Saturday, August 26, 2006

Scooter Chronicles, #1

Wherein a new feature on buying a scooter and commuting in Atlanta and surrounding suburbs

Our cars get decent gas mileage--manual transmission Saturn Vue gets 26 mpg and the Honda Civic averages 36 mpg. We're doing pretty good, but with gas prices flirting with $3/gal it never hurts to keep an eye open for better options. FYI, Aug 25, 2006, gas was $2.69!. Hybrids are a nice idea, though for us the increased gas mileage doesn't justify the higher price. Maybe if you currently drive a gas guzzler. Take the Vue as an example. The hybrid model starts at about $23k and reports an estimated 27 mpg (city) and 32 mpg (highway). Adding on options, it would cost at least $25K to compare to our $18K Vue. Does it make sense to spend an extra $7000 to save maybe 3-4 mpg? I don't think so...and most of our driving is city, so there we're looking at a push.

Frankly, after driving a dirt cheap Geo Metro through most of the 1990s--and at 170,000 miles it was still getting 56 miles to the gallon when a Ford pickup forgot to stop and ended up in my backseat--I'm not all that impressed with the hybrid's cost/performance ratio. Then there's our experience driving one around Orlando as a rental: it was a usability nightmare. Drove nice once we got it turned on...after we stood in the parking lot for ten minutes reading the manual...trying to figure out how to turn it on. Not to mention that dumbass distracting touch screen that told me if I floored it I was getting 0 mpg and if I coasted I was getting 99 mpg. You mean the harder I drive the car the less efficient it is? Thanks, that's really useful information. Could you show me the average mpg for a trip from point A to point B? No? Eff off, then. And what team of idiots thought having to work through four levels of touch screens to change the radio station or even the volume was a good idea? How about some separate tactile dials? Dumb assiest controls I've ever been exposed to. Even if I thought Hybrids were reasonably priced, there are some issues that have to be worked out.

Took a quick look at motorcycles about a year ago. Despite all my years of serious road bicycling I've never had much interest in motorcycles. But I looked around and found a few that weren't bad. Actually, I've always loved BMW bikes, but I have no interest in spending that much money. I liked a few smaller machines like the Honda Rebel or Shadow and and they're inexpensive at $5-$6k. Thing is, motorcycles don't get the gas mileage I thought they did. For some reason I assumed 70-90 mpg, but 40-60 seems more accurate. That's not that much of a step up from my current transportation. It's not like I'm completely replacing one vehicle with the other, we'll still have two cars. Plus there's the expense of the gear I'd need to buy, so on second thought, nevermind.

Then earlier this summer I saw something new--a scooter flying through rush-hour traffic at 45-50mph. Ooh, that's interesting. Specifically, it was a TNG Verona. A 150 CC machine with a top speed around 60 and mpg of 50-100. And it's only $2900. Ooh, I'm interested. But no oneseemed to be selling them. The listed local dealer no longer carries them and another scooter shop said they'd stopped carrying them because of manufacturing issues. Then I came across a couple news stories that the factory in India had shut down over labor issues. By this time I'd uncovered a whole world of scooters I never knew existed. Some are the equivalent to small motorcycles in price and power and are serious highway machines. These are not the putt-putt Vespas I remember.

The whole Vespa culture is an interesting one. Plenty of people love restoring old ones, even though many of the old models weren't that great to begin with. Then the new ones are kinda pricey. But they have the Vespa/Piaggio name and that classic styling and wouldn't it look cool buzzing around campus. Whatever. A Vespa can easily run over $5000 for a small model and if I'm spending that much I'm getting a real motorcycle.

Here's how I defined my criteria. My suburban Atlanta commute is 30 miles, roundtrip. Much of this is over divided four lane roads with a posted speed limit of 45, meaning if you're not doing 50-55, you're getting run over. Hills, lots of them as it's around the river, so I need some climbing power. I need some pickup, speed, and power. No intention of highway riding, so I can probably cross off needing the 250cc and higher models. Though I'd appreciate the additional power of a 250cc, it's a bout a grand more with a lower mpg. This Motorbyte article about trying to run a Kymco People 250 into the ground almost had me convinced to go with it:
And when the 24 hour timer started beeping the Kymco rolled into the driveway with over 1466 miles having rolled under it's tires in the space of just 24 hours. To put that distance in perspective, we rode the Kymco the equivalent of all the way into Mexico or to Florida and on a single cylinder 250cc scooter to boot. Our average speed for the entire trip was 61 miles an hour including rider hand offs and fuel stops. Our fuel economy had been just shy of 50 mpg.

Try as we might, the only item we managed to break was an exhaust bracket. At about hour 22 the scooter went from quiet to very loud, as the nuts holding the exhaust on had vibrated off. This was traced to a bolt that came loose and caused the bracket to give under the increased stress. It was quickly repaired but did cost us some time overall. That being said, the reliability of this machine is phenomenal. Considering that large men, read 200, 250 and 300 pounds, rode the People 250 by holding the throttle wide open for 2 hours at a crack and the only thing we could break was an exhaust bracket is downright amazing!

Looks like a 150cc should do the trick. Fairly quickly settled on a Kymco People 150. Great combination of features, price, and performance. At $3200, it'll top out around 70mph and should get around 70mpg. Also comes with 16-inch tires instead of the usual 12-inch. It's pretty quick, too; I think it will out accelerate my Civic. From what I can tell, the local dealer has a decent reputation and deals solely with scooters. Also nice is that Kymco has a very good reputation for quality machines (they've built Honda engines for decades) and have always had the longest warranty in the scooter world.

Being the Southeast I should be able to ride it year round. Add some layers and a windbreaker and I'll be good easily into the 30s. I've been ice skating and cross country skiing into the minus 20s, so how bad can it be? Reminds me I should get some good Minnesota-winter quality gloves. It's been in the mid-90s the last couple weeks and I'd think riding in January would be more comfortable than this.

According to this story, the scooter market is facing a relatively new rebound. Looks like the reason so many people have been restoring old Vespas is that they were only reintroduced into this country in 2000.

Scooter is ordered and should be in any day now. Took the motorcycle written test and now have a provisional license good for six months.


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