Piaggio MP3 Three-Wheel Scooter Review
Last Thursday, Vespa Walnut Creek called me to let me know that their MP3 demo model would be arriving on Friday, and that I was at the top of the list to take it for a spin. More specifically, I was to pick up the keys on Saturday evening and keep the bike through Sunday (when the shop is closed) and return it on Monday. I didn't actually request this, so it was either the result of the good relationship I have with my dealer (Rockridge Two Wheels and Vespa Walnut Creek are owned by the same person) or a shrewd tactic on Piaggo USA's part to get an MP3 into the hands of someone who could help them generate buzz about their product. Either way, it was my chance to flog the MP3 for an extended length of time, so whether I am a pawn or not is largely an academic question.
Saturday evening, I turned up at Vespa Walnut Creek just before closing time, filled out the standard release of liability form, and rode away with the MP3. Walnut Creek is about 15 miles from where I live via freeway, but I decided that it would be best if I took surface streets all the way home. Not because I was afraid of the freeway, mind you, but because the surface streets between Walnut Creek and Oakland consist of long stretches of fast, curvy, rural roads devoid of any traffic and tight scooter-friendly twisties through an extremely large park called Tilden at the top of the ridge that divides Contra Costa county from Alameda county. It would be 23 miles in all. In other words, I wanted to have fun more than I wanted to go fast, and I wanted to push the limits of the MP3 as much as possible.
Of course, it was dark when I left the dealership in Walnut Creek, and the temperature dropped precipitously. I drove home in what are for me extremely cold temperatures (mid 40s) shivering the whole way home. Oh, and given that I was driving on empty, rural roads that pass through various wooded areas, I was concerned about the presence of deer as well, although none jumped out at me.
Latitude of Lean
Instead of pushing the MP3 hard, I spent the first half of the ride being slightly confused. I wasn't riding badly, per se, but I was definitely not quite able to figure out how much to lean into the turns, and I especially couldn't quite comprehend why I couldn't figure it out. The bike didn't really feel that much different than my GTS, at least not on the surface, so why was I so confused? After all, the route I took home was the very same road where I learned how to ride a scooter in the first place, where I first started getting the hang of leaning into a turn and finding that "sweet spot" where the radius of the turn, the speed, and the angle of the lean all intersect into that moment that every rider relishes as the bike plants itself, the G-force goes up, and the bike hums around the turn like a meteor.
And then, like a flaming meteor streaking across the sky and hitting the ground with a thunderous crash, it hit me: I couldn't find the sweet spot because the MP3 wasn't misbehaving. In fact, it was very well mannered, going through each curve easily, if modestly, and lacking any kind of wobble, unintended trajectory, fishtail, or other clue that I might be over or under leaning. Of course, it was lacking that ethereal moment of riding bliss when everything comes together perfectly, too. In short, I was merely riding along with nothing spectacular or otherwise worthy of note happening. Kind of like driving in a car.
This was my epiphany, then, something that was previously subconscious and intangible, now crystal clear in my mind because of its sudden absence: I usually ride by letting the bike tell me what I'm doing wrong. I keep adjusting things until that moment when it doesn't complain, and then I know I have it just right. In a turn, if the bike feels unsteady, I change the parameters I have control over (speed and angle of lean) until I dial it in and the bike plants itself hard in the corner. Then I repeat for the next curve, hoping that I've chosen the correct parameters based on the last curve. And then again for the next curve, and so on.
The MP3 didn't complain. At least, not much. I kept waiting through the first half of my ride home for something to happen, but I didn't really know what that something was. It was just something that was missing.
With the MP3, Piaggio has effectively widened the latitude of lean. It will plant itself in a turn -- or at least not skid off the road -- across a much broader range of rider input than an ordinary two-wheel bike. A small lean works okay, even if it leaves the rider unsatisfied, and a hard lean works pretty well too. The bike definitely feels different across this range of lean, but it doesn't complain so much at the extremes of the range. Instead, the rider gets a sliding scale of thrill, starting with no thrill for a small lean and a huge thrill for a hard one.
I am, on the whole, a novice rider. I've only been riding for a bit over a year now, and my skills are still developing. I still misjudge my speed going into a turn, use my brakes at the wrong times, and generally under-lean. During the course of a ride, I can work at it until I get it just right, and sometimes I have brilliant moments where everything comes together well, but I am definitely still learning to refine some things that many of you take for granted after years of riding. My tendency to under-lean through a turn is mitigated by my GTS misbehaving when I do so, and I adapt and correct and lean some more until it feels right. I don't generally over-lean, as I am what you would call -- in latin -- a Chickenus Maximus.
Once I had taken a few moments to absorb this new idea, that the bike was going to keep riding like a car as long as I treated it like one, the next logical step was to do something about it. Fortunately, this was about the time I reached some of the tighter twisties on my route home, and on a road that I knew very well. Unfortunately, it was extremely dark, with no lighting whatsoever, and only the barest minimum of reflecting thingies on the side of the road along the way. Oh, and it's a road with no guard rail on the edge of a steep hill that leads a long way down. One misstep and I could go right off the edge of the road and through the trees clinging to the side of a steep hill. I'm sure there's lots of poison oak down there, too. You know, in case the trees don't kill me first.
So I started really leaning into the turns. As hard as I dare. And from the back of my mind came a sound, much like that meteor streaking across the sky. It sounded like this:
The rest of the ride home, as you can probably surmise, was a lot of fun. It was dark, and cold, and my visor kept fogging up, and there was debris in the roadway, and the threat of deer seemed high, even if none dared jump out at me. Still, I was having fun, I was riding too fast, and I was leaning hard in every turn like I was Valentino Rossi. Even the slow ones. In fact, the slow turns were especially fun, because I could lean into them at angles that would be impossible to do on a regular two-wheel bike.
Sadly, I had to get home and get myself ready to go to a social obligation that evening. It was a holiday costume party and I didn't have a costume yet. But that's a whole different story.
Ugly Is Not The Point
Before I go much farther, I'd like to get something out of the way. It's something that's been bothering me since before I even rode the MP3, and as soon as I figured out how to ride it, the idea gelled in my head. Whether one likes the looks of this bike or not is really almost completely unimportant. I hear a lot of complaints about it being ugly, but that truly, genuinely, tragically misses the whole point of this vehicle. Ugly or not, it does something that no other bike does, and it does it with a surprising amount of finesse. The large wheel wells in front definitely force some aesthetic compromises, and I doubt we'll ever see a three-wheel Vespa model. Piaggio would sooner die than compromise the crown jewel of style that is the Vespa.
But who cares, really? Until you've ridden an MP3 and really had a chance to hammer it hard in a turn, I don't want to hear about how ugly it is. Just shut up and go ride one. Once you've done that, we can have some real, substantive discussions about the general philosophy and whether a machine that's easier to ride amounts to compensation for lesser riding skills or a false sense of security. I'm in the former camp, if you care.
The big advantage of the MP3, the point of the whole exercise, is to provide a scooter-like (or motorcycle-like) experience while improving safety. Besides the aforementioned latitude of lean, the MP3 also provides 50% greater contact patch on the road surface due to the extra tire, improved braking characteristics due to the dual front-disc brakes, and much much more stability on the road in a wide variety of situations. I believe that the three-wheel geometry makes it much less likely that the front wheel can slip out from under the rider, and it makes locking up the rear wheel much less hazardous.
In fact, I did lock up the rear wheel on at least three separate occasions. The first one was unintentional: as I came flying around a downhill curve in a semi-rural area on the outskirts of Walnut Creek, I saw that there was a blind stop sign that there had been no previous warning for. At the bottom of the hill was a police car, lights flashing, having just pulled over someone who probably ran the same stop sign. I hit both brakes hard, and heard the rear wheel lock up and drag along the pavement. The bike remained perfectly stable and upright, with not even a hint of fishtailing. And I successfully stopped before I crossed the line of the stop sign.
The second and third times I locked up the rear tire were both intentional: I found a wet patch in the street later on my ride home, and I deliberately pulled the rear brake as hard as I could in order to see how the bike behaved. Again, the rear wheel locked up and dragged along the pavement, but the bike was very stable.
A couple of times I experimented with hard front-brake stops, in order to determine if I could get the rear end to "go light" just a bit, the precursor to a stoppy. I was much less ambitious in this area, though, and in fact the bike had a distinct tendency to "squat" in a hard front brake maneuver, rather than have the back end lift up. While I completely failed to make any progress toward a stoppy, I think the behavior of the bike in hard stops is quite admirable.
Not As Big As It Looks
The MP3 isn't nearly as big as it looks in pictures. The styling makes it look distinctly like a maxi-scoot, I think, and that gives us a mental size marker to compare it to. It isn't though. Whatever the specifications may say about the dimensions, it actually feels a bit smaller than my GTS. I have no idea if it actually is or not, but the seating position, handlebars, instrument cluster, and windshield all give the impression of a smaller scooter. There's not a lot of leg room, either, which is typical of the Piaggio-branded products. There's just about one place to put your feet, and one position to sit in on the seat.
There's a little ledge in the seat, too, so you can't slide any farther back. In fact, this is my one consistent complaint about the Piaggio (not Vespa) models: The seat on nearly all the models forces you into a specific spot, and the foot positions are very limited. My advice to Piaggio: Stop it! WTF are you thinking? There are tall people in the world, and they want to ride scooters, too. Hell, I'm only 5'8", and I felt a bit cramped on the MP3. Capisci?
Hold It Right There!
The locking mechanism is one of the more interesting pieces of kit on this scooter, and probably one of the more vexing, too. It actually works very well, but can have some slightly unintended consequences.
Below a certain speed (5mph?) a yellow light on the dashboard flashes, indicating that you could, if you wanted to, lock the suspension so that the bike won't tip over. Nevermind that the flashing light looks like a turn signal, and is located in a spot very near the single dashboard turn signal light.
Once the light starts flashing, you can flip a switch on the throttle-side of the handlebars to activate the lock. The switch flips side-to-side. Kind of (exactly) like a turn signal switch. Flipping it one way will lock the suspension at whatever lean angle you happen to be at, while flipping it the other way will release the lock and let the weight of the bike fall whichever way you happen to be leaning. An audible beep can be heard when locking, and two beeps can be heard when unlocking. Additionally, any blip of the throttle, even the tiniest amount, will unlock the suspension.
It's quite possible (although not especially common) to lock the suspension in an undesirable posture if you happen to be leaning a bit when you hit the switch. You can't do it while doing any kind of speed -- only rolling to a stop. The bummer about this is that as soon as you blip the throttle to unlock it, you'll usually end up momentarily headed in some random and unintended direction because of the angle. This is usually quickly corrected, but it's disconcerting nonetheless.
The steering does actually work while the suspension is locked, but since the bike will unlock as soon as any throttle is applied, this becomes a fairly insignificant point. I only mention it because some of you are going to ask.
One of the possible foibles one can achieve on the MP3 is to flick the lock switch while rolling to a stop before the light has started to flash, which of course will do nothing. The problem is that if you think you've locked the suspension, you're probably not going to put your foot down. The result is that, due to the magic way the MP3 will balance itself for significantly longer than a two-wheel bike, you're going to be oblivious to the fact that the suspension is not, in fact, locked. Until it starts slowly and almost unobservably tipping to one side. And then over.
The demo unit I rode had, in fact, been dropped in exactly that manner. Twice. Which is good, because it made me relax a bit about any minor damage I might do to the bike during the course of my ride.
After playing with the lock mechanism for a bit, I decided I was more comfortable simply putting my foot down and balancing the bike myself. The seat height on the MP3 fit me well, probably better than my GTS, and so I could have one foot down quite easily. The suspension on the MP3 actually holds most of the weight of the bike anyway, so the rider doesn't have to hold much up.
The balance on the MP3 is a very deceptive and seductive thing. While riding, it is so well balanced in so many different situations that you forget sometimes you're riding what is essentially a motorcycle. In fact, were it not for leaning over in a turn, you could believe you were riding a four-wheel ATV. And sometimes I felt myself believing just that. Right up until I pulled up to a stop light and started tipping over or quickly hitting the lock switch. This one characteristic of the MP3 might very well be its greatest strength and simultaneously its biggest downfall: it absolutely positively lulls you into the mistaken belief that it will balance itself forever.
I set out Sunday morning to put the MP3 through its paces. I decided I would ride over the bridge to San Francisco, up to the Presidio, and then see where the road took me. I ended up in Santa Cruz before I headed home, and did a total of 186 miles for the day. Add to that that 23 miles on the night I picked it up. The bulk of the miles on Sunday were spent going South on Highway 1 (50mph speed limit in most places, but I did 65 most of the way) and garden variety freeway riding, plus some hills to make things interesting.
Top speed I managed (measured by GPS) was 80.5mph, but that was going downhill on Highway 1 in full scooter tuck. I never got close to that kind of speed at any other time during the ride, despite my best efforts. Typical top speed on a flat-out road was 70 to 75, and sometimes lower. In fact, top speed was kind of inconsistent, although so was the terrain I was covering. At the other extreme, going up Highway 17 (which goes up and over the Santa Cruz mountains) I was struggling to maintain 50mph. Generally, the MP3 has a pretty decent amount of boogy. Not as peppy as the GTS, which has essentially the same engine, but the MP3 is heavier for sure. And the place where weight is most a factor is going up hill. Yes, gravity is a cruel mistress, and she made me well aware that 250cc / (MP3 + My Ass) == not so much speed on an incline.
I really truly believe that Piaggio should just skip the 250cc model altogether and go straight for 400cc. This bike, while not a slug, definitely suffers from a weight issue. Oh, and the speed off the line from a dead stop is pathetic, with the transmission not really finding the right spot for a good couple of seconds after jamming on the throttle.
MPG worked out to a bit over 61 miles per gallon. Not bad, considering I flogged it all day. The engine on my demo unit was nominally broken in, with 860 miles on it when I picked it up.
Controls, Storage, and General Details
The controls on the scooter are, AFAIK, pretty much standard for a Piaggio-branded bike. The usual assortment of brakes, horn, hi/lo/pass beam switch, and so on. What caught my attention was the Mode button, which is on the throttle-side of the steering wheel and in easy reach of your thumb without ever taking a hand off the throttle. Pressing it rotates the digital display through temperature, trip A and trip B, and allows resetting the either of the tripmeters by holding the button down. Being able to do this without fumbling around and taking a hand off the handlebars was fantastic. Kudos to Piaggio for that.
The turn signal indicator, however, sucks. It's located in the lowest possible point of the dashboard, as far from the field of view of the rider as possible, and there's only one. And as said earlier, it's very near the blinking lock-available light, with the only thing to distinguish them is green vs. yellow. This more than undoes any goodwill I might have felt toward Piaggio's well-thought-out Mode button.
The ignition switch does many different things simultaneously, maybe to the point of confusion. There's the usual On-Off-Lock mechanism, but if you push the key in slightly and turn counter-clockwise, the trunk pops open. If you push in and turn clockwise, the gas filler door pops open.
The seat, as far as I can tell, can only be open via a button on the ignition key itself. It's especially hard to press when the key is in the ignition, and it doesn't unlatch the way the GTS does. Instead, it unlatches and holds it unlatched for about two seconds, and then re-latches. If you don't lift up the seat in that amount of time, you must start over. To make matters worse, there's no obvious place to grab the seat to lift it up. You just have to kind of stick your fingers in and try to work it up with your fingernails.
Oh, and I'm pretty sure it's quite possible to lock your key under the seat.
The rear trunk truly, really, genuinely fits my Shoei XXL full-face helmet. There's a trick to putting it in (upside down and nose-first) but I'm pretty sure that's the intended method, judging by the shape of the opening.
Underseat storage is generous, especially when taking into account the contiguous helmet/trunk area, but the space is reduced considerably when a helmet is in the trunk. Still, the MP3 has some of the best storage among scooters.
There's no glovebox. Not even a vestigial one. Nothing. Zero. Underseat storage is all there is, unless you count the space between the windshield and the dash area, which is actually pretty deep. I threw my FasTrak transponder in there, and it stayed there for my ride across the bridge, although it rattled around a bit.
The gas filler door, on the hump right in front of the seat, is well placed. It's easy to fill the tank, it clicks off appropriately, and any spillage from the nozzle is captured in a generous area around the filler cap and drained through a small hole onto the ground. Much better than spilling it all over your paint and down onto your muffler.
I snapped a few pictures along the way. Click on any photo to see a larger version.
Darragh of Vespa Walnut Creek shows me the ropes
Spacious underseat storage
I carry a lot of gear, it seems.
The trunk connects to the underseat storage
Junk in the trunk
Fuel filler door
This was not from me overfilling the tank, but from excess gas in the gas station's vapor recovery hose. The area around the opening keeps gas from getting all over everything.
Excess gas drains through a hole in the bottom
This Euro-spec model favors Km/H.
Despite minor annoyances, poor indicator light design, less-than-stellar power, and an uncomfortable seat, I like the MP3. A lot. I think Piaggio has done a really fantastic job on the technology that makes the MP3 what it is, and it shows. Even a relative novice can ride like a pro as far as curves are concerned, and I know personally I rode today with much more confidence than I've ever had before. The rest of the issues, outside of the core technology of this bike, are ultimately not very important. It is one iteration of what hopefully will be a whole line of scooters with this technology, and so debating the virtues of the gas filler door or whether it meets some idealized aesthetic misses the mark by a wide margin. It's a demonstration that this technology can work, and work very well, with a real, tangible benefit to the rider.
Last edited by jess on Sun Dec 24, 2006 10:11 am; edited 14 times in total