Turismo Bellissimo Sure, the new Granturismo is the fastest, largest, most advanced Vespa ever made. But for getting around town, it's just as sensible as ever.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Let's start with a small exercise. In the margin of this article, jot down your current annual salary. Then divide that number by five. (Relax, this is the only math homework you'll find in the entire issue.) What you've just calculated is the astonishing amount of money you spend each year simply to get from one place to another, most often from your home to your office. You, an average American, squander about 20 percent of your annual income on transportation costs: car payments, insurance, parking, tires, taxes, taxis, subway tokens. That money is gone. You will never see it again. Mourn it.

It need not be this way. If you lived in Britain, commuting would consume only 15 percent of your income. Hop the channel to France and the percentage falls a few more points. Keep going until you reach Italy, and the outlay drops to about half the American rate. There are complicated societal and macroeconomic reasons for this discrepancy, which I'll summarize thusly: Italians love scooters. If only Americans loved scooters too.

And really, are they not lovable? Piaggio, the premier Italian scooter producer, has asked itself that question for more than 50 years. Staggering forth from the wreckage of World War II, Piaggio refitted its fractured factories--which had been spitting out boats, cars, and planes--and got them going on a far simpler product: utterly useful, affordable transportation. A former airplane designer shaped the prototype, and when he wheeled the sleek, narrow-waisted bike toward the company president, his boss exclaimed, "Somiglia a una vespa!" (It looks like a wasp!)

Unlike a conventional motorcycle, which had to be straddled, the Vespa could be ridden while seated, as if it were a dining room chair. This magical chair ran forever on next to no gas, was fun to drive and a breeze to maneuver, and could be parked almost anywhere. To a cash-strapped, war-concussed public, the magic was welcome. Piaggio sold more than 16 million Vespas. Most of these can still be seen in simultaneous operation on the streets of Rome.

Sadly, the Vespa never took off in the United States, perhaps because the company initially--unwisely--chose staid Sears Roebuck as the exclusive dealer for its chic product. Peddled alongside bib overalls and single-action washers, the Vespa floundered. Only after Piaggio turned its emphasis away from Sears did sales begin to tick upward. Between 1951 and 1985, about a quarter million Vespas were sold in America, and the vehicle gained a particular foothold among heartland students and various swells on the two coasts. But tightened EPA standards slammed the import door shut on the two-stroke scooters, whose engines at the time were peppy but polluting. It wasn't until 2000 that Vespa reentered the U.S. market with a reengineered power plant, and several months ago the company finally unveiled its first scooter aimed squarely at the American consumer: the Granturismo. True to American tastes, the GT is the largest, fastest, and most technologically advanced Vespa ever made, and with it Piaggio hopes to finally crack the U.S. market. There's some indication that it might succeed: American scooter sales have risen more than 500 percent in the past five years, as car and gas prices have soared, city streets clotted, and parking vanished.

As a means of getting around town, the Granturismo is difficult to beat. If you live in a city such as San Francisco or New York, it is almost impossible to argue against its sensibleness. The GT has a 200cc liquid-cooled four-stroke engine wedded to a continuously variable transmission, a smooth setup similar to transmissions found in Audis and Toyotas. It could not be easier to ride--it has no gears, no clutch, nothing. You simply twist the throttle and the scooter zips nimbly away; the engine is torquey enough to beat most cars off the line, and front and rear disc brakes can wrench the GT back to zero in a heartbeat. Slip the thing in and out of lanes, skim past the double-parked FedEx trucks and the belching buses, and your half-hour city commute can be notched in 10 minutes. Then just wheel the scooter between two parked cars, tip it onto its stand, and you're finito.

Unlike the whiny death arrows you may have piloted during a vacation in the Caribbean, the GT is amazingly quiet and substantial. (Its curb weight tops 300 pounds, giving it a solid but manageable feel.) Two passengers are not a burden, and the storage space beneath the seat can swallow a pair of helmets, a briefcase, or a ball of dirty laundry; you hang your evening's groceries on a convenient hook inside the front mudshield.

Vespa's designers retained the signature insectile profile, which has acquired a good bit of cachet of late, and Piaggio skipped the Sears showroom in favor of a network of 65 Vespa boutiques, which now peddle the full-on Vespa lifestyle--that is, clothing, gewgaws, and scooters--while stoking a miasmic aura of Italian sexiness. In some cases, this is appropriate: Sophia Loren once rode a Vespa. In others, it is not: Matthew Broderick still does. Nonetheless, the carnality of Piaggio's pitch is incidental, because it is the scooter's practicality that will ultimately win you over. To wit: Find a blank spot in the margin again, and write down these figures: 50 (miles per gallon of gas) plus 70 (top speed, in miles per hour) plus 5 (dollars, to fill the gas tank) plus 0 (cost to park). You do the math.

John Tayman is a contributing writer for Business 2.0.