JIM MAHONEY/DMNNo wonder Josh Bailey is revved up about his Vespa: Besides being a joy to ride, the scooter is cheap to insure and can get 80 miles per gallon, helping the new dad stay within his tight budget. 'And I get great parking,' Mr. Bailey said.

"Everyone at work was excited when I bought it," said Josh Bailey, a 29-year-old White Rock-area resident who sold his car last year and purchased a scooter to drive to work. "And I get great parking, right up beside the door."

Although scooters conjure up pleasant memories for many Americans of European holidays spent zipping down narrow streets to reach sun-soaked vineyards, the idea of trading their comfy SUV for a bum-bumping motorbike at home might seem a pill too bitter to swallow.

As gas prices soar and more scooter models flood the market, however, some daring drivers are bringing a taste of the Continent to their daily commute.

Scooter sales nationwide more than doubled in the past four years, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. About 50,000 scooters were sold in 2001, compared with 113,000 last year.

The cultish Vespa - an Italian scooter barred from import in the U.S. in the mid-1980s because it failed emissions standards - reintroduced itself here with an eco-friendly model in 2000.

In 2003, Suzuki brought us its beefy Burgman scooter line with machines as manly as - but easier to operate than - some motorcycles. Other manufacturers have also introduced new designs to appeal to American tastes.

But don't dismiss the gasoline prices, which have been eating away at drivers' wallets for months. Some fuel-sipping scooters can get 100-plus mpg, although most are in the 60-mpg range.

"Just ask Exxon Mobil and Chevron about it," said Bob White, sales manager at Allen's Maxim Motorsport shop, where scooter sales have tripled in the last year. "Yes, we still have to use their product, but we're going to use it as efficiently as possible."

Nancy Rodriguez, an administrative coordinator for the city of Plano, purchased her scooter two weeks before gasoline hit $3 a gallon last year. On temperate days, she drives it on her 1.5-mile trek to work instead of her Chrysler PT Cruiser.

She's cut her locks shorter - it helps prevent "helmet hair" - and she's put a sign on the scooter's back that reads, "80 MPG. Any Questions?"

Cheap, cheap scooters - not recommended for street use by many experts - can cost less than a grand, although consumers should expect to pay about $2,000 for a vehicle that can reach speeds of 40 mph.

"You go anywhere else in the world and scooters are very popular," said Jon Seidel, a spokesman for American Honda's motorcycle division. "Now everyone's jumping on the bandwagon here."

Jeff Cogburn, a McKinney resident and founder of the North Texas Scooter Club, said his group of scooter lovers has grown from six members in 2004 to 350 today.

"I can't take my scooter to the gas pump without people asking me a bunch of questions about it," he said. "The rise in gas prices is definitely a good excuse for anyone who has ever wanted a scooter to get one."

Although most scooters have a step-through design and automatic transmissions, they are classified as motorcycles under Texas law. That means adult drivers need a motorcycle license - Class M - to drive them on public streets.

More motorcycle training schools are now offering scooter-exclusive classes to help new riders get their licenses or qualify for lower insurance premiums, which are already a pittance compared to cars. It can cost less than $100 a year to insure a scooter.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't differentiate between scooters and motorcycles in its data, although the agency's motorcycle safety statistics are sobering.

And for those who have long commutes to work on highways, riding a low-powered scooter is both dangerous and illegal. Many Texas highways have a minimum speed limit of 45 mph.

"You have to be a defensive driver on a scooter," said Bev Brinson, publisher of Denver-based ScooterWorld magazine and a scooter rider. "You have to assume everyone is either trying to hit you or can't see you."

He needed a new vehicle - his 1995 Nissan Altima was on its last legs - but a new car would put a strain on his budget. He had just graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary and had a new baby, so keeping costs low was a priority.

That's why he and his wife, Emily, headed to the scooter shop in August and laid down about $5,000 on a shiny Vespa. He sold his Altima, although his wife kept her Ford Explorer.

And who can deny the romance of wrapping your arms tight around your love as you ride together into the sunset on a scooter - even if it's down Gus Thomasson Road.

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