The first time I rode a scooter, I thought I was going to die. It was midnight in Cambodia, and, as a last resort, I had hired a mototaxi to take me to a hotel. I clambered up behind the driver, and we lurched disconcertingly out of the parking lot, but as soon as we hit the main drag, I knew I wanted a scooter of my own. Riding a scooter felt windy and serene, like coasting downhill on a 10-speed. I had found my vehicular match.
Deciding to buy a scooter was easy. Buying one was not. Americans are becoming very good at purchasing scooters—sales rose 580 percent between 1997 and 2002—but the American scooter dealer is still pretty bad at selling them. On an initial Google search, novice shoppers will find a range of models advertised primarily on shoddy mom-'n'-pop Web sites and may not find links to local dealerships at all. It's not easy to figure out which scooters are locally available, much less which ones are any good.
Then there's the biggest problem: A lot of dealers sell scooters the way one might sell a toothbrush or a set of racy lingerie. You're welcome to look at the bikes, even touch them, but you won't get to take one out for a trial run. At one point, when I was looking to buy a scooter, I became so desperate that, seeing a model I was interested in on the street, I scrawled a slightly crazed Post-It note begging the owner to e-mail me and tell me how the scooter handled. (He never contacted me—not that I blame him.)
If you hope to do more with your scooter than caress it—if, say, you might like to drive it around—keep reading. I've chosen seven scooters from major makers, persuaded local dealers to let me take them out for test drives (by arguing that the ensuing article would be good publicity), and assessed how they handle. I've also checked my teeth in their rearview mirrors; tried to fit helmets in their under-seat compartments; evaluated their style, comfort, and price; and finally, ranked the lot from worst to first.
Still, before you buy a scooter, you might have a few questions, such as:
Should I look into vintage scooters?
Not unless you hope to win points for coolness, in which case you should go buy a used Vespa or Lambretta and smoke while leaning against it. But know that such a purchase will likely require a serious commitment of time. Older models don't always arrive ready to ride, and their owners expend a lot of energy changing spark plugs and trolling Internet chat rooms on epic hunts for spare parts. If you need a hobby and enjoy such tinkering, check out the bulletin boards on twostrokesmoke.com. But if you're looking primarily for a reliable mode of transportation, you're better off with a new scooter. Old-school aficionados may sneer, but the new models discussed below are reliable and plenty stylish.
Are those things legal?
Yes, but the laws governing scooters vary from state to state. In most places, scooters with small engines—like the under-50 CC models I've tested below—are considered mopeds, so you need only to register your ride and get some insurance. ("CC" stands for cubic centimeters; the figure refers to the total volume displaced by pistons in an engine's cylinders.) In some states, however, the models below are considered motorcycles, so you'll need to get a motorcycle license. It's best to call your local DMV for guidance. But beware—since the swarm of scooters on city streets is a relatively recent phenomenon, some DMV workers may not be up to speed on scooter law. (This dated site records the motley results of scooter riders' efforts to gather such info state by state.) Local scooter dealerships are often the most informed.
How fast do they go?
Speed depends on the model, but the ballpark figure is 25 to 40 mph. City streets? Yes. Suburban thoroughfares? Sure, if the traffic's moving about 30. Highways? Hell, no. (Do note that if you already have a motorcycle license, or don't mind the hassle of getting one, a few of the manufacturers I mention below—including Vespa and Aprilia—also make 150 CC models, which do about 60 mph. Another brand I've heard good things about is Bajaj, an Indian company that sells the 150 CC Chetak, one of the few models that boasts a manual shift.)
Are they safe to ride?
Not very. As far as I know, no one has conducted studies on scooter safety. But one in 13 U.S. road fatalities is a motorcycle rider, and a scooter affords no more protection than your average Harley. (Though certainly it can't go as fast.) Some moms—even the moms of hardened journalists testing scooters for Slate readers—have been known to freak out. It would be stupid to ride one without wearing a full-face helmet.
Won't it get stolen?
Quite possibly. Anecdotally, anyway, scooter theft is unnervingly common; one afternoon at a local dealership, I met three people who'd had scooters stolen. When I asked a salesman at a local Vespa store about the best way to keep a scooter from getting hauled off by bandits, he walked me over to a Kryptonite lock. It was just like one of those Teflon-sheathed chains you might use for your 10-speed, except it was the approximate length and girth of a boa constrictor. "Good for locking up your scoot, but also handy in the bedroom," Mr. Vespa said. When pressed about the likelihood of someone stealing your unlocked Vespa while the chain was otherwise engaged, Mr. Vespa gave the bike's haunch a good slap and said, "Hell, bring the scooter in there, too. Imagine the possibilities."
Forthwith, the test drives. When I took each scooter out for a spin, I sought to answer the following questions and rated the models accordingly:
1) Do I feel like I'm going to die? In other words, how does it handle? Is it nimble and quick? Does it turn easily? Are the rearview mirrors adjustable? Is the speedometer easy to read? Does the turn signal make a satisfying clicking sound? (This is more useful than you might expect: Scooter turn signals don't shut off automatically, so you have to remember to do it yourself.) I rated handling, the most important factor, on a scale of 1-50.
2)How fast does it go? I ascertained each scooter's top speed on straight-aways and hills. I rated speed by awarding each scooter as many points as its top mph on flat terrain. (So a scooter that can't top 25 mph gets only 25 points.)
3) Do I look like James Gandolfini? This spring, US Weekly ran a photo of the portly actor astride a Vespa. The scooter was too small for him: His legs splayed out sideways, and it seemed like the handlebars would hit his knees when he turned. He looked stupid. I am 6 feet tall and a woman, and though I'm not frequently told I resemble Tony Soprano, I did find that many of the scooters I tried seemed designed for a person no taller than 5-foot-6 or so. Uncomfortable. Unsafe. Unsightly. I rated comfort on a scale of 1-10.
4) Could I use it for grocery shopping? Can I fit shopping bags in the under-seat compartment? How about a full-face helmet? I rated storage by awarding 10 points to every scooter that could fit a full-face helmet.
5)Could I take a friend out for ice cream? This comes down to two factors—does the seat have room for two, and is the scooter powerful enough to handle that much cargo? I rated capacity by awarding 10 points to every scooter that could carry a passenger.
6)How "manly" is it? One of the scooter shoppers I met, a frat-boy type in flip-flops, kept asking me whether I thought various models were "manly" enough. His question highlights a crucial schism in modern scooter design. The scooters below come in two distinct styles: swishy-princess scooters modeled on the stylish lines of classic Vespas and delivery-man scooters resembling the models that city-dwelling pizza guys frequently tool around on. Mr. Flip-Flops thought the latter more manly. I think both are cool. (As a result, I awarded no points in this category, but I did take good notes.)
7)How much does it cost? I rated value by giving 20 points to scooters that cost less than $2,000, 10 points to scooters that cost less than $2,500, and zero points to any more expensive models.
With these criteria in mind, I present the Best Scooters, ranked from worst to first:
Honda Metropolitan II
Manufacturer suggested retail price: $1,699.
This two-bit scooter has a cheap price tag and alluring iMac styling. (Check out the rounded shape, white trim, and vivid color choices shown here.) But don't be fooled! The cute Metropolitan failed all tests. For me at least, it was way too small: Riding it, I felt like Abraham Lincoln on a tricycle. And no way could a friend ride with you. Its top speed was 25 mph (and a snail-worthy 18 on hills!), and it accelerated so slowly, I felt unsafe. (One mechanic blamed the Metropolitan's notably quiet four-stroke engine; the other scooters I rode have two-stroke engines, which provide more power but also make a bit more noise.) Plus, the Metropolitan has chintzy drum brakes on both wheels. (Disc brakes, which the other scooters here all use, are considered much more reliable.) The Metropolitan does, however, boast a roomy under-seat compartment big enough for a full-face helmet. Basically, a very expensive hatbox.
Handling: 20; Speed: 25; Comfort: 2; Storage: 10; Capacity: 0; Value: 20.
Aprilia Scarabeo 50
The Scarabeo's biggest drawback: no kick-start. (All the other scooters I tested have kick-starts, so if the electric starter fails on a wintry morning, there's a manual way to get the motor running.) If you live north of the Mason-Dixon and don't have a garage, don't buy the Scarabeo. Otherwise, it's a luxe, tricked-out scooter that handles nicely and seats two. The acceleration is smooth, and I was able to hit a bit over 30 mph on flat roads and a solid 25 on hills. But there's another drawback: no under-seat compartment. (Though as is true with most of these models, you can buy a storage box and attach it to the back of the seat.) Plus, it's pricey! This is a perfectly good scooter, but I don't think it offers any real advantages over the cheaper Kymco People and Malaguti Ciak.
Handling: 40; Speed: 30; Comfort: 10; Storage: 0; Capacity: 10; Value: 10.
Total: 100. Minus 20 points for having no kick-start. Revised total: 80.
Kymco People 50
This Taiwanese scooter is cheap and popular, probably because its curvy retro design is overwhelmingly cute. (Click here to see a picture; to me, this scooter looks like one you might ride over to the soda fountain before heading to the sock-hop.) Its turn signal also emits satisfying clicks. Speed-wise, it's consistent with the Scarabeo, although when I accelerated, it occasionally felt jerky. Still, it's a one-seater, and its under-seat compartment is small. If you plan to ride alone, though, this is a good buy.
Handling: 40; Speed: 30; Comfort: 10; Storage: 0; Capacity: 0; Value: 10.
Derbi Atlantis Wave
The Atlantis I rode had the words "ultra fun for city surfers" stenciled on its side. So far as I know, I've never met any "city surfers," but I can report that their vehicle of choice is not particularly comfortable: The handlebars of this scooter kept hitting my knees. (Though to be fair, the Atlantis Wave is not nearly as small or awkward-feeling as the puny Metropolitan.) Another flaw: The poorly designed dashboard speedometer is hard to read—it forgoes the familiar dial for a disconcerting linear design. And yet the Atlantis is not without merits. This two-seater hit 30 mph on level roads (I wasn't able to test it out on a hill because there were none near the dealership), and you can fit a full-face helmet in its under-seat compartment. But it's still more expensive than the faster, more comfortable Zuma, so it lands at No. 4.
Handling: 30; Speed: 30; Comfort: 6; Storage: 10; Capacity: 10; Value: 10.
Malaguti Ciak 50
This is the scooter I bought—before I began researching other scooters. It was a bit like marrying my dumpy high-school sweetheart just before realizing that I could do better and should probably have slept around a bit before settling down. I'm happy to announce that I've now slept around, and I'd still marry this Malaguti. It's very similar to the Kymco People but offers a few advantages: Its seat is comfy and big enough for two, and it has a larger under-seat compartment. (Although neither fits a full-face helmet.) It's worth noting that the lovely folks from Kymco will sell you a passenger seat for an additional $100 or so. Which basically means it's a draw, and you could decide between these two models on aesthetics alone. I think the Ciak's sleek lines are more elegant and find the People's over-the-top retro cuteness a bit cloying. But that's just me.
Handling: 40; Speed: 30; Comfort: 10; Storage: 0; Capacity: 10; Value: 10.
The classic ET2 costs $500 more than the other models I surveyed. Is it worth the money? For me, no. For you, maybe. For the extra $500 you get: a powerful engine, a steel frame instead of a plastic one, and the cachet of the classic brand. Engine first: A scooter's speed is determined by its engine size (50 CC for all these models) and its horsepower. At 5.1 HP, the ET2 has more than some of other bikes I tried. This translates into greater speed—the ET2 goes 45 mph on straight-aways, 35 mph on hills. As for the steel frame, it's a toss-up. Vespa proponents argue that it's sturdier and more durable, which they say means you'll have the scooter for 40 years. But riders who prefer Vespa knockoffs note that fixing dents in your Vespa's steel frame requires expensive body work and that it can be cheaper to replace busted plastic frames on less expensive models. If money is no object, or you want to buy an heirloom, the Vespa is your bike. But if you're looking for a less expensive way to get around, I think the Zuma and the Ciak are better options.
Handling: 40; Speed: 45; Comfort: 10; Storage: 10; Capacity: 10; Value: 0.
If I were going to cheat on my scooter, this is the one I'd proposition. It's no looker—note the goofy double headlight and pizza-delivery stylings—but it was very fun to drive. With the exception of the venerable Vespa itself, the aptly named Zuma was faster than any other scooter I drove, hitting 40 mph on straight-aways and 30 on steep hills. The bike feels stable and handles corners nimbly. Plus, the scooter's angled face didn't even hit my knees—though it might have presented problems for leggy riders over 6-foot-2. The under-seat compartment also holds a full-face helmet, and the bike seats two. If you're out for a bargain and don't mind the slightly google-eyed appearance, this is your ride.
Handling: 45; Speed: 40; Comfort: 8; Storage: 10; Capacity: 10; Value: 20.
Thanks to Scott Vermeire of Scoot! Quarterly—a useful scooter magazine—who offered good advice for novice scooter shoppers, and to Coleman Power Sports in Falls Church, Va., Mopeds MPG in Falls Church, and Vespa Washington in Washington, D.C., all of whom generously allowed me to use their vehicles for test drives.