First of all, a disclaimer.
I wouldn't buy one, wouldn't let my husband buy one, would holler at my sister if she bought one.
That said: Scooters are hot business these days. Motorcycles' cute little siblings, they can get upwards of 100 miles per gallon, they're easier to drive than motorcycles, and because they aren't as big and don't go as fast, they don't feel quite as dangerous. (They are, but more about that in a minute.)
I only had time to get to one dealership, and since it seemed like folly to write about scooters without at least looking at a Vespa, I went to BMW Motorcycles of Little Rock.
Sadly, they won't let you test drive one without a motorcycle endorsement on your license and a promise to hand over your first-born if you wreck, so all I could do was sit on one. They're surprisingly comfortable for a short-legged person — my feet wouldn't touch the ground from a motorcycle seat, but the Vespa was a manageable size.
Vespas will cost you more than other scooter brands, but I have to say, if I was going to buy a scooter at all, I'd be tempted to blow the extra money. There's just something so fun and quintessentially scooterish about them. Of course, if you buy a Vespa, you also have to buy a long billowy scarf and some Jackie O sunglasses and learn how to say “Ciao” without sounding all bald-guy-with-a-pony-tail.
But back to the basics for a minute. First, the difference between scooters and motorcycles. It's not, as I initially thought, simply a function of size and power (Honda, for instance, has a scooter that's more powerful than its lowest-tier motorcycle). Motorcycles are manual-shift, and scooters are automatic — making them less complicated to drive. And scooters, like motorcycles, come in different sizes. The smallest have 50cc engines — they're popular because they're inexpensive and because you don't have to get a motorcycle endorsement on your license for one that small. You can get a 50cc Vespa for about $3,000; Honda has one for $1,900. These are the ones that will get you those mythical 100-plus mpg numbers.
But they also won't get you anywhere very fast. They top out at about 40 mph — on a level road. You'd get to the top of Cantrell Hill faster on your feet.
Scott Wilbanks, whose family owns BMW Motorcycles of Little Rock — the only place Vespas are sold hereabouts — recommends a 150cc engine, which, theoretically at least, well get you up to 60 mph. Look for a 250cc engine if you want to take it on the highway, he said — although he “absolutely” recommends that you not. People in cars don't pay enough attention when they're changing lanes, he said, and because scooters are even smaller than motorcycles, they're even less likely to see one. Pricewise, the 150cc Vespas are around $8,000; the same money will get you a lot more power in another brand, but you wouldn't be able to pretend you're in 1960s Rome. And that, let's be honest, is half the point.
Despite their size, scooters actually are a little more functional than you'd expect — you could fit a very small bag of groceries in the under-seat storage area of the Vespas, and there's a hook that folds out between your calves where you could hang a shopping bag as well. You can also buy small storage trunks that fit on the back. This isn't the vehicle you'd want for your bi-weekly shopping trip for the whole family, but strap on a backpack and you'd be able to get a fair amount home.
Wilbanks said business has been good for scooters this summer — his dealership sold about 30 last month, up from four the month before. The weather helps, he said, but the gas prices are spurring more and more people, of all ages, to make the move to two-wheeled transportation. Honda of North Little Rock, a dealership that carries Honda and Yamaha scooters, has sold every one they had in stock, salesman Aaron Stone told me. They've got a waiting list for the ones they expect to get in October.