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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.

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"All the technology that has been developed for the last 40 years from all the motorcycle manufacturers, be it European, Japanese, or whatever, has now flowed into the motor-scooter market," says Slover. "You've got disc brakes with steel-braided brake lines, you've got automatic transmissions with liquid coolant in engines. All that technology makes them easier to operate, and they last longer."

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And many of them also go quite a bit faster. While the typical scooter of yesteryear was neither powerful enough nor stable enough to take out on the highway, many companies offer models that are capable of topping 100 miles per hour. Such scooters have been common in Europe for some time but have only recently gained a foothold here as people buy scooters not just for recreation, but for utility, keeping up with cars at highway speeds being one such function.

"In Europe, people think of motorcycles as a means. Here, they think of them as entertainment," says Tom Parr, a regional service representative for Yamaha. "You buy motorcycles in the US to be seen riding; 10 percent of [buyers] ride them for the sake of riding them. But in Europe, it's the other way around."

But even for those whose main reason for buying a scooter is function, there are many forms to choose from. Yamaha's sleek, low-slung Morphous – reminiscent of something Batman might ride to the corner store – stopped many New York showgoers in their tracks, as it presumably does on the highway, while fans of the Vespa brand can choose from several different "retro" models styled after favorites from the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

Along with a range of styles, seemingly all scooter manufacturers offer a wide range of models, ranging from tiny, 50-cc in-town models on up to 500-cc tourers. That latter group, of course, raises the question of what, exactly, is the dividing line between a scooter and a motorcycle. While the performance gap has narrowed between high-end scooters and motorcycles, Kymco's Slover points out that there are still some fundamental differences between a scooter and a motorcycle. While all scooters have automatic transmissions – still a relatively rare sight on motorcycles – the main distinction is in the body configuration: If you can step through it rather than straddle it, it's a scooter. The body style, Slover continues, also makes scooters somewhat safer, as both the engine and the gas tank sit lower on the body and provide a lower center of gravity.

But Slover, who has both scooters and full-size rides among the 15 new and vintage motorbikes he keeps in his garage, says the difference is one of attitude. Motorcyclists are out there to ride, he says with a mock-intense expression; scooter people are out there to smile.

"It really boils down to smile factor. They're fun to ride. That's the biggest thing – they're easy, they're fun. I kid around and say, 'If you can keep your butt on a seat, and your balance on two wheels, and twist your hands and work your fingers, you can ride a motor scooter.' "