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This was confusing to me when I was started looking into scooters. They are all modes of transportation on two-wheels, but this outsider newbie had no idea what the difference actually was, so I get it if you are confused in this space, too.

Motorcycles have two-wheels and are motor-powered, usually with a manual shift transmission. Scooters are a class of motorcycles but with a smaller enclosed motor, a step-through platform, and an automatic transmission. The more modern definition of a moped is that they are a class of speed-restricted scooters.

All are on two wheels and all are similar in terms of being solid, more affordable car alternatives. There are some nuances and confusion in how they differ, but I dive into the details below to hopefully answer all of your burning questions.

More About Scooters

Scooter example

Scooters are also referred to as motor scooters to help with the distinction between other types of scooters. They have the two-wheels and most have the step-through platform that you rest your feet on when you’re riding. Add in an automatic transmission and motor encased in the body of the unit, and you’re now talking about a scooter.

Before I understood more about scooters, I also referred to them as vespas. Vespa is actually a brand, but notice I didn’t capitalize vespa here. I literally thought it was just another term for a scooter.

To clear that up. Vespa is a manufacturer that makes scooters. Scooters are NOT also known as vespas. Oops!

Quick Talk About Engine Sizes

Scooters and motorcycles measure their engine sized by the engine displacement of an air and fuel mixture. The amount the engine displaces is what is measured in a unit called cubic centimeters. This is shortened to cc behind a number where the bigger the cc, the larger the motor and the faster the engine will push you.

Scooters start with an engine size of 50cc, and I’ve seen scooters with up to 650cc. At that point, you’re starting to get into the realm of motorcycles, but they have the step-through design with an automatic transmission. They’re scooters!

Most scooters are not designed for being speedy. They are most commonly seen in cities and tourist locations as they are small, nimble, and you generally just cruise around on them. With this in mind, you’ll primarily find scooters with small wheels in the 10″ to 12″ range. There are larger tires, particularly as you go up in engine size, but for the most part, the tires are in this range. They’re highly maneuverable which is why they are described as nimble.

What’s funny about this conversation is that there are so many types of scooters, that there could be a whole conversation on that alone. You may have noticed that it is tough to weed through kick scooter information to even find motor scooter resources already. I imagine you get the difference between a kick scooter and a motor scooter, but if you want to see more about the different types of scooters that can confuse your online searches, check out this guide that I put together.

A final thought on scooters specifically, but there are manual transmission scooters out there, but the newer models sold in the United States tend to have an automatic transmission. You’ll hear the term twist and go from time to time which refers to the ability to just twist the throttle to make the scooter go.

More About Motorcycles

Motorcycle example

You likely know a motorcycle when you see it, so I can skip the pieces about being on two-wheeled with a mostly exposed motor, right?

They are designed for more speedy applications with the smallest motorcycles having an engine size of 250cc. The engine is mounted in the middle of the bike, and they are meant for leisurely cruising or getting up to speed quickly for a highway ride. To accommodate the higher speeds, motorcycles have tires that primarily starting at 16 inches.

Almost all motorcycles require you to shift gears manually. This is usually a right leg thing where you flip your toes up or down on a shifter in order to speed up or slow down. If you’re familiar with a manual or standard car, it’s a similar principle.

Similarities Between Scooters and Motorcycles

So you get that both motorcycles and scooters have two-wheels. Below is a snapshot of the similarities between the two that matter.

  • You’ll follow the same traffic safety rules.
  • You’ll wear the same protective safety gear.
  • Other drivers will not see you in the same way, so you’ll need to ride defensively and be watchful.

Notice that these similarities are around your safety. When you are out and about, you’ll see other motorcyclists and scooterists drop their left hand from the handlebar and extend 2 fingers downward. That is the motorcycle wave, and I was initially told it is like a kindred-spirit kind of wave like, “We’re in this together as fellow 2-wheeled riders.” Not everyone will wave as some people reserve it for motorcycles they deem worthy, but I like the idea that we are celebrating this band of two-wheeled awesomeness and to stay safe out there. Yup, I throw the motorcycle wave out to every motorcycle and scooter I see out there. Stay safe out there, friend!

Differences Between Scooters and Motorcycles

If you read through each of the details on the scooter and motorcycle, you may have gleaned the differences already. Here’s a quick chart to help you compare if you’d like the cliff notes version. I get it.

Engine Size50-650 cc250+ cc
TransmissionAutomatic shiftingManual shifting with a clutch
Wheel size10-16”16”+
ShapeRider sits with feet on step-through platformRider sits astride, requires leg swing over the motorcycle
Engine LocationRear and attached to rear suspensionMiddle and attached to the frame
Requires Special LicensingDepends on state when 50cc usually a full yes when over 50ccYes

Differences Between Scooters and Mopeds

I held off on the moped discussion until closer to the end because the earlier definition kinda covered that mopeds are scooters. With limits. Now at least.

If you look up the actual definition of a moped, Oxford Languages says it is, “… a low-power, lightweight motorized bicycle.” Maybe, but calling it a bicycle means there are pedals. That is an electric bicycle, also known as, an e-bike.

When you hear the term moped, someone is more likely referring to a scooter with a 50cc engine. States have a variety of rules that dictate when a rider must have a specific motorcycle designation on their license, and generally, this is in the moped space. The crazy thing is they tend to have different horsepower requirements, but for the most part, they agree on a 30 mile per hour speed restriction. Whether the 50cc scooter you are looking at has the restriction on the motor or not, folks tend to refer to any 50cc as a moped.

Newer Vespas are not manufactured with the horsepower and speed restriction, so Vespas are different than mopeds due to their engine sizes.

I think of mopeds as scooters in that same kindred-spirit kind of way that a Harley rider looks at me when they flash the motorcycle wave in passing. 50cc or 1000cc, we’re in this together!

Are Mopeds Faster Than Scooters?

As mopeds are speed-restricted scooters, a moped will not be faster than a scooter without the speed and horsepower restrictions.

Is it Easier to Ride a Scooter or Motorcycle?

Riding a scooter or motorcycle has a lot of similarities, especially if you compare the neutral, upright riding position between motorcycles. The parts that make riding more challenging like scanning for potential risks differently than you do in a car and riding like you are invisible are the same. There is not a benefit in that regard to either option.

Scooters are easier to ride as they do not require you to also shift gears. However, this difference is a minor one as you get familiar and comfortable with shifting gears fairly quickly. If a motorcycle looks good to you, that is a small difference to learn.