Johannesburg - Regular readers of these hallowed petrolhead pages will know that towards the end of 2014, we took possession of a 150cc Vespa on a long-term test. The idea was simple: let’s take a first-time rider and see how he adapts to life on two wheels - at the same time assessing how practical and frugal riding a Vespa in Jozi really is.
So let’s start with the first part, piloting the little Italian. As lawnmower-like as the 150cc (154.8cc to be precise) engine may sound, it’s a modern offering in that it’s a fuel-injected four-stroke, paired to a CVT (continuously variable transmission) gearbox - in other words, a single-speed auto. The electric starter makes the get-up-and-go effortless, while the catalytic converter exhaust set-up should make the polar bears happy.
And yes, the 9.5kW and 12.8Nm outputs may sound about as exciting as a Kardashian Twitter account, but when you throw in a kerb weight of just 110kg things start to get interesting.
Forget your preconceived notions that scooters are strictly city runabouts - this 150cc happily zoots around at 100km/h, making it a content left-lane highway cruiser should the need arise. Hold the taps open long enough and you’ll get to the national highway speed limit.
The Vespa’s auto box and effortless twist-throttle never cease to put a smile on the ol’ dial. It also pulls along with that same gusto to about 80km/h, meaning that as long as you’re within city confines, you feel like Mad Max between the lights.
So yes, there’s an enormous fun factor at play here - in a straight line. Being absolutely new on a bike also meant that I needed to corner at higher speeds, and this, as you can imagine, took a bit of getting used to. It’s not so much the turning of the steering as it is the leaning into a corner - which, if you don’t do, as I found out, affects the amount of actual turn you get.
Once you get this bit right you start getting a bit like Valentino Rossi on the poor Vespa, and have to remind yourself of the point of the exercise. In essence then the more I ride my red number, the more confident I get.
Which brings us to the second part of this discussion - the practical part. The reality, to be honest, is that Johannesburg drivers just don’t Think Bike. And until I got the Vespa I was probably one of them. It’s enough to be dodging potholes and praying it doesn’t rain when cruising around on your Vespa, but the taxi driver who thinks he gets double points for taking you out is a special kind of menace.
You have to be wide awake, looking through your helmet, anticipating the next move of your fellow road user - or his move could be your last.
But having said that, I can now appreciate why bikers choose the mode of transport they do. You almost weigh up the risk against the exhilaration, but more importantly, the practicality of it all. I’ve had the Vespa for four months and filled its eight-litre tank twice. It literally runs on the whiff of octane, with about 300km a reality between those minute top-ups. So it costs virtually nothing to keep its wheels turning.
Then there’s the zipping-through-traffic element, which can cut an hour-long journey through suburbia to 15 minutes. I kid you not.
The Vespa offers lounge-like levels of comfort - it has a big comfy seat, high-viewpoint riding position and a generally soft ride.
You need to accept that, with a Vespa, it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination; it’s a chilled way of getting around.
And then there’s the Vespa culture, which is unbelievably alive and vibey in South Africa. But you’ll have to wait for our next update for that.