The $9000 Plug-In Hybrid That Will Beat the Volt to Market

Gas is cheap now, but everyone who remembers when it was $4 a gallon knows it won’t be affordable forever – especially when world demand exceeds supply. (In 2007, the usually staid International Energy Agency predicted the world supply of oil could peak before the average consumer has ditched their current vehicle.) Meanwhile, the same economic crisis that sent oil futures into a tailspin has made belt-tightening more important than ever.

The MP3 500 hybrid is Piaggio’s answer to all that.

It’s got a few things going for it that no other non-car on the road does, including a radical (for scooters) plug-in hybrid engine that a yields a toe-curling 140 miles per gallon, and a unique three-wheel design.

Just as importantly, the MP3 500 hybrid is beginner-friendly, which means someone other than hipsters and Bob Lutz might make it their primary means of getting to work.

Like other scooters in the MP3 line, its dual front wheels increase stability and can lock the bike in an upright position at low speeds. It also has a “fly-by-wire” automatic transmission. Two septuagenarians drove theirs 3,000 miles in a Piaggio-sponsored publicity stunt and managed to make it from San Francisco to New York without incident.

In contrast to the Chevy Volt, the MP3 has a “parallel” gas/electric hybrid powertrain that uses stored electricity mostly for acceleration, which is when vehicles waste the most fuel; the bike also recovers electricity during regenerative breaking. Its batteries charge in 3 hours from a standard wall outlet. The MP3 has an electricity-only mode with a top speed of suitable for surface-road puttering, but not much else.

That doesn’t mean the MP3 is wimpy – in hybrid mode, it’s highway legal, does 0-60 in under 8 seconds, and employs a trapezoidal front suspension to lean just like a motorcycle, which is essential for taking curves as it approaches its top speed of 100mph. A small gas tank extends the range of the scooter just as it does on the Volt.

As part of the stimulus bill, electric scooters and motorcycles purchased before the end of 2009 net a 10% federal tax deduction and a refund of state and local sales tax. That takes a $9000 bike like the MP3 500 down to around $8000, but you might have to move fast: the hybrid MP3 500 is slated to arrive in the U.S. in the last quarter of 2009.

That puts the MP3 on our shores a full year ahead of the Chevy Volt and every other plug-in hybrid promised to date. (It should be noted that there are already a number of plug-in hybrid trucks and vans in use by everyone from UPS to regional power companies.)