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2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review

Monday, August 31, 2009
Has Piaggio Idiot-proofed the Motorcycle?
2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
The Piaggio MP3; a strange looking scooter and a very unique ride.

Allow me to make a crass admission: I like to surreptitiously glance at large-breasted young ladies. They are pleasant to look at, but I’ve never given much thought to what it must be like to be one of those ladies. At least, I didn’t until I started riding around on a three-wheeled Piaggio MP3 500.

If it’s not like being Gina Lolabrigida, it’s like being in a travelling circus. Experienced motorcyclists want to know what it’s like to ride and prospective riders want to know if it’s easier than riding a standard two-wheeler. In fact, you might be curious to know about the MP3 as well. “Gabe, STFU already and get to the point.”

Fine. Piaggio’s MP3 500 is new for the USA market for 2009, but was introduced previously in Europe as the Gilera Fuoco (it means “fire,” in Italian, not something dirty, so just stop it). It’s based on the smaller 250 and 400cc models, using the same front suspension system, a complex parallelogram design composed of four aluminum arms supporting two steering tubes. The mechanism allows the two 120/70-12 front Pirellis to lean in tandem, simulating a normal motorcycle but putting twice the rubber on the pavement. A good idea, no?

2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
The MP3's steering system utilizes four aluminum arms supporting two steering tubes.
The rest of the bike is familiar to those of us who like our scooters big and beautiful. A tube-steel chassis connects that front end to the motor/swingarm unit, which drives a 14-inch rear wheel. Disc brakes all around: two 240mm discs up front and a 280mm job in back. All three rotors get dual-piston calipers and braided steel lines, but there is no ABS option. Twin shocks in back, adjustable for preload, offer 110mm of travel. It’s covered in aggressive plastic bodywork, which together with the tube-steel rollcage and quad headlamps, makes the MP3 500 look more like a small armored car than a scooter. Order it in the matte-black finish and it’s ready to be strapped onto a pallet and air-dropped into Tora Bora.

That tough styling is backed up by one of the beefiest single-cylinder scooter engines on the market. It’s Piaggio’s low-emissions LEADER engine, a liquid-cooled, four-valve, single overhead cam design that’s good for about 40 hp at the crankshaft. It’s very clean-burning, thanks to fuel-injection and a knuckle-burning catalytic converter (read the owner’s manual before you adjust suspension!). Good power for any thumper, much less a scooter mill.

Too bad it has to move 557-plus pounds of scooter along the Earth’s crust. That’s the claimed wet weight, and I believe it. Yes, it may be just a scooter, but it’s as long as a Smart For Two (just kidding; the Smart is a whole 19 inches longer), and you feel the heft when it’s time to roll it around. Luckily, there is no sidestand to lift it off of, and using the centerstand is optional; just set the parking brake and the MP3 rests on the front wheels.

2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
Once you get the hang of the MP3's hydraulic wheel-lock, long gone will be the days of resting your feet on the ground at stop lights.
That is, if you remember to set the hydraulic wheel-lock mechanism. That’s triggered by a switch on the right handgrip that activates a caliper, which clamps a blade attached to the leaning mechanism. That keeps the bike from leaning to one side or another, and automatically disengages at 2500 rpm or over 6 mph. It takes some getting used to; try to set it too early and it disengages, set it too late and the bike lurches drunkenly to the side when you stop. But when you get the hang of it, say goodbye to setting your feet down when stopped, making the 30.9-inch seat height immaterial.

The 500 motor and transmission are tuned for quick starts and good midrange acceleration, making the MP3 king of the urban scooter scene. Under 50 mph you can ride with authority, effortlessly passing anything with more than two wheels. Potholed streets and construction zones are no problem, with sturdy suspension components soaking up bumps. The brakes are strong enough to howl both ends easily. The fuel-injection works nicely, after a brief period of balkiness when it’s cold. Top speed? About 95 indicated, at which speeds the bike starts to feel a little vague, as scooters tend to do at high speeds. But 95 mph is breaking the law, and we’re law-abiding scooter people.

Aren’t we?

2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
While the MP3 isn't any where close to sportbike status you can gobble mid-speed corners with ease.
But the magical part of the MP3 is that front end. “Where have you been all my life, my precious?” I croon to the complex system of whosits and whazzats. It really is that good. It’s stable and planted in low to mid-speed turns, like you’re riding a chariot pulled by two tiny motorcycles piloted by shrunken versions of Jeff Ward and Dave Aldena. I don’t know if it’s just psychological or what, but suddenly I had more confidence in turns, elevating corner speeds to I’m-an-idiot levels I haven’t experienced for years. Gravel? Sand? Squirrel guts? Hey, with two tires up there you can afford to squander a little traction, and if you slide, you’ll be much more likely to save it. Some nits to pick: in high-speed sweepers you can feel the two tires moving side-to-side a little, which can be disconcerting. It’s also more numb and heavy-steering than a conventional front end, although not the numbest or heaviest-steering I’ve experienced.

What I found as remarkable as the front end was the MP3 500’s versatility. My first ride on it was the 400 miles from Piaggio’s new tech center in Costa Mesa, CA, to my home in Oakland. I rode in comfort, with decent (okay, noticeable) wind protection below 75 mph, a comfortable saddle and seating position (until my legs and tailbone went numb after five hours from the feet-forward scooter riding posture), and ample storage room under the seat and on the built-in luggage rack (a locking trunk is available). You can load it up with a maximum of 465 lbs of luggage, passenger and rider, rivaling many touring bikes. There is no towing option, so you’ll have to leave your jet-ski at home.

2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
The long seat reveals plenty of space for a single full face helmet with room for some extras.

Once back home, it became my go-to ride for personal transport and errands. In addition to the trunk, which is big enough to hold a full-face helmet and other stuff, there’s a little hook for your shopping bags or man-purse mounted under the steering head. Fuel economy is great; I recorded a low of 35 mpg in the 70-mile-long stop-and-go traffic jam from Orange County to where the Land Of Mordor (AKA the L.A. Basin) ends, to almost 50 mpg in mixed urban/freeway commuting. That means almost 150 miles from the 3.1-gallon tank if you baby it, 125 miles-ish if you’re more aggressive.

2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
With the rear shocks set at full stiffness the bike does tend to understeer, but it also keeps you from scraping any of the lower pieces of the scooter.
Versatile, fun, but not perfect. The MP3 500 has some limiting factors when you’re chasing sportbikes. The first is cornering clearance: the sidestand tang on the left side drags easily, followed by the plastic puck guarding the transmission cover. What would happen if the back end slid and came around, making the front wheels lose traction? Would I have a spin-out, crying out like Speed Racer as I hurtled over the cliff? I didn’t want to find out. The rear shocks were set to full stiff, which perhaps gave me more ride height and cornering clearance, but it also made the bike understeer, pushing me wide in turns. Clicking the preload down to the second of four positions was best for 155-lb me. The suspension works as well as any big scoot’s I’ve experienced, but that big lump of drive unit is all unsprung mass, and you’ll never have a ride like a motorcycle’s.

The most niggling issue? Acceleration. There I was, chasing my supermoto-riding buddies on our favorite swatch of bouncing, twisting coast-road tarmac, and I found that, for once, I had the confidence to carry similar corner speed, but curses! Forty hp schlepping 550 lbs of avant-garde metal is fine for inner-city dominance, but doesn’t let you exploit the insane corner speeds this thing can generate. You stay ahead of the Homo Supermotus drifting both ends through the turn behind you, but he blasts past you on the exit, even with the MP3’s efficient, well-tuned CVT shuddering to keep the big thumper at its torque peak.

2009 Piaggio MP3 500 Scooter Review
The MP3 may lack some acceleration out of corners but it has plenty of power to make some smoke.
Maybe I’m missing the point. Piaggio has a clear agenda: make motorcycles and scooters as safe, fun and easy to ride as possible so they’ll appeal to motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike. Some folks call this idiot-proofing, and I may be one of them. We all know the consequences of making an activity safe for idiots: idiots start to do it. Our sport has been safe from the long-term occupancy of morons for the last century: a moron on a motorcycle is a perfect self-correcting situation. But imagine a vehicle like the MP3 with the 80 hp, 839cc V-Twin from the Mana, electronic traction control, ABS and maybe an extra back wheel, too. It would help a ham-fisted, talentless buffoon with very little skill or experience ride at elevated speeds, humiliating talented, experienced riders on conventional motorcycles. Luckily, although the MP3 chassis adds a vast amount of safety and confidence to the riding experience, it’s not really idiot proof. It takes time and some skill to ride, as it’s not exactly like riding a regular scooter. You can still screw up if you don’t heed the dozens of warnings in the MP3’s 172-page manual, so be properly trained, experienced and equipped before you get on one of these.

The MP3 500 isn’t a magic carpet or a three-wheeled Shriner microcar that rides itself. You still have to be comfortable balancing, braking and riding a big, heavy scooter. But it is a fun, economical and practical commuting/weekend fun machine. And while at $8890 it’s just about the most expensive scooter you can buy, it’s still cheaper than a good breast augmentation, and probably a healthier way to attract attention.
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Just_rode_mine_to_Alaska -For Sale  January 14, 2011 02:10 AM
I just rode my MP3 500 to Alaska and back - amazing ride. Moving on to next adventure and need to sell it. Bike has been extensively outfitted for a long road/camping trip with emphasis on safety equipment. Pictures and information at: piaggiomp3500.tumblr.com
TED ROGERS -OWNER MP3 500  December 1, 2010 05:02 PM
Richard jefford -2009 piaggio mp3 500  September 8, 2010 07:13 AM
I bought my mp3 500 in sept 2008 it is a 2009 model I live in the city so this bike is in it's elements. Great gas mileage, acellation, automatic ctv and stove space and tons of stares and question. Now I have one currently I have 2,525 miles on it. At 2,100 miles I delveloped a very small coolant leak a drop here and there after the bike cools down overnight this is seen on the silver cover coming from under the round plastic housing where the water pump is right above oil dipstick. Piaggio says I need a water pump. Dealer puts on a new outer gasket. However this seems to be a outside temp issue when in the heat of summer and humidity you get a few drops now in sept nothing. Anybody help what is this is this normal through weep holes or is there a fix or recall can't figure this out.
Phillip P. Smith -mpe 500 owner and love it Almost)  August 29, 2010 04:27 PM
Have any of you had experience with a taller windshield on an mp3 500?
MP3 to Alaska -MP3 to Alaska  July 25, 2010 01:43 AM
I just rode one, I'm in Fairbanks, up the Dempster to the Arctic Circle over to Alaska up the Dalton to the Arctic Circle and back to Fairbanks. No Problems. Only issue for me is the seat which I can't stand. 10000+ miles and not a hiccup.
tara -sold  April 2, 2010 10:24 AM
I don't care, I'm getting one!
bikerrandy -`09 MP3 500  December 5, 2009 04:28 PM
I'm with you, Crusty, I don't like the looks of this 500 either. But in `10 the MP3 500 is going to look like our MP3 250. The 400 MP3 motor is being dropped and replaced with the 500 motor in the better looking(more storage) current 250/400 MP3 body.
Commander Crusty -Good and Bad  September 29, 2009 08:48 AM
Love the concept. Hate the styling.
Carlos Mario Troncoso -GILERA FUOCO MP3 500  September 19, 2009 06:17 AM
LABiker -MP3 500  September 8, 2009 12:55 PM
I like the Gilera Fuoco name, it's a shame that Piaggio just decided to brand it as another "Piaggio MP3" here in the U.S. [1], but the styling is, shall we say, unfortunate? The original 250 & the 400 MP3 scoots are much more appealing; these things will never see so much as a dirt road, let alone off-road use, so what's with the SUV styling on the Fuoco? Product engineering dropped the ball another way on the MP3s, in that they take different sized tires front & rear instead of one size in a universal design so you can rotate the tires[2] like on the original Vespas. They even lost their way on the modern Vespas; the option of carrying a spare is one reason that the traditionalists still turn up their noses at any modern [Post P200] scooter! Despite those minor gripes, when the dollar bounces back & these things become affordable, I'm buying one! I rode the 250, & it's just too much for that little motor to haul around w/ 100kg me & my gf on the back; the bigger motor models [400 & 500] are going to be exactly what the doctor ordered! [1] - where "mp3" only has *one* meaning to 93% of the population... & it has no relation to scooters! ;) [2] - front's wear sides, rears wear centers; moto & scoot tires ALL have far too limited lifespans for the price compared to cage rubber
Checha1964 -In Europe Gilera 500  September 5, 2009 10:40 AM
Hi Guys, in Germany and all over Europe this is an Gilera 500 ie. I own one in black and this is so much fun to driver this three wheeler. The trike scooter is a alternate quickly town cruiser. Greetings from Germany Jens
MCUSA -What the what?  September 3, 2009 02:35 PM
What are we talking about? Nazis? Really? For reals? Sometimes we delete posts if they get way off point. There are multiple MCUSA staff that check the comments, although not Gabe... Anyway, some stuff needs to get deleted, some stuff if its a grey area, but most times we let things slide.
Gabe Ets-Hokin -It wasn't me!  September 3, 2009 01:48 PM
I've never even been to Oregon! I have no way of editing posts.
Danger -Correction  September 3, 2009 10:49 AM
Deleting posts? Gabe, you and Barnie Frank are Nazis! ;) Let's see if this post with a request to spell Dave Aldana's name properly gets deleted!
Tim B -Gabe Ets-Hokin  September 2, 2009 09:21 AM
So now M-USA is editing our comments? Yes, I know you're allowed to since it's "your" site. I just wanted others to be AWARE of this! You deleted my reference to the President and then commented on it. That makes no sense...

I chimed in with my OPINION about this scooter and wishing they would allow 4-wheelers on the road. If it's suddenly unacceptable to state your opinion in these commments please let me know!
milwaukee mike -mp3  September 1, 2009 07:00 PM
C'mon now. If scooter riders aren't already a bit "light in the loafers", now ya give another wheel so they figure that they can't fall off. Sheesh!
Gabe Ets-Hokin -MP3: Motorcycle?  September 1, 2009 03:37 PM
Tim B, I think the MP3 is a motorcycle because it steers, handles and rides like a motorcycle. A Harley Trike or Can-Am Spyder isn't a motorcycle because they steer, handle and are designed more like cars. Most states classify 3-wheelers as "motorcycles," although they often waive the requirement for a motorcycle license or training, which I think is dumb. Quads are a whole other story. Because they have 4 wheels, the DOT and other agencies consider them cars and that means they need to meet the same safety standards that cars do. I would say an MP3 is safer than a quad because a rider will know its limitations and be less likely to get into trouble with it. Or not. All I know is that quads are a separate area I know nothing about and that have nothing to do with motorcycles! Just like your bringing the president into this discussion, completely off-topic.
Tim B -Nice Trike  September 1, 2009 11:42 AM
You ask the question, "Has Piaggio Idiot-proofed the Motorcycle?" The answer is "No" because this isn't a motorcycle. It has 3 wheels so it's some kind of odd trike. It is a very unique concept with clever, and somewhat ground breaking, engineering. For that I give it props.

With more and more of these trikes coming out it still angers and baffles me that they don't let quads on the road! These things are no safer than an ATV or UTV. A dual sport quad would be awesome and it would be great on gas and great for the environment for those that care.
Chris -mp3  August 31, 2009 02:12 PM
I thoroughly enjoyed the article. I too tend to sneak peaks at young ladies, and have spent more time overtly staring at three wheeled vehicles.
Desmolicious -very sweet  August 31, 2009 12:18 PM
I've ridden the MP3 500 and it is very very sweet. Nice test Gabe.
On the same afternoon I also rode the Yam Tmax. The ideal bike would be the MP3 chassis/running gear with the Tmax's smoother twin motor (if we can't get something like an 850 in there), brakes and suspension.
The MP3 just feels so stable at low speeds and on loose road surfaces, plus it corners better.
2134 -Sccot Man  August 31, 2009 09:26 AM
I am not a sccot man, but wanted to drop a quick line -You are a great writer...keep it up!