It's a scooter, it's a trike... it's the weirdest thing you've never ridden. Spend five minutes rolling around town on one of these, and you'll be gawked and pointed at endlessly, as though you were riding around with your pants around your ankles. Stop at a light, and be ready to field one of three questions: "What the FUCK is that?", "Where did you get it?", and "Why does it have three wheels?" My stock answers soon became (respectively), "it's a scooter, sort of," "the future," and "long story."
Piaggio's MP3 scooters come in 250-, 400-, and 500-cc forms. We opted to get out on the 500 because we couldn't resist the intoxicating power. That's right, this thing pushes a full FORTY horsepower through the soft-starting CVT to the 14-inch rear tire. And at nearly 600 pounds lubed and fueled, that's a power-to-weight ratio right in the ballpark of a '78 Mustang II. Yee-hah! Wait, that's not fair, it's better than that. You can still outrun pretty much any car from a dead stop to the speed limit. Once the MP3 starts motatin', the acceleration is actually pretty fun. Seat of the pants says 60 hits in about 5 seconds, with a docile start to 15 mph, and a torquey wave from there on until it tops out at around 90 mph. I'm not gonna lie to you... you don't want one of these if run-whatcha-brung dragstrip nights are in your day planner. Scooterwise, a Honda Silverwing, Suzuki Burgman, or Yamaha T-Max (all with bigger engines) will spank the MP3-500 in the quarter-mile.
Of course, that's not the point. Which brings me to the hardest question of all to try and answer: What exactly is the point? Back up for a second and pretend you're the kind of person who has a crappy sense of balance. Maybe you were that klutzy kid who kept falling off his Stingray, or you're that guy who stepped on his prom date's dress and tore it half off while entering the gym, or you're the kind of person who starts spilling drinks before you even finish making them. Well then, the little family of MP3 scooters is built for you.
You get how any single-track, 2-wheeled vehicle works, right? There's a gyroscopic effect from the spinning wheels that directly counters the natural instability of the machine. Get the geometry right (this is where terms like "rake" and "trail" come into play), and you don't need to be going all that fast to continue in a straight line without steering input. But at slower speeds, any bike, scooter or motorcycle wants to fall to the side more than roll forward. Also, with one rather small front contact patch tasked with managing the majority of your braking needs and all of your steering demands, it's ridiculously easy to go from riding to crashing. It's up to you to keep the rubber side down, so actual skill is involved in the basic operation — as opposed to, say, a car. No one needs more proof of just how hideously inept you can be and still make it to the mall and back in your Yaris without killing anyone.
This is the key conundrum faced by the entire motorcycle and scooter industry when it comes to getting dedicated box jockeys to open their minds, wallets, and garage doors. Perfect example: I was at a car event a while back, talking to a guy who had a 400-hp engine in a crap Civic. The front tires were fried flat from burnouts, the rear suspension was sagged, and you can imagine what condition the stock brakes were in. The body was a messy mix of plastic ground effects, lumpy Bondo, and rattle-canning. I had parked a Yamaha R1 test bike next to his car and we got to talking. He bragged about his quarter-mile time in the high 11s, and I said I could beat that at three-quarters throttle without needing my top four gears. He said he'd never get a bike because he'd "kill himself on one" for sure. So here was a gearhead who wanted real speed and clearly couldn't afford to do it safely or with style; yet the incomparable value proposition offered by a sportbike was anathema to him. And it wasn't the acceleration that intimidated him, it was the "tippyness."
The only way to completely overcome this fear is with a completely tip-proof vehicle like Can-Am's Spyder (reviewed here). But any flat-tracking vehicle can't offer you the swoopy lean and glide experience of a motorcycle. The MP3 is Piaggio's solution, and as an engineering effort, it's a pretty smart one. Two hydraulically damped front wheels track in parallel, creating a double contact patch with twice the cornering grip, meaning you're less likely to have a "low side" sliding crash. The wheels are close enough together that, for the most part, the machine feels "right" to a motorcyclist. It leans when you countersteer toward an apex, and picks back up as you roll past it on the throttle. It just gets a little wonky at the absolute cornering limit on the gas in bumpy turns, where the front end is flexing and the tail is grinding down the centerstand stays.
The biggest fear scooter riders have is that their tiny front wheel will auger into the kind of pothole any car or motorcycle would simply bump-track over. By engineering the wheels to respond independently to surface irregularities (see photo of the bike parked half on a curb), you have twice the chance of the vehicle tracking safely and smoothly. They call this "articulation" in the off-road trucking world — we call it "cool" in this one. Plus, fitting a 240-mm full-floating rotor with a two-piston caliper inside each wheel amps up your braking prowess commensurately.
And yes, there's more. Since it's a scooter, with the engine down under, you've got a pleasantly low center of gravity. The fuel tank is down under your feet, and you can step through to get on as opposed to throwing a leg over — just the thing if you're wearing a kilt, commando-style. This design also allows for a big underseat storage area. You'll find the classic Vespa-style plastic split-ring hanger for schlepping grocery bags between your knees and a nice tail rack with plenty of bungee options for even more cargo. With two actual motorcycles in the garage next to this thing for nigh on a month, it was never even a close choice which keys got nabbed when I had errands to run. The bikes sat, the scooter worked.
It's not perfect, though. There's a buzziness that fizzles up through the floorboards and into the bars at mid-high rpm that gets old. The seat has a high crown center and too-soft foam that makes you want a break after 50 or 60 miles. A full-face helmet doesn't really fit inside the trunk, but it's close enough that they should have given it the extra half-inch around to make it work. And the mileage ought to be better. I decided to test for the absolute worst anti-EPA city mileage. This included full throttle after every stop, latest possible braking, and lots of idling at lights — the perfect description of an ass at the controls. I then went for the opposite, with mellow freeway cruising and gentle acceleration, just generally rolling around like a pussy. Results: Ass = 42 mpg, Pussy = 53 mpg. Not as big a difference as you'd expect. Still, it is pretty good mileage overall.
So if you're an early-adopter type who would enjoy being the star attraction at the mini-mall parking lot; if you're fearful of low speed tipovers; or if you have a lot of crap to haul around to accomplish your Saturday afternoon list of "honey-do"s, then this thing might be for you. Is it worth the nine grand they're asking? It's pretty much the most expensive scooter you can buy, but it's a helluva lot cheaper than a Smart car and way more fun to drive, er, ride. If it were my money, I'd throw down a few hundred extra to hop it up so it'd jump off the line with a bit more urgency. To hell with the warranty — you're not gonna put that many miles on it anyway. Life is short. Live a little.