£7632 | 40bhp@7250rpm | 33.5lb-ft@8000rpm | 493cc liquid-cooled single-cylinder
Tested by Roland Brown. Motorcycle Journalist and former international racer, Roland Brown is one of the world’s most respected bike testers. Subscribe to his fantastic YouTube channel – iMotorcycle Video – here.
Since its launch in 2006 the Piaggio MP3 has become a success in many countries including Britain, but you have to go to France to appreciate the three-wheeled scooter’s full impact. Heading towards the MP3 500’s launch venue in central Paris by taxi, I glanced out of the window at a set of lights and assumed we’d arrived because there were three shiny MP3s parked in a row alongside.
But that was just an everyday bike-bay scene in a city whose gourmet menu of hazards – from slippery cobbles to perilous Périphérique ring-road – is enough to steer many scooterists towards the extra security of a second front wheel. More than 70,000 MP3s – almost half the total production – have been sold in France, the majority in the capital. Now, with local marque Peugeot finally having retaliated with its own Metropolis three-wheeler, the Italians have hit back by revamping their flagship model to create the MP3 500 ABS-ASR.
Tell me about the engine
This scooter is a major update, with an estimated 80 per cent of components new, but the 493cc, liquid-cooled single engine is the least changed part of it. There are still numerous modifications though, most notably the adoption of a ride-by-wire throttle control that allows two riding modes: normal and a low-power Eco. Alongside the addition of ABS braking, the ASR acronym refers to the new traction control system, which Piaggio call Acceleration Slip Regulation.
Main mechanical change to the SOHC, four-valve motor is a revised tappet design. It also gets new intake and exhaust systems, and a revamped CVT transmission, aimed mainly at improving smoothness and reliability. Just as well, because the maximum output of 40bhp at 7250rpm is unchanged.
What’s the chassis like?
It’s substantially changed, both the mechanical parts and the all-enveloping bodywork which gets a subtle restyle. This includes a wider, three-way adjustable screen, plus a new seat that is also wider, and incorporates small backrests for both rider and the pillion, who gets new footrests and a pair of chunky alloy grab-handles. The rear of the scooter has been slimmed and simplified to allow fitment of an accessory top-box but few riders will need one because the under-seat storage area has been enlarged, and can hold two full-face helmets.
Beneath the bodywork the twin-shock chassis is built around a new tubular steel frame that Piaggio say is 35 per cent stiffer. There’s little change to the all-important twin front suspension assembly, but the front wheels are bigger, at 13- instead of 12-inch diameters (rear remains 14in), which allows the front brake discs to be larger too, at 258mm. The newly ABS-enabled system is linked so has a foot pedal, working the rear and one front disc, as well as two handlebar levers.
Should I buy one?
If you’re looking for a high-end scooter, or any two-wheeled commuter really, and are attracted by the idea of an extra front wheel, then the MP3 500 ABS-ASR is worth a serious look. There can’t be much doubt that the extra front wheel gives additional stability and grip that can be very useful, especially on slippery surfaces. This could be particularly valuable for relatively inexperienced riders, and those coming from cars (the MP3 can be ridden on a car licence if you passed your test before the January 19th 2013 cut-off), but all riders can benefit.
In many ways the MP3 concept gives the best of all worlds. The 500 is as slim and manoeuvrable as any big scooter, and potentially safer and more stable. It also has the typical scooter benefits of generous storage space and plenty of clever design touches. At £7632 on the road it’s fairly expensive for a scooter, costing more than its closest rival the Peugeot Metropolis 400i (which is £6999), but it’s a more refined machine with superior, more conventional handling. It’s also a fair bit less expensive than other top-end scooters including BMW’s C600 and C650, Suzuki’s Burgman 650 Executive and Yamaha’s TMax, all of which cost over £8500.
Much like a good conventional maxi-scooter in normal conditions, and a revelation on wet and slippery roads, when like other MP3s it benefits from the additional front wheel’s extra grip and stability. Not that I was able to confirm that on the dry launch in Paris, where it coped very well with the many cobbled streets and other hazards. But riding the similar Gilera Fuoco on its launch in rainy Berlin in 2007 — and being astonished by its grip and general cornering safety — remains a vivid memory.
Performance in a straight line is much like that of the Fuoco and previous MP3 500 but this model would almost certainly feel a little more refined if ridden back-to-back with its predecessors. Its ride-by-wire system works well, giving very smooth and glitch-free throttle response that combines with the twist-and-go CVT transmission to make for a very effortless ride. (Piaggio says fuel economy is notably improved too.)
Acceleration was fairly brisk rather than adrenaline-producingly quick but the Piaggio always had enough grunt to get ahead of the Paris traffic. And on the faster roads towards the end of the launch ride it cruised along fairly smoothly at 70mph, with a bit of acceleration in hand. On dry roads with only 40bhp to deal with there wasn’t much need of the traction control, but the ASR system is worth having especially for bad weather. The Eco mode, selectable via a button on the bars, was less useful, cutting power enough to make the Piaggio feel very flat.
The MP3 wasn’t dull in bends, though, handling well enough to be fun to ride despite weighing a fairly hefty 263kg dry. For a fairly big scooter, never mind one with an extra wheel, it corners well, steering with an impressively neutral feel and a seeming more “normal” than its Peugeot Metropolis rival, which requires more effort to make it change direction. The Piaggio is helped by its fairly firm but well damped suspension, and probably by its larger wheels, which did a good job of gliding over bumps.
Like other MP3s (and the Metropolis) the 500 has a “tilt lock” button on the bars that allows you to fix the front wheels in a vertical position, and avoid the need to put a foot down at a standstill. I found childish pleasure in keeping feet up whenever possible, though I soon learned that trying to steer the MP3 like a normal scooter after activating its tilt-lock was activated, at very low speed, wasn’t a good idea. The tilt-lock releases automatically when you pull away.
Stopping power from the larger front discs was impressive, and backed up both by the rear disc and by the ABS system, though there’s enough grip from the trio of Michelin City tyres that activating the anti-lock required a very firm squeeze of the lever. The foot pedal gave a useful amount of stopping power on its own, but I doubt that many experienced bike or scooter riders will have much use for it.
The other key aspect of a scooter is of course its practicality, and here the MP3 showed plenty of evidence that Piaggio had put thought into this redesign. The riding position is slightly roomier for both rider and pillion; I found the scooter comfortable and adequately roomy, although I’m tall.
Up front there’s a glove compartment that incorporates a USB socket for a smart-phone, which can be connected to run Piaggio’s accessory Multimedia Platform. This syncs to the scooter’s electronic system to show data including performance, fuel economy, tyre pressure and even lean angle, as well as having a satnav function. In Paris I rarely needed to use it but the technology is clever, and further proof of Piaggio’s forward-thinking approach.
Launching that original 250cc MP3 eight years ago was a step into the unknown for the Italian firm, but it’s one that has already proved a master-stroke. This MP3 500 ABS-ASR flagship moves the three-wheeled scooter forward again, adding some subtle but worthwhile refinements that make it arguably the safest scooter on the market, as well as one of the best. If more people — especially non-motorcyclists — got to try one, soon Paris would not be the only city teeming with Italian three-wheelers.
Engine: 493cc, liquid-cooled, sohc 4-valve single
Power: 40bhp (29.5kW) @ 7250rpm
Torque: 33.5lb-ft (44.5N.m) @ 8000rpm
Kerb weight: 263kg dry
Seat height: 790mm
Tank size: 12 litres