July 12, 2009 The Piaggio Group's claim that its new MP3 Hybrid is “destined to revolutionize urban mobility” would normally be classified as a somewhat overreaching PR claim. Though a highly optimistic viewpoint in view of the machine's US$12,500 price tag, a 33% premium over the 250cc version, the MP3 Hybrid is a landmark vehicle in that it is the first hybrid motorcycle at the same time as offering a number of significant safety features that make the miserly 60 km/l (140+ mpg) three-wheeler a compelling choice for commuters. We've spent some time on the 250cc version of the MP3 and can vouch that it is just as manoeuvrable and enjoyable as a motorcycle yet much safer and surefooted. While the stupidly named MP3 doesn't actually play music, we believe it will make an impact when it goes on sale in Europe next month. Expect to see the hybrid on U.S. Roads next year.
So let's start with the name – truly one of the all-time marketing gaffes in our book. The term MP3 achieved global recognition a decade ago as the common abbreviation of “MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3”, the de facto standard of digital audio compression for the transfer and playback of music on the 250 million digital audio players sold each year. MP3 is already the word on everyone's lips, and it aint in relation to a motorcycle.
The Piaggio three-wheeled design, which offers all the fun and advantages of a motorcycle yet stops quicker and handles more surely, is a landmark vehicle design and one which we think will become a globally recognized type of vehicle. It overcomes some of the most significant problems of the motorcycle regarding stability.
Instead of developing a name which could be synonymous with this significant new vehicle type, Piaggio gave it exactly the same name as an already established global phenomenon. Apart from creating significant marketplace confusion and making it more difficult to find relevant information about their vehicle, choosing the same name as a global phenomenon when you actually have a chance of creating your own global phenomenon ranks as corporate stupidity bordering on insanity IMHO. Fortunately, the Piaggio Marketing Department's lack of clear thinking did not afflict the engineering department, which has done a magnificent job. When we got our hands on the first 250cc MP3 a few years back, contributors came out of the woodwork seeking to try it and we had an afternoon session at the Albert Park Formula One circuit where all and sundry threw a leg over the machine, albeit at road-legal speeds, and the response was 100% positive.
The two front wheels make the world of difference – lose traction on the front wheel of a two-wheeled machine whilst cornering and you're almost certainly going to crash. The MP3's two independently sprung front wheels make a world of difference though, effectively doubling the size of the contact patch to the road most of the time, but maintaining a single-wheel contact patch even if the other wheel has been disturbed by a bump, road junction, slippery surface, gravel, sand or … anything.
It felt so good on the smooth F1 track surface that we went in search of less-than-ideal surfaces to see what would happen. In one such location, a beachside carpark where sections of the tarmac were lightly covered in sand, we found the perfect place to see what happens to the front end in a “crash stop situation.”
On a two-wheeler it would have been quite literally a crash stop – lock up the front wheel at 40-50 kmh on a motorcycle or scooter on a sand-covered surface and you are inevitably about to lose some skin soon after. Twice I managed to get the front wheels of the Piaggio locked and although it scared me, I stayed rubber-side-down as the two wheels gave me enough time to catch the slide and release the brake pressure. I would definitely have crashed had I been riding any motorcycle, but not the MP3, and that's why it is such an important vehicle – it is surefooted enough to make low-experience riders much safer.
So let's be clear we are huge fans of the MP3 as a vehicle type, even if it does have a stoopid name.
Combining the MP3 vehicle type with hybrid engine technology is hence very significant, and it has also been done very cleverly, using a 125cc four-stroke motor as the primary engine with the electric motor in parallel. There's also an automatic transmission and a “ride-by-wire” Vehicle Management System (VMS) incorporated so the motors work mechanically and electronically in harmony.
Using the Hy-Tech button on the right handlebar, the rider can select, even on the fly, between three modes: hybrid power, hybrid charge and full electric.
In the first of these modes, the electric motor is used to supplement the full power of the 125 engine to give maximum performance, which shouldn't be much less than the full 250cc-engined MP3 we rode, thanks to the extra torque of an electric motor low in the rev range. So that's 250 power with 125 economy.
The other modes are self explanatory, though it should be noted that in electric only mode, top speed is a modest 30 kmh – ideal for gaining access to electric only zones such as central London, but hardly a viable alternative for outside such zones.
There's also an electric reverse which is kinda handy for parking or maneovering, but doesn't qualify as a fourth driving mode any more than a five speed gearbox with reverse qualifies as a six speed gearbox.
Once in the garage, plug-in technology lets you recharge the batteries from the mains inside three hours using the battery charger built into the on board electronics. This further reduces running costs, as electricity is a far cheaper energy source than petrol. A full charge will get you around 40 miles of electric-only running. There is some regenerative braking function, but there are also several large discs which don't do anything useful with the energy, so we're not sure how much is window-dressing in the regenrative equation at the end of the day.
The instrument panel includes the battery charge indicator, while a centre panel accommodates the hazard warning light indicator, the on board computer button and the light indicating when the vehicle is connected to mains electricity to charge the batteries. Two new buttons have been added to the familiar controls: on the left is the new horn, which is vital for warning others of the vehicle's presence when gliding silently in electric mode through restricted traffic areas, while on the right is the “Hy Tech” button, which allows the rider to select between the different operating modes.
As with all the other models in the MP3 range, the Piaggio MP3 Hybrid has an electronic front suspension lock system, which allows the rider to stop the vehicle without needing to put his or her feet down and park without using the stand. As with all MP3 models, the suspension lock is released by pressing the button on the handlebar or by simply riding away, whether in “Hybrid” (Power and Charge) or “Electric” mode.
The MP3 hybrid offers slightly less than 250cc performance and massively reduced fuel consumption returning up to 60 Km/l using two thirds hybrid mode and one third electric mode. In reality, no-one is going to use the bike in electric only mode so those figures are going to be much closer to 100 mpg than 140 mpg. That's still a spectacular result, but the Return On Investment of purchasing the hybrid over the 250cc MP3, even taking into account the U.S. 10 percent tax rebate for hybrid and electric vehicles, is likely to be a very long time, given the hybrid costs a third more. Mike Hanlon