Roaming Holiday: Touring Tuscany on a 2006 Vespa GTS250ie

Have you got a taste for good Chianti? Can't have a meal without an antipasti first? Do you have a preference for tight-fitting and/or mesh undergarments? Do you only obey traffic laws when it makes sense to do so? Does the sight of a swoopy, steel-bodied motorscooter make you swoon?

Answering "yes" to more than three of the above questions means you are either actually Italian or a Vespa enthusiast. Maybe you rode a Vespa in college or high school, back in the day when you could pick up a decent used one for a few hundred bucks. If you're like me, you have some great memories of the distinctive ring-ding-ding of the motor and the smell of two-stroke exhaust as you rode around town care free.

The Vespa waits outside the Colluseum while Gabe gets thrown to the lions.Times have changed. No more deep-fried food, unprotected sex, or two-stroke engines for you. However, the other distinctive element of the Vespa-a brightly-painted steel monocoque body-is alive and well and being built in Piaggio's Pantadera, Italy factory. The latest model-the GTS250ie-is the biggest, fastest and most luxurious Vespa ever built. It just so happened that The Wife and I were going to be in Italy on vacation, so why not take advantage of both Piaggio and the US Tax Code and get a little work done while I'm over there? A few missives to our faithful European correspondent, Yossef Schvetz, led to Piaggio arranging for a new Vespa to be available for us to ride from Rome to Florence and back.

If a two-up round trip of over 400 miles by scooter sounds daunting, have no     fear. Your faithful correspondent actually made a 5,000-mile round trip on his 1981 Vespa P200E some years ago, riding from San Francisco to New Orleans and back on the rattly machine. The new Vespa would be "no problem" according to Piaggio's Italian media relations person, as it was much larger and more powerful than the smoky old bikes.

The Wife and I arrived in Rome in the midst of a searing heat wave in the height of the summer tourist season. We rented a smaller scooter to get us around Rome for a few days, and after spending about two hours being lost in the north end of the giant, smoggy metropolis, we found the Piaggio dealership where we were to pick up the Vespa. We were hot, dirty, thirsty and tired.

All that faded away as we saw our new toy. "It's so cute!" said the wife, and I had to agree. The GTS250ie is all about high style, and it has a visual impact that draws you in from across the room. The curves and sharp edges evoke both the classic Vespas of bygone years and the cutting-edge industrial design that Italy is known for.

You can't ride looks (at least not without being squashed by aggressive Italian drivers), so Vespa's engineers put the biggest, strongest motor ever into the new GTS. It's one of their new QUASAR (QUArter liter Smooth Augmented Range, as opposed to the blurry color TV my grandparents had) powerplants, designed to give maximum efficiency and economy without sacrificing power.

Italians don't even know when they're being picturesque...In the old days, Vespa motors were about as sophisticated as a pair of ceramic-wheeled roller skates, with similar performance. The old two-stroke powerplant, although durable and unbelievably reliable, made less power than Emo Phillips and polluted like the Exxon Valdez. This new engine uses liquid-cooling, electronic ignition, fuel injection, a four-valve cylinder head and lots of other wizardry to coax 21.7 hp at 8,250 rpm (claimed, at the crankshaft) and 14.9 foot-pounds (also at the shaft) of torque at 6,500 rpm. The exhaust is clean enough to meet strict CARB and Euro3 emissions standards, thanks to a three-way catalytic converter. My 1980 Vespa P200E (two-stroke) made about 14 hp while producing much more pollutant per mile than a city bus. Things have improved.

What has also improved is build quality, suspension and brakes. Post-war Vespas were not luxury items; they were cheap, reliable transportation designed to get war-ravaged Italy quickly back on the road. So paint, chrome and electrics tended to be a little rough; vintage Vespa paint looks orange-peeled, chrome trim looks tatty, and electric stuff tends to not really work after awhile. God gave you arms to signal with.

Newlyweds Leonardo Cirella and Maria Rosaria Stoccioli wanted to pose for wedding pictures with our scooter, so who were we to say no? MO wishes them a long and happy marriage.Suspension is now calibrated for bumpy roads at high speeds, heavily laden, using a traditional single-sided trailing-arm fork in front (that evokes landing gear, hailing back to Piaggio's aircraft-building history) and a pair of adjustable-for-preload shocks in the back. There's no adjustment in the front, but not to worry; scooters don't carry a lot of weight over the front end anyway. Say "arrivederci" to that feeling of "Mama Mia! I can't stop!" one has when riding an old Vespa. Instead of a crummy drum that needs to be adjusted frequently to have a hope of stopping a speeding scooter, the new GTS250ie uses a pair of 220mm discs with a dual-piston caliper in front and a single-pot in the back. Available in limited markets (not the USA, so sorry) is an anti-lock system for added safety and confidence.

Motor, brakes and suspension are bolted into the distinctive monocoque chassis that makes the Vespa so unique. In fact, Vespa is one of the pioneers in monocoque or "unit body" chassis construction, using sheet metal to build a lightweight, yet rigid body that requires no heavy steel tubing or spars. Back in the days before ABS plastic, scooters had steel frames with sheet metal body panels bolted to them, which resulted in fairly heavy machines. The Vespa is known for being relatively light for an all-metal scooter, and there is a strong following of folks who like to have plastic in their wallets, not on their scooters. The GTS keeps this tradition alive, and it works. Although the machine is almost as heavy as a small motorcycle at 326 pounds dry (claimed), it has a solid, hand-crafted look that can't be duplicated with plastic.

Comfort and convenience features are very important on a luxury item like the GTS, and the Vespa has no lack of them. The instrument panel includes a readout for speed, fuel remaining, coolant and ambient temperature, a clock with time and date, and a bar-graph tachometer. There's a small glove box and underseat storage that can hold two full-face helmets or a pair of small frozen turkeys. There's a hidden rain cover under the seat, and a classic spring-loaded luggage rack comes standard that highlights the GTS's classic styling.

Roman math: Cobblestones + Scooter= Pain. The Wife has her own scooter we rented earlier in the day, so I climb aboard the fire-engine red machine and fire it up. The motor instantly thrums to life with a soft, thumping idle. All the controls are close at hand and well-positioned, and the seating position is office-furniture comfy. The light-feeling throttle is twisted and we take off into the Roman traffic. 

The Vespa's powerful engine and good chassis prove up to the task of conquering the eternal traffic of the Eternal City. That 250 motor is responsive and  flexible, with no hesitation anywhere in the powerband common to many CVT transmissions. Just gun it and it goes, with way more power than you can use even two-up in city traffic. On the Kymco 150 we rented I was used to being passed by just about everyone in town; but the Vespa makes me king of the strada, and I enjoy passing punks on their scooters and in their ridiculously tiny cars. The GTS accelerates quickly and cleanly, breaking the speed limit (if there really is such a thing in Italy) in seconds.

The chassis matches the motor. With a 55 inch wheelbase, decent suspension travel and modern-profiled tires (a 120/70-12 in front and a 130/70-12 in back) the Vespa is stable, nimble, and controlled over bumps. There are lots of bumps, ruts and potholes on Roman streets, some of which have repair orders pending that date back to the 14th century, and I haven't even told you about the cobblestones yet. Oy vey, the cobblestones. Yet, the GTS takes it like a man, transmitting a minimum of discomfort to the rider, although a scooter (or motorcycle) with bigger wheels would certainly be more comfortable.

People would just come over and stare at the Vespa, even if I was obviously trying to do photography.The coolest thing about riding a Vespa in Italy is that everyone assumes you're Italian when they see you on one and start telling you about their Uncle Vitalle's Vespa or how beautiful your bike is. At least, I think they do; I don't speak Italian, so I would just kind of nod and say "si, si" at appropriate moments. However, it's clear Italians-and non-Italians-hold Vespas dear in their hearts. Ride one of these bikes and you will get plenty of attention, even in the Land Of The Scooter.

The next morning we set out two-up for Florence, over 200 miles away. After figuring out how to get on the freeway, we passed through the gates for the Autostrada tollroad that connects Rome to the rest of the world. The pavement is clean, smooth and well-marked, and the Vespa happily propels us along, luggage and all, at an indicated speed of about 75 mph with the throttle firmly at the stop. It's not fast enough to avoid being passed by almost everyone, but we're making good time, as long as the road is flat or downhill.

Notes from The Wife:
  • My back hurts, but my ass doesn't bother me too badly. I think the cobblestones in Rome messed me up, but it's nothing a glass of wine and a bath won't cure.
  • It seems silly to complain when I have all of Italy around me, and the best of Italy to carry me to Florence. (Not to mention the really cute guy riding the Vespa right in front of me.)
  • For such a grubby country-well, at least Rome-the gas stations are very clean.
  • Why do they listen to American pop music in foreign countries? And why always the worst of it? Celine Dione? Yuk!
  • The Wife (who is clearly not a serious motojournalist but still has her charms)

If you don't think these shoes are important, you are not The Wife.

On the uphill grades, the scooter slows to somewhere in the 60's, but that's OK. Italian drivers expect to see scooters and motorcycles on the freeway, and they give us a wide berth, even if they are going 40 mph faster than we are. We can still barely keep ahead of the big trucks and delivery vans, so the ride is pleasant as we wind our way through the countryside.

The countryside looks a lot like California, with golden hillsides and fields of corn and sunflowers. Ignoring those pointy trees that are much more common in Italy, you'd swear you were riding through the Salinas Valley or the Sonoma wine country. Even the weather is hot and dry, just like the Golden State. However, the illusion evaporates when you see an ancient, tiny town, built around a castle and crouched atop an impossibly steep hill.

We stop for fuel and discover that the scooter, fully loaded and at top speed, averages about 55 MPG. The Wife complains about her butt and legs going numb, and I ask if she's been using the footpegs. Footpegs? I realize she has been just putting her toes on the main floorboards all this time and show her the slick fold-out hidden passenger pegs. After that, there are no complaints-from either of us-about the wide, nicely-padded saddle. We go up to the chain buffet restaurant above the freeway, and after pasta and salad (I skip the punch dispenser filled with chianti) we get back on the road.

After a few short hours we are in Florence, none the worse for wear after a 200-mile scooter trip. Florence is small enough to explore on foot, and after sight-seeing and an incredible Tuscan dinner with Yossef, we are ready to return to Rome after two days in Florence.

We decide to take the toll-free "Super Strada" back to Rome, not only to avoid the $15, but also to enjoy a lower-speed, more solitary ride. The route is delightful, gently winding its way along rivers, valleys and through small towns. We stop in the 16th-century city of Sienna (like there's a town in Italy that isn't 16th century) for lunch and head south.

In the countryside, the Vespa handles a lot better than a heavily-laden scooter should. The wide bars and steep steering-head angle combine with the small wheels to provide quick steering, but the long wheelbase keeps everything stable. Even with the shock fully cranked to the stiffest position, the GTS still wallows slightly in the turns, but we are pretty close to the bike's GVWR limit, after all. Still, for American buyers Vespa should offer more heavy-duty suspension. We are big people. It's glandular.

A guy on a gorgeous Ducati 999R goes past me with a wave, and I try to keep up. He isn't really going that fast, and the Vespa can almost do it, hampered only by the lack of power from the 250cc single. I keep a healthy pace, occasionally scraping undercarriage bits and barely touching the brakes to keep up my forward momentum. The Wife, who usually starts to hit me if I go too fast when she is on the back, is content to sit and enjoy the pretty scenery, unaware that I am pushing the big red scoot to somewhere close to its design limits and having a very good time.

Braking performance is much better than most scooters deliver. With just two 220mm discs both brake levers (modern scooters almost all use the left handlebar lever for the rear brake as well as the right one for the front) must be heartily squeezed to slow the bike, but they respond with good feel and acceptable power once you do. I tried to lock the wheels on sand and other slippery bits, but the ABS does its job, albeit with some crude-feeling juddering. Still, the system works, and is well-suited to this type of vehicle; scooter brakes are hard to modulate because of weight distribution, and metal bodywork is expensive to repair.

A big scoot like the GTS250 is practical transportation, but it makes every trip seem like a vacation-and what two-wheeled vehicle can offer more than that?

After a pleasant day of riding, we are back at our hotel in Rome, not exhausted but exhilarated by the fun and excitement of riding a big scooter in its native environment. The Vespa GTS250ie is a terrific scooter. It's comfortable for two, gets acceptable fuel mileage, handles well and is very easy and fun to ride. Novices might be ill-suited to its big stature and heady power delivery, but those looking for a fun around-town ride or intermediate-distance commuter should consider a big scooter like this.

The ABS model is not yet available in the USA, but the non-ABS machine is $5,799. Sure, that's the cost of a "real" motorcycle, but you'd be missing the point. It's the biggest, fastest, best-handling Vespa I've experienced, and is stylish, reliable, fun transportation that holds its value well and is very economical to operate. It's not performance-oriented, but neither are a lot of cruisers, and the twist n' go operation should be appealing to novice riders and city commuters.

Riding the Vespa through Tuscany was the highlight of our trip, but we could have almost as good a time cruising around our town or making a day trip through the wine country. A big scoot like the GTS250 is practical transportation, but it makes every trip seem like a vacation; and what two-wheeled vehicle can offer more than that?

Nits and Notes
  • The European model has a sidestand, which proved very useful, although it's useless if you're parked on a hill. The USA model doesn't get one. The centerstand, however, is well-balanced and easy to use.
  • We were comfortable going about 100 miles between gas tanks and achieved a high mileage of 62 MPG, but that would dip down to under 40 with aggressive riding. The tank is claimed by Vespa to hold 2.5 gallons.
  • There's a folding hook for shopping bags or a man-purse under the steering column, which is very useful.
  • The seat unlocks from the ignition, a nice convenience feature since you don't have to remove the key to pop the seat.
  • The underseat storage tray lifts up easily to reveal the engine for servicing or inspection. There is a sticker on it that instructs the rider to not carry pets under the seat. Piaggio refrains from putting this sticker on their other products, which makes me wonder what it is about Vespa owners that makes them want to put their poodles and fluffy white cats under the seat. It must have happened, otherwise there wouldn't be a sticker, no?

Instruments are well-designed and easy-to-read, unlike the owner's manual, which had no English in it anywhere.

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