Vespa GTV250 - 60 years of style
All I could think as I rode the Vespa GTV250 in unseasonable rain along Cape Town's Atlantic coast was: "Who on earth will lay out 70 grand for a scooter?"
By the time I returned the bike to the dealer a couple of hours later I had my answer: brand buyers, that's who; people who spend more on a Rolex than my new 650cc sportbike cost even though a Japanese digital at a hundredth of the price will keep time just as well.
People for whom a bonnet badge defines the worthiness of their car and people who wouldn't be seen dead on a scooter unless it said Vespa on the legshield.
Which is rather a pity, because the GTV250 is actually a very capable scooter. It's the production version - mechanically identical - of the ultra-scarce GT60, a very few of which were produced in 2006 to mark the 60th birthday of the badge.
There are only two in South Africa and neither is for sale; they've been retained by Vespa SA as marketing tools. But the GTV250, in less-fancy colours and with polished aluminium rims rather than the chrome of the anniversary model, is available - albeit at an eyebrow-raising R69 950.
Its styling is determinedly retro with a round headlight on the front mudguard, slim, chromed handlebars and mirrors, trailing-link front suspension and the signature, bulbous, breed-defining rear sponsons below what looks like a 1950's split, sprung saddle.
The instrument cluster echoes the 1960's with an arched analogue speedometer and mechanical odometer - a rarity in these liquid crystal days! - and a matching fuel gauge in a chrome-bezeled oval pod.
But the look is a little spoilt by a little LCD screen below it with a digital clock and four warning icons; it's a sad commentary on the times we live in that for most of us a clock on the instrument panel of a motorcycle is a non-negotiable requirement.
The seats look like the traditional, separate saddles but in fact each is firmly mounted on a black plastic base that lifts with a twist of the key to provide access to the fuel cap and a storage compartment big enough to hold two crash helmets.
There's also a glove compartment in the leg shield and a swivelling parcel (or handbag) hook.
The chassis is still a Y-shaped box, stamped and welded from sheet steel, but the rest of it is mostly plastic (which neither dents nor rusts) and there's a lot of thoroughly modern engineering under the dolce vita bodywork.
Gone is the familiar fan-cooled PX two-stroke engine, which its designer proudly boasted had but four moving parts, only one of which was adjustable. In its place there's a liquid-cooled, four-stroke, flat single with four valves and fuel injection, kicking out a very respectable 16.4kW at 8250rpm.
No twist-grip gears
It runs smoothly throughout its rev range with an almost apologetic low-pitched growl from its tailpipe. Its best feature is its genuinely muscular mid-range; the dry, centrifugal, automatic clutch has been set to take up early so as to use the torque to best advantage and the GTV250 accelerates with authority despite its rather porky 151kg.
Also gone is the three-speed, twistgrip-operated gearbox, in favour of a belt-drive, constantly variable transmission that pulls away before the engine revs become intrusive and keeps the engine in the meat of its power curve as the speed builds up - to a quoted maximum of 122km/h.
I didn't get the opportunity to verify that on the launch ride, on a brand-new scooter in the rain, but I saw 100km/h on the GTV's speedo a couple of times - on not very long straights.
The Vespa was reassuringly sure-footed on the mostly wet roads of the launch drive, and when I found a dry patch on the sweeping curves of the coast road I was able to confirm that its handling is typically Italian with a quick but not too quick turn-in, settling into assured mid-corner progress - especially with the power turned on.
Ground clearance is also good; you can get surprisingly naughty on this thing if you're in the mood and conditions allow.
The vintage trailing-link front suspension soaks up the bumps in admirable fashion and confers a degree of anti-dive that allows you to brake really hard without upsetting the suspension geometry.
It does, however, retain one typical 1960's Vespa quirk; if you take one hand off the bars (to adjust your visor, say) the GTV250 will shake its head over the slightest bump. It'll give you the willies but the bike doesn't go off line and it's not actually dangerous; riders of traditional PX models (you can't say "vintage" because they're still in production!) are used to it.
Braking is courtesy of 220mm discs with twin-piston floating callipers front and rear; there's not too much bite, but a firm squeeze will get you a whole lot of Brick Wall Effect, especially from the rear brake.
When are scooter manufacturers going to grow out of that one?
The GTV250 is big for a scooter, with a 1370mm wheelbase, and a little broad in the beam; it's wider across the sponsons than at the legshield, which could lead to some misjudgement going through narrow gaps.
Vespa SA has concerns that the thigh room behind the legshield may be insufficient for typically long-legged South African boerewors bliksems, to the point where it has created an optional bracket to change the angle of the front seat and move the rider back.
I'm 1.78m tall, however, and I didn't need it; my knees never touched the legshield.
Build quality is superb, as well it should be; the fit and finish of the body panels is beyond reproach and there were no squeaks or rattles on the demo bike.
Under the one-piece plastic storage bin in the underseat compartment there's a huge hole in the chassis that allows almost unlimited access to the engine.
The layout of the engine compartment and the 244cc flat single itself are a revelation, with every cable and tube neatly clipped in its place and out of the way, a neat waterproof plastic cover on every joint in the wiring loom and beautifully finished castings.
This, in part, is what you are paying for; Piaggio has re-invented the Vespa as an upmarket style statement, rather than cheap transport; it may be a helluva lot cheaper to run than your waBenzi but rest assured it tells the world that you do have a three-pointed star in your garage.
The rest of it buys 60 years of heritage, of style distilled to perfection over time as only the Italians can do it. I'm not sure that I would lay out 70 grand for a GTV250 - but it's not actually all that expensive, is it?