Scooters are one of the rare things in this world that are both fun and practical. With gasoline prices rising all the time, traffic increasing, and a static number of parking spaces, you might be considering a scooter as a logical alternative to your single-occupant, four-seater cage.

But what is a scooter, really? There is no standard definition, so for this article I will impose my own and say that a scooter is a motorcycle with an automatic transmission, and a (generally) small engine. In British Columbia, Canada where I live, scooters with an engine under 50cc are allowed to be ridden with a standard driver's license, and anything over 50cc requires a motorcycle license.

I will discuss the merits of a scooter with a larger engine in another article, and limit the scope of this article to 49.9cc scooters that can be ridden without a motorcycle license. Unfortunately, within this limited scope there are still a dizzying number of choices available from many different brands.

There are five things that I consider when looking at a scooter. With these five things in mind I hope to simplify your own bargain hunting and help you pick the best scooter for you.

1.) The looks. Don't laugh, you will have to walk up to this vehicle, put the key in, and entrust your life to it each day. If you can't stand the look of it, and are a little embarrassed to be seen with it, then you aren't getting the full enjoyment out of the vehicle. Obviously looks aren't everything, but with the amount of choice out there, if you decide you can't live with the looks of the Honda Dio (as an example), then don't try.

2.) The engine. This is your most important decision, which is why it is point number two. There are two kinds of engines available, two-stroke, and four-stroke. I won't get in to technical details, but two-stroke engines generate more power than four-stroke engines, at a cost of a bit of fuel economy and a lot worse pollution. Two-stroke scooters have a separate tank that you fill with a special kind of oil, and the machine burns both that oil and gasoline together to run, belching blue smoke out the tailpipe. The tradeoff to this pollution and (slightly) lower fuel economy is that a two-stroke scooter can comfortably do 60kph (37mph) on level ground and can top out at 70kph (43mph) given enough distance, while a four-stroke scooter will probably subtract 10kph from each of those. The extra speed offered by the two-stroke motor will allow you to tackle hills more easily, and car drivers are less prone to passing you unsafely.

3.) The brakes. If the engine represents your most important decision, the brakes represent the most important feature. There is not much to say here; most scooters use old-style mechanical drum brakes on the front and back wheel, while better scooters will use a hydraulic disk brake for the front wheel, just like on your car. When you hit the brakes on your scooter, the weight transfers to the front, putting more grip on the front tire and forcing the front brake to do most of the work of stopping the scooter. It is my opinion that you should get the best possible brakes for your scooter, which means a hydraulic front disk brake.

4.) Wheels. Most scooters have 10 inch diameter wheels and narrow tires. This gives them low rolling-resistance, for high fuel economy, and allows you to turn very quickly. There are a growing number of scooters, however, that use larger wheels, such as the Yamaha BWS/Zuma. A wheel that is fatter than normal will give you more grip, for better stopping and better road-holding. A wheel that is taller (12 or 14 inch diameter) will negotiate potholes more confidently, and produce more grip than a smaller wheel, but could make the scooter feel less nimble at low speeds. Depending on your local road conditions, it might pay to spend the extra time (and money) finding a larger-wheeled scooter.

5.) Brand. This is arguably the least important factor in choosing a scooter, and I won't spend much time talking about it. Maybe to you, a scooter means Vespa, and that's all there is to it. People associate certain brands with varying levels of reliability, but even the most trusted, reliable brand is capable of cobbling together a scooter on a Friday before a long weekend. My only advice is don't trust or mistrust a scooter based on its brand name alone, do a bit of research into the specific model before making a judgement on its reliability.

I hope this article serves as a starting point for you making an informed purchase of your new scooter. Enjoy the ride!