2008 Piaggio MP3 500 Road Test
If Batman owned a scooter the Piaggio MP3 500 would be it. In the immortal words of Robin, the Gotham-city hero’s sidekick, “Holy mechanical marvel, Batman!”
And that it is, with its three wheels and parallelogram steering and suspension components that allow the MP3 to lean up to 40 degrees.
Its appearance would suit the Caped Crusader, too–rugged- and futuristic-looking, the MP3 500′s ATV-like front end with rally-style headlight shields, a double steel-tube bumper and metal mesh inserts give the impression that it’s indestructible. Though it is rugged and aggressive looking–and let’s not forget funky with those two wheels up front–its surprising ease of use inspires lots of confidence.
Italian maker Piaggio’s successful introduction of its three-wheeled 250cc MP3 to the U.S. market last year inspired the company to build a 500cc version, ostensibly for riders interested in going longer distances in comfort with an increase in stability and safety. Piaggio is hoping that with the MP3 500′s claimed 54 mpg, it can even entice some car drivers to consider joining two-…uh, three-wheeled commuting enthusiasts. Our test scooter averaged 52.1 mpg, though high-octane fuel is recommended in the 3.2-gallon tank. Yes, you countersteer and lean it like a motorcycle, but at stops and when parking, the MP3′s electro-hydraulic suspension locking system secures the trike in the upright position with the push of a button–there isn’t a sidestand to be found.
The MP3′s liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, 492.7cc SOHC single has four valves and an automatic constant-velocity transmission. Just twist and go. With a claimed 40 horsepower at 7,250 rpm, the MP3 will whisk you up to highway speeds in no time at all. It’s kind of sneaky as the power comes on smooth and stealthy; more than once I looked down to see that I was cruising through a residential area at 40 mph-plus. The MP3 500 has a claimed top speed of 89 mph; I got it to an indicated 82 mph and then backed off the throttle simply because I wasn’t interested in getting a ticket.
At highway speeds the trike is stable, but in gusty conditions it can get blown around a bit. All that front-end armor deflects some windblast and road debris from the rider, but your head still gets buffeted somewhat by the wind. Even with two 12-inch wheels up front, the MP3 is still about the same width as a motorcycle, and is registered as one in most states, including California. So maneuvers such as lane splitting do not pose a physical problem. It remains to be seen, however, if every California Highway Patrol officer I encounter will approve of the MP3 straddling the lane divider (lane splitting is allowed here because it’s legal for a bike to share a lane with a car).
The front wheels, as measured from inside brake rotor to inside rotor, are just 13 inches apart. The parallelogram cantilevered front suspension is comprised of four aluminum arms supporting two steering tubes. The rear suspension is comprised of two dual-effect hydraulic shocks. That makes four shocks on this scooter! In general, the suspension is compliant on the highway and surface streets, but hitting bumps and potholes is a body-jarring experience. The four-position adjustable rear shocks are not very compliant, and when I turn into my driveway where the front wheels go over one at a time, it feels harsh and wobbles the front end slightly.
One of the coolest things about the MP3 is the electro-hydraulic suspension locking system: It has no sidestand because the scooter can be locked at any angle whenever you stop. This usually means straight up, but you can (and probably should) angle it uphill when parking sideways on an incline. It has a parking brake as well, of course. I get a kick out of practicing with the electrically activated locking system when coming in for a landing at red lights and stop signs. You can actually push the button to lock it as you roll to a stop, wait, and then ride off again, all without putting a foot down. A safety mechanism keeps the scooter from accidentally being knocked over when parked. The ignition must be on and there must be substantial weight (preferably your butt) to trigger the seat sensor and allow the suspension to unlock. As soon as you’re onboard, start paying attention, though, because it only takes blipping the throttle to unlock the shocks and start leaning.
The MP3 is no lightweight with a claimed dry weight of 538 pounds. Once you’re comfortable with the extra wheel and get over that crazy sensation going into a turn, you’ll find it feels lighter, and can be leaned over quite well. Getting it to change direction through a series of left and right turns takes more effort than on a sportbike, but it holds a line well and stays on track–it’s actually quite a hoot in the twisties. The centerstand is placed about 3 inches off the ground so it’s the first thing to scrape when you’re leaned over. More stability and available traction for braking and cornering are the MP3′s fortes–irregular roads, wet and dirty surfaces, train tracks…you name it, the MP3 tackles them with tripodlike stability and more contact patch than most motorcycles.
During the photo shoot, after riding through the same corner half a dozen times, I got to know how far the MP3 would lean over and came around the sweeping right-hander at a good clip. When I reached the turnaround spot and braked hard, I hit a patch of gravel, and holy crucial moment, Batman, I thought the MP3 would never stop skidding. Fortunately, it stayed upright, which probably would not have been the case had I been on two wheels. Each front wheel has a 240mm disc brake with an opposed two-piston caliper, and the rear has a 280mm disc with a two-piston pin-slide caliper. The brakes are strong and linear, and used together can haul the bike down to a stop in a big hurry. Motorcyclists will want to be mindful of the rear brake. It’s not foot-operated as on a motorcycle, but up on the left handlebar where the clutch lever usually takes up residency. Several times I’ve pulled in the “clutch,” only to come to a screeching stop.
For front wheel service, you could lock the suspension while the trike is partly leaned over (unlocked it will fall all the way over just like a two-wheeler), lean it farther onto a support and change a front tire. The MP3 also comes equipped with a centerstand to service the rear wheel or in case the locking mechanism fails–or if you just prefer to park it that way. The ignition key has a remote that releases the seat, which flips up toward the handlebar. There’s decent storage space under the seat (though it’s not deep enough to fit a helmet), and a few tools wrapped in plastic that fit in a pocket, along with a warning sticker that reads, “No Pets.” OK, I guess Fido stays home. The passenger grabrail could be used in conjunction with a cable to lock helmets and jackets to the scoot, and there’s room for a duffel on the luggage rack. Below the handlebar is a folding hook to hang things such as a grocery bag or a purse. The wide, one-piece seat was comfortable enough for me to spend the majority of a day in the saddle without complaint, and the floorboards allow both rider and passenger some leg movement compared to footpegs. In contrast to scoots with longer foot rails, however, the MP3 500′s are short, so that larger riders will want for more legroom on longer rides. As there’s also limited storage and wind protection, those looking for a practical, efficient commuting and touring scoot should probably look elsewhere (perhaps even to Piaggio’s own MP3 400).
The MP3 500 is fast, furious and fun, and is most likely the sportiest hooligan in the MP3 line. It’s easy to ride and get on and off because of the step-through seating, has decent storage capacity and a comfortable seat. And if you’re traveling alone and want some company, there’s a good chance you’ll find it. It’s so unusual that it not only gets noticed, it draws a crowd. People at gas stops, grocery stores and restaurants usually surround this rare gem. About the only drawback we can think of is the high MSRP of $8,899. Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods, Batman! (Yes, Robin really did say that in one of his outbursts.) That’s pricey for a scooter. But then again, you get an extra wheel. And if you’re more a lover than a fighter and the Demon Black paint shown here is not your style, the Italians also offer the MP3 500 in Passion Red.
The MP3 500, 400 and 250 are available through Piaggio/Vespa dealers; currently there are about 220 in this country.