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LA Times 3-31-04 in highway 1 section

Too bad the guy test drove the wrong Scooter.

Brave old world
Bold. Sexy. Able to cheat traffic. What more could an L.A. commuter want?

Brave old world
Bold. Sexy. Able to cheat traffic. What more could an L.A. commuter want?

By Dan Neil, Times Staff Writer
Riding a motor scooter in Los Angeles is a religious experience. And that religion is Calvinism.

You need a broadly fatalistic streak to ride a motorcycle in this city, where every day is like rush hour in Pamplona. Motor scooters — the chic, Euro-style mini-motorcycles with the engine beneath the saddle and the step-through design — are especially chancy. Being smaller and lower than motorcycles, scooters have less of a silhouette and are harder for drivers to see. Unlike Harleys and other heavy-metal cruisers, scooters — the new ones, at least — are whisper quiet. Loud pipes save lives.

And, unlike sport bikes, with their explosive acceleration and race-bred brakes, scooters lack the maneuverability that, in an emergency, can mean the difference between a close call and a Candygram from God.

For Angelenos, perhaps the biggest drawback is that scooters, with their limited top speeds, have not been fit for the freeways that make the sprawling metropolis navigable.

But all that is changing. In fact, the smallest vehicles on the road have never been bigger.

This spring, the Italian manufacturers Vespa and Aprilia have both introduced what you might call commuter scooters: The Vespa Granturismo takes the company's iconic design and scales it up to accommodate a 200cc, low-emission engine made by parent-company Piaggio. The same engine is used in Aprilia's Atlantic 200, a supersport-style scooter that makes up in sleek futurism what it lacks in retro cachet.

These two scooters — one the very essence of la dolce vita, the other the iPod of personal transport — are big, handy and powerful, effortless to ride yet capable of speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour, plenty fast to make them viable as commuting machines in Southern California.

With gas prices reaching record highs and the city's circuits fused by traffic overload, the second coming of scooters can't come too soon.

Birth of the 'wasp'

A little history: The motor scooter was invented in 1946 by an Italian aeronautical engineer, Corradino D'Ascanio, who had been recruited by the Piaggio company in Pontedera, in Tuscany, to design simple and affordable transportation for the war-weary nation.

D'Ascanio's template remains more or less intact to this day: an L-shaped monocoque with an open frame so riders sit naturally, with their feet on the floorboards, as opposed to being astride a motorcycle. A broad front fairing protects the rider and passenger from dirt and spray. The motor is located low and just ahead of the rear wheel for greater stability; the smaller wheels and short wheelbase allow scooters to wriggle through congested traffic.

As the legend goes, when company president Enrico Piaggio saw D'Ascanio's prototype he remarked that it looked like a vespa, or "wasp" in Italian. A brand was born.

Vespa went on to be one of the most successful brands of the 20th century. In 1996, its 50th anniversary, company sales passed 15 million. The company's designs were licensed to manufacturers all over the world. In the United States, Vespas were sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. and later by the Cushman company, a domestic manufacturer of its own well-loved, tube-frame scooters. A quarter-million Vespas were sold in the United States between 1951 and 1985, when U.S. emissions regulations chased off the smoky, two-stroke machines.

Along the way, Vespa became an incidental master of product placement. The scooters kept showing up in strange and wonderful films from the Italian and French New Wave, in which fatalistic youths smoking Gitanes, wearing awful hats and sweaters knotted around their shoulders chased each other around the Riviera and Greek islands. Sí, sí, que será, será.

William Wyler's 1953 film "Roman Holiday" with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn did for Vespa what "Goldfinger" did for Aston Martin. Anita Ekberg's flight from the paparazzi in Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita" is a similarly durable image. By the mid-1950s, according to the company, Vespas had turned up in more than 60 films. If Puccini had written "La Bohème" a century later, Rodolfo would have ridden a Vespa.

Rock connoisseurs may wonder about the scooter-centric "Quadrophenia," the 1979 film adaptation of the Who's album. Mod leader Ace (played with a queer lividity by Sting in his first film outing) rode a Lambretta, another famous and well-loved scooter brand.

By the time Vespa returned to the U.S. market in 2000, much had changed. The Japanese brands Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki were firmly entrenched with well-established dealership networks selling Italian-styled scooters like the charming and affordable Yamaha Vino. Cheap Asian scooters threatened to flood the market.

What hadn't changed was Vespa's nuanced approach to marketing. Vespa positioned itself as a premium brand that, like Harley-Davidson, justified its considerable price with its status as cultural icon, the echt scooter. Vespa opened the first of its 60 stateside boutiques in Sherman Oaks, offering Vespa-branded couture like purses, clothes and chronographs. The company put Vespas in the hands of celebrities and cross-marketed with Neiman Marcus, Sharper Image, Saks Fifth Avenue and Starbucks. Even Barbie got a Vespa. Sales went through the roof.

Aprilia — an exotic brand best known for grand prix racing and high-end superbikes — opened its own Prada-like boutique this year in Manhattan's SoHo district. Aprilia is charging into the scooter market with 10 models, including three brand new bikes: the commuter scooter Atlantic 200, which I spent a week on recently, and two super-scooters — the Atlantic 500 and the Scarabeo 500. The latter two go up against the Honda Silver Wing 600 ($7,599) and the Suzuki Burgman 650 ($7,699), the largest scooters on the market.

Splitting lanes

Scooter sales rose more than 600% between 1997 and 2003, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. In 2003, almost 84,000 scooters were sold in the United States, with Los Angeles being the biggest market.

Why? Because L.A. is looking more like Rome every day.

As you might have suspected as you watched a motorcyclist lane-split through stalled freeway traffic, two-wheelers get around town much more easily than four-wheelers (lane-splitting is legal in California). They are easy to park. And, with the Los Angeles climate, there are relatively few days when motorcycles have to stay in the garage.

The trouble with motorcycles is that they are relatively difficult to ride and uncomfortable. The new generation of scooters combines the traffic-threading nimbleness of motorcycles with the scooters' goof-proof simplicity and comfort.

Both the Vespa Granturismo and the Aprilia Atlantic 200 have push-button starting — no kick starting. Both use belt-drive transmissions — no shifting. Both have full instrumentation, under-seat helmet storage (the Vespa had an optional storage box mounted on the tail), and seating for two, with foot rests for the passenger. Both have dual disc brakes, controlled by levers on the handlebars. If you can ride a bike, you can ride one of these scooters. Just twist the right-hand grip, the throttle, and off you go.

Fast. Both have plenty of off-the-line acceleration to take advantage of openings in traffic and to stay out of harm's way. The fundamental difference between them is aerodynamics: The Vespa's vintage styling is fairly ugly to the wind, limiting its top speed to around 77 mph; the bullet-nosed Aprilia, with the same engine, is capable of about 85 miles per hour, allowing for speedometer error.

The aero envelope is more stable and comfortable on the windscreen-equipped Aprilia, so that wind buffeting on the freeway is less taxing. Also, with the Aprilia's higher top speed, you don't feel like you are torturing the bike as much. It also has 13-inch wheels, compared to the Vespa's 12-inch wheels, so the handling is more secure and the ride more relaxed. Overall, the Aprilia is far more a motorcycle than the Vespa.

The Vespa, on the other hand, looks as cool as can possibly be, with its graceful chrome tracery and evocative styling, all sincerity and charm and poetic form. Such is the power of an icon. Umberto Eco once wrote that the Vespa "came to be linked, in my eyes, with transgression, sin and temptation."

You can't get more L.A. than that.

Still agile, now beefier

Aprilia Atlantic 200

Wheelbase: 57.8 inches

Wheels: 13 inches

Powertrain: 200cc liquid-cooled, four-stroke single-cylinder, carbureted engine, electronic ignition, automatic transmission

Horsepower: 18.5

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 12.5 seconds

Top speed: 85 mph

Base price: $4,599, plus $125 delivery

Estimated range: 160 miles

Final thoughts: The Fendi shoe of scooters


Vespa Granturismo

Wheelbase: 54.9 inches

Wheels: 12 inches

Powertrain: 200cc liquid-cooled, four-stroke single-cylinder, carbureted engine, electronic ignition, automatic transmission

Horsepower: 20

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 13 seconds

Top speed: 77 mph

Base price: $4,899 (delivery varies)

Estimated range: 130 miles

Final thoughts: More dolce for your vita*

Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at [email protected].

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5,363 Posts
Scooter Article

Geez... I sent the following email to Dan Neil:


I just read your article regarding riding scooters in LA. Someone had posted it to an internet
forum that I follow.

You kind of had the right idea, but you fell far short of current scooter technology.

Scooters currently for sale in the USA include:

Suzuki Burgman 650cc
Suzuki Burgman 400cc
Honda Silver Wing 600cc
Two 500cc Aprilla models

I ride a 2003 Suzuki Burgman 650. It is powered by a fuel injected, water cooled, 55hp parallel twin.
It has an intelligent CVT automatic transmission that can also be shifted manually like a Porsche triptronic
(5 speeds). It can exceed 100 mph, and accelerate 0-60 in under 6 seconds. Its wheelbase is as long as my
motorcycle's (a 2003 1000cc Suzuki V-Strom). It weights more than the motorcycle (535 lbs). It has 56 liters
of storage space in a trunk under the seat. Triple disk brakes - two front, one rear. Wide radial tires. Twin headlights
and big twin tail/brake lights enhance visibility.

I think you owe it to yourself to take a look at one of these. They are a generation beyond the 200cc machines
depicted in the article.


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32 Posts
Jay said:
You need a broadly fatalistic streak to ride a motorcycle in this city, where every day is like rush hour in Pamplona.
There is at least one region on earth where scooters are respected: the Cotes d'Azur in South-East France.
If you happen to be in a car on the 4-lane wide boulevard during the rush hour, you better keep your lane because scooters are passing between the traffic jams with amazing speed.
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