June 20, 2008 -- Imagine filling up your gas tank for less than $15. Some Americans are doing it — and they're doing it on two wheels.
Motorized scooters have emerged as the new transportation of choice for some Americans fed up with gas prices that have surged past $4 a gallon. Though the small, zippy vehicles aren't ideal for every purpose, some owners say they're great for short trips and running errands.
Chris Maxwell recently purchased a Yamaha Majesty scooter to ride around the small town of Natchez, Miss.
His wife, Emily Maxwell, appreciates how much the couple saves on gas purchases.
"It gets 50 to 60 miles a gallon in town and a full tank lasts two to three weeks," she said. "Right now it costs under $12 to fill it up, so we immediately get a $200 a month 'pay raise' from the lower fuel costs."
Shawn Pointer, of Kenosha, Wis., said he often straps in his four-pound Chihuahua, Missy, for rides down to a local river on his 2007 Honda Metropolitan.
Pointer bought the blue and white scooter for $1,600 but pays only about $10 a month to fill its 1.2 gallon tank.
The scooter gets roughly 100 miles a gallon so he can travel 120 miles for $4. The same trip in the typical car would cost nearly $18.
New York resident Austin Rommett fills his scooter with fuel at a gas station in New York on Sunday, June 8, 2008.
"It's very cheap to ride," he said. "The only downfall is that you can't take it out on the freeway or highway. But, to take it out on the town is one of the best investments I ever made. I could ride that thing forever and the gas gauge barely moves."
Joel Metter, 51, the general manager at the New York Motorcycle shop and a scooter owner himself, says that these days, people who walk into his store are "totally green" – they're new to scooter purchases and are excited about saving some money.
"Everyone's coming in complaining about gas prices," he said.
Crystall Hadjimina, general manager and co-owner of a family-run New York Vespa dealership, said that since gas prices began surging, sales have at least doubled to about five scooters a day.
Overall sales of Vespas and other name-brand scooters such as Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki rose 24 percent in the first quarter of the year, said Mike Mount of the Motorcycle Industry Council, a Scooter owners don't have to fill up as much when one tank of gas allows them between 50 to 100 m.p.g.
Hadjimina said her most popular scooter is a Piaggio three-wheel model known as the MP3. Customers like it, she said, "… because you don't have to put your feet down at the street light." The scooter sells for $7,199.
With prices on most scooters in the four-figure range, buyers usually have to wait before they see their fuel savings match their scooter's purchase price. Errol Kody, 60, says he doesn't mind.
Kody, who works on boats in San Francisco, purchased his Vespa GTS 250 for $5,800. Now, instead of taking out his 1990 Nissan Stanza, he rides the scooter to work — a 58-mile round-trip — and enjoys some fresh air on the way.
"People are always interested in the scooter. They wave at me while I drive," he said. "It's going to take me a while to get my money back, but it's a lot of fun to drive."
The best part of owning the scooter? Kody said it's the feeling he gets when he finally has to pull into a gas station after getting about 75 miles per gallon.
Soon some scooter riders won't even have to go to the gas station. Metter, of New York Motorcycle, said consumers should be on the lookout for electric scooters, a potential alternative to their gas-powered relatives.
Scooter owners join motorcyclists at a rally in New York for an annual Ride To Work Day event.
"They're just starting to emerge," he said. "Zero gas. Zero pollution. It's like an appliance. You can park it on the carpet and not worry about oil dripping."
Vespa, Honda and Yamaha all offer scooters that range in price from roughly $2,000 to more than $8,000 while Suzuki scooters start at $6,000.
Color enthusiasts have their pick, ranging from Vespa's "Daring Plum" and "Excalibar Gray" to Honda's red "Monza" and blue-and-white "Ocean" designs.
"Scooters rate very high on the stylish scale," Mount said.
But if gas savings are your number one criterion, you'll have to do some digging. Most scooter Web sites don't advertise miles per gallon. Yamaha does and, according to the maker, results vary depending on road conditions, how a scooter is driven and maintained, cargo load and operator weight.
One of Yamaha's most fuel-efficient scooters, the Zuma, costs $2,199 and can travel 123 miles per gallon.
Local scooter shops are seeing an increase in sales after the rise of gas prices.
Some scooter owners say they can't give up on their cars completely. Chris White and his family own four scooters, but said they still need their SUV to tow their trailer or when they need seating for groups as large as eight.
Bad weather, however, is one obstacle they've managed to surmount.
"I invested in cheap rain gear and covers so unexpected weather is not an issue," White said.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, it's good idea to invest in other gear too – the kind that keeps you safe. An estimated 7,244 people suffered scooter-related injuries last year, the commission reports.
It recommends scooter riders wear helmets, knee pads and elbow pads to avoid injury.
Other scooter riding safety tips from the commission:
Wear sturdy shoes
Avoid gravel and uneven pavement, which can cause falls.
Don't ride scooters at night — riders can't see where they're going or be seen by others.
Mount recommended that riders wear bright colors.
"Conspicuity is key," he said.
Helmets provide extra security to riders sharing the road with automobiles.
Each state has different restrictions and procedures for scooters or mopeds. In some cases, motorcycle training and tests are required. In others, all you need is a regular motor vehicle license.
Scooters that have engine sizes exceeding 50 cubic centimeters and travel 30 miles per hour or higher require a motorcycle license.
Contact your state's motor vehicles office for details.