Specifications

Engine: 399cc single-cylinder, water-cooled four-stroke.

Maximum power: 25.3kW at 7500rpm.

Maximum torque: 37.6Nm at 5500 rpm.

Transmission: Continuously variable with centrifugal clutch.

Brakes: Twin front 240mm discs, rear single 240mm disc.

Dry weight: 198 kg.

Seat height: 790mm.

Tank capacity: 12 litres.

Price: £3849 (about R53 000).

Blame my fondness for CS Forester's Hornblower novels but when I hear the term "flagship" my mind is filled with images of oak three-deckers bearing stout, gout-ridden admirals.

So, invited to ride Piaggio's flagship super-scooter, the X8 400ie, I envisaged being piped aboard a ponderous beast with ample room for shopping but scant time for fun.

Luggage facilities do not disappoint. Flipping open the boot lid with the key-fob reveals a space that extends all the way under the capacious twin saddle.

This is big enough for a laptop and handbag and for longer items. But raising the saddle reveals that the boot it is not as deep as on less powerful Piaggios. Depth has been sacrificed to the bigger engine.

I approve. The brand-new 399cc single-cylinder unit gives this practical beast a new tier of performance. The X8 400 is not an exotic sports scooter; it's for everyday use, but its pace opens up a bigger catalogue of applications.

With a class-leading top speed only fractionally less than 160km/h it is sprightly on freeways and has the muscle to take pole position at the lights - even on the steepest hills.

Centrifugal clutches and continuously variable transmission can be intensely irritating to proficient motorcyclists familiar with the advantages of manual gear changing and precise clutch control.

But the big Piaggio gets the configuration right. Pickup is smooth and progressive. For once "twist and go" does not translate as "thrash or you will hardly move at all".

The new power unit is eager and gutsy with engine vibration all but eliminated. I was equally impressed by the X8's clean, elegant look which has been enhanced by the longer wheelbase and wider rear necessitated by the expanded engine.

I found the brakes a little too easy to lock up when riding hard, but handling is indulgent enough to permit recovery without crisis.

The fixed windscreen is too low for total comfort, but Piaggio offers an extended version which I recommend to taller riders.

Comprehensive Instrumentation

Instrumentation is comprehensive: four big, clear analogue dials nestle inside the fairing, offering all the data necessary for grand tourism.

The modest 12-litre fuel tank would dictate frequent stops on extended motorway trips, but the X8 400 is quick and comfortable enough for 500km days.

Even two-up it glides through city traffic, while retaining the agility to weave and filter in heavy congestion. The ride is a little fussy. Every bump and pothole is communicated to the rider's posterior

But agility matches power and, despite its substantial presence on the road, the big Piaggio feels light. Advanced computer modelling was used to blend maximum frame resistance with minimum weight; it has worked surprisingly well, given the traditional steel tube construction.

Under the terms of the European Commission's third driving licence directive access to full-powered motorcycles will be delayed, with young riders required to graduate by stages.

Environmentally conscious young couples

Machines such as this will be available to 18-24 year old riders when bigger bikes are not. Environmentally conscious young couples on budgets will create a new market.

As a metropolitan and suburban load carrier with potential to roam, the X8 400 is the type of motorcycle I will encourage my children to test-ride as soon as they are qualified.

Big scooters render cars irrelevant; their running costs make two-wheeled transport the sane choice for students and young professionals.

But pleasing though the Piaggio is, it would be foolish to let Italian style triumph over the competition without sampling other wares. This machine is a good-looking star in a crowded constellation.

Growing demand

The days when "scooter" and "moped" were vaguely synonymous are gone. Even without licensing restrictions, pressures from congestion and fuel costs have created growing demand for super-scooters.

Japanese manufacturers have responded vigorously. Yamaha's pioneering Majesty 400 is very good. Suzuki's Burgman 400 combines impressive power and comfort. For extra muscle try Honda's FJS 600 Silver Wing.

Piaggio's flagship is worthy of the title - but the late Milton Friedman would have been impressed by the vigour of competition in this market. - The Independent, London