David Sebastian gets stared at a lot-- mostly when the 6-foot-2, 56-year-old Lakeville resident is on his smallish red Vespa, suited for safety with a helmet, goggles, motorcycle gloves, padded jacket and boots. One day last year, Sebastian was parking his scooter at Walgreen's when a woman in a Cadillac Escalade drove up and stared at him for a while.

"What is it?" she eventually asked him. "The future," he deadpanned.

Spot-on prediction. With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon and summerlike temps arriving any day now, scooters are hot. Rather than take a hit by trading in an SUV, many buyers "trade up" their gas mileage with a scooter that gets 50 to 100 miles per gallon. First-quarter nationwide scooter sales increased 25 percent from a year ago at a time when sales of cars, trucks and motorcycles stalled, according to the trade group Motorcycle Industry Council.

Motorcycle dealership Leo's South of Lakeville sold one scooter for every 30 motorcycles last year.

Today it's one scooter for every five motorcycles, said sales manager Randy Bedeaux.

Scooter sales are smoking, said Jim Chisum, executive administrator at Motoprimo in Lakeville. "We're sold out of all scooters in the middle price range," he said. "As soon as we get them in, we sell them."

Prices at Motoprimo range from $1,400 to $2,000 for smaller moped sizes and $2,300 to $4,000 for larger scooters.

Historically, 80 percent of motorcycle customers have been men, but scooter sales have been pretty evenly split between men and women, said Bedeaux and Chishum.

Sebastian and his wife, Cathy, each got Vespas. David got his first, but Cathy didn't like it. It was too big and her feet didn't touch the ground when she sat on it. "I'm 5 [foot] 3 and he's nearly a foot taller," she said. She chose a model with a skinnier seat.

The Sebastians' scooters sport engines that measure 250 cubic centimeters, at the top end for scooter size. Design features make a scooter easier to maneuver than a motorcycle -- automatic transmission, enclosed body work that eliminates exhaust-pipe burns on the legs and a "step through" design so riders don't have to throw one leg over the seat.

Unlike mopeds, which require a driver's license but not a motorcycle license, scooters can be driven on freeways with speeds topping out at about 80 miles per hour.

David has gotten his scooter up to 65 mph, but he found the speed "terrifying." He mostly takes the scooter to the grocery store for just a few items, so he can can store them under the seat or on the floorboard. When on his scooter, he avoids both Costco and the freeway.

How green, how safe?

While most scooter buyers say it's about the economy, some owners such as the Sebastians believe it's also a green purchase. "I'm not fanatical about it, but I do think about my carbon footprint," he said. "I try to use less energy for everyday tasks."

Unfortunately, scooters and motorcycles don't have to meet the same strict standards as automobiles. The Environmental Protection Agency says that even an SUV is 95 percent cleaner per gallon than the typical motorcycle or scooter.

Safety is also a concern. The death rate for scooter riders is about 1.5 times higher than the death rate for drivers of cars and light trucks. The fatality rate from motorcycle accidents is about eight times higher than for cars and trucks. Patrick Hahn of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety recommends taking a motorcycle safety course offered by the state. The 15 hours of classroom and driving instruction give an inexperienced rider the equivalent of about five months' experience, he said.

Economy may be the draw, but the unexpected pleasure is the ride.

"It's one of the funnest things I've ever done," said Greg Johnson of Maple Grove, a longtime Harley-Davidson Superglide rider. He gave up his hog when, having hip problems at age 60, he had trouble sliding his leg over the seat. With the step-through design of his 125cc Yamaha Vino, he now looks for reasons to take it out on a nice day.

What do the kids think about their middle-aged parents buying a vehicle that used to be a young person's ride?

"Our 17-year-old daughter thinks we're geeky and dorky, but everyone wants to ride it," said Cathy Sebastian. "Suddenly they're a novelty, even though they've been around forever."

As for a grown man of a certain age riding a scooter, does it make him feel like, well, less of a man? Johnson said his Harley-driving neighbor asked, "What the hell are you doing?" But Johnson said his scooter is so much fun he forgot to notice. "I'm done trying to impress the girls. I've got a wonderful wife and we're doing fine."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. His articles are online at www.startribune.com/dollars.