Scooter sales skyrocket 66%

With pain at the pump still real, Americans are jumping on those two-wheeled get-ups that Europeans have been riding for generations.

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By Catherine Clifford, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The scooter is becoming the new must-have set of wheels in a lot of American cities.

While auto sales have continued to sink, scooter sales were up 66% in the first half of 2008 compared to a year ago, while motorcycle sales overall only ticked up 0.5%, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

"About 5 years ago, most of the people were buying motor scooters more as a recreational product to enjoy on the weekend," said Paolo Timoni, president of Piaggio Group Americas, the maker of the Vespa scooter. "Nowadays, most of the people that buy this vehicle buy them as an alternative transportation vehicle."

Retail gas prices have come significantly off recent highs, but gas prices are still 33% higher than the same time last year, and that is motivation enough for Americans.

Scooter sales are outpacing sales of some motorcycle brands, which are typically more expensive and use more fuel.

A scooter is distinguished not by its size or speed. A scooter is defined by its automatic transmission, step-through design and wrap-around body work that hides the engine.

While a motorcycle gets between 40 and 60 miles per gallon, a scooter gets between 60 and 100 miles per gallon, according to Mike Mount, a spokesman for the motorcycle group.

Customers "are sick of feeding their big trucks," said Darrin Gitlitz, owner of New York Honda Yamaha. Gitlitz said that he has seen scooter sales increase more than sales of other kinds of motorbikes.

Honda typically sells more than 12 million two-wheeled bikes globally every year, according to John Seidel, a Honda spokesman. This year, in an attempt to capture sales, Honda released its 2009 scooter models to dealers early, according to Seidel.

"We went ahead and released '09 this summer," said Seidel. The two 2009 Honda scooter brands - the Rucqus and the Metropolitan - both sell for between $2,049 and $2,149. In contrast, a Honda motorcycle starts around $3,000 and maxes out near $25,000.

The Italian manufacturer of scooters, the Piaggio Group, has logged record U.S. sales.

The owners of the Vespa, Piaggio and Aprilia scooter brands saw a 100.5% increase in scooter sales in May compared to the same month a year ago. In June, sales were 147% higher in a year-over-year comparison and in July, sales were 173% higher.

While the Vespa scooter brand, which runs anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000, has been hitting record sales numbers, the luxury-class Harley-Davidson (HOG, Fortune 500) motorcycle reported that weakness in the U.S. economy dragged sales down in its second-quarter financial report.

Globally, Harley-Davidson shipped 15.6% fewer motorcycles to dealers and distributors in the second quarter of 2008 compared with the year-ago period. Retail sales in the United States decreased by 8.7% in 2008 compared to the same quarter last year.

A low-end Harley starts at $7,000, but other models can easily run you nearly $20,000 a pop.

Suzuki's scooters have big engines and therefore actually cost more than some of Suzuki's motorcycles. The larger scooters range in price from $5,949 to $7,899, but Suzuki's little cruiser motorcycle, the GZ250, goes for only $3,249.

Sales of the Suzuki scooters, which get between 40 and 50 miles per gallon, ticked up 16% from January through July over last year, according to Glenn Hansen, a Suzuki spokesman. Sales of the GZ250, which gets 80 miles per gallon, are up 53%.

Given the success of the smaller, more fuel-efficient two wheelers, Suzuki is working to bring some of its smaller models, already particularly popular in Italy, to the United States, Hansen said.

Yamaha saw a 99.8% increase in U.S. scooter sales from September 2007 through July 2008 over the same period a year ago, according to Kevin Foley, a Yamaha representative. One of Yamaha's most popular scooters is the Zuma 50 cc model, which costs only $2,199 and gets 123 miles per gallon.

Between high gas prices, traffic and congestion, "more and more people have started to realize that what they have seen people doing in Europe might be a good idea over here as well," said Timoni. "Go to Europe - London, Paris, Madrid - you see millions of people driving them to work everyday!" To top of page

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