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Technology Update: Top-Notch Scooters

Safety and performance features that typically are associated with automobiles and motorcycles now exist on the most expensive scooters. Anti-lock brakes and traction control are designed to make scooters easier to handle, while LED headlights shine a brighter path.

Honda Motor

Scooter sales are at a 12-year low, but the performance and safety features that some of today’s scooters have are at an all-time high.

In 2014, scooters increasingly have features that exist on motorcycles and automobiles, such as anti-lock brakes (ABS) and traction control, both of which make it easier for you to control the scooter in tough driving conditions, such as wet pavement. They also have LED headlights, which are brighter than are other types of headlights.

Although such features help to explain why manufacturers believe that sales are expected to start to rebound in 2014, the rate at which the newest features trickle down from premium models has slowed because of the sales slump, manufacturers say. In general, you should expect to pay at least $7,999 for models that deliver premium features.

BRAKING NEWS. The exception to that rule is ABS. You now can pay as little as $4,999 to buy a scooter that has ABS, which is $1,800 less than the least expensive model that had ABS in 2010. It should come as no surprise that the Suzuki Burgman 200 ABS, which has a 200-cc engine, is the smallest and least expensive scooter that has ABS, because in 2006, Suzuki was the first manufacturer to introduce ABS on a scooter (on the Burgman 650). Since then, BMW, Honda, Kymco and Vespa introduced scooters that have ABS as a standard feature on models that cost at least $6,899 and that have at least a 582-cc engine. The Honda Forza ($5,599) is the only model that offers ABS as an option, which is a $500 upgrade.

ABS uses sensors to determine wheel speed. If one of the wheels is about to stop spinning, or lock, because the brakes were applied too suddenly, the sensor limits the braking by pulsing the brakes to slow the wheel more gradually. By pulsing the brakes, ABS prevents the scooter from skidding and, thus, the rider from possibly being thrown from the scooter, says Rod Lopusnak of Suzuki. As a result, the driver more easily maintains steering control, and stability improves.

We believe that the benefits that the manufacturers tout are legitimate. Although we haven’t encountered a riding situation in which ABS had to be engaged when we rode a scooter that has ABS, we found that ABS works as it’s supposed to on a motorcycle that has similar engine power.

No data prove that ABS makes scooters safer to drive, but scooter manufacturers who add ABS say governments around the world believe that ABS is a beneficial safety feature. For instance, a 2013 study from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the most recent study that’s available, found that motorcycles that had ABS were 37 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than were motorcycles that didn’t have ABS.

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Industry experts whom we interviewed say the faster the scooter travels, the more advantageous ABS can be, but no expert would estimate the speed at which ABS begins to make a difference. Maxi-scooters and medium scooters are the fastest and, therefore, would benefit most from ABS, experts say. However, Gabe Ets-Hokin, who is the editor of motorcycle and scooter magazine CityBike, says ABS likely will be added to all scooters that have 125-cc or higher engines in the years ahead. That’s because European Union will require all scooters of that size to have ABS by 2016, and Ets-Hokin says the requirements effectively will apply to scooters that are sold in the United States, because the U.S. market is too small for manufacturers to build scooters specifically for the U.S. market.

GAINING TRACTION. We believe that the next chapter in scooter safety will involve traction control. Although traction control is common on automobiles and premium sport motorcycles, at press time, only one scooter has the feature. Piaggio Group added traction control to the Vespa 946 ($9,946) in November 2013.

Traction control works with the scooter’s ABS wheel-speed sensors to measure the speed of each wheel. If the traction-control system detects that one wheel spins at a different speed than the other does, which causes the scooter to lose traction with the road, the system automatically reduces engine power to even the speed or applies the brakes to the wheel that’s spinning more quickly. Traction, thus, is regained.