Japan unveils its latest hot wheels: motor scooters

The Japanese think they've come up with a better idea - again - in transportation.

The country that dominates the American motorcycle market, helped popularize the small car here, and introduced the bullet-train concept is making yet another move on wheels - this time on motor scooters.

Already a popular form of transportation in Europe and Japan, motor scooters never really caught on in this country. Now, however, after three years of extensive market research, Japan's Yamaha has concluded Americans are ready to hit the road by the thousands on the two-wheeled machines.

Despite a weakened economy that has meant slack times for motorcycle and moped sales, Yamaha is confident about prospects for the Riva - the sporty and relatively inexpensive scooter it has just introduced here. The company predicts first-year sales will be 14,000 machines, double the number of scooters now estimated to be sold here yearly. Within five years, Yamaha officials also predict, the American motor-scooter market will have increased tenfold.

''Yamaha is going to redefine the scooter market in this country,'' says Ken Pratt, owner of Reading, Mass., Yamaha Suzuki and an enthusiastic Riva dealer. ''Yamaha redesigned an old idea and transformed it into a modern piece of transportation.

''It's got the right price, quality, performance . . . everything, really,'' he continues. ''It's going to sweep the country.''

But that prediction may be overstepping the situation. So far, Yamaha is the only Japanese manufacturer to step into the American market. A spokesman for Suzuki Motor Corporation, which, like Yamaha, produces a motor scooter in Japan, says there may be a market for scooters here, but Suzuki has no ''present'' plans to enter it.

In addition, it is rumored within the industry that American Honda Motor Company Inc. will introduce its own Japanese scooter after seeing how Yamaha fares. Honda officials, however, will not comment.

Still, other observers both within and without the industry think Yamaha may be on the right track. Andrew Mitchell, an associate professor of marketing at Carnegie-Mellon University who did a study on motorcycles for the US Department of Transportation, says, ''My guess is that there's probably a significant set of people looking for inexpensive transportation, although it's hard to tell just how big the market is.''

Approval of Yamaha's move has come from some unlikely sources - Vespa of America Corporation, for one. That Italian company now makes most of the motor scooters currently sold in the US.

''As generally happens, the arrival of the Japanese is obviously a challenge, but it's also a blessing in disguise,'' says Guido Foggini, president of Vespa of America. ''They promote their products heavily. They sold people on the small automobile. I think they may do it again with the scooter.

''The Japanese are helping us,'' he says. ''In fact, they're doing much more than we can do ourselves.''

Unlike the Vespa, a heavy, steel-bodied machine that is conservatively designed, the Riva is a brightly colored, plastic-bodied scooter that is cheaper than a Vespa and equipped with extras - including an electric starter - its Italian counterpart doesn't have.

Also unlike Vespa of America, Yamaha - which is planning a $1 million promotional campaign - is pushing its scooter as ''chic'' among college students and upscale, fashion-conscious professionals. Although the scooter officially won't be introduced until spring, Riva dealers contacted in Massachusetts and California say sales have been ''brisk,'' in the words of one.

''Basically, we think there's a big market,'' says Sid Partow, manager of Newport Vespa, Riva in Newport Beach, Calif., the largest scooter dealership in the country. ''Every time the Japanese do something, they do it right. In the next few years, I'm sure there'll be thousands and thousands of these on the road.''

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