Americans have traditionally described their cars in terms of displacement by cubic inch. That Chevy that the Beach Boys sang about was a 409 cubic inch monster. More recently, American carmakers have given in and used metric measures. My minivan has a 3.3 liter motor.
On the other hand, motor scooter motors are categorized by displacement in cubic centimeters (cc). That 409 works out to over 6,700cc and, for the metrically challenged, I can report that 3.3 liters is the equivalent of 3,300cc. Is it any wonder then, considering that until recently they generally maxed out at 250cc, that scooters have never caught on in the USofA? They are so darn small.
Motorcyclists have long been aware that you can squeeze one heckuva lot of fun filled performance out of small motors, and whether they like it or not, motorcyclists are first cousins to scooterists. We’re all brothers on two wheels. Sisters, too. But even American motorcyclists have succumbed to the high displacement disease. It is not unusual for motorcycles designed for cruising to approach or exceed 1,000cc. To my way of thinking, this is pure silliness on a par with buying a Ferrari to putt around town. You have to detune them to get them to run properly in high gears at speeds lower than they were designed for. Then, when you really wanna open them up to see what they can do, they are not ready for it.
But I digress…
For convenience sake, assume that all of the scooters described herein have four stroke motors. Four stroke motors are like the motors in cars. Two strokes are different animals. If you don’t know the difference, make certain that you never even consider buying a two stroke. Assume as well that they are all of the 'twist and go' variety. That is, they have what are called CVT transmissions, not requiring any shifting of gears.
These are the smallest scooters. In some American states, you don’t have to have any sort of license to ride one and they don’t need to be registered or inspected. For this reason, in such states they have become a favorite of folks who have lost their licenses because of DUI convictions. In many European countries, teens who are not old enough to drive larger displacement machines or cars can legally operate 50s.
The top speed of a derestricted 50cc scooter is 40 MPH or more. Not much more. Less than that going up hill. (The speed of a scooter can be restricted in a variety of ways. RPMs can be limited electronically, airflow and fuel flow can be constrained. Derestricting 50s is a cottage industry in Europe, where in some countries 50s are shipped with these and other restrictions because they are not supposed to be capable of exceeding about 30 MPH.)
50cc scooters are suitable for the learner, particular in more urban environments. They are not suited for roads with speed limits of 45 MPH or more. They get in the way. They frustrate the drivers of cars. The most severe accidents occur when the speed differential is greatest, and frustrated car drivers and 50cc scooters are a volatile mix. On city streets, though, 50s have plenty of zip and, because fuel consumption may approach 100 MPG, they can be an economical and enjoyable form of transportation. Just check out any European city. Scooters work for them. Eventually, scooters will work for Americans too.
I’ve put these two displacements together because they serve the same purpose but on different continents. For some reason, 125s are the customary next step up from a 50 in Europe. In the USofA, we move up to 150s. Don’t ask me why the difference. I just don’t know. I’ll talk about 150s because I am, after all, an American and I own one.
Depending on the weight of the rider, 150cc scooters are capable of speeds approaching 65 MPH running at full revs on the flat, so you can keep up with the traffic on just about any highway except an Interstate. I know. 65 MPH is the limit on most Interstates. But a 150 must be running flat out, must be in perfect tune and the highway must be flat to reach and maintain that speed. And most cars exceed 65 MPH on the Interstate.
I don’t take my 150 on the Interstate.
If you sustain high speeds over long periods, you’re looking at 65 to 70 MPG. At lower speeds on long, easygoing runs, I’ve recorded over 80 MPG.
In sum, 150s are fast and economical but they have their limitations, minor though they may be.
These babies have it all. They can cruise at 70 MPH. They get over 60 MPG. They are bigger and more stable and more comfortable than their smaller cousins.
For those comparing scooters to motorcycles, beware. A 250cc motorcycle, tuned up and rarin’ to go, is leaner and lighter and has a top speed 20% or more higher than a 250cc scooter. That’s generally true up and down the line when comparing these two-wheeled rideables. So, if you want to smoke the rear tire and race your buddies, you want to buy a motorcycle anyway.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a go-anywhere, easy-going two-wheeled ride (and you can ignore all of the hyphens), a 250cc scooter is the way to go.
• 400cc and Above
Here’s where I freely admit that I demonstrate my prejudice.
The Japanese makers in particular are pushing these higher displacement scooters. Just as American automakers pandered to those who thought muscle cars and SUVs were the ultimate in four-wheeled transportation and, in the process, nearly ruined the concept of the automobile as an economical and efficient form of transportation, so these high-displacement scooters are being marketed as the ultimate scooter experience.
They are not. They are stealth motorcycles.
There is a place for these big babies, I suppose. I know folks who have physical disabilities, some due to motorcycle accidents oddly enough, who have difficulty sitting on a motorcycle for extended periods, who find the shifting of gears on a motorcycle difficult or impossible. And it is true that the riding position on a scooter is, in general, more comfortable and easier on the back than a motorcycle. And there are those who will use high-displacement scooters for tours of the Rockies, say, where steep hills require steep horsepower.
But for the average Joe, a 250cc scooter is enough and should be enough.