Thursday, March 29, 2007

Machine Review: Piaggio MP3

I would have normally began this machine review with describing the looks of the machine, but to be honest, its appearance is so polarizing that I would be forcing rather impassioned opinions on you instead of straight and honest facts. So, with that said, I’ll leave the looks of this three-wheeler to be judged by you readers; use the videos and pics and leave a comment and tell us what you think. Then come down on April 19th during our Open House and see it in person!

I recently stole a day and a half to play with the new Piaggio MP3 in an effort to discover what made this bike sell-out in Italy and nearly sell-out in the United Kingdom. Afterall, those unexpected successes delayed this bike by more than a couple months for us in North America, and I was anxious to see why.

I suited up grabbed my helmet and began to head out. Before so, I gave the bike a nice once-over and immediately fell in love with the instrument panel; it’s extremely easy to read. With all the intuitive yet advanced techno-wizardry they threw into the MP3, I would have not been surprised to see an all-digital dash on this machine. Instead, you’re treated to an easy to read LCD panel, bright and concise indicator lights and-in my opinion may be the BEST thing about the bike-extremely large analogue tach and speedometer gauges. Chrome trimmed with large numbers and needles, the gauges take all the squinting and guesswork out of finding information while on the road. As a long-time rider, I sometimes take that for granted, but the MP3 really gives you accessible information which can be frustrating to quickly gather on other bikes, especially if you’re a novice rider.

The bike has a few operational features that set it apart from traditional two-wheeled machines: an emergency brake lever and a suspension brace system. The emergency brake, although placed differently, works just like it would in a car or truck; once activated, the rear wheel is mechanically locked in place and prevents the MP3 from rolling down hill under the power of gravity. While picturing a runaway machine coming to rest in a neighbor’s yard is sorta amusing, it’s a very real threat, and one should get used to using either the center stand or the emergency brake whenever away from the bike.

The suspension bracing system is a cluster of electronically powered servos located in the front suspension arms that “lock” those shocks in place at the touch of a button. One can pull up to a stop sign or traffic signal, and when slowing to below 3 MPH, an indicator on the dash will flash, letting you know the suspension is ready for bracing. Hit the button and with a confirming beep, the MP3 is locked in an upright position and you can skip the whole balancing act that normally comes with stopping a two-wheeled motorcycle or scooter. Honestly! Stoplight to stoplight, I just keep my feet on the floorboard and laugh to myself about how cool a feature it is. Its really, really handy, but unlike the rest of the features of the MP3, the suspension brace system requires quite a bit of practice to use it proficiently. Other reviewers of the MP3 have written this before, but its not until you actually hop on the machine that you fully understand this warning. If used improperly, the bike can and will fall over. The suspension brace also keeps the bike from being throttled in an upright position if no one is sitting on the seat. It’s a built in safety feature that is simply genius.

My review consisted of multiple trips, two to the Country Club Plaza, two to the “Brookwood” office park and another on Ward Parkway. The first trip to the Plaza was a solo trip to see how the bike handled traffic and to practice the suspension brace system in the wild. I left north on Nall and took an immediate right down 95th street. Almost instantly, I noticed how nice the power delivery was. Because the bike was brand new and under break-in, I wasn’t allowed to really juice it, but the power was so addictive, I had to fight the temptation quite a few times. Pulling my 180 lb weight utop its hefty 450 lb frame was no problem whatsoever and going uphill on the small detour thru Roe Blvd was easy. Really easy. I’ll happily admit that I can’t wait till the break-in period is over!

When I finally arrived on the Plaza, I took the long loop around to get to Balsano’s, soaking up the sun and all the stares as I did so. Speaking of stares, the MP3 grabbed the attention of everyone it approached and didn’t let go. From gray-hairs in Corvettes, wannabe-thugs in Monte Carlos, and even high-heeled ladies walking their pedicured poochies on the sidewalk, everyone rubbernecked at the site of the three-wheeler. It was a little nerve-racking to be commanding so much attention, and it didn’t prove to be an absolutely positive thing as one group of pedestrians walked out in front of me on purpose to ask me about the bike. Since I was making a right hand turn into flowing traffic, I assumed they were just waiting for the light to change, but they actually stopped me to ask what I was riding, nearly knocking me over.

I grabbed lunch at Balsano’s only to be delayed on my trip back to Vespa KC by half an hour due to all the inquisitive locals. The biggest question I recieved was “Why the two wheels up front?” I would explain to them that the two wheels up front provide easier and faster turning and stability in corners, not to mention superior braking and feedback for a ride that only an MP3 can deliver.

Every time, my explanation would be met with blank stares.

It quickly dawned on me that if you were to just look at the MP3, it looks like if you to try and lean it over, it would just fall the other way, so after wasting my breath, learned to answer the question about two front wheels by turning off the suspension brace and leaning the bike side to side.

“Oh, I get it!”

On the handling portion of the test, I visited the “Brookwood” Office Park. Brookwood isn’t the actual name of this campus, but I don’t want to get anyone into trouble by inviting them to test their abilities in the park’s switchbacks and varied corners. As mentioned in the X9 review, sport bike riders and Mini Cooper owners alike fly through that place to see how well they can hang in the corners, and I’m not foreign to it’s pleasures/dangers either. I felt the MP3 would perform well there, so I traveled to the Overland Park side of town to find out.

The first two runs through were traffic free so I was able to really get the bike leaned over as I negotiated apex after apex. Although speed is limited to 25 MPH, the MP3 ran through most corners at 45 to 50 MPH indicated, and that was with reservations on the new machine. A few things were immediately apparent in the way the bike handled the turns at higher speeds however: On my motorcycle, entering a corner with a hand full of throttle is a sure way to get yourself killed as the bike would over power the turn and run toward the outside, potentially sending you flying over the curb and into the trees. On my Vespa 150, riding in “hot” is easier to correct, but it is still a slow way through the corner as one should do any braking or slowing before entering said corner, then after reaching the apex of the turn, throttle smoothly out and prepare for the next obstacle.

On the MP3, that basic rule still applies, but you could almost ignore it if you choose to! Enter the corner hot and just LEAAAAAAAN with minimal effort and viola! You’re back on your racing line and out of harms way and still out of the corner quick. Throwing the MP3 through the park was so effortless and exciting that I wouldn’t be surprised if an Piaggio MP3 racing league started up next year at the KCI motorsports park. The bike is really confidence inspiring and makes everyone who gets the chance to sit behind the handlebars feel like a hero!

My third run through wasn’t exactly traffic free, and I had to brake hard, mid corner, sending the bike from it’s easy lean angle into a straight, sit-up and beg position. This effect of braking in corners happens on motorcycles and scooters, and that is why experts advise to do your braking BEFORE you enter a corner, but the effect of throwing the bike up right is much more exxagerated on the MP3. I don’t think it’s because of the two front wheels, but because the two front Brembo brakes do such a good job. When needing to brake hard, there is NO lever vibration and it is absolutely SMOOTH. In fact, when practicing emergency stops by locking up the front wheel, I felt so confident that I didn’t have that instance of freaking out like I would have had on any other machine. Locking up the rear wheel is transparent and easy to ride out, and the rear brake is just as smooth as the front two. It’s truly amazing how nice the feel of stopping is on this bike.

The rest of the run went okay, but because I was getting used to the bike, I started to feel as if the suspension, under load, was giving off signals of vagueness. I would be switching from one deep left-hander to a deep right-hander, and I’d get no feedback above a certain speed. The fix? The suspension! The MP3 comes with a preload adjustable rear suspension system. There are four levels, 1 and 2 for solo riding, 3 for two-up, and 4 for a passenger and luggage. In seconds I had dialed in the suspension to level 2 and my fifth run through the park was instantly improved and my top speed increased. I was carving butter with a hot knife at that point and decided that it was time for the next test.

The next portion involved torturing my GF by making her hold on for dear life as a passenger. I wanted to see if the bike still pulled through traffic and turned quickly with more weight on it. The GF happily agreed and I immediately scared her by leaning the bike way over at parking-lot speeds to negotiate a turn. On any other bike, leaning as far as we did at sub 5MPH speeds would have had us both in bandages, but the MP3 is an evil tool of mischief. We made our way up the long hill on Shawnee Mission Parkway towards Antioch with no problems, and braking at stop lights was still easy breezy. Emergency braking was easy and I slid the rear wheel out in a braking drift at 25 MPH with no loss of control. I don’t think she approved of that manuever, though. She had plenty of seating room and said it was very comfortable although I noticed that her legs were bowed out a little bit since the passenger foot boards were not exactly as wide as they could be. In fact, the whole bike is a lot narrower than it looks, and traffic-busting was a blast, two-up.

We dismounted in the Target parking lot on Johnson drive and Metcalf and I dialed in the suspension to it’s next level since we were riding two-up. Sure enough, our trip to the Plaza was very comfortable and like everything else about the bike, easy. By this time, it was getting dark and those large gauges I love so much were brightly illuminated making viewing even easier! I had to ask myself if it got any better than this! After dinner with my dad at Uno’s on Jefferson, we walked to the bike only to be greeted by more stares from kids in souped up imports and guys on sport bikes. Double-takes followed us whenever we made a turn, which I admit to showing off by leaning it as far as I could to illustrate the MP3's wonderful parallelogram suspension. The ride home was as brisk as I wanted it to be and a well lit one thanks to the powerful halogen headlights. The lights were so bright in fact, that I had no use for the hi beams, a first for me on any type of motorcycle!

I don’t have many complaints about the MP3. A lot of folks on the internet are already asking for more power, but most those folks have yet to ride the machine. I felt the power was enough for city duty, with the inclusion of a larger motor only being appropriate if someone needed highway travel capabilities. I never took the bike to its supposed 75 MPH topspeed, but we definitely weren’t going the speed limit either. I did, at first, think that the seating position was a little too cramped for my 6 foot frame, but it ended up feeling just right. I could foresee problems for anyone above 6'3" as the saddle on the MP3 doesn’t allow for much change in seating position. You’re kinda stuck exactly between the front wheels and the rear one.

This turned out to be a little long winded (and I have much more to say!) but you should come out to the Open House on April 19th and experience the MP3 for yourself. It’s an amazing machine and even if you’ve never ridden before, you’ll feel like a champ after trying it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations - this is simply the best review I've read on this remarkable bike.
The MP3 is the transportation answer - pure and simple, while at the same time adding some serious fun into moving from point A to B,