Two high-class scooters line up for a duel of style and content. But do you follow your head or your heart?
PIAGGIO SHOULD know its onions. The creator of the ubiquitous Vespa, in production since 1946, this Italian firm has an unsurpassed record of making crowd-pleasing scooters.

In 1969, Piaggio bought the ailing sports motorcycle company, Gilera. After varying degrees of success, this name dropped out of sight for a short while only to re-emerge on some of Piaggio's scooters. Nice name, nice scooters, but their first offerings were merely of the 50cc variety, a bit of a come-down for a badge that won many titles and races in its chequered history.

For 1998, Piaggio gave us large capacity versions of its Gilera Runner. A sporty looking scooter, with a new liquid-cooled, two-stroke automatic engine, available as either a 125cc or a 180cc. Finally, a machine that does justice to the famous dual rings badge. That alone may not seem like a reason to rejoice - after all, there are so many companies with similar scooters, aren't there?

Not like this baby! Top speed exceeds 80mph. Even the 125cc learner-legal versions should manage up to 70mph. Other scooter makers realised that this 180cc engine was leaving them standing. Italjet was one. For a number of years it has been building some seriously funky mopeds such as the Formula 50 and the Dragster, both sporting a patented SIS hub centre steering. It then moved up a league with the Formula 125 twin. The next step was to match the Runner on performance and here Italjet took the sensible option of simply buying these engines and fitting them into its own chassis. Still with me? Good. Meanwhile, Piaggio has updated its Runner for 1999, which includes fitting a larger fuel tank, improved forks and suspension, and a rear disc brake. With exactly the same 180cc motors, surely it is now simply a matter of which one looks best. Well, sort of.

Fashion plays an important part. Wouldn't life be boring if everything we did was practical? Both these Italian stallions have plenty of power, while the disc brakes on both models will bring you to a halt pretty sharpish. The rear discs on both models are the same size in the same 13in wheels but at the front, the larger Grimeca disc in Gilera's traditional forks stop the front wheel better than its counterpart in Italjet's SIS hub centre steering.

However, the SIS virtually eliminates the dive which is customary with sharp braking on almost all motorbikes and scooters with traditional forks and damping. This means braking can now be left later and acceleration out of corners introduced earlier.

The Gilera claws back points with a better suspension on the SP model. Overall, the scooter feels a little sturdier to ride than the Italjet, whose suspension seems to be harder all round.

The Gilera handles slightly better than the Italjet, but the Dragster's trellis chassis and hub centre steering are certainly something to talk about. But hold on a minute, where do you put the paperwork on the way to the office? Under the Runner's seat you can fit a full face crash helmet and a few bits and bobs. Under the Dragster's seat there is less room and, although you do get a mobile phone-sized plastic box in the chassis, only a fool would leave anything more valuable than a packet of mints in it.

The Runner has top boxes and panniers but extra carrying capacity for either scooter, including a simple luggage rack, is an optional extra. Both machines will take a pillion passenger.

As with the helmet bay, the Gilera has a larger more comfortable seat. The Dragster's pillion pad is small and thin. Any passenger must either love you dearly or be very desperate for a lift.

The Gilera Runner goes further towards winning the "teacher's pet" award for sensible planning, having a tripometer and petrol and temperature gauges on the handlebars, instead of just warning lights. It also has warm air vents for your shins.

So is the Dragster a bad buy? Of course not. Italjet did not build it to be practical. The fluorescent Dragster is fun and that's what scootering is all about.

At pounds 2,750, the Italjet Dragster 180, which also comes in day-glo colours, is more expensive, but you get a free padlock and chain thrown in. The Gilera Runner 180 costs pounds 2,499 (pounds 2,549 for SP model). Both 125cc versions are about pounds 300 cheaper. Both have a 12-month warranty although the Gilera can be extended to three years for an extra pounds 30. Brand insurance schemes are available for both.

Assuming that you have passed your test, these two models are probably the most fun available on two small wheels today. Both machines look pretty mean and aggressive, and both of them have engines to back the attitude.

Which to buy? Your head would go for the Gilera as, with an extended warranty and a slightly better build quality, you know it makes sense. You only have to look at the sales charts or glance around London to see how many agree with you.

But for that extra-terrestrial, extra posing value, if you can afford the extra initial cost and promise to look after it well, the Italjet is the one that really stands out in a crowd.

Would having both be too greedy?

Andy Gillard is a features writer at Scootering Magazine, available monthly at all newsagents

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