First ride: Piaggio’s MP3 three-wheeled carver
October 30, 2007 What a hoot! Piaggio’s new carving three-wheeler, with two independently suspended front wheels, opens up yet another whole new category of motorcycle – a category that will surely explode once people get a glimpse of the ability of these stunning bikes. The MP3’s triangle footprint produces some sensational handling characteristics, making it an exceptionally fool-proof learner/commuter bike – as well as a hilarious hooligan tool for more experienced riders. Loz Blain and Noel McKeegan spend an afternoon with the scooter that just won’t let you mess things up.
Let me get this right out of the way – I’ve never understood three-wheeler trikes. I can’t see why you’d want to combine the worst traits of cars and motorcycles into one giant annoying heap. Can’t lean into corners, can’t lane split, exposed to the elements, dangerous and slow rolled into one.
But that’s really just the whopping big twin rear-wheel jobs. The Piaggio MP3 is a different beast altogether. It’s a 250cc single-cylinder, injected CVT scooter with a top speed over 110kmh and two independently suspended, tilting front wheels.
Why would you build such a thing? Well, scooter riders aren’t necessarily known as the most capable and confident riders – presumably the theory was that Piaggio might snare a few more wavering buyers if they offered a scoot that didn’t look like it would fall over so easily.
Thanks to Zagame Ducati, KTM and Vespa, we spent three hours in the company of an MP3, and I’m here to tell you that whatever the motivation behind them, these bikes are absolutely brilliant in the flesh – they’re about the most foolproof little learner/commuter bike I can imagine, delivering facility and confidence in spades as the superb front end quietly rights all the wrongs you throw at it. What’s more, for more experienced riders they offer an absolute belter of a riding experience you simply can’t get anywhere else.
The MP3 features all the practicalities of any other large scooter – a remote button on the key opens up loads of underseat storage for helmets, shopping… Heck, even tennis racquets would fit in this one. Fuel economy is fantastic, the motor’s pleasantly grunty for a 250cc, and the continuously variable transmission lets you whack the revs right up to peak torque from takeoff and watch as the tacho stays still while your speed rises. Effectively, you’re able to use all the bike’s power right through your acceleration.
But it’s the front end we’re interested in, so the second I trundled out of the showroom I started weaving the bike back and forth, eager to get a feel for this odd-looking beast’s handling. I needn’t have worried, it feels almost identical to a well set-up motorcycle on the go. I expected the steering to be quite heavy due to the odd-looking front wheel setup, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countersteering the MP3 like a normal motorcycle, it darts quickly and willingly into turns, achieving big lean angles with very light steering input.
And it’s here, in the turns, that the magic of the twin front wheel system becomes instantly apparent. With twice the normal amount of rubber on the road, the traction is just enormous – and the wider front footprint gives a feeling of supreme stability. It just doesn’t matter what you throw at the little MP3 in a turn, that amazing front end just deals with it. I aimed for ruts, potholes and corrugations at good speeds and serious centrestand-scraping lean angles and laughed into my lid as whatever wheel was running over them simply tracked through with the slightest of bumps.
Until you experience it, you wouldn’t imagine what a feeling of confidence this gives you – you can stuff this little scoot into tight turns on wet, poorly surfaced roads much quicker than your average roadbike. And the slow-speed handling is another revelation.
And if this makes you overconfident, and you find yourself running way hot into a corner, never mind, just jump on the brakes! The twin front wheels mean you can ignore the golden rule of motorcycling and grab the front brake even at full lean. If you’re really brutal you can make it slide a bit, but in most cases it just pulls the bike up, quickly, safely and very, very fast.
Speaking of the brakes, they’re pretty amazing in their own right. They grab quickly and smoothly, and while you’ve got to give the lever a bit of a squeeze to get the two-piston calipers really biting, when you do, it pulls up exceptionally hard without diving. Weighted at the rear end by the engine, and with those two lovely fat contact patches at the front, the MP3 lets some pretty brutal front lever abuse – the sort that would get most two-wheelers into serious trouble – go completely unpunished.
It’s hard to imagine a better bike to get started on – it simply makes it very hard for you to stuff things up. Cobblestones, gravel, grass, dirt, tram tracks, potholes – the MP3 just eats them up. I even spent some time riding along at 70kmh running the right hand front wheel up over the sloped gutter and back down again – it didn’t even push me off line. Remarkable.
As you’re rolling to a stop, a light starts flashing to let you know you’ve reached walking pace. One it’s flashing, you can flick a small switch on the right-hand switchgear, and the tilting suspension is locked in place – meaning that you can coast to a stop and keep your feet up at the traffic lights, or simply park the bike solidly with no need for a centrestand. Flicking the switch off releases the tilt lock – or you can just hit the gas, which unlocks it too. Just as well – the MP3 handles like a shopping trolley when the front end tilt is locked.
The parallelogram front suspension unit looks extremely well made – and the motor’s proven itself in previous Piaggio scooters to be exceptionally strong. “They just don’t come back for warranty items,” says Zagame Richmond’s service manager, “and there’s very little to do on the services too – a major costs only AU$180 and a minor costs AU$140. They're extremely reliable.”
Looking at the engineering, effort and componentry that’s gone into this fantastic bike, it’s hard to believe Piaggio have managed to keep the price down to AU$10,990, just a couple of thousand more than a regular two-wheeler for all this extra confidence and capability, not to mention a whiplash-inducing effect on astonished passers-by. We were accosted by several strangers during our road test, fascinated by the possibilities of this three-wheeled beastie.
Zagame’s sales manager Trevor Small has bright expectations for the MP3 – “right now, what we’ve got is learners are a bit puzzled by it – but sportsbike owners are fascinated. And every sportsbike rider that takes one out for a spin comes back saying ‘I want one!’ But the bikers want to wait for when the 400cc and 500cc versions come out over the next few months. For an extra $1000 for the 400 and $2000 for the sporty 500 Fuoco, it makes sense. We’re going to sell loads of the bigger versions – if you’ve got a Ducati 1098 in your garage for the weekend, that’s the perfect sports tool. An MP3 is the perfect commuting tool.”
Once the larger versions start to become a little more commonplace, perhaps the 250 will become a little more attractive to learners – as well it should be, there’s very little out there that’s so easy to ride and to enjoy.
Downsides? Well, the MP3 is about 6 inches wider than the average scooter – which does become limiting when you’re filtering between lanes to get to the front at the traffic lights. But since your hand’s not aching from slipping a clutch, this is less of a frustration – and it gives you a chance to smile at all the car drivers gawking at your unique ride.
It also has its limits if you thrash it in the twisties – once you’re really motoring along you’ll start to feel the softish rear suspension wallowing around, and the centre-stand starts grinding on the road if you attack a hairpin at sportsbike pace – better than the pretty fairings, I guess. Both these issues are exaggerated with a pillion on board, and there’s some squat as you accelerate out of corners too – and it can run wide in long corners when you overwhelm the suspension and clearance - but the bike still turns in with the same quick responsiveness, and the front end continues to handle everything you throw at it, so you start worrying less and less about what the back end’s doing. The sportier 500cc Fuoco will probably sort these issues out for us more aggressive riders.
The tilt-lock feature has apparently caught a few MP3 pilots out, and there’s a couple of stories out there of people who forgot they had to flick the switch and simply toppled over forgetting to put their foot down at the lights. I can see how – coasting to a stop with your feet up is quite a comforting feeling. Be warned!
In all, I had no idea what to expect from this new style of roadbike – but like most who ride one, I’ve come away a big fan. It combines the fun and corner-carving giggles of a normal motorcycle with an exceptional amount of traction, stability and idiot-proof handling to produce a ride unlike anything I’ve been on before.
For a first run at this three-wheel caper, Piaggio have done an exceptional job with the MP3. I’d recommend it to learners and more aggressive riders alike - and if the 250 can make such a dribbling hooligan out of me, I just can’t wait to get my hands on the upcoming 500cc Fuoco. That’s going to be plain crazy. Bring it on!
Huge thanks to Trevor and Brian at Zagame Ducati, KTM and Vespa in Richmond for talking us through the MP3 and the use of their demo bike. Contact them through their website to arrange demo rides in Melbourne, Australia.