, I was oblivious to its gastronomic proportions because the handling is so nimble.

For a scooter targeting Europeans, the Vectrix is more Japanese than Italian in its looks. Its body work is futuristic, silver and, in some places, a little chintzy -- most likely to stop the price from getting entirely out of hand.

The lower body panels on the Vectrix I was riding were a different color gray than the uppers, and some of the chrome looked cheap and prone to chipping.

But my biggest issues with the Vectrix were its range and the steep price, even if it is justified. Not only is Vectrix a new company, the Maxi Scooter is its first product. Considering the level of interest, it's probably safe to say this electric scooter won't be its last.