Piaggio MP3 400: Not just a third wheel

By The Car Family

Call it a case of love at first site, but this is the coolest scooter ever. That feeling was reinforced with our inital ride as this $8700 trike is built with safety in mind featuring a range of technology that assuages one’s fears of driving a 540-pound vehicle in traffic thanks to Piaggio’s innovative use of two small front wheels instead of one to increase stability and braking.

The MP3’s 400 cc engine has liquid cooling with electronic injection that pushes out 34 horsepower, but isn’t quick to accelerate. If you want more scoot you should order the 500 cc model. If you want to save money the 250 cc is ideal, although freeway driving stretches its horsepower limit. We would stick to the 400 for most users as it makes sustained highway driving possible. For those who ride with a partner or in the mountains the 500 is a strong recommendation especially since it only costs about $300 more, but you must add an optional luggage carrier as there is very little storage room.


The MP3 400

Riding the MP3 takes a while to master as it handles differently than two wheeled bikes. It resists quick moves more and when cornering over rough surfaces there is a secondary bump as the second front tire hits the impediment. This impact tends to straighten out the bike, but it is easily compensated for and would only be a problem in competitive racing. For the street this Piaggio is pretty near perfect and safe.

While riding in the mountains I entered a high-speed corner and encountered gravel that had slipped onto the roadway. Normally this would be an invitation to disaster, but the Piaggio’s two front wheels, acting almost like a locking differential in a car, were able to find secure footing and the corner passed effortlessly. When one wheel slipped, the other found traction. Very reassuring.

Despite this noble handling trait, the most wondrous feature of the MP3 is that this scooter can balance itself. It is a marvel. When you come to a stoplight all you do is activate the leveling switch and the scooter remains upright. As you accelerate when the light changes the stability control automatically turns off. Even though there is a kickstand you can use the stabilizing system when you park your MP3, too. Just make sure the parking brake has been activated.

I found myself trying to rationalize the $8700 price for the 400 and it didn’t take too much to convince me that this is one trike that the whole family could enjoy. Perhaps not the whole family as Piaggio has clearly labeled the storage area as not for pets so there goes that idea.

Under the MP3’s seat is a large and easily accessible storage area that can hold two helmets and more. There is also a rear hatch that is pops open when you activate the key fob in much the same fashion as a car trunk. Very trick. Please note that the 500 does not have the optional rear “trunk.” On the other hand, opening the larger storage area under the driver’s seat takes practice, as you have to reach under the cushion and pull it up afer unlocking it by using the key fob or .pushing in the ignition switch. The latter takes practice. Regardless, there is more storage space here than on any scooter we have tested to date and when you add such other features as not having a clutch, foot brake, transmission gear selector, or kick-starter the MP3 easily ranks as the simplest scooter to operate.

Very Large MP3 Cargo Bay

There are some negatives. The windshield is a bit too low and so a great deal of wind buffets you at speeds over 40 mph. Since you sit upright there is no escaping the wind stream, as it is very difficult to lean forward due to the short driver’s seat. A taller shield is advisable for high-speed use, but would undoubtedly cut down on the scooter’s estimated 92-mph top speed. The turn signals don’t cancel. This is a major annoyance as a small flashing green light in the console is all that reminds you that they are activated. As well, the glass covering the gauges is at an angle that does little to prevent glare and makes reading the information difficult with polarized lenses and/or bright sunlight. The MP3’s “mode” button is unneeded as all of its functions, temperature and trip odometer could be placed where the speedometer is and a large, digital speedometer could occupy its niche in the center of the console. Placing the turn signal switch where the mode button is would make it much easier to activate than its current position low on the left hand part of the handle bar. A grab handle to pull the seat up to gain access to the storage bin underneath would also be appreciated. The night lighting is adequate with good side illumination, but there is a dark shadow in the center that is disconcerting.

Very Limited MP3 500 Storage Space

Other concerns are smallish rearview mirrors, indicator lights that should be LEDs, a lack of a good seal on the rear storage area, and not enough leg room for taller riders. Of these the latter is my only real complaint about the MP3. The passenger did not have these complaints, but did note that under braking the seat surface was a bit slippery.

On the plus side the gas cap is hidden under a cover and is controlled by pushing the key into the ignition switch and turning it. The cover is centered between the two foot rests and is ideally located. If you spill any gas it does not ruin the finish of the bike and there is even an overflow pipe that directs the precision fluid to the ground. Very nice touch as is the light in the cargo area. There is also a clock and a lockable helmet flange on this very deluxe scooter.

Under the unique bodywork is a single cylinder, liquid cooled, powerplant that uses electronic port injection to squirt unleaded fuel through the four valves and move the hefty scooter along at a steady rate through a drive shaft. It is not fast, but the 400 keeps up with traffic thanks to Piaggio’s CVT unit that distributes the power to the 14-inch rear wheel. A nice feature of the MP3’s design is that the air pressure in all the wheels can be checked without removing any body parts. Braking, which is very good, is handled by disc brakes on both front wheels and a third disc for the drive wheel.

MP3 500: Not Just Another Pretty Face. Notice black windscreen


Not a Pretty Face

The real story here is the front suspension. The front wheels are synchronized to provide stability thanks to the cast aluminum arms and hinges attached to the central tube with suspension pins and ball bearings. Forget the explanation, it works is all that is important.

Driving this scooter requires the ability to relax. The MP3 likes to go straight and even tries to ignore your initial attempt to turn it if you treat it timidly. In skilled hands this Piaggio is terrific fun and you can lean it into a turn far more than any scooter that I have ever tested. The MP3 would be great in a trick rider’s hands as its extra stopping power makes it possible to lift the rear end off the ground and its balance and stability make any type of extreme riding simpler. I can even envision some dishonest cad disabling the five-mile per hour limit on the upright stabilizing mechanism and doing endless tricks while it politely goes straight down the track. Of course, that would be very wrong.

The MP3 gets the looks from all ages. Unfortunately, some people judge by appearances and they find the Piaggio’s Darth Vadarish front look strange instead of futuristic. Too bad that they don’t understand that beauty is more than skin deep. This is a scooter for those who like the idea of driving a safe vehicle with better braking, handling, and storage than more traditional bikes.

Family conference: The MP3 comes in a variety of colors, but looks most fearsome in black. The seats are also black and quite comfortable, albeit they could be longer for taller riders. The muffler is too low and can scrape if you lean into turns aggressively, and the three-gallon tank could be enlarged for longer tours. The awkward ergonomics become less of a problem as you grow familiar with this motor trike.

The bottom line is that we would buy this scooter it is that good even if we don’t know about build quality, resale, service costs, or what futuristic scooter Honda has waiting in the wings. We also realize the declining dollar might make parts expensive, but for us this is the most comfortable, easy to drive, and easy to love scooter made. The fact we got nearly 70 miles per gallon just adds to the fun. Now, if we can just learn to live knowing we can’t smuggle a cat into the enclosed storage bin.

For a list of all vehicle websites go to

At a time when air pollution, high fuel prices, limited parking, and an abundance of traffic can well make a journey to the beach a dramatic trek rather than a romantic adventure there is a clear need to consider driving a traffic breaker. Fortunately coast clingers now have at their feet seven remarkable vehicles to ease the pain by using the latest in two-wheeled transportation.

No easy task, but The Car Family found two scooters, two motorcycles, and two electric bicycles that are all state of the art. Rounding out this formidable team is the new again Segway now equipped with beach tires and even a golf bag holder. The pricing for these seven ranges from about $2000 to over $35,000 with most of them priced around $5000.

The electric bicycles

There really isn’t a negative when it comes to electric bikes. They can climb hills, are easy to store, and have all the positives of typical bicycles except for the fact you can pedal when you want or just twist the throttle and let the motor take the sting out of hills and intersections as it pushes you up and over most every incline with very little assistance. Of these the Optibike is the most exclusive. The Colorado company only builds a couple a month, and can cost up to $8000 for the hottest model. And, we mean hot. The electric motor is sealed beneath the rider and supplies enough power to enable you to reach speeds in excess of 25 per hour. You can also cover 20 miles on level ground and more is possible if you pedal using the Optibike’s seven gears. You can ease your way through traffic knowing that this bike can go up to 20 mph. If you opt for the top of the line Optibike even faster speeds are possible. The hydraulic disc brakes, modern suspension, and design make it easy to ride. (For more information contact the Electric Cyclery at 949-715-2345.)

If the Optibike is too expensive the new eZee Forza costs just over $2000 and also uses an electric motor. Of course for less money you acquire less power, but you do get a lot of extras with the eZee such as lights and storage racks. Throw in reflective sidewalls, an upright seating position, and larger saddle and you have a beach cruiser, grocery getter, exercise enhancing all in one. It is an easier bike to ride than the Optibike, but isn’t nearly the fun for serious riders. The eZee is not as daring, but more practical. Either bike is terrific in traffic, you never had to worry about parking, and the batteries can be charged in just a few hours.

The Motorcycles
No less a person than racecar driver and designer Dan Gurney came up with the Alligator. You don’t sit on the Alligator, you literally sit in it with your behind only 18 inches from the pavement. For all the world it feels like you are on a recumbent bicycle except that this one is very fast.  The rider and the engine are at the same level so handling is exceptional. The one cylinder engine produces 70 horsepower and only has to carry 320 pounds thanks to a carbon-fiber body and alloy wheels. Because of its low stance it requires a bit of dexterity to park until you learn to pull yourself up with the handlebars. Much easier maneuver than larger motorcycles and with the low center of gravity handling is superior. The big brakes make stopping very easy, but the true joy of the Alligator is being able trim any canyon with ease and still being able to snuggle it into the tightest PCH beach parking place. Should you feel the need for speed this Gurney creation reaches 60 mph in less than 4 seconds making it one of the fastest legal machines in the world. The $35,000 plus machine is also a limited edition. In other words this might be one of the few conveyances that is increasing in value. You can also wait for a two-cylinder version called the Yama-Gator that is lighter. If you want to get noticed, the Alligator draws more eyes than a crushed Ferrari on PCH and is very exclusive with just 35 or so currently in existence. For more information call 714-540-1771

At the other end of the motorcycle spectrum is the car like Honda Gold Wing. This is as close to a full sized car as you can get and comes with the same options most automobiles offer including an airbag and heated seats. The Gold Wing is the most comfortable way to drive PCH at any time. Costing $20,000 and weighing over 800 pounds the Honda’s 118 horsepower engine can be maneuvered though all manner of PCH hazards with effortlessness, parks in the tightest of spaces, and has plenty of storage space for refreshments. Owners need never feel deprived of gadgets just because they are on a motorcycle as this Honda has GPS with voice prompting that can work through headsets or speakers, a color monitor, heated seats and handle grips, and even a foot warming feature. Perfect for those cool night rides and foggy mornings the Gold Wing can smooth out the most stressful Malibu day or night.

The Scooters

Say scooters and what most people think of is the ubiquitous Vespa. Well, they are still around and much improved. The latest and the best is the Piaggio MP3 with its two small front wheels that make it much easier to turn than a convention scooter. It also has better traction in wet weather should that ever occur again in Southern California. The front wheels tilt together for a very smooth turning action.  If you want to use it on the freeway buy the more expensive 2500 cc model which is upwards of $7000. For slightly less you get the abundantly adequate 125 cc version. It has an electro-hydraulic suspension which makes parking a snap you just lock it and the MP3 stays upright. So cool. You don’t even have to put your foot down when stopped at a red light. Three disc brakes, a good-sized storage unit, lots of options from heated leg warmers to GPS and Bluetooth make this the Mother of All scooters and a hoot to drive.

The first Vespa is now over 60 years old and is the Father of All scooters. Yes, it looks a bit long in the tooth looking, but the innards have been refreshed many times. Starting at just over $4000 and with fuel mileage in the 70-mpg range, the basic PX 150 has the traditional four-speed manual transmission, ample storage, including a spare tire. You can haul several bags of groceries using the scooters built in bag hooks and rear rack. It is quick off the line, considering that the 150 cc engine isn’t really meant for speeds about 60 mph. Easy to park, this Italian made bike is fun and frisky with just a touch of eccentricity. Can you say Malibu? (949) 631-5105

The Segway

Considered legal for pedestrian purposes, the Segway claims it can even be taken into stores. Regardless, it is a snap to learn how to operate and with the P or X2 Series model can by driven right onto the beach where permitted. The larger tires make for a slower ride than the standard model, but provide a better base enabling you to carry everything from golf clubs to a picnic basket. Priced around $5000 and up, the electric Segway is capable of coping with some of the more significant inclines in Malibu with payloads up to 260 pounds including the operator. For a test drive contact the dealers in Santa Monica or Newport through

Family conference: Each of these forms of transportation offers viable alternatives to four wheeled vehicles and we enjoyed every one. We especially liked the electric bicycles and the Segway for their ease of operation and the fact they don’t have to be insured or licensed. The bottom line is that it is time to seriously look at going back to the future for that next trip to the seashore. For a list of all vehicle manufactures go to