Scooting around the gas crunch

Harley-Davidson might be wishing it made a scooter about now. In fact, most motorcycle manufacturers without one in their lineups have got to be feeling the pain. Motorcycle sales are down this year.

Scooters: A review of the 2008 Kymco People 150 in Wednesday’s Highway 1 section said the scooter’s manufacturer was located in Korea. Kymco is based in Taiwan. Also, the miles-per-gallon figure in The Times’ test drive was wrongly listed as 93. The actual figure from the test drive was 58 MPG. —

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.

Kymco People 150: Best for . . . economical street commuting with a dash of zip.

Once again, the Vespa appears to be the design inspiration for the Korean manufacturer’s People 150. The housing for this air-cooled single is rounded, its coloring a pleasant sherbet green. The finish just isn’t as nice or as consistent as those of its competitors. Kymco has been selling scooters in the U.S. for eight years. It offers seven different model families and six different displacements, from 499 to 49 cc, but the scoots in its socialist-sounding People lineup are its bestsellers.

The People 150 had the best torque of the scooters I tested and a top speed of 70 mph. It’s a lot of fun to zip around city streets, and the suspension is top notch for its price.

At 152 cc, the People 150 is legal on the freeway, but I don’t recommend taking it there. I found it more than a little unsettling, especially on grooved pavement where the tires danced around trying to find their line. The People is equipped with large, 16-inch wheels front and back, but the tires’ treads are just one step up from a bicycle. Skinny.

So is the under-seat storage area, which was the smallest of the minis I tested. A half helmet or purse is pretty much all that will fit.

The Maxis: 400-650 cc

2008 Yamaha Majesty: Best for . . . living large while protecting the pocketbook.

The Majesty is the largest of Yamaha’s six scooters, which explains its name. But compared with the rest of the Japanese mega-scooters on the market, it’s a minimalist. The Majesty got the best mileage of the maxis I tested (60 mpg), and it was also the cheapest ($5,899).

At 395 cc, it was the smallest displacement of the three maxis. It wasn’t as quick off the line as its larger competitors, but I didn’t find it lacking for overall speed. The Majesty’s single cylinder cruised comfortably at 80 mph.

The main reason buyers choose a maxi over a mini is size and power. For one thing, their ride won’t be as easily dwarfed by surrounding traffic. And larger folk are more likely to gravitate toward a maxi because they won’t dwarf their ride. I found the Majesty’s cockpit to be spacious enough for my 34-inch-inseam legs, but of the maxis I tested it had the least legroom.

Storagewise, all three maxis offered comparable space; the Majesty’s 16-gallon, under-seat storage area was different in that it had two sections that flowed together rather than one cavernous space.

In its bargain-basement, stock version, the Majesty is a good, all-around, no-frills maxi-scooter. It can be souped up for touring or errand running with various after-market extras, but each accessory adds to the price.

Being Japanese, of course, those accessories don’t cost much. Adding a grocery-

capable top case, for example, will increase the Majesty’s price by $280, but still keep it almost $2,500 below the next-largest Japanese maxi on the market.

2008 Honda Silver Wing ABS: Best for . . . a safety-conscious and smooth ride.

With each bump up in displacement, maxi-scooters don’t just get a boost in power but a little more storage space and leg room, as well as a larger complement of features. Such was the case with the 582 cc Silver Wing, which was equipped with antilock brakes. In my opinion, the additional $500 premium for this safety feature is well worth the money since many people who are making the move to scooters may be new to two wheels.

I found the Silver Wing to be a great all-arounder. The 29.7-inch saddle was only marginally lower than the other maxis I tested, but it felt the shortest. And the suspension was the most adept at soaking up the bumps. It was well balanced and nimble enough for street commuting but also stable and comfortable at freeway speeds. I was especially impressed by the tall and narrow windshield, which flowed the air so I felt like I was getting a slight push from behind.

The down side to the added power and the additional bells and whistles of a larger maxi such as the Silver Wing is that you’re hauling some extra weight, which tends to reduce fuel efficiency. Even so, the Silver Wing’s fuel economy was a respectable 46 mpg.

No luggage is available for the Silver Wing, but there’s about 15 gallons of roomy, under-seat storage and a pair of cubbies in the front shield.

2008 Suzuki Burgman 650 Executive: Best for . . . the comforts of a car on two wheels.

Suzuki’s Burgman 650 Executive is the car of maxi-scooters. The 638-cc scoot isn’t just the biggest of the big. It’s the most plush of the maxis on the market. In fact, there are so many stock extras on the Executive that it practically drives itself.

The Burgman Executive costs $400 more than the Silver Wing with ABS, but you get a lot more for that money. ABS is a stock feature, as are retractable mirrors, an electronically adjustable windshield, hazard lights, a 12-volt DC outlet and a switch that allows the rider to toggle between an automatic or manual transmission.

One of the more intriguing features on the Executive was the “power” button, which helps boost the Burgman under heavy loads. While I never carried enough stuff to warrant using it, I just liked knowing I could press a button called “power” and get some.

Already, the Burgman had the most torque on takeoff of the maxis I tested. It also had more legroom than the Majesty or Silver Wing, though it was about equal in storage space.

Fuel-economywise, I found the Burgman got even better mileage than Suzuki’s claim of 39 mpg. I rode it 236 miles and got 54, probably because most of my miles were on the freeway, which is the best place for the Burgman.

Riding it as an errand runner, its many features feel like overkill. But give me a Road Atlas and a week off from work, and I’d gladly take the Burgman Executive cross-country.

2008 Vespa SStyle to burn and freeway capableBase price: $4,199Powertrain: Air-cooled, carbureted, SOHC, four-stroke, single-cylinder, two valves per cylinderSeat height: 30.9 inchesDry weight: 243 pounds;Manufacturer’s MPG: 72; our MPG: 67 (based on 89 miles)

2008 Yamaha VinoLow cost and fuel efficientBase price: $2,699Powertrain: Air-cooled, carbureted, SOHC, four-stroke, single-cylinderSeat height: 29.9 inchesDry weight: 229 poundsManufacturer’s MPG: 96; our MPG: 78 (based on 125 miles)

2008 Kymco People 150Great price and good giddyap on city streetsBase price: $2,799Powertrain: Air-cooled, carbureted, SOHC, four-stroke, single-cylinderSeat height: 31 inchesDry weight: 245 poundsManufacturer’s MPG: 75;our MPG: 58 mpg (based on 75 miles)

2008 Yamaha MajestyHigh mileage, low cost, minimalist to the maxBase price: $5,899Powertrain: Fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, single-cylinder, DOHC, four valves per cylinderSeat height: 30 inchesDry weight: 432 poundsManufacturer’s MPG: 51;our MPG: 60 (based on 215 miles)

2008 Honda Silver Wing ABSA safety-conscious jack-of-all-tradesBase price: $8,599Powertrain: fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, four-stroke parallel twin, DOHC, four valves per cylinderSeat height: 29.7 inchesCurb weight: 551 poundsManufacturer’s MPG: not available; our MPG: 47 (based on 222 miles)

2008 Suzuki Burgman 650 ExecutiveCar comforts -- on two wheelsBase price: $8,999Powertrain: Fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, twin-cylinder, DOHC, four valves per cylinderSeat height: 29.5 inchesDry weight: 518 poundsManufacturer’s MPG: 38; our MPG: 53 (based on 236 miles traveled)