Not a car; it just looks like one

That's a scooter you see. And yes, it's legal to run on the streets.

Published May 25, 2007

Sweating over soaring gas prices?

A Florida company says it can provide some relief.

Within the next month, Miami-based RTM Group Inc. will debut the Tango. The three-wheeled scooter that looks like a pint-sized car can get about 70 miles per gallon, can cruise at up to 50 mph and has a trunk that can easily fit a dozen grocery bags. It's street-legal, and requires no special license if you buy the smaller 50cc cubic centimeter engine.

The ultimate bait? It costs less than $10 for a fill-up based on today's prices.

The downer? You can't travel on the interstates.

The first shipment arrives at Largo-based MoJo Scooters within a month. This week, two Tangos landed at the store for test drives. Owner Peter Spoto says he already has a list of 100 customers from across the country waiting to buy one. He's also received queries from as far as Europe and Australia.

Another lure is the asking price: less than $7,000.

With gas prices averaging a record $3.095 in the Tampa Bay area on Thursday, the Tango is one fresh option to ease the pinch at the pump, Spoto said.

Spoto has been in the business for 18 years and says he's never seen such enthusiasm for a scooter. What sets the Tango apart is the windshield, the enclosed environment and features such as a roof, a dashboard, a trunk and reverse gears. It functions like the three-wheelers that dominate the roads in India, except it's snazzier.

"It's cute as a button," Spoto said.

The idea for the scooter emerged more than two years ago, said Raul Romero Jr., president of RTM. Gas consumption, parking space and weight were the guiding principles behind the design, he said.

But the success of a product can't hinge on gas prices, said Sriram Venkataraman, assistant professor of marketing at Emory University's business school.

"The need for speed has never been higher, and consumers are myopic to gas prices," Venkataraman said. "They revert back to traditional gas guzzlers when prices go down."

The rise of the scooter could fit well with the rising senior population, he said. But the traditional American desire for the SUV and a V-8 engine is still strong.

Although it's too early for a verdict, there's at least one unhappy party.

Commuter Cars Corp., a Spokane, Wash., company that makes an electric car called Tango, says RTM is hijacking its popular brand name. The electric Tango, a craze among celebrities, costs more than $100,000.

"I am displeased with their morals," said Rick Woodbury, the company's president. "It's a rip-off and they are trying to capitalize on our name."

Woodbury's company recently sold one of its electric cars to actor George Clooney.

RTM's Romero said he believes there's no controversy.

"We are just using it as a model and not a brand name," he said.

RTM has registered its product in the United States, South America and Europe, he said, and has already met the Department of Transportation's and the Environmental Protection Agency's standards.

"We feel we have a niche product and there will be no competition," Romero said.

The Tango

What is it? It's a wannabe car that's a scooter.
What does it look like? It could pass for a younger cousin of the Mini Cooper or Volkswagen Bug.
How fast does it drive? The 50cc engine goes about 30 mph. The 190cc hits 40 to 50 mph.
What is its target market? Older riders, drivers, businesses, handicapped and disabled drivers.
How much does it weigh? 430 pounds.
What is its capacity? 2 passengers.
What's the mileage? The fuel tank holds 2.6 gallons, and vehicles can get up 65 to 70 mpg.
How much does it cost? The actual vehicle costs $6, 399 for a 50cc engine and $6, 899 for a 190cc engine. The cost of a fill-up is $8.047, and insurance could cost $225 to $325 a year.

Madhusmita Bora can be reached at mbora@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3112.