NEARLY A QUARTER of a century has passed since I buzzed around the streets of Paris as a student on a motor scooter. Even longer since I paid for an ancient Italian Vespa by using it to deliver the afternoon newspaper in Athens, Georgia. Now I was cruising comfortably out Darnestown Road to White's Ferry on a machine that shows those beloved old scooters to have been clunkers. Say thanks (again) to the Japanese.

The Honda Elite I was riding is one of the finest and priciest ($1,300) of the new generation of Japanese motor scooters that seem on the verge of becoming a fad -- starting, as such things do, in California. Honda, of car and motorcycle fame, and Yamaha, its chief competitor in the motorcycle world, now offer a dozen models to choose from. They're light, clean and convenient -- the sensible escape from the tyranny of the automobile without leaping into the heavy metal of motorcycling.

They're also a leap into the transportation future, the two-wheeled equivalent of underwater Walkmen. The new wave of motor scooters is to its ancestors what a word processor is to an upright manual typewriter with a frayed ribbon. At first, the Elite was hard to believe: electric starting, automatic transmission, digital speedometer and clock, four- stroke water-cooled engine with a louvered cowling up front that earns it comparisons to Darth Vader on wheels. It also has a wide floorboard and foot-level heat vents -- sufficient wind protection to be ridden through nearly the worst of a Washington winter.

The Yamaha Riva has less gadgetry but more oomph: a 180cc-engine compared to 125cc for the Elite. No matter: They both weigh little more than 200 pounds (your full- sized Japanese motorcycle is in the 500-pound division). They both run clean and quiet, start at the press of a button and take off without hesitation or significant warm-up time. Both get over 65 miles per gallon of gas, no small consideration. Both Honda and Yamaha offer smaller models that cost and weigh less and get even better mileage. Prices for the scooters run from about $500 to $1,500.

The scooter may become the yuppie machine of the future. With comfortable saddles and contemporary styling, the new scooters have special appeal to executives, professionals, women and other types who wouldn't be seen near a real motorcycle. "We're getting the 'mature' market," says Andy Lomp, manager of Cycles Arlington on Wilson Boulevard. "That's why we keep the scooters segregated from the motorcycles. These people don't think of themselves as motorcyclists."

And for good reason. Motor scootering is quite another ball game. The scooter is lightweight and small-wheeled. It jitters about the roadway more than a motorcycle. It's built with human ergonomics in mind, not the demands of high-speed, high-performance mechanical perfection. The rider, not the engine, is the chief ballast and balancer of this skittish little act. As any experienced motorcyclist knows, you can take both hands off the grips of a well-tuned motorcycle and it will keep going straight. With a scooter, you've got to hold on.

The scooter, after all, was not chiefly designed for rides out the Darnestown Road, though my Elite performs well enough on backroads and main highways as well. Where the scooter shines is in city traffic. Jams are a thing of the past. Parking is almost as easy as walking. The machines look as though they were meant to be parked in front of sidewalk cafes and movie theaters, twin staples of the yuppie lifestyle.

The local constabulary seems to take a more benign view of sidewalk-stationed scooters than it does of motorcycles. "I can park anywhere without getting a ticket," says Peter Scheer, a motor-scootering lawyer.

But the most extraordinary part of the scooter is the reaction it evokes in passersby. People don't merely turn and stare; they actually smile as though you've just brought home a new baby. A motorcycle writer in southern California had a kiss blown to him by a pretty woman as he purred past on a well-muffled motor scooter -- something that had never happened in all his years of motorcycling.

And that's the only hitch: I can never come out of my office at lunchtime without finding a small gaggle of admirers breathing heavily on my new scoot. It's like being the first kid on your block with color television -- a heavy burden to bear, but somebody's got to do it.