By Gabe Ets-Hokin, Contributing Editor

Scooter, Italian, Motor, One Each

Look around the room you’re in. Odds are most of the stuff in it, from your rug to the chair you’re perched on to the monitor this article is hosted by, is made by the hard-working folk of the People’s Republic of China. And why not? Although the quality of made-in-China products varies widely – from three-packs of 99-cent store disposable razors to iPads – careful consumers can get a well-made, high-value product for not a lot of money.

But that’s not all the mainland Chinese can offer business and consumers. A company can also have components manufactured in China and then assemble complete products in its home country, securing both the prestige of a Made-in-Wherever label and a low pricetag – crucial to getting into the wallets of today’s well-informed and very price-conscious consumers. But at least one company does things the other way around.

Yes, meet the Piaggio Fly 150. Introduced in 2005, Piaggio – makers of the Vespa, Aprilia, Derbi and Gilera brands as well as Piaggio-branded products – keeps the price of its freeway-legal Fly 150 to a very reasonable $2,899 by building the powertrain in Italy and then shipping it to China, where it’s mated to the rest of the scooter. That’s more travelling before it gets built than it may see in a lifetime of service, but it means Piaggio can sell the Fly for much less than it sells its steel-bodied, made-in-the-mothership Vespa LX150ie, which uses a similar powerplant.

Hopping on board the Fly, you wouldn’t know you’re on a budget-priced scoot. The dash will be familiar to you if you’ve ridden a four-stroke Vespa – the usual idiot lights, a fuel gauge, the battery-powered digital clock and conspicuously absent resettable tripmeter. Unlike a Vespa, you will see a lot of plastic – slightly better quality stuff than you’d see from most Chinese scooters, but plastic nonetheless. But the paint looks nice, fit and finish is at least an 8 out of 10, and you’d be hard-pressed to guess the country of origin – even the VIN starts with an Italian “Z” (confusingly, there’s a sticker inside the helmet compartment that states “Manufactured by Piaggio & C, SPA – Italy, Made in China.”).

Functionally, it’s hard to tell the Fly from the much-spendier Vespa LX, S and LXV models that share the similar powerplants (note – the LX and LXV use the newer fuel-injected HI-PER4 motor, where the classic S uses the same LEADER unit as the Fly 150). Get on board and turn the key – equipped with the same anti-theft system other Piaggio products use – and thumb the starter. The air-cooled 149cc Single fires right up with the faint jingling sound that’s familiar to Vespa owners. Fueling is excellent – the Fly still uses a carburetor, but you’d never guess it, thanks to the even throttle response and quick warm-up. But that’s all old news if you’ve ridden a Vespa.

After all, Vespas have been known for dependable, easy-to-ride basic transportation for over 60 years, so the Fly's ease-of-use is no surprise. Just twist the throttle and you go, with enough acceleration, stopping power and maneuverability to feel safe and confident in most urban situations. The 12-inch wheels are a good trade-off: not so small that they get bounced off the ground crossing potholes and bumps, but not so big that the scooter loses the snappy, quick-steering fun that’s characteristic of twist-and-go transportainment.

Performance is something you expect from Italian products, and the Fly delivers – up to a point. Around town, I never felt it lacking for power. The bike’s gearing is just right – something Piaggio is an expert at – which meant the Fly could keep up with any kind of traffic up to 40 mph or so. That means you have command of your space cushion, an important thing: smaller, slower scooters are sometimes at the mercy of other road users, which is never good. The Fly has enough power to put space between you and the menacing SUV or distracted delivery-truck driver, enough oomph to convincingly ride in the fast lane and maintain good visibility (as in both being seen by other drivers and offering a good field of view to the rider).

But get out on a divided freeway and it’s not so great. Although the Fly meets the legal definition of a motorcycle in California and other states, top speed is somewhere around 60 mph – a little faster downhill and a little slower uphill. So even though, to paraphrase Woody Allen in What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?, adventure is my bread and danger is my butter, it was still a little disconcerting to bump along in the far right lane at full throttle while semi-trucks and octogenarians in beige Toyota Camrys tailgated me. Stability and handling were fine – it’s just that the power wasn’t there for long-distance freeway stints, though an exit or two on a crowded urban freeway – where it’ll probably be bumper-to-bumper during daylight hours anyway – are very do-able.

If you have access to a bit of rural two-lane blacktop, you’ll get another taste of the Fly’s Italian heritage. The scooter handles very neatly, thanks to a low center of gravity, good suspension, sub-300 pound mass and decent grip from the low-profile, bias-ply Cheng Shin tires (120/70-12s front and back). Scooters are good fun on a tight road because you can late-brake and not feel like you’re going to crash – compared to a motorcycle, you just have so much road. Speaking of brakes, the Fly’s are good – not race-quality, to be sure, but the front 200mm disc and rear drum offer plenty of stopping power, even if you have to really put some force into the levers (especially at higher speeds).

OK, as the man on late-night TV says, now how much would you pay? But wait, there’s more. The Fly offers the same underseat storage (enough for a small full-face helmet), glove box and grocery hook as the pricier Vespas, along with roomy passenger accommodations and adjustable rear shock. A 33-liter topbox is also available, as is a windscreen. It’s economical, too – in the course of my testing I saw better than 50 mpg, including a lot of freeway riding at full throttle. Piaggio claims the Fly will return 70-75 mpg, and I’m assuming that’s when the scooter is ridden in a conservative, low-speed manner.

Alright, here’s the best part. You get all the performance and reliability of the Italian-built (I mean completely Italian-built) Piaggio scooters with the value pricing of Chinese-made products. At $2,899, it’s $1,700 less than Piaggio’s LX150, $500 less than the Honda PCX150, and even $300 less than the Yamaha Zuma 125, which isn’t freeway legal in most states. In fact, it’s only $200 more than Piaggio’s own Typhoon 125.

At that price point, there aren’t a lot of options for buyers looking for a fun, dependable, and economical way of getting around an urban area, especially on a product with a big dealer network and support. It’s why the Fly 150 is such a big seller for Piaggio dealers – and why you may want to put it on your short list of scooters to purchase.