The vibe was casual, as jeans, leather jackets, beards and tattoos set the scene in the massive Jacob K. Javits Convention Center last Friday, as riders mingled with industry reps for the 28th annual Cycle World International Motorcycle Show. Sponsored by Toyota, the show visits 13 cities across the U.S., and features the latest in on and off-road motorcycles, scooters and ATVs, from most major manufacturers.
Unlike flashy, over-the-top auto shows I've covered, the bike show was decidedly low-key, both in terms of attitudes and presentation. There were no multi-story faux rock outcroppings for SUVs to scale, or multi-million dollar displays with lights, sounds and moving parts. Even the babes on hand to hype various brands seemed a little less fake than the "actors" at other trade shows.
I didn't quite fit in among the bike enthusiasts and motor journalists -- a bike fanatic friend in college gave up teaching me how to ride his crotch rocket when I dropped it in the parking lot one too many times -- but I know a thing or two about green transportation. I missed the world debut of the Vectrix Vx-1E electric urban commuting model (I had transportation problems of my own getting to Javits), and I didn't see the BMX stunt show, either.
But I did spend some time learning about the latest offerings from Vespa, a brand long admired by my Bohemian neighbors in Greenwich Village. Some 17 million Vespa scooters have been made since 1946 by the 7,000-employee Italian company Piaggio Group. If you didn't know, Vespa means "wasp" in Italian.
Kevin Andrews, Vespa America's brand manager, told me that sales of the iconic, classic scooters exploded last summer, on the heels of record high gas prices. "We sold everything we had," Andrews said. In the last quarter of 2008 sales were flat versus 2007.
"Some people look at [a Vespa] as an economic purchase, and others look at it as a luxury purchase," said Andrews. "A Vespa can't totally replace a car, but it can replace a lot of car miles." Andrews added that the company has been steadily adding dealers in the U.S., despite the economic downturn, and that the customer base keeps broadening.
Andrews stressed that all Vespas sold in America since 2001 have come with four-stroke engines, which burn much cleaner than the two-stroke engines still used by many scooters around the world. Plus, up to 7 Vespas can fit neatly into one full-size car parking space -- something that can go a long way to helping reduce sprawl and congestion. In fact, in some towns commuters have to endure extremely long waiting lists to even be eligible for a parking space at the local train or bus station, and even then the expense can be considerable.
As population continues its march upwards, we need to find more ways to get people out of their cars, and clean, efficient scooters can be part of the solution.
At Cycle World, Vespa announced the launch of the new 2009 Vespa S 50 and the GTS 300 Super. With an MSRP of $3,199, the S 50 offers better power and handling than other 50cc scooters, according to the manufacturer, due to engineering advances that reduced weight and improved performance. The S 50 can do about 4 horsepower and a max speed of 39 mph, with a reported 70 to 80 mpg. It comes in red, black, orange and Montebianco.
If you want more power and cargo capacity, the 278cc GTS 300 might be for you (MSRP $6,199). This scooter can hit 80 mph, and gets fuel economy in the neighborhood of 70 mpg (at least according to one reviewer). It comes in black or white.
The CEO of Piaggio Group America, Paolo Timoni, told journalists at the show that the scooter market is bigger than the motorcycle market in Europe -- which is reversed in America, a land of daredevils and lovers of wide open road. "Americans spend $1.5 trillion a year to get around," said Timoni. "It costs Americans $650-850 a month to own and operate a car, not including parking. It costs only $150-180 a month for a scooter. A lot of people are going to look at this and think it's a good idea."
Timoni added that in December 2009 or January 2010, Vespa will be releasing a hybrid scooter. "It will have the latest technology, but it will be expensive," he said, with a price premium of two to three thousand dollars. "With a hybrid scooter a user might use about $3 a week in gas, instead of $8 a week," added Timoni.
Timoni said his company has considered purely electric scooters, but that they haven't been satisfied with the quality of batteries currently available, and the resultant range. "For many people, it's a psychological thing [having a reduced range]," Timoni said. He pointed out that even though studies show 90% of people primarily use their vehicles for short commutes, they are still uncomfortable buying something that can't go hundreds of miles without a refill/recharge.
There's no denying that Vespas are hot, or that the design is enduring, like the original Jeep, Pez dispensers, Coca-Cola or the Gibson guitar. Like many iconic items, Vespa scooters can retain good resale value. And as Andrews points out, "With the all-steel chassis, Vespas can last a really long time." Thats good for the environment.
Scooters aren't necessarily for everyone, but they can be part of the transportation mix that helps us use less gas and reduce congestion.
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