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Scooters bring a little European flair to everyday traffic woes

Vespa’s original engineer, Corradino D’Ascanio, thought motorcycles were inconvenient, uncomfortable and grimy. Couldn’t stand the things.

So, in 1946 he teamed up with Enrico Piaggio to build an inexpensive scooter that allowed the masses to motor the strada in style. The frame’s shape protects riders from road dirt and debris; the step-through design means there’s no swinging your legs over a saddle.

Europe has adored scooters for decades; in our SUV-centric culture, they’re largely disregarded. However, with gas at $3.50 a gallon and rising, we’re starting to look a lot more European.

“We’ve been paying $5-$7 a gallon for gas for many years,” says Vespa CEO Paolo Timoni. “People commute from London to Paris or Milan every day; there’s huge traffic congestion and a challenge to parking. The same is happening here.”

In February, Timoni paid for an open letter in the New York Times addressed to all U.S. mayors “concerned with America’s oil consumption.” He highlighted scooters’ many charms: They could reduce fuel consumption by 58%; emissions, by 80% or more.

Someone’s listening. Vespa sales grew 25% overall in the U.S. last year; the Sherman Oaks outpost reports a 134% increase.

But will car culture ever truly embrace scooter culture?

“No one is claiming that the scooter will replace the car,” says Timoni. “Going out with the family, dogs, bikes, an SUV is best for those things. Just don’t use it for every trip you take.”

To make your next trip to Starbucks a little more “Roman Holiday,” here’s what you need to know.

Scooter

Chinese Lucky 7 (47 cc; $1,179
Italian Vespa Granturismo Sport 250 (250 cc; $5,799)
Japanese Yamaha Vino (49 cc; $1,849); Suzuki Burgman 400 (385 cc; $5,699); Honda Silver Wing (582 cc; $7,949)

Speed

Larger engine output means greater speeds.
Smallest allowed on the freeway is 150 cc (59 mph); Vespa GTS Sport 250 reaches 100 mph; Honda Silver Wing gets 127 mph

Mileage

Expect 40-70 mpg, depending on engine size

Safety

No better than motorcyles. Some scooters have disc brakes on both wheels; most have them only on the front. Safety comes down to a helmet.

Storage

Most have underseat storage big enough for two helmets. Vespa also sells top case and side bags.

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