Piaggio has been selling its scooters in Britain for many years but, for 1995, it has just relaunched its wares here: new models, new marketing thrust, new momentum. Why? The Italian company - which made 850,000 motorised vehicles last year - is trying to spread its strength throughout Europe and can see special potential in Britain, owing to our crowded cities. A scooter makes the ideal short-distance urban commuter vehicle: low cost, low pollution, no traffic jam problems, no parking hassles.
The Sfera 50 offers particular promise. Mopeds (by definition, motorbikes of under 50cc restricted to 30mph) can be ridden on car licences - just buy a helmet. The latest Sfera 50 is a pretty thing, the stylish plastic body offering a pleasing shape and some weather protection for your feet and legs. A deep screen also keeps the draughts away from your face. There is a large carrying area under the seat, and a smaller compartment in the front fairing.
Unlike those mopeds you hire on Greek islands, this one has an electric start, so there is nothing physical about cranking thesingle-cylinder two-stroke into life. Piaggio does not specify power or torque figures. The only other motor manufacturer with a similar policy is Rolls-Royce, which cites its vehicles' power as being "adequate". Piaggio no doubt feels the same about its bikes and, if "adequate" means shifting a man and a bit of kit up to 30mph easily, it is right. Unlike the other motorcyclists it is no tearaway, and you will not be overtaking the cars when the lights go green - but you will move off more quickly than the pushbikers.
The gearbox is a "constantly variable" automatic, so there are no gearchanges and no clutch. Just twist the handlebar grip, as on a more conventional motorcycle, and the Piaggio accelerates away. The centrifugal clutch engages rather sharply; get to 30mph and the limiter comes in, strangling acceleration. This is fine for city streets but, on wider urban roads or dual carriageways, you do feel rather vulnerable. Passing a pushbike at least gives you some pleasure.
This vulnerability is the biggest drawback of the little Piaggio, and I felt more at risk from other traffic than on a pushbike or conventional motorbike. Bicycles are, of course, vulnerable. But their high seating position, slowness, narrowness and manoeuvrability partly compensate. Motorcycles have acceleration on their side - twist the throttle and you can quickly get out of trouble. However, Piaggios will do 140mpg or so easily, take up next to no road space, can be left in any motorcycle parking bay in absolute safety (they are not big on bike thieves' lists), and can thread their way through stationary traffic as easily as a pushbike. A Piaggio does not cost much more than a top pushbike, either: pounds 1,499 for a machine that gets you efficiently from A to B. It is quite the most intelligent way to commute to work or get around town.