Piaggio MP3 (2007)

Does the motorcycle industry really need a high-tech three-wheeled scooter? Is the MP3 even a scooter?

There’s really not a lot about the MP3 from Piaggio that you could point to and say, well, that needs work. Comfort, power, braking: all quite up to scratch. I guess. The problem is a contextual one. Generally speaking, a bike comes along, you ride it, then weigh its relative qualities against others in the category. That’s the rub right there. What category? Too heavy for the 250cc class of scooter, one wheel short of being a car (or cart for that matter) and one wheel too many to be a motorcycle. The factory sticker right on the bars cautions against operating the MP3 as you would a motorcycle. It’s not a motorcycle, Piaggio admits as much.

I thought about the jungle boy raised by wolves, who now runs around on four legs. Or the duck who fell in with a family of cats and now assumes it too is a cat. Well, a duck’s not a cat, and the jungle boy just needs to be taught some basic table manners.
So what of the MP3? Its manners are commendable and it purrs like a kitten under all throttle loads. So, what difference does category make? Maybe it’s possible to get too hung up on the finer analytical points and then miss the obvious. Instead of trying to qualify it, let’s just say the MP3 is a slightly zany machine with the kind of offbeat charisma that draws a crowd. Literally, draws a crowd. That doesn’t necessarily mean the world needs an MP3—this is a time of niche enthusiasms in which not clearly defined things often sit unsold.
And at MSRP $8,995, there’s a healthy premium to be paid for the cachet of being unique on the block.
Perhaps it’s worthwhile—if only for the sake of the Big Picture—to hear what the company itself has to say:
“The Piaggio MP3 provides safety, road grip and stability levels that no two-wheeler can match.”
Those words can be found at piaggiocanada.com—Piaggio, Vespa, Aprilia, Derbi and Moto Guzzi are all distributed by Canadian Scooter Corporation.
The most natural reaction to Brochure-Speak is to view it with a healthy dose of scepticism. But in this case, the above quote is at least a good starting point for understanding the MP3, if you’re not willing to just accept it as this season’s quirk and simply let it go at that. Moreover, there’s at least some truth in it: the MP3 is certainly the most planted “scooter” I’ve ridden, though I’d draw the line where it’s claimed no two-wheeler on the road can match it for safety etc. Even at highway speeds, it forges ahead under calm control with never a hint of waver nor the nervous motion you might expect from the scooter genre. Responding with aplomb to the countersteer, it inspires confidence in corners, and reacts swiftly to the sudden demands of fast-paced lane changes through heavy midtown traffic. Though you wouldn’t mind a little more punch down low, it revs quite quickly to the top end—I discovered 130 kmh, though speed might have crept to perhaps 135 if I’d had the patience to hold the throttle wide open for another 45 seconds or so.
Piaggio goes on to say this about the visual presentation of its MP3:
“The front-end design is genuinely innovative in terms of technical features and concept, with car-style bodywork treatment.”
I found this admission to be, frankly, amusing. Car-style bodywork treatment? Why? And for whom? Certainly not motorcyclists, nor even the true scooterati—whoever they might be. I’ve never really met a scooter enthusiast, though I’m told they exist. Perhaps the same person who owns a SmartCar might possibly consider an MP3. Both target an audience that’s potentially the same—keen tech minds given over to matters of economy, safety, environmental issues and making statements about their values.
Market share aside, there’s something inherently counter-intuitive about three-wheeled two-wheelers. But give the MP3 its due, it handles very much like any two-wheeled machine even though its front wheels tilt as they navigate corners and lock into place on pushbutton command when you make a stop. This is what surprised me most; I had to consciously bear in mind that I was riding over top of three wheels—even the 420mm front end width is no greater than “a normal compact GT scooter,” says Piaggio. The only really substantial difference comes in subtle maneuvers. An example of that: a sharp right-hander pulling into my favourite gas station ended with a violent twist of the front end as the twin 120/70-12 Michelins were deflected at the uneven transition point between the road surface and the parking lot. I suppose a rider needs to remember that there’s really not much more than about three inches of suspension travel at either end.
The mechanics of the system that allows the MP3’s wheels to tilt independently (up to 40 degrees) are based on an array of hinges, guide tubes and control arms set in a parallelogram with cantilevered suspension. The most tactile part of the equation—the one necessarily of greatest interest to the rider—is the electro/hydraulic front suspension locking system that keeps the vehicle upright. Throw the switch on the right-side handlebar and the tilt mechanism is frozen in place; no need for a centre or side stand. Hit the switch again, or just give the throttle a little twist, and the mechanism unlocks and the wheels flop over. This means you can coast to a stop, hit the button on the roll and wait out the traffic light with both your feet on the machine; there’s a manual lever controlled parking brake too. The locking mechanism automatically deactivates if the vehicle speed exceeds 15 kmh, or engine speed 3,000 rpm.
Once the front suspension is unlocked you can really feel the heft of this 450-lb (204-kg) machine, especially if you need to push it around. Which happened to me twice when the built-in ignition immobilizer failed to recognize the key, and I was obliged to roll the MP3 out of the way of parking lot traffic. Having accomplished that, I slid the key in and out several times until the system smartened up. Had that failed, the manual spells out a multi-step process that requires the introduction of a secondary “red” key to reprogram the immobilizer. Incidentally, the main key also hosts a remote opener for the 65-litre under seat storage area. Hit the button, the latch pops open. If the battery in the key dies, the latch can be tripped manually through the smaller rear trunk, which is itself opened by slotting the key into the ignition and turning to the specified setting. The same tumbling motion also releases the gas cap hatch, so lose the key and you’re out of luck for every operation.
A dandy three-disc linked braking system provides excellent stopping power; the fairing and windshield situate the rider in a pocket of nearly-still air; and an upholstered bench with passenger grab rails offer very good comfort. However an abrupt space between the seat and the console actually lead you into throwing a leg over the seat instead of typically “stepping through” the scooter frame, and a taller-than-average person may find he’d like a little more leg room.
There are nine gauges to ponder as you’re rolling along: they range from the standard fuel and oil reports to warnings regarding suspension blockages and the presence of an open trunk.
The Piaggio MP3 is available in two liquid-cooled, four-valve, four-stroke engine displacements, 250 and 125cc, that comply to Euro 3 specs. There are four metallic colours to choose from—blue, red, grey, and black—and a whole pile of gizmo options, including the TOM TOM Rider GPS navigator with wireless Bluetooth link and 3.5-inch LCD screen. The option I like best though is Piaggio’s winter pack that theoretically makes it possible to use the MP3 all year round. The winter pack includes an extra-large winter windscreen with special surface treatment, hand protectors, thermal winter tires, a heated leg cover and waistcoat.
You’ve got to wonder about the name though: doesn’t it sound familiar?