First ride: Piaggio MP3 500

Background and first ride impressions of Piaggio's radical three-wheeled MP3 500 maxi-scooter.

Piaggio MP3 500 front quarter. Carey Russ

As I was moving the car out of the driveway to get easier access to my motorcycle, my neighbor came up to me and said "I saw you come in on a really weird motorcycle thing yesterday and what is it?"

Never one to pass up an opportunity, I replied in my best B-movie space alien voice, "It is an alien space vehicle."

"Oh. I thought so."

Well, actually, it's a Piaggio MP3 500. Piaggio, perhaps better known as the manufacturer of Vespa scooters and owner of Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Gilera, and other brands, calls it a "maxi-scooter", and the MP3 series is unlike anything else except the closely related Gilera Fuoco, at least on this planet. The "3" comes not from any music formatting, but from three wheels. The rear wheel is conventional, if larger than the old-school scooter norm. The usual single front wheel is replaced by two, placed close together, and connected by a patented parallelogram multilink suspension system that ensures they turn and bank together. The front wheels can be locked by an electro-hydraulic mechanism so that the MP3 stays upright when stopped, with no need for the rider to put their feet on the ground. That locking system, and a parking brake, means that the center stand doesn't normally need to be used.

At $8,899, the MP3 500 is as expensive as many motorcycles.

The first MP3 to hit the U.S. was the 250cc model. More recently, a 400cc version, and the slightly different 500 have debuted. The MP3 500 is essentially a Gilera Fuoco, sold here under the Piaggio name, as Gilera is not used in the U.S.

Piaggio MP3 side view. Carey Russ

I've been curious about the MP3 since I first saw the 250 model a few years ago, so when I had the opportunity to ride one I didn't hesitate. And the MP3 offered was not the 250, but the bad-boy 500. The one that looks like a prop from a late-night sci-fi movie, or a refugee from Mad Max.

I've ridden motorcycles for years, but the only time I've spent on a scooter was a few minutes in a parking lot on a very funky old Vespa. It was, um, different, and kind of scary with vague handling and uncertain brakes. Well, the same could be said of plenty of equally old motorcycles.

I went to pick up the MP3 in Oakland, Calif., yesterday, and got a quick briefing on operation and parking. As is the custom with scooters, there is no clutch--CVT automatic transmission in this case--so the left-hand lever is the rear brake. The right hand has the throttle and front brakes, as in dual cross-drilled discs. This example has the "Demon Black" flat black color scheme, which enhances the alien war chariot look.

I'm 5-feet-tall and 120 pounds soaking wet, so bike weight and seat height are considerations. However, it's not much of an issue with the MP3, although I have to tiptoe because of the well-padded seat. The weight is carried low, so it doesn't feel as heavy as it actually is, which is considerable at more than 500 pounds.

When you push the start button, it fires right up. Just like the first minibike I rode as a child, after a certain amount of throttle it just moves. While it steers like a motorcycle or scooter, it definitely feels a little different--kind of, like there's a really wide front tire. Which, in a way, there is. Despite this, steering effort is light.

I had a noon meeting in Walnut Creek, Calif., so it was going to be freeway time immediately. It accelerates up the on-ramp without any problems. It's no 200-hp superbike, but it feels as quick as most 500cc motorcycles. Also, it's very smooth with no gear changes, thanks to the CVT.

There is a backup at the Caldecott Tunnel; I hit the brakes and it responds well. I sneak through the jam and make it out to the clear road on the other side. It's stable at high speeds, and it protects the rider from wind well, even with the upright riding position. The suspension is very stiff, but the seat padding is soft enough to soak up the small jolts. It has no problems cruising at 70 mph, and it is ready for more when I goose the throttle. All too soon, I'm at the meeting and then out back to work.

One day down; seven more to go. It's going to be interesting.

 

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