by Gabe Ets-Hokin

Has Piaggio Idiot-proofed the Motorcycle?

Allow me to make a crass admission: I like to surreptitiously glance at large-breasted young ladies. They are pleasant to look at, but I’ve never given much thought to what it must be like to be one of those ladies. At least, I didn’t until I started riding around on a three-wheeled Piaggio MP3 500.

If it’s not like being Gina Lolabrigida, it’s like being in a travelling circus. Experienced motorcyclists want to know what it’s like to ride and prospective riders want to know if it’s easier than riding a standard two-wheeler. In fact, you might be curious to know about the MP3 as well. “Gabe, STFU already and get to the point.”

Fine. Piaggio’s MP3 500 is new for the USA market for 2009, but was introduced previously in Europe as the Gilera Fuoco (it means “fire,” in Italian, not something dirty, so just stop it). It’s based on the smaller 250 and 400cc models, using the same front suspension system, a complex parallelogram design composed of four aluminum arms supporting two steering tubes. The mechanism allows the two 120/70-12 front Pirellis to lean in tandem, simulating a normal motorcycle but putting twice the rubber on the pavement. A good idea, no?

The rest of the bike is familiar to those of us who like our scooters big and beautiful. A tube-steel chassis connects that front end to the motor/swingarm unit, which drives a 14-inch rear wheel. Disc brakes all around: two 240mm discs up front and a 280mm job in back. All three rotors get dual-piston calipers and braided steel lines, but there is no ABS option. Twin shocks in back, adjustable for preload, offer 110mm of travel. It’s covered in aggressive plastic bodywork, which together with the tube-steel rollcage and quad headlamps, makes the MP3 500 look more like a small armored car than a scooter. Order it in the matte-black finish and it’s ready to be strapped onto a pallet and air-dropped into Tora Bora.

That tough styling is backed up by one of the beefiest single-cylinder scooter engines on the market. It’s Piaggio’s low-emissions LEADER engine, a liquid-cooled, four-valve, single overhead cam design that’s good for about 40 hp at the crankshaft. It’s very clean-burning, thanks to fuel-injection and a knuckle-burning catalytic converter (read the owner’s manual before you adjust suspension!). Good power for any thumper, much less a scooter mill.

Too bad it has to move 557-plus pounds of scooter along the Earth’s crust. That’s the claimed wet weight, and I believe it. Yes, it may be just a scooter, but it’s as long as a Smart For Two (just kidding; the Smart is a whole 19 inches longer), and you feel the heft when it’s time to roll it around. Luckily, there is no sidestand to lift it off of, and using the centerstand is optional; just set the parking brake and the MP3 rests on the front wheels.

That is, if you remember to set the hydraulic wheel-lock mechanism. That’s triggered by a switch on the right handgrip that activates a caliper, which clamps a blade attached to the leaning mechanism. That keeps the bike from leaning to one side or another, and automatically disengages at 2500 rpm or over 6 mph. It takes some getting used to; try to set it too early and it disengages, set it too late and the bike lurches drunkenly to the side when you stop. But when you get the hang of it, say goodbye to setting your feet down when stopped, making the 30.9-inch seat height immaterial.

The 500 motor and transmission are tuned for quick starts and good midrange acceleration, making the MP3 king of the urban scooter scene. Under 50 mph you can ride with authority, effortlessly passing anything with more than two wheels. Potholed streets and construction zones are no problem, with sturdy suspension components soaking up bumps. The brakes are strong enough to howl both ends easily. The fuel-injection works nicely, after a brief period of balkiness when it’s cold. Top speed? About 95 indicated, at which speeds the bike starts to feel a little vague, as scooters tend to do at high speeds. But 95 mph is breaking the law, and we’re law-abiding scooter people.

Aren’t we?

But the magical part of the MP3 is that front end. “Where have you been all my life, my precious?” I croon to the complex system of whosits and whazzats. It really is that good. It’s stable and planted in low to mid-speed turns, like you’re riding a chariot pulled by two tiny motorcycles piloted by shrunken versions of Jeff Ward and Dave Aldena. I don’t know if it’s just psychological or what, but suddenly I had more confidence in turns, elevating corner speeds to I’m-an-idiot levels I haven’t experienced for years. Gravel? Sand? Squirrel guts? Hey, with two tires up there you can afford to squander a little traction, and if you slide, you’ll be much more likely to save it. Some nits to pick: in high-speed sweepers you can feel the two tires moving side-to-side a little, which can be disconcerting. It’s also more numb and heavy-steering than a conventional front end, although not the numbest or heaviest-steering I’ve experienced.

What I found as remarkable as the front end was the MP3 500’s versatility. My first ride on it was the 400 miles from Piaggio’s new tech center in Costa Mesa, CA, to my home in Oakland. I rode in comfort, with decent (okay, noticeable) wind protection below 75 mph, a comfortable saddle and seating position (until my legs and tailbone went numb after five hours from the feet-forward scooter riding posture), and ample storage room under the seat and on the built-in luggage rack (a locking trunk is available). You can load it up with a maximum of 465 lbs of luggage, passenger and rider, rivaling many touring bikes. There is no towing option, so you’ll have to leave your jet-ski at home.

Once back home, it became my go-to ride for personal transport and errands. In addition to the trunk, which is big enough to hold a full-face helmet and other stuff, there’s a little hook for your shopping bags or man-purse mounted under the steering head. Fuel economy is great; I recorded a low of 35 mpg in the 70-mile-long stop-and-go traffic jam from Orange County to where the Land Of Mordor (AKA the L.A. Basin) ends, to almost 50 mpg in mixed urban/freeway commuting. That means almost 150 miles from the 3.1-gallon tank if you baby it, 125 miles-ish if you’re more aggressive.

Versatile, fun, but not perfect. The MP3 500 has some limiting factors when you’re chasing sportbikes. The first is cornering clearance: the sidestand tang on the left side drags easily, followed by the plastic puck guarding the transmission cover. What would happen if the back end slid and came around, making the front wheels lose traction? Would I have a spin-out, crying out like Speed Racer as I hurtled over the cliff? I didn’t want to find out. The rear shocks were set to full stiff, which perhaps gave me more ride height and cornering clearance, but it also made the bike understeer, pushing me wide in turns. Clicking the preload down to the second of four positions was best for 155-lb me. The suspension works as well as any big scoot’s I’ve experienced, but that big lump of drive unit is all unsprung mass, and you’ll never have a ride like a motorcycle’s.

The most niggling issue? Acceleration. There I was, chasing my supermoto-riding buddies on our favorite swatch of bouncing, twisting coast-road tarmac, and I found that, for once, I had the confidence to carry similar corner speed, but curses! Forty hp schlepping 550 lbs of avant-garde metal is fine for inner-city dominance, but doesn’t let you exploit the insane corner speeds this thing can generate. You stay ahead of the Homo Supermotus drifting both ends through the turn behind you, but he blasts past you on the exit, even with the MP3’s efficient, well-tuned CVT shuddering to keep the big thumper at its torque peak.

Maybe I’m missing the point. Piaggio has a clear agenda: make motorcycles and scooters as safe, fun and easy to ride as possible so they’ll appeal to motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike. Some folks call this idiot-proofing, and I may be one of them. We all know the consequences of making an activity safe for idiots: idiots start to do it. Our sport has been safe from the long-term occupancy of morons for the last century: a moron on a motorcycle is a perfect self-correcting situation. But imagine a vehicle like the MP3 with the 80 hp, 839cc V-Twin from the Mana, electronic traction control, ABS and maybe an extra back wheel, too. It would help a ham-fisted, talentless buffoon with very little skill or experience ride at elevated speeds, humiliating talented, experienced riders on conventional motorcycles. Luckily, although the MP3 chassis adds a vast amount of safety and confidence to the riding experience, it’s not really idiot proof. It takes time and some skill to ride, as it’s not exactly like riding a regular scooter. You can still screw up if you don’t heed the dozens of warnings in the MP3’s 172-page manual, so be properly trained, experienced and equipped before you get on one of these.

The MP3 500 isn’t a magic carpet or a three-wheeled Shriner microcar that rides itself. You still have to be comfortable balancing, braking and riding a big, heavy scooter. But it is a fun, economical and practical commuting/weekend fun machine. And while at $8890 it’s just about the most expensive scooter you can buy, it’s still cheaper than a good breast augmentation, and probably a healthier way to attract attention.