2008 Piaggio MP3 500 i.e. Review

If Darth Vader Had a Scooter


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A few weeks ago I packed up the now-legendary and "soon to be applying for antique vehicle status" MO van with the Benelli you’ll be reading about in an upcoming shootout. I was bound for the secret Piaggio lair to pick up a new scoot. This is where the Fonz gets wet between the knees.

Waiting for me in the wings was a true oddball, and I was itchin’ to take it back to the 23-arce Motorcycle.com Moto-estate on the Malibu coast. Maybe you hadn’t heard of the place yet, but it’s pretty awesome, and all mine. Okay, so I was huffing some exhaust fumes in the rickety van when I dreamed up our fantasy office; nothing unusual there.

The machine I’m hauling is the Piaggio MP3 500i.e. – nothing like your grandma’s scooter, to say the least. I’ve long wanted to ride this three-wheeled machine, ever since its introduction. After being briefed on the MP3 I signed the paperwork, loaded it up and hit the road.

The Piaggio MP3 500’s styling is a cross between a grasshopper and a Transformer.

There’s a bit of a learning curve to getting the MP3 down the road. The tilt/steering lock switch on the right thumb allows the front wheel(s) assembly to swing or tilt. You can disengage it manually or it’ll automatically do so upon take off at about 2000 rpm. Another trick little feature is the rider sensor in the saddle. Like the one in your car that beeps when you or your passenger aren’t wearing the required seatbelts. This mechanical wizardry keeps the throttle from engaging the drivetrain to prevent accidental roll-offs while you might be standing next to the bike. Even at full throttle, it just gurgles without accelerating away if you’re not in the saddle. But sit back in that cushy saddle, punch it, and away you go.

I can just assume this to be one of those features that came about the hard way. Giuseppe came home tired as a dog from the old spaghetti factory and, while unloading his groceries from beneath the saddle, he hung his jacket – or his bag of baguettes – on the throttle before killing the motor and – zoom! – away it went, straight into the canal. Such a combination seems impossible, but stranger things have happened in this world. Thus the saddle sensor was born.

Not your typical little scooter.
What’s that? A banana in the roadway? Not a worry on Fonzie’s face.
The front end consists of an aluminum parallelogram with four arms supporting two steering tubes and cantilevered suspension with 3.3 inches of wheel travel.

There’s also a centerstand attached to the steel-tube framework, but it doesn’t need one, having that third leg… er, um wheel. The MP3 can be brought to a stop and parked upright like a car, yet can share a parking space (as well as a lane here in California) like any two-wheeled motorbike. For the interested buyers out there, when you take delivery of your MP3, tack on a second ramp for any potential moving days. The standard 18” wide one you have now isn’t wide enough to handle the two wheel tracks you’ll now own.

If Darth Vader Had a Scooter

When I finally got the MP3 out of the van and got to test riding it, I learned a lot, fast. A man gets hungry with all the rigorous testing we do; deserving a fine chicken wing every now and then. So there I sat in the takeout lobby of my local restaurant, questioning stuff about the machine, Googling Piaggio on my iPhone. I found out Piaggio is based in Pontedera, Italy, and produces seven brands of scooters and motorcycles, including Moto Guzzi, Aprilia and Vespa. As the fourth-largest producer of scooters and motorcycles in the world, the company pumps outs more than 600,000 vehicles annually, with five R&D centers, more than 6,700 employees and operations in over 50 countries. This 493cc MP3 is the largest of three in Piaggio’s lineup of three-wheeled scoots.

Eventually I noticed a padlock-branded button on the MP3’s automobile-like key. Unsure what it was for, I was afraid to push it for fear of watching the scoot tip over from 20 feet away. So I waited for my spicy Asian midnight snack (We’re hoping the Fonz is talking about food here. –Ed.) before seeing what this button on the key fob would do. I tried it when I was within catching distance of the trike, unsure if perhaps it unlocked the tilt mechanism for some emergency failsafe reason.

After pushing the button I hear an audible schlunk but nothing else happens. Again, click, schlunk. It sounds like car doors unlocking. Without there being a trunk as with the MP3 400 model, the saddle is the only remaining “openable” part, so I pushed the button and grabbed the seat to find that it’s now unlocked. Nice. A remote unlock for the saddle is not what I expected to find, but in went the wings and I rode off. The saddle can also be opened by rotating the key in the ignition.

For the experienced rider, the extra contact patch of a second wheel up front is going to be a fun addition to the grocery getting. The MP3 can be pushed into deep lean angles without fear of the abrupt step-outs common to single-track front ends. In the canyons, the two tracks make for increased mental security, with one wheel perhaps in a grease track and the other cleanly gripping the road.

For the newbies to motorcycling or scootering, they may never notice the added weight and roadway feedback from the dual front wheels. Steering transitions are super smooth and as nimble and accurate as any “regular” bike. Despite its pair of wheels up front, the tilting MP3 handles nothing like the three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder, as the MP3’s second front wheel is barely noticeable to a motorcycle operator.

Like riding a Hayabusa compared to a GSX-R, the steering feels a little heavy for the first few rides. The scale of the front end – containing all that steering science – is intimidating only at first but melts away with the first few gallons of gas, as does the nearly 560 pounds of claimed wet weight.

Although you didn’t see me riding the MP3 harder than a CBR up here, it happened.
The three-wheeled MP3 goes around corners like a motorcycle thanks to some innovative engineering.

Features we received on our euro-spec test model that you may not see include a passing light toggle paired to the high-beam switch and a dashboard speedo in kilometers. The handbag/man purse/grocery bag hook behind the fairing and between your knees is rather European feeling as well. Nice additions, in our opinion. Further storage is found beneath the saddle as it is on many other scooters; enough for only one full-face helmet or two half shells. And stuffed into the carcass of the saddle is a handy rain cover.

Ergonomics are upright and more like a standard motorcycle than the cruiser-type foot-forward riding position of my old Honda Elite or a Suzuki Burgman. What’s stranger than having an extra wheel out front - saving you from oil spills and bad line choices - is the basic scootering principles of not downshifting or braking with your feet. Once you get past that, the twist–and-go CVT transmission makes it all fun and games.

'This thing turns heads of the young, old, rich and impoverished.'

The strange looks from the gathering crowd around you take a little longer to fade. My neighbor calls it tough looking, while the guys at the camera store find it “funny but not unlikable.” Surely the couple riding the Suzuki SV hated the looks of a scooter passing them on the freeway. I think the gang at the LA Accordion Festival is going to love it – I hear they’re big fans of tilting three-wheeled fun. In Los Angeles, the MP3 makes a great ride for “being seen.” If you’re an actor/waiter looking for your big break but can’t afford the sixty-five grand to drop on a GG Quadster, consider the MP3 and you’re sure to stick out in the growing sea of scooters. This thing turns heads of the young, old, rich and impoverished. Yes, I even got a few thumbs up from the hobos in Santa Monica.

All that steering science refers to the revolutionary parallelogram front end. It uses an automobile-like double-wishbone aluminum suspension system supporting two independent steering columns. Suspension travel from the front electro-hydraulic suspension is 3.35 inches. Additional performance-oriented equipment comes in the shape Michelin Pilot Sport SC tires spooned on to the 12-inch front wheels. The rear swingarm is sprung with two hydraulic shock absorbers that provide 4.3 inches of travel to the 14-inch rear wheel. It all adds up to a scooter that can lean and steer into a corner as a single-track motorcycle does, and remarkably well we might add.

On the right canyon road, it’s like skiing through the trees, holding your line with your outside foot (wheel) instead of your inside leg’s ski edge. Back and forth is wicked fun –like skiing’s giant slalom racing. At booger-picking speeds, like when maneuvering in a parking lot, a rider feels the added balancing help of the third wheel. The steering feels heavier than typical scooters, but the impression is one of extra stability.

Looking a bit like the unlikely offspring of a Hummer and a scooter, the MP3 500 has a butch appearance.

At speed, the MP3 is as stable as any other streetbike out there, never mind the more flighty feeling of many other scooters. Having a third leg, so to speak, helps to keep the scooter-average 61-inch wheelbase securely planted with 50% more front rubber on the road. Boasting a 40-degree lean angle, the MP3 is great fun on twisty roads outside of city limits, although the centerstand scrapes the road surface in left-hand turns – you’ll hear it in the video. It can be a dangerous hard-part to touch down. Just ask our pal Pete what happens when you unintentionally unweight the rear wheel in a turn… (Pete denies everything. –Ed.) Carving through the turns is much like a cruiser: casual, laidback and easy on the wrists.

Pete kindly displays the lowest point of the chassis for us.

If you’re quick with your right thumb, you can learn to ride around without ever putting your feet on the ground. With the aid of the tilt-lock lever on the right-side hand controls, opposite and similar to a turnsignal switch, you can manually lock and unlock the scooter’s leaning ability. Be careful, though, as the MP3 has the ability to lock at any angle. That’s handy for parking on a hill in San Francisco but dangerous when you lock yourself into a carving line when you want to be riding straight after stopping. If you’re not fully upright when you hit the switch, you might be aimed in an undesirable trajectory. I’ve found there’s a moment between coming to a full stop and tipping over where you can balance yourself as if on your BMX bike at the starting gate, floating.

'The MP3 in the 500cc variety is comfortable and capable on both the local road and the highways.'

Punch that switch and believe in the system. A beep will sound to tell you it’s locked, all within milliseconds. With your feet on the boards, you can ride away by simply twisting the throttle. At 2,000 rpm you’re already moving and balanced, and the system unlocks itself. Magic!

With the MP3’s ability to stand upright when the front wheel mechanism is locked in place, your mind may start to wander at stop lights now that you’re not thinking about the simple act of balancing a two-wheeled machine. You might start to ponder things like why the classic rock band Boston choose to name itself after the baked beans, or how much toothpaste you have left in your travel bag’s tube of Colgate. It’s amazing what a time waster keeping yourself upright at a stop light can be!

If you choose to keep the tilt mechanism unlocked, you’ll notice that the tilt indicator light on the dash blinks at low to no speed so as to remind you that you’re in control of the leaning. It’s a good idea to remind us, but once our attention is on watching the loser in the Nova making a U-turn in the intersection in front of us, our periphery vision keeps noticing the blinking light. It makes our left thumbs habitually stab at the turnsignal switch as if we’re seeing an uncancelled turnsignal. It won’t go away. This distraction thankfully diminishes with time, as it’s kind of unsettling to think I’m the choad with the blinker on when I don’t plan to make a turn.

The MP3 in the 500cc variety is comfortable and capable on both the local road and the highways. “It never feels really swift during acceleration,” says our Ed-in-Cheese Kevin Duke, “but it easily scampers away from stop lights ahead of typical automobile acceleration. The CVT blunts the snap of the injected 500cc Single, but it nonetheless gets up to speed fairly quick.”

When riding the MP3, we were amazed at how much fun we could have with the 40 horsepower claimed at the crankshaft which peaks at 7250 rpm. No need to be afraid of the SoCal freeway traffic, as the MP3 is actually capable of posting triple-digit figures on its speedo. It’s happiest cruising at 70 mph just over halfway through its rev range at 5500 rpm, right at the claimed 31 ft-lb peak of its torque curve. A rough idle and some cold-bloodedness are the engine’s only real flaws. We averaged 54 mpg during our heavy-handed time with the MP3, which gives it a usable 150-plus-mile range from its 3.2-gallon tank.

An engineering marvel deserving of such terrific sunlight. Our test unit was painted in its Demon Black livery, but it’s also available in Passion Red.

When it comes to stopping, it’s all hands on deck. Since there’s no clutch mechanism to manage, the MP3 has dual hand levers for individually controlling your braking prowess. I say prowess because not only do you get 50% more front-end traction, but you also get 50% more stopping power with the extra brake set up front. Dual 240mm steel discs work with a pair of two-piston calipers, while the rear end has a slightly larger rotor, 280mm, with a floating 2-piston caliper. Piaggio says the MP3 requires 20% less braking distance than best-in-class two-wheel scooters. We can believe it, as the MP3 can be braked harder than you might expect.

“The front suspension dives minimally,” says Duke, “And a rider has the confidence that the front tires aren’t going to unexpectedly and dramatically slide out, inevitably causing a spill. Quite impressive.”

Despite having rather standard suspension travel for a scooter, the ride still gets a little rough after a few hours of canyon or freeway riding. The complex and weighty front end is more difficult to control smoothly, plus the MP3 has double the opportunity to find road imperfections with its front wheels. Still, I managed to ride 100 miles before I began thinking about the bumps in the road, so it’s not a major issue for a scooter rider’s typical commuting scenario. The large frontal area offers lots of wind protection.

Piaggio describes the MP3 as “a revolution on three wheels,” and we’d have to agree. The added confidence gained in the corners and during braking are the major benefits of this leaning-trike layout. In addition, its eye-catching and innovative design is very appealing and turns its rider into an instant celebrity. Its $8,899 MSRP might scare off a few budget-conscious scooterists, but it’s not unreasonable for a cool, freeway-capable machine that is blessed with the stability offered by an extra front wheel.

If this wheel slips, I got another right there next to the first to catch me.

The Perfect Bike For...
Someone who doesn’t want a bike but an eye-catching, oddball scooter capable of embarrassing many two-wheelers in the canyons, then stealing their girlfriends away with the MP3’s charm.
 Highs:     Sighs:
  • Confidence-inspiring unlike anything on two wheels
  • Major attention-getter
  • Toughest looking scooter around
  • Unscooter-like price
  • Heavy weight
  • Requires some acclimatization

Related Reading
Two Wheels Good, Three Wheels Better?
2008 Piaggio MP3 400 Review
Piaggio Grows MP3 Family in 2008
No Age Limit

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