- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Gasoline pushing $3 gallon? Why worry? Buy a motor scooter like thousands of other Americans and stretch that single gallon of gas a week or more.

“As people start driving them, they start finding more reasons to use them,” said Doug Day, owner of Scooter Centrale and Vespa Hartford in Plainville, Conn. “They’re practical, easy to park and get great gas mileage. I put $5 worth of gas into mine when it’s totally empty, compared to $50 in my SUV.”

As gasoline prices soar, the popularity of peppy, fuel-sipping motor scooters — most easily get 50 mpg and some of the smaller ones get up to 80 mpg — is soaring. Sales, estimated at 86,000 last year in the U.S., have doubled from 2000, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

“How many miles to the gallon does it get?” is one of the first questions customers ask at the Vespa Washington dealership at 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

“It’s not a question we got a year ago; now it’s one of the primary issues,” said manager Gerry Helfgott.

Vespas are marketed to metropolitan areas with tight parking and high fuel costs, such as the District.

“It’s a great way of getting around town. They’re easier to maneuver than a car, and it’s easier to find a parking space,” Mr. Helfgott said.

But scooter riders need to get a motorcycle license to ride in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

And scooters are not allowed on the highways.

Although the weather in the Washington area limits “comfortable” riding to eight months a year, some riders tough it out year-round using lap blankets and gloves to keep warm while zooming around in the cold, Mr. Helfgott said.

“I put about 20 miles a day on mine, and I only have to fill it up twice a month,” said Jessica Meuchel, 23, who uses a scooter to deliver daily newspapers in Pierre, S.D. She bought the two-wheeler in the spring because it was costing her $200 a month to fuel her truck.

Even the larger scooters are more economical to drive than cars, Mr. Day said. He said sales at his shops climbed nearly 200 percent last year and are doing well this year, too.

Sales at Vespa Washington have been down slightly this summer, mostly because employee-discount incentives have driven up auto industry sales, Mr. Helfgott said.

Motorcycle Industry Council spokesman Mike Mount said the market gained momentum when upscale Italian scooter maker Piaggio re-entered the U.S. market with the lVespa scooter in 2001. Motorcycle makers such as Honda and Yamaha also began offering new lines of scooters in recent years.

Scooters were pioneered in postwar Europe by Piaggio, which made the first Vespa in 1946.

Gary Christopher, an executive with American Honda Motor Co. in Los Angeles, said Honda heavily promoted U.S. scooter sales in the 1980s, but annual U.S. sales peaked in 1987 and slumped after advertising was pared. They have long been popular in coastal areas and warmer climates, but more also are being sold in states with colder weather, he said.

“It looks like this new resurgence of interest in scooters is something that can stand on its own without massive injections of advertising and promotion,” Mr. Christopher said.

Dwight Turner, owner of GS MotorWorks in Frisco, Texas, a large seller of imported motor scooters from China, attributed the fad partly to rising gasoline prices and the coming of age of youngsters who have graduated from popular foot-propelled sidewalk scooters.

“Many 10- to 13-year-olds bought those scooters and then got hooked on the idea of riding scooters instead of bicycles and are moving up the scooter food chain,” Mr. Turner said.

Scooter sales at his company climbed 300 percent last year, and they increased 50 percent in April alone, primarily because of high gasoline prices, he said.

Small scooters — especially those made in China, Korea and Taiwan — sell for as little as $800 to $900. Larger scooters, capable of legal highway speeds and more, can cost $4,000 to $6,000.

• Staff writer Jen Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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