A tricycle that does 80mph is perfect for would-be bikers scared of motorbikes, says Tim Luckhurst


Engine: Single-cylinder, 4-stroke 124cc or 244.3cc
Maximum power: 125: 15bhp at 9,250rpm; 250: 22.5bhp, 8,250rpm
Maximum torque: 125: 12Nm at 8,500rpm; 250: 21Nm at 6.750rpm
Transmission: Twist-and- go automatic.
Brakes: Front: two 240mm discs; rear: single 240mm disc.
Tank capacity: 12 litres
Seat height: 780mm
Weight: 204kg/199kg
Price: 125: circa £3,600; 250: less than £4,000

I suspect it is the future, but the sight of a motorcyclist stationary at traffic lights with both feet off the ground takes some getting used to. At the launch in Rome of Piaggio's revolutionary three-wheeler, children pointed and stared. But witnessing is not as peculiar as experiencing.

The Piaggio MP3's twin front wheels are married to an electro-hydraulic suspension locking system that holds it bolt upright at standstill. When the throttle is opened it deactivates automatically and the machine is free to lean into corners like a proper motorcycle.

Except that does not do it justice, because this three-wheeler can tip over as far at 10mph as a conventional scooter can at 50mph. In urban riding, grip and stability are astonishing. I rode around a flowerbed, canted hard over, at speeds impossible on two wheels. The facility is more than a gimmick. With such balance, the oil spills and gravel patches that scare any sensible rider become almost as unthreatening as they are to a car driver.

Putting twice as much rubber on the ground at the front end also enhances braking. Piaggio claims stopping distances 20 per cent shorter than the best conventional scooters.

In 1946, Piaggio launched the Vespa scooter that changed attitudes to affordable personal transport. Sixty years later, the company's powered tricycle aims to repeat the trick. It might work. It remains narrow enough to filter through urban traffic. But to look cool on this, you must remember to release the handbrake which makes it possible to park on sloping ground without using the stand. Parking brakes do not exist on conventional motorcycles so I forgot. The bike responded with agonised groaning that attracted gestures indicating that some Italians do not consider it macho to ride a motorcycle with stabilisers.

The third wheel is not this machine's only peculiarity. Piaggio describes the front end as incorporating "car-style bodywork". To an ungenerous eye, it resembles the mongrel offspring of a one-night stand between a quad bike and a bubble car. So, if looking devastating is not the point, what is?

Ask any motorcycle manufacturer to identify the biggest challenge facing the industry and you will get the reply "safety". Forget the environmental benefits of motorcycles. For European transport ministers, thousands of premature, violent deaths loom larger.

For 10 years designers have tried to imagine how they might avert regulation without eradicating pleasure. BMW tried with the C1, a motorcycle encased in a shell to protect its rider. It won some adoring fans, but few were sold. Most riders find C1s hard to control and bland when mastered. The Piaggio MP3 aims to solve the conundrum by making it easier to experience the thrill of riding fast but very hard to fall off.

Project manager Nicola Poggio says: "The first objective is to improve safety. We have made a scooter that can appeal to commuters who are scared of conventional two-wheelers." But the new machine is not intended solely for the faint-hearted. "Better safety makes riding more of a pleasure. The BMW C1 was not fun. This is."

Enjoying the machine is initially difficult for an experienced motorcyclist. You have to unlearn key riding skills. Steering is halfway between riding and driving a car. You can turn the front wheels suddenly at low speed in a way that would result in an accident on a two-wheeler. Cornering demands none of the counter-steering and shifts in bodyweight that guide a conventional bike. On three wheels you just lean and steer.

At first, such manoeuvrability is disconcerting, but the potential revealed itself when I misjudged a sharp right-hander. Nicola Poggio says that under extreme pressure the front wheels slide sideways. The back wheel certainly locks under fierce braking. But neither leads to a spill. After that, I thrashed my tricycle mercilessly. Front-end road holding is exceptional. I have not experienced many lightweight two-wheelers that feel so composed when cornering at 75mph.

A brilliant innovation then? It is very clever, but the PiaggioMP3 is basically a big scooter. It comes in 125cc and 250cc versions and the latter is capable of 80mph. But this technology deserves to be tested under real power. In its present guise it feels like a motorcycle for people who find motorcycles frightening. The idea works, but it is not just my pride that is threatened by technology that lets novices corner fast. A cautious transport minister might regard that as an incentive to enjoyment. That would never do. The Piaggio MP3 will be available in the UK in August.

Search for used cars