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Easy riders: Scooters on road toward mainstream acceptance

The two-wheel vehicle's image is evolving, in the minds of Americans, from geek chic to mainstream cool.

By Will KilburnCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2008

Gardner Murray (r.), of Vespa Soho, shows Anthony Hayes a 2006 Vespa LX-150. As gas prices soar, scooters are an increasingly popular option for commuters. Sellers and manufacturers attribute the interest, in part, to increased exposure on television and in the news.

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Long a familiar sight on the roads of Europe and Asia, motorized scooters are still relatively rare in the United States. While much of the world views them as a practical – and often stylish – necessity, they've occupied more of a niche market in the car-centric US, where scooter riders were perhaps justifiably seen as more concerned with fashion than with function.

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But the scooter's image is evolving, and scooter numbers are rising: Scooter sales in the US have jumped dramatically in recent years, from roughly 20,000 units sold in 1999 to over 150,000 in 2006.

"People are migrating toward scooters for all the right reasons," says Kevin Andrews, Piaggio/Vespa brand manager for Piaggio USA, which showed off several lines of classic and modern scooters at a motorcycle show in New York City in December. "They average about 70 miles per gallon; every time the price of gas goes up, people give us more consideration, which is great."

While the rising price of gasoline is generally seen as the main cause of that jump – depending on engine size, scooters can get 50 to 100 miles per gallon – the boom is also being fueled by frustrations with traffic jams, an aging population that is trading down from heavier two-wheelers, and what one longtime industry observer terms the "culturization" of scooters .

"People were seeing them more on the TV and the news, and it just got to the point where people were seeing them enough to say, 'That would be a cool thing to do,' " says Robert Slover, district sales manager for Kymco, which builds scooters as well as full-size motorcycles at factories in Taiwan and mainland China, selling them both under the Kymco brand name, as well as that of Honda.

Mr. Slover explains that as sales have risen (which began, coincidentally, right around the time when he started working for the company) the public has also noticed that scooters are no longer just small, fragile, poorly made toys. For example, thanks largely to tighter emission controls, the noisy two-stroke engines of old are on their way out, replaced by fuel-injected four strokes. Also going out of use, says Slover, are the low-grade body plastics that tended to shatter if the scooter ended up on its side.