Last year, sales of motor scooters and small motorcycles skyrocketed as consumers went looking for economical transportation. Readers, too, have been clamoring for information, so we decided to conduct our first evaluation of two-wheelers since 1981.
We tested six scooters and two similarly priced, entry-level motorcycles and found that their fuel economy is impressive, ranging from 60 to 100 mpg at a steady cruise. The prices are also attractive, ranging from less than $1,000 to $4,400. And the best are fun to ride.
But the most fuel-efficient scooters can be ridden only up to about 35 to 40 mph, and no scooter with less than a 250cc engine is suitable for freeways. Only two scooters had better gas mileage than a Toyota Prius in city driving. Carrying capacity is very limited. And weather and road conditions greatly impact the riding experience.
There's a high probability of serious injury with motorcycles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2006 motorcyclists were about 37 times more likely to die in a crash per driven mile than someone riding in a passenger car.
Novices will find scooters easier to ride than motorcycles. They're simpler to get on and off, the riding position is similar to sitting in a chair, and their transmissions don't have to be shifted manually.
We tested two groups of scooters. One group included three entry-level models (available to subscribers) with small 50cc engines: the Honda Ruckus, the Motorino Allegro from China, and the Vespa LX 50 from Italy. Prices ranged from $995 to $3,299. With limited power, those models are easy to handle and are among the least expensive. And in some states, they don't require licensing.
The other group (available to subscribers) included three models with 125cc to 150cc engines: the Kymco People 150 from Taiwan, the Yamaha Vino 125, and the Vespa LX 150. They have more reserve power and higher top speeds, which benefit them in traffic. Prices ranged from $2,799 to $4,399.
Our two motorcycles (available to subscribers), the Honda Rebel and Kawasaki Ninja, have more powerful 250cc engines, making them suitable for highway riding. But their manual transmissions and higher performance require more skill to handle well. They also sacrifice practicality by having no storage. Prices were $3,399 and $3,999, respectively.
Scooters and motorcycles require different skills to operate than cars and provide nowhere near the safety of even the smallest car. But they can be a fun and fuel-efficient way to get around town when weather permits. Parking is easy, and gas mileage is far better than that of most cars. To minimize risk, professional instruction is a must for new riders, as is protective gear. Registration and licensing laws vary by state, so check before buying. Also, make sure parts and service are easily available.