First Ride: Piaggio MP3 400 and 500

Click above for high-res gallery of the Piaggio MP3 400 and 500

Piaggio's unique MP3 scooter, with its two wheels in front and one in back, has been turning heads since its introduction as a 250cc model a few years ago. After getting the chance to ride the latest 400cc and 500cc versions, we can confirm that it still causes its fair share of rubber-neckers. As automotive drivers, we wondered if Piaggio's entry into the growing maxi-scooter segment could be a viable car alternative for some consumers, and as motorcycle riders, we wondered how those two-front wheels would feel as we chucked it into some bendy-roads. We found all we wanted to know and more after two days worth of driving through both downtown New York City and the surrounding rural roadways all the way into Connecticut. Read on past the jump to see what we thought.

We'll get to the riding impressions in a bit; first let's take a walkaround. One major aspect to consider when deciding how practical a scooter will be is storage. The overall usefulness of the vehicle can be greatly impacted if there is not enough room for your objects. Consider, too, if there is a specific place to keep a helmet when you dismount the machine. In the case of the Piaggio MP3, the 400 and 500 versions offer differing takes on the storage conundrum. The 400 would be the obvious choice if you don't want to add any extra cases to your mount, as its under-seat space is ample for most helmets. If more room is needed, topcases are available for both the 400 and 500 models. The 250, which is the original model from Piaggio, offers just as much room as the 400, so keep that in mind when shopping.

How about wind protection? Both models come from Italy with a full front legshield and a small wind deflector. This proves adequate for around-town riding, but expect to feel a bit wind-blown at high speeds. Two optional windscreens were fitted to our test models, one of which looks much like the alien-head from the classic movie franchise. Though odd looking, the touring screen proved the most adept at creating a bubble in which to ride. That large screen also did wonders when we encountered a small patch of rain. The smaller optional screen also did a fine job of deflecting the wind, bugs and road debris that makes hard contact with your person when riding on the highways without a screen. A full-face helmet would be a wise addition if you plan to ride sans-screen.

Piaggio has seen fit to offer two distinct looks for the MP3. The orignal 250's appearance is carried-over to the new 400 model, which the mad-max style from the Euro-only Gilera 500 comes over intact on the 500. We favored the 500's appearance, to be honest, and we also preferred its onboard computer to the 400's. The 500 also offers more options when it comes to the good ole bungee, as its exposed metal frame features plenty of places to attach to. We detected a bit more mirror-shake from the 500, though both models were fairly decent for their 360-degree view. We preferred the instruments from the 500 as well. Either model garners plenty of attention from passers-by, so those who don't like attention might want to look elsewhere.

It's the ride that proved the most enlightening feature of the MP3. We got the chance to hop on the original 250 for a brief spin... to be honest, it proved plenty powerful, even on the highway. The 500cc engine offers noticeably more grunt than the 400, so if passing power is your priority, the choice is pretty easy. The 400 proved to be a tweener model in our eyes, as the 250 offers just as much practicality along with a bit more fuel efficiency. The 500 gets around 60 mpg. This section could be titled, "How I learned to stop worrying and trust the front-end." Those riders used to a single contact patch in the front may find some trepidation when it comes to leaning the MP3 deep into a corner. We found that there is no need to worry, as the deep scrapes from the center stand will attest to. Contact with the pavement from hard-parts proved extremely easy, though there is plenty of lean-angle. Another benefit to the dual front wheels appears when braking. We had no trouble at all locking up the rear brake, but it's the front set that delivers the real stopping power. As with most two-wheelers, braking through corners makes the MP3 want to "stand up," so set your pace before the entry point and power out the other end. We had a great deal of fun with this approach, and the MP3 does nothing but inspire confidence. When rolling to a stop, a button press on the right handgrip allows the MP3 to lock into an upright position.

In the end, the pick of the litter would have to be the 500. Though it offers slightly less storage, it makes up for this shortcoming with adequate power and great looks. We'd recommend adding a topcase to the rear and would also consider an optional windshield for touring use, though a full-face helmet would likely be enough for most circumstances. We can think of no better scooters for around town errand running, for the commute to work or for past riders looking to rejoin the world of two-wheelers (ok, three-wheelers). Nobody missed the MP3s on the roadways, as their size and unique presence makes them highly visible. As with all scooters and motorcycles, though, be sure to get the proper training and always gear-up with a good helmet and riding apparel. When ridden properly and under the right circumstances, the Piaggio MP3 seems to offer a compelling alternative to the maxi-scooter norm and even midsize motorcycles.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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