Piaggio's Carnaby: Can it rock back to the Sixties?

Piaggio's latest tries to evoke the Swinging Sixties. It's good, but Tim Luckhurst misses that Italian wow factor


Engine: 124cc single cylinder, liquid cooled four-stroke
Maximum power: 15bhp @ 9,750rpm
Maximum torque: 12Nm @ 8,000rpm
Brakes: single 260mm discs at front and rear
Transmission: twist-and-go CVT
Dry weight: 146kg
Seat height: 790mm
Price: to be confirmed

From behind, the all-new Piaggio Carnaby resembles a cartoon owl. A pair of big, round tail-lights sits above a protruding number-plate illuminator that looks like a beak. It is friendly, but not entirely unique. This latest big-wheel scooter from the giant Italian group is simple and practical, not spectacularly original. And that makes its name perplexing.

The idea is clear. Carnaby means Carnaby Street, which means Swinging London, mini-skirts, Jean Shrimpton and The Kinks: or, for a fresher generation, Austin Powers, Felicity Shagwell and Dr Evil. Which would all be fun if the little machine exuded essence of Sixties freedom and charisma. It does not quite reach that standard.

As a mid-range product, filling the niche between Piaggio's sporty, lightweight Liberty and the larger-capacity Beverly tourers, the Carnaby makes sense. But with the company's PR singing about "growth, growth, growth" and 26 new models, 12 new motors and 17 restyled bikes promised this year, my suspicion is that volume may be taking precedence over sophistication.

Piaggio's problem is easily discerned. It's a vast conglomerate, now embracing Aprilia and Moto Guzzi as well as Derbi, Vespa and Gilera. Digesting the two large motorcycle manufacturers has had to take place while responding to increasingly aggressive competition from the Far East.

It is in these mass-market terms that the Carnaby starts to make sense. In the 125cc version that will be available in Britain (a 200cc exists for continental riders), its 15hp liquid-cooled leader engine is endearingly responsive. Even with a pillion passenger ensconced on the wide, dual-colour seat, I was able to keep up with the bustling Roman traffic. Broad tyres (130/70 at the rear) and twin disc brakes combine to deliver reassuring roadholding and handling.

If the purpose of a 125cc scooter is to filter between the cars and buses on your commute to and from work, to squeeze through the tightest gaps and to accelerate safely out of danger, then the Carnaby is good. It could hardly be an easier bike to ride, and the large flat handlebar makes its nimbleness accessible to the least experienced rider. My suspension stayed smooth until pushed to extremes, two-up on cobbles. Even the raised edge of a drain-cover failed to knock us off.

A redesigned centre-stand makes the scooter a doddle to park. My smallest colleagues were able to lift it. An anti-skid coating stops the bike slipping on sloping anchorages.

Starting has been refined as well; Piaggio claims that it will come alive quickly every time, even in the bleak midwinter. Such advantages can be exaggerated; I rarely have to push the starter twice on any modern motorcycle.

But, while handling, safety and dependability are commendable, load carrying also matters. On this criterion, the Carnaby disappoints. The underseat bay will take a handbag or a helmet, and two tiny side panels beside it can accommodate mobile phones and purses. But there is no room for a laptop and, if wet-weather riding gear is stowed here, hardly any space for anything else.

Piaggio's solution is a detachable "easy bag", which is stowed in the front shield compartment. This is capacious enough to be useful for shopping and larger items of personal luggage, but security is non-existent. A larger, lockable under-seat space would be much more useful. Piaggio knows this; it makes some of the most capacious scooters on the market.

Additional comfort is offered by the "Easy cover". This foldaway cover encases the rider and supplies hot air from the radiator to ease winter riding. It is not a new idea, but it works and makes sense in the UK.

The Carnaby is very competent and comfortable. Its latest-generation leader engine is clean and amusingly lively. It looks gentle, modern and androgynous (Piaggio admits that the Liberty is for women and the Beverly a male option; the Carnaby must bridge the gender divide). And yet the emotionally compelling 1960s ideals the company has sought to conjure with the name do not feel entirely appropriate.

One colleague called this scooter utterly bland. That is too harsh. It is a highly efficient pitch at the valuable short-distance commuter market from a manufacturer that sold 190,000 scooters to Europeans in 2006. The Carnaby may be more workhorse than soul food, but that is no reason to dismiss its practicality, functionality and advanced safety features.

The tougher question is whether pure efficiency is a Piaggio strong point. I prefer it when they wow me with style.

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