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Motoring: All mod cons

Sticky Round drives Italjet's Formula 125
Forget Sting and The Who. In Quadrophenia, that cult Mods and Rockers movie re-released this week, the real stars are scooters. Yet far from simply presenting a nostalgic image of the Sixties, scooters are very much an urban vehicle of the Nineties. On a scooter you can be flash for comparatively little money - street cred and convenience, that's what it's all about.

In 1995 the Italians bought half a million new scooters. And the appeal is spreading: last year the British market grew by 40 per cent. The majority of these are hi-tech 50cc automatics, which are helping to dispel the image associated with the word "moped". However, they're only really suited to short journeys. What's needed, for car-brushing kudos, is all that technology and flair combined with a bigger engine. And so the Bologna- based firm Italjet has come up with the Italjet Formula 125.

Scooter riding is all about being smug. A twist of the wrist at the traffic lights and you send all but the most determined car driver into the Formula's mirrors. Any cars that do get by are simply lost at the next tailback. If you are feeling brave, you can tap on the window and say "I bet your car is really fast between the jams, isn't it?" leaving the car driver bemused by the half compliment. Then you simply filter to the front of the queue for another go.

Motive power, for this delightful mockery of motoring, is a twin-cylinder 125cc two-stroke engine. The barrels are water cooled for reliability, and the belt-driven transmission is fully automatic for ease of use. Hit the electric start button, twist the throttle and you are off. Acceleration is a smooth, stepless advance of speed that geared machines of equal power can't keep up with. Engine vibration is reduced below that of many of the 50cc scooters, thanks to the well balanced twin-cylinder layout.

Power output is 14hp, in accordance with new European laws for learner motorcycles. OK, so 14hp isn't much, but the automatic transmission makes the best use of it, with good acceleration and a top speed of just over 70mph.

What makes this machine so special - and its smaller brother, the Formula 50 - are its miraculous cycle parts. The Formula is the first scooter to use single-sided hub-centre steering. HCS is a way of separating steering and braking forces in order to prevent the front-end dive you experience on most two-wheelers when you brake hard. This system, previously only used in production on the Yamaha GTS and Bimota Tesi motorcycles, replaces conventional telescopic forks with a stiff swinging arm. The front wheel turns on a car-type steering knuckle.

Not only does the HCS system look superb on the Formula, but it really works, too, which is a nice touch. Concealed inside the front wheel is a hydraulic disc brake, with another at the rear, both of which can be used heavily while still retaining the full front suspension that copes with bumps. The downside to this is slightly restricted steering movement; though this is only noticeable doing U-turns or in the thickest of traffic. Steering movement is still far more than you get on most motorcycles, which is why the nimble scooters - Formula 125 included - still have an advantage over heavy bikes in crowded city centres.

Outright handling and braking are about as good as you are going to get on such a light scooter. The disc brakes not only have enough power to stop in the space of a beer mat, but also retain the important "feel" needed when conditions are greasy.

Italjet, which also makes the Velocifero retro scooter, as owned by Oasis, is entering into only limited production of the Formula 125. So it looks as if you'll have to put your name down on a waiting list if you want to be king of the queue busters this summer.

The Formula 125 gets its official launch in Italy on 12 February. No UK price has yet been set, but it is expected to be around pounds 3,000. The Formula 50 has the same chassis, but only a 50cc engine, and sells in the UK for pounds 2,100. For more details contact the importer, Frontiers Motorcycles (0181-543 2508).