Vespa pulled out (almost) all the stops

“Luxury scooter” is kind of oxymoronic, no? It’s kind of like saying “powered sailboat” or “mandatory volunteer work.” Scooters, after all, are the basic transportation of our powered two-wheeled world, a half-step up from a bicycle. Making a limited-edition, luxury version that costs three times competing models might seem an odd choice, like a limousine converted from a PT Cruiser. How nice could it be, really?

Well, it’s not for everybody – which is why Vespa made just 3,600 of the special 946 models for the 2014 model year. Vespa knows you’ll roll your eyes, shake your head and maybe even spray some spittle on your iPad when you see that a 155cc scooter broaches five figures ($10,499, if you’re crass enough to ask the price of things) – the most expensive Vespa ever – but the company didn’t build the 946 to corner the market on 150s. Instead, it’s a rolling artwork that may forever cement Vespa’s place in history as the builder of the most stylish and desirable scooters of all time. And it’s too late to dig up the rusty corpse of Lambretta to challenge it.

Vespa pretty much pulled out all the stops when it came to the 946, putting style and the display of technology at the front of the bus. The monocoque chassis – a hallmark of the Vespa – is labor-intensive to build, with 320 welds. The curves and shapes evoke the original D’Ascancio-designed 1946 MP6 prototype (hence the ‘946’ designation), if not the original’s size and simplicity. There are some aluminum panels bolted on, but the scooter’s main structure is made of sheets of steel, just like the first prototypes.

The MP6 was beautiful, but it was also as crude as the 946 is leading edge. The smoky, anemic 98cc 2-stroke is long gone, replaced with the new-generation, clean-burning and fuel-efficient port-injected, three-valve, SOHC 155cc 4-stroke Single also found in the Primavera and Sprint models. Vespa claims up to 117 mpg and 12.7 horsepower from this mill – good for a top speed of 57 mph. To tame that not-quite-a-baker’s-dozen of ponies, the 946 is equipped with ASR electronic traction control – a first on a Vespa. Laugh all you want at the idea of equipping a vehicle with less power than a snowblower with traction control, but at least you won’t weep uncontrollably when your body-and-fender man hands you an estimate for fixing dents after you dropped your $10,000 work of art turning left in a slippery intersection. Other high-tech touches include LED lighting and turn signals, an LCD multifunction display, and two-channel ABS brakes.

Braking and suspension are also a far cry from the early post-war Vespas in that the 946, like all modern Vespas, actually has functioning brakes and suspension. The front keeps that iconic aero-inspired single-sided link-arm and coil spring setup, but it’s been refined and tuned so it actually does its job of keeping the front wheel on the ground with some efficiency. In back, a single horizontally mounted, linkage-equipped shock and spring (adjustable for preload) do a decent job of managing the 346 pounds of elegantly styled bulk.

Technical details aside, let’s drink in the beauty of the 946’s design, shall we? Try this exercise: open one of Bob’s photos of my white 2013 test unit to full-screen size. And just stare at it. Look at any one spot and see if you’d second guess the decision the designers made (no fair judging the U.S.-market turn signals and reflectors, which are hideous and the result of bureaucratic meddling – Euro-market turnsignals are beautifully Frenched-in LED units, not cheap-o plastic dealybobs). The curves are swoopy and sexy, and there are so many little vintage details you could spend all day gazing at them: the vents, the round taillamp, the rubber grips on the floorboards, the stitched leather handgrips … it’s a rolling Guggenheim exhibit. I thought how nice it would have been with an exposed tube handlebar like the original (not to mention the fender-mounted headlamp), but the aluminum bar cover makes sense – since the 946 is so much bigger than the MP6 and 98, a naked bar would have looked out of proportion.

Looking for somewhere to put your stuff? Keep looking – you won’t find room for anything bigger than half a panini in the 946. There’s no glove box, and flipping up the seat reveals the fuel filler for the 2.2-gallon tank and a small indentation containing a seat cover and small toolkit. There are mounts for a stylish, minimal chrome parcel rack on the tail section, and the 2014 ‘Bellissima’ edition comes with it as standard equipment (as well as a buddy seat, to answer that question), and you could probably bolt a locking trunk to it, but that would be like hiring Kate Moss to be a caddy. There is a bag hook under the seat, but if you’re going Christmas shopping you should probably find a better sleigh.

If you ride a scooter around, people tend to comment: “what kind of mileage are you getting?” or “my uncle had one of those!” So I was surprised to not get a lot of commentary from the civilian population, although moto and scooter enthusiasts loved the bike, sometimes overlooking actual vintage Vespas to gaze upon it. I blame it on living in the Bay Area, where the tech boom has inundated us with Teslas, Maseratis and other exotica.

Riding a vintage scooter in modern traffic conditions can be exciting. Sixty-year-old drum brakes might be made of Parmigianino-Reggiano judging by their effectiveness, acceleration is glacial, and the lights, blinkers and horn have all the reliability of a meth addict working in a pharmaceutical warehouse.

In contrast, riding the 946 is relaxing, the motor-scooter equivalent of a nice warm bath. Acceleration is stately by middleweight scooter standards but still brisk enough to keep up with modern city traffic. The 946 is heavy – really heavy – but like all Vespas, it’s nicely engineered and balanced, with humane steering geometry so it doesn’t feel unstable or weird. It is a large bike with a high seat, so smaller folk may feel even smaller riding it – see the photos with 5’6” me riding. Like the handling, the brakes are also civilized – powerful and responsive, with well-engineered and unobtrusive ABS. Of course, they’re limited by the 946’s heftiness, but you’re also not going that fast.

Yes, let’s talk about the main flaw of the 946: It’s about as slow as a $10,000 vehicle gets, high-end riding mowers excepted. Vespa claims a 57 mph top speed, and I think it actually goes a bit faster, maybe even 60 mph. I saw 67 indicated on the easy-to-read, fancy LCD speedometer (although it does take a long time to get there), and I kept thinking how great it would be if this beautiful bike had the 300 GTS motor so it could have as much go as show.

The 946 is all about show, but it goes, too. It looks so good parked it’s almost a shame to ride it around. But riding it around is still smooth and pleasant, and I never really needed more performance, even on the several trips I made around the Bay Area on fast-moving interstates. Stay out of the fast lane and you’re fine – at 60-plus mph there’s always somebody slower than you. It’s also very comfortable, with a wide and well-padded seat and nice ergonomics with lots of room to move around and ease hot spots. Vespa claims 117 mpg, but I saw mileage in the 60s – pretty good for a freeway-capable steed. I think riding slowly at a steady speed you might see numbers closer to the claim, but with gas at $2.69 a gallon locally, who has the patience for that? With a 2.2-gallon tank, you can ride for a week for the price of a super burrito, or a month for the cost of an extra-large pizza with three toppings.

This is the part of the review where I say I should buy one, or maybe you should buy one, but that point is probably moot. Vespas is only selling 100 of these a year in the U.S., so you probably can’t buy one even if you do want to drop weekend-in-Monaco money on a 155cc scooter. If you do get one, you’ll find a fine and functional ride, but no matter how well it works, you can be assured, the bar for scooter style and design has once again been moved by the designers and scooterists in Pontedera. And that’s why the 946 is worth reading about.