Outside a civic disaster like a transit strike, many motorcyclists just find it more convenient to not ride to work. I’m not judging you, even though I am on the Ride to Work Advisory Board and therefore must advise you to, um… ride to work. But many of you ride specialized motorcycles that just aren’t suited to riding through commuter traffic, especially traffic thickened by the cornstarch of an extra 400,000 disgruntled ex-subway riders stuck in their cages. That 600-pound adventure bike is just right for a weekend trip to Nevada, and your MV Agusta F4 carves up Laguna Seca like a hot poker through polenta, but lane-splitting for 10 miles in 90-degree weather? No, grazie.
But why this velvet-black Italian fashionista? Well, any scooter can do what the Super does, but can it do it with such style? Anybody can just survive, showing up at work on a battered ’80s-vintage Riva they got at an estate sale, or the unregistered, battery-less wreck of an Elite 80 a racing buddy abandoned in the garage in 1994, but they will not look cool. They will not look like they were ready for that once-a-decade crisis. They will not look prepared. They won’t even look employed. And if you’re doing better than just surviving, better than just scraping by, you’re going to spend a few grand on your motorized, street-legal transpo. So why not spend a little more and pony up for the scooter equivalent of… well, maybe not a Mercedes, but an Audi at least.
Electric start, automatic transmission, liquid cooling, fuel injection are all things car drivers have been used to for decades. But for those unaware of Vespa’s resurgence in the U.S. marketplace, it may be news, and welcome news at that. Scootering is not the rattley, smoky, weird-handling experience of the ’60s and ’70s, nor is it the cheap, tinny, small-wheeled, anemic-motored Jog/Razz/Riva gig of the ’80s. Scooters like the Vespa are reliable, quiet, powerful, easy to ride and plenty fast to keep up with modern traffic conditions. They also handle well and have the brakes to underwrite their improved performance.
(Above) 22 horsepower of motive force comes from a dependable 278cc liquid-cooled Single. (Below) Cornering clearance is good on the right, but the center stand tang can touch down on the left.
The Vespa’s motor is Piaggio’s QUASAR design, a bored-and-stroked version of the old GTS 250 mill, but it’s very refined – smoother as well as more powerful, clean and efficient. As I reported a few years ago, it’s 278cc and makes a claimed 22 horsepower – a spicy meatball for a scooter (or motorcycle) that weighs in at a claimed 326 pounds dry.
The suspension and brakes were improved as well, with some anti-dive function worked into that traditional single-sided front end, and twin 220mm disc brakes (one front, one rear) slowing the 12-inch wheels. The swingarm/drive unit is suspended by preload-adjustable dual shocks. Wheelbase is a minimalistic 54 inches, and the wide, flat seat is 31.1 inches off the ground, though it’s narrow at the front so short folk will be able to manage okay.
Easy-to-read, straight-forward instrumentation.
Riding a big Vespa on surface streets is comforting and fun. The big motor and seamless fueling means glitch-free performance and quick acceleration, even when the bike is cold. Just start, twist and go. There’s ample suspension travel for potholes and rough surfaces, so long as you don’t attempt a rally-car pace, carrying a passenger isn’t just possible, it’s pleasant. And even though the bike weighs a little more than your average around-town scoot, the stubby wheelbase and steep geometry help it feel light and easy to manage.
Another spot to keep small odds and ends safe.
Red shock springs look trick – on the road the aviation-inspired front suspension design is just adequate.
On the freeway, it’s not quite in its element, but it’s not so bad, either. It feels strong off the line, so you can merge with traffic easily, but the power tapers off around an indicated 80 mph. Top speed is about an indicated 85 or 90, but I think there’s some error; one of those radar speed-limit signs in a construction zones told me I was travelling at 60 when the speedo was reading 72. Flat out, you’re pretty much confined to the right-ish lanes, ahead of the semi-trucks but slower than the nuns in beige Camrys. Still, my lovely wife was happy to use the Super to get to work during the afore-mentioned BART strike – it’s perfect for the Bay Bridge, heavy enough to not be too affected by gusty winds but fast enough to keep apace with the slow-moving commute traffic. A 2.4-gallon tank and observed 50-60-ish mpg fuel economy means you won’t have to fill up too often, either, though the fuel light seems to come on at just under a half tank.
Scooters like the Vespa are reliable, quiet, powerful, easy to ride and plenty fast to keep up with modern traffic conditions.
Storage box looks big, but can’t handle full-face helmets.
I also had fun on twisty roads, enjoying my usual 150-mile Sunday ride. My gang of ne’er-do-wells I ride with gave me a good ribbing for showing up on a ride dominated by dual-sports, adventure-tourers and high-end European nakeds, but I actually enjoyed the notion that no matter how fast I went, I was all but invisible to the Highway Patrol. The small wheels, lack of wind protection and pinned throttle made me feel like I was Carlo Ubbiali drafting Surtees at the Isle of Man. Fueling is smooth, and the brakes are good enough – fade free and plenty strong, though you do need to squeeze hard at higher speeds. It’s fun holding the bike on its side through a turn and then feel it quickly bob back upright like a rowboat on a stormy sea when you release pressure on the handgrips.
The fun was also limited by the jouncy front suspension. I think D’Ascancio’s design really is better suited to helicopters, especially when the going gets really rough and bumpy and you add in mid-corner braking. Plus, the centerstand tang will touch down in very tight left-hand turns, but those drawbacks were more than compensated for by the stable feel, quick steering, and good gearing choices made by Piaggio’s engineers.
But let’s keep it in perspective – for gosh sake this is a scooter, after all – the fact that it’s fun at all on a twisty road seems like a minor miracle in the eyes of seasoned motorcyclists. To my eye, the reason Vespa has been such a successful brand, for the better part of a century now, is that fun has always been part of the Vespa riding experience.
Vespas are just fun, a combination of simple, reliable operation, low operating costs, spry handling, fashion-forward styling, comfort and convenience… put them all together in a single vehicle and maybe you’ll start to see the appeal. It’s a ride that can perform well at 70% of the tasks you need a motorcycle – heck, even a car – to do.
Is a $6000 300cc scooter starting to sound like a good ‘B’ bike to you? Yeah, me too. And as the GTS300 gets older, it seems to drop in price – the basic model is $5999, cheaper than when it was new in 2010. The model I tested, the GTS300 Super Sport SE, gets you the matte-finish paint and graphics and a cool slotted grille on the sides. At $6399, you pay a premium, but you’ll have a lot more fun getting to work – and look good doing it. BART strike? Who cares?