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Guide to Motor Scooters

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By hess83704
June 13, 2008

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I have had a number of scooters over the last decade, and I will try to give some insight into them for the folks not fully exposed to them.

By legal definition, a scooter is a motor vehicle with a step through frame and an automatic transmission; as opposed to a motorcycle, which has a straddle frame and a manual transmission.

Originally intended for single person transport at relatively low speeds in Europe, they have grown up since the 1980s to be direct competition to motorcycles for legal reasons in the EU. A motorcycle is more complex to operate, and a motorcycle license is difficult and expensive to obtain in some countries. Scooters are less complex to operate, and scooter licenses are easier and cheaper to obtain. The law in some EU countries has not kept pace with engine/transmission developments. Consequently, you can get something that behaves very much like a full blown motorcycle in scooter specs. The larger scooters (400cc and up) are safe to run on the Autobahn.

Scooters range in engine size from 33 cc to 650 cc in the US. Typical engine steps and top speeds are:

33cc - 20 MPH (usually a 2 cycle, very polluting)
49cc - 35 MPH (note, in many US states, this is the largest engine you can have without getting it titled and registered; and likely a 2 cycle)
80cc - 45 MPH (usually must be titled and registered)
100cc - 50 MPH
150cc - 55 MPH
250cc - 65 MPH (OK for freeway use)
400cc - 90 MPH (great for Freeway use)
650cc - 110 MPH

I've owned 150cc, 250cc, 400cc, and 650cc units. My 650cc gets 42 MPG and is emission checked (not *tested*, just checked - I don't get my registration pulled if I fail a check). All of the 150cc plus units and about half of the 80cc units are 4 cycle, which means they burn only gasoline, and although they do not have a catalytic converter, they do burn relatively cleanly due to electronic ignition (some of the older units from the 1980s I've had use a carburetor - not as nice emission-wise as FI, but not as disastrous as a 2 cycle engine, which burns gasoline and oil mixed together).

Basically, you need a 250cc or better to get on a freeway in the US. Anything smaller is for in town use only from a safety standpoint. On the other hand a 400 or 650 is a kick to ride, economical (my wife gets 55 MPG on her 400cc Suzuki, and we got 70 MPG on the 250cc), and can go with any flow. The 400cc and 650cc units are referred to as "maxi-scooters". They can transport two people and are "cushy" to ride.

The automatic transmissions work great, and provide maximum power when needed and maximum fuel economy the rest of the time. They are CVT trannys, using a belt (go look it up if your are interested in the technical details). Replacement belts are required every ~15K miles or so, and the cost is about $40.00. Interestingly, a 650cc with an automatic tranny can take a 1,000cc with a manual tranny off the line all day long. It gets the attention of the Harley-Davidson crowd.

You *DO* need a helmet, gloves, a riding jacket, good shoes, etc. to ride safely. I am a great operator of my two-wheeled scoot. The problem is that not everyone else is a great driver. As a friend of mine says, "expect anyone on the road with you to decide randomly and without warning to try to kill you, and you'll do fine". By this, he means do not assume that you have been seen by others or that they are sober, etc. I would also strongly suggest that you take a motorcycle rider safety course (it's called STARS here in Idaho).

Costs have been very low. I'll point out that not only do you save on fuel, but you also save on oil changes (I do my own - it takes less than 1 qt of oil and a $5.00 filter). Tires are about $80 per wheel, but I only have 2 of them to replace. Insurance depends on engine size, and for me with a clean driving record runs about $200 per year. If you are handy with tools, maintenance is a snap, and the parts prices are very reasonable.

I picked up my 2003 Suzuki Burgman 650 for $4,500 used with 600 miles on it in 2005. Retail new is ~$8,000. You can find great deals on a 400cc just about anywhere. If you don't like Suzuki, you can also look at Yamaha's Morphous line, and then there's Honda's Silverwing family, and the Aprila family. I'm looking forward to the day when A US COMPANY (HINT, HINT, Indian, Harley Davidson, etc.) come out with a maxi-scooter.

Scooting is not for everyone. But as an almost 50 year old guy, I enjoy getting out on the road with the younger motorcycle riders (and keeping up with them!), saving some real scratch (our next best vehicle is a 1979 Mercedes Benz which gets 28MPG on Diesel), and seeing the world. You can always start small (say a 150cc or a 250cc) and go up if you have a greater need or find you really enjoy it so much you want a bit more of the "touring" feel.

Safe riding,