Motoring: Road Test - Got a rocket in my pocket

Scooters: they're zippy, nippy and stylish, just perfect for the city, and there's never been a better choice. By Martin `Sticky' Round
FAST, COOL and affordable. These days a 125cc scooter offers you everything you could possibly want for city use. You can ride one on a provisional licence for two years, and all you should need is one day of Compulsory Basic Training.

There are more 125cc scooters on offer in the UK now than ever before, each with its own character. Our pick of the bunch all have fully automatic transmission for carefree twist-and-go riding.

For the ultimate in retro-chic, the machine to go for is the Vespa ET4 from Piaggio. Its styling harks back to the glory days of the Fifties and Sixties, and retains the Vespa's unique pressed-steel construction. Everything else about it is modern, though: from the four-stroke automatic engine, to the powerful front disc brake.

As a relaxing, but nippy urban scooter, the ET4 has few peers. The seating position is upright and comfortable, giving a good view in traffic. Machines with 12-inch or 13-inch wheels can be more stable on the open road than the Vespa with its 10-inch alloys, but for a four-stroke, the ET4 performs well on acceleration and will comfortably reach 60mph. A full-size helmet bay and a glove box is included. One group which doesn't like the ET4 is thieves: it has an electronic coded-key immobiliser fitted as standard.

A slightly cheaper alternative, the sporty-looking Shark is worth a look. It comes from SYM, one of Taiwan's biggest scooter makers. The Shark is SYM's first machine designed specifically for export. The four-valve engine is reasonably sophisticated: we had the Shark's speedo reading well over 70 mph.

The all-plastic bodywork seems well put together, and the riding position is comfortable. The high-tech goodies include a rim-mounted front disc brake, which works much better than the rear brake, which is as wooden as the New Forest.

Perhaps the best thing about the Shark is its price: pounds 2,124 on the road. This should save you enough to get some better tyres - because the ones that come with it are awful.

For true sports performance, you really can't beat a two-stroke, and Europe's number one in the 125cc class is the Gilera Runner. Like Vespa, Gilera is a brand name for Piaggio products, so you can be confident in the quality from Italy's oldest surviving scooter producer.

The Runner is now available in a new version, the DD (or SP with two- tone race paint schemes for pounds 30 extra) to signify Dual Disc brakes.The revamped version gets improved suspension and a bigger fuel tank. Overall performance is excellent, with acceleration to around 70 mph. The Runner is characterised by the way the bodywork fills the space between the rider's legs like a motorbike. You need to step over rather than through it, cutting the scooter's carrying capacity.

The Honda Pantheon is another two-stroke, with even more out-of-town capability. It boasts a chassis similar to the 250cc Foresight, which sits you in a more feet-forward stance, your upper body shielded by a superb screen. At 144.5kg, the Pantheon is lardy enough to be a friend of Gazza, but a superb engine propels it at a healthy rate. It handles with astounding grace and has Honda's linked brake system, which partially operates the front disc brake when the left hand "rear" brake lever is applied.

The Pantheon is the pick of the bunch for both pillion and rider comfort, and hides a massive storage compartment under that plush seat - but there's a hefty price tag, and a bit more engine vibration from the buzzy two- stroke.

Those who want to be noticed should turn to the Italjet Dragster 125. Italjet are masters of scooter styling, and this high-tech road rocket, available in only fluorescent orange or yellow, keeps them ahead of the rest.

Central to both the Dragster's styling and handling is a stiff trellis frame and SIS hub-centre steering system. Almost all the front-end dive of conventional forks is eliminated under braking. This allows you to brake later and harder, using disc brakes front and rear.

Motive power is supplied by the same lusty water-cooled two-stroke as the Gilera Runner. Like the Runner, there is a 180cc version available, for speed freaks. The downside is that it isn't quite up to scratch on build quality: the pillion seat is particularly poor.

Italian firm Aprilia is another company offering a good-looking 125 at a reasonable price. Like Italjet, Aprilia got the engine for the SR 125 from Piaggio but chose a marginally less powerful air-cooled version. Running on 13-inch wheels, the SR is stable yet sporty to ride but is let down by a small fuel tank.

At pounds 2,174 the SR is almost the cheapest of the bunch, yet it also comes with a three-year warranty as standard and is subject to a free insurance deal until October. Other manufacturers offer special insurance deals, so it is worth checking with the importers before buying.

Just think of it, next year you could be cutting through the traffic jams, getting to work a lot quicker - and only paying pounds 15 road tax.

Sticky is assistant editor of `Scootering' magazine, available through newsagents

Top 125cc Scooters

Vespa ET4 125 - pounds 2,299. Retro styling, metal body, comfortable riding position, economical consumption. Electronic immobiliser. But not as fast as two-strokes, and early ones consumed engine oil and need regular level checking.

SYM Shark 125 - pounds 2,124. Very good performance for a four-stroke. Pleasant ride quality at a good price, but horrid original fitment tyres and slightly weedy rear brake.

Gilera Runner 125 DD - pounds 2,169. Superb performance is now matched by improved braking and handling. Good overall value, though the tall seat can be a problem for the Napoleonic of stature.

Honda Pantheon 125 - pounds 2,825. Innovative high-tech engine gives go with improved economy. Seat height is accessible, with ample storage space. Handling and brakes are great. Engine vibration is more noticeable than on other 125s.

Italjet Dragster 125 - pounds 2,449. Futuristic looks give superb feel-good factor. Superb low-speed handling and braking. But only a small storage compartment, "interesting" high-speed handling and torturous pillion seat. Dubious Italian build-quality.

Aprilia SR 125 - pounds 2,174. Good value with a three-year warranty and a free insurance deal until October. Superb handling, but the small fuel tank means it only has a short range. The air-cooled engine is a little less powerful than the Runner/Dragster.