SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Vespa LX4 125cc.

Price: £2 399 (about R28 300) on the road.

Engine: Single-cylinder, air-cooled four-stroke.

Start: Electric and auxiliary kick-starter.

Front brake: 200mm stainless-steel disc.

Rear brake: 110mm drum.

Max power: Eight kiloWatts at 8000rpm

Max torque: 9.6Nm at 6000rpm

Top speed: 90km/h

Fuel tank: 8.6 litres

Fuel consumption: 2.6 litres/100km

The new Vespa LX was launched in Rome, just along the Via del Corso from the Emperor Augustus's mausoleum. Vespa's owner, the Piaggio Group, regards its scooter as a comparable icon of Italian heritage.

In fact it is merely the latest in a line of runabouts that first hit the cobbles in 1946 but Piaggio chairman Rocco Sabelli eschews such Philistinic objectivity. To him, this Vespa is an historic style statement worthy of comparison with the Coliseum, around which visiting journalists were invited to ride - but not immediately.

First, we had to endure a media conference at which the gushing assertions of Piaggio executives soared to satire-defying altitudes: "timeless elegance", "global symbol of Italian design genius", "sublime heir of truly unique legacy", "stylish, avant-garde designer scooter", "hair-raising, lightweight posing platform" (oh, all right, I made up the last one).

Then, with glistening Vespas arranged around us on silver podiums like catwalk models, we listened as Sabelli and his colleagues outlined group ambitions and salivated over the potential of the Chinese market (19-million scooters sold a year, two-million more than Vespa has sold in 60 years).

After the hype, came the ride. There are four versions of the Vespa LX: two-stroke and four-stroke 50cc, four-stroke 125cc and four-stroke 150cc. Only the first three will be available in Britain so I rode them in the frenetic traffic of a Roman afternoon.

It was no holiday, but I can report that each Vespa handled well. The 50cc two-stroke version has slightly quicker pick-up than the 125cc four-stroke. Only the grimly parsimonious should consider the 50cc four-stroke. It will be cheap to run but would benefit from a set of auxiliary pedals at traffic lights.

None of these machines has class-leading performance. Aprilia, now another brand in the Piaggio stable, makes snappier scooters. So does Honda. The LX 125 does not quite reach 100km/h and its low top speed renders it terrifying on a dual carriageway. Harsher criticisms, however, could be levelled at the Vespa ET, which the LX replaces, and 460 000 of those have been sold since launch in 1996.

The basic truth is that the Vespa LX is cute but sufficiently practical to ride to work as well as to the café. Every part of the new design is calculated to evoke memories of classic Vespas from the 1950s and 1960s.

The headlight is round and mounted in the handlebars, just as it was when Gregory Peck transported Audrey Hepburn by Vespa in "Roman Holiday". The rear-view mirrors are made of chrome-plated steel.

Exquisite saddle

The Vespa's body is also made of steel - which sets it apart from other modern scooters. Piaggio claims this gives unparalleled rigidity and steering precision. Not all hype is nonsense. The LX does handle well, even on rough, wet cobbles.

And it is comfortable. The exquisitely finished saddle hosts both rider and pillion with ease and a chrome-plated handgrip gives the pillion something practical as well as pretty to hold on to. Luggage storage is impressive.

A glove box in the front shield provides ample space for purse, cellphone, cigarettes or other light objects. The under-seat storage is equally practical and easily swallowed my full-face helmet.

Among the numerous retro styling hints, I adored the binnacle-mounted instrument panel. The Vespa has rejected digital display in favour of a big, bold conventional speedometer. It is gorgeous and instantly readable.

Vespa has gone back to the future with the new LX range. From the snub tail, with its classic 1970s-style tail-light, through the sculpted cowls to the capacious, flat foot panel, this scooter is more obviously calculated to recall earlier models than was the ET series.

Not the cheapest

Piaggio does not need to preen. The needlessness of its media conference was emphasised as soon as the LX hit the streets. Young Romans cast lustful glances from cars and pavements. This scooter's charming simplicity of line is a pleasure to behold.

The LX range is not the cheapest. Other scooters can beat it away from the lights but it is stunning to look at. I adored the Dragon Red version with beige saddle but the Graphite Black and Aurora Blue won as many admiring glances.

Vespa aficionados will adore its looks and functionality. It is the sort of cult object to which a sentimentalist might say goodnight before tucking it up in a colour-co-ordinated cover. - The Independent, London