If Hannibal had been kitted out with a fleet of Piaggio X8 250s instead of elephants, the Second Punic War might have turned out differently. The most impressive features of this good-looking, mid-sized scooter are its huge, 56-litre load capacity and the innovative system that grants access to it.
Twin remote controls on the key-fob allow separate opening of the under-seat cavity and the linked boot space. Feeding luggage from the boot into the under-seat area allows storage of a cricket bat and pads. Non-cricketers will find it works as well for baguettes and full-sized umbrellas. A Carthaginian general could have fitted several swords, armour and a battle helmet in here - and moved pretty briskly on modest quantities of fuel.
Handlebar switches mean you do not need to dismount to open the boot lid, and there is more space for handbags or documents behind the front screen. This comes complete with the now standard 12V socket for recharging mobile phones.
I rode in London rain, and the front shield and windshield did an excellent job. The seat is low enough to keep even a tall rider protected. I stayed clean and dry after weaving through 30 miles of urban congestion.
So, a boringly practical commuter-scooter that can traipse the roads of northern Italy faster than an overladen elephant and get you to the office on time even in the winter? There is nothing wrong with practicality and the Piaggio offers it in bucketloads. It is at its best on routes involving motorway, urban freeway and city streets. The 22bhp liquid-cooled, four-stroke engine, twist-and-go automatic clutch and continuously variable transmission wafted me ahead of the cars at every set of lights. And the X8 filters sweetly, too. Despite its aptitude as a luggage carrier, the fluid, rounded tail is no wider than the handle bars.
Piaggio describes the machine as "comfortable with mid-range touring." It is a matter of taste. The X8 250 is comfortable enough for modest journeys and it will sustain high A-road speeds, even two-up. Top speed exceeds the British motorway maximum. The instrument array includes a speedometer, fuel gauge and temperature indicators, a clock and a mileage counter, as well as direction and headlight indicators and a car-style warning as to whether the seat or boot lid have been left unlocked. It is not a racer but it handles neatly and throttle response is prompt and precise.
If Hannibal would have admired the X8's load-bearing features, the young bucks of the Roman cavalry who finally defeated him at the battle of Zama would have adored the other new scooter from the vast Piaggio stable, the Gilera Runner VXR 200.
Last year, reviewing the original 50cc and 125cc Runner models, I advised that they are fun, pretty and well-equipped but not quite the revolution in urban transport Gilera claimed. The upgraded VXR 200 model is not going to change your life either, but it is about as entertaining as an urban sports scooter can get. The top-heavy front end and tapering rear are designed to mimic a proper sports motorcycle, and the handling gets close to that standard.
The Runner 200 is a bandit, a cheeky little thug with tremendous agility and the additional poke to make it a real buzz in urban traffic. This is the perfect scooter for surprising couriers at traffic-lights. The 19bhp liquid-cooled, four-stroke engine snaps away from standstill like a greyhound after a rabbit. Acceleration is faster than the power rating implies. In the zero to 50 miles per hour range common in stop-and-go use, this Runner is a class leader. The bigger engine gives it just enough oomph to be practical on short motorway runs, too.
But enjoying this scooter to the maximum means pushing it through lots of tight bends, not thrashing it along in a straight line. The Runner 200's big, light-alloy, six-spoke wheels mount a 120/70 tyre at the front and a 140/60 at the rear. Stability is excellent and it corners so competently that I found myself looking for roundabouts to play on. You need a proper motorcycle licence to ride it, but exploiting the big Runner's handling potential requires a bit of experience.
You pay for this power and manoeuvrability with an almost total absence of practicality. Under the Runner's seat there is just about room for a G-string or a packet of cigarettes. Both simultaneously would be pushing it. But what it lacks in space, the Gilera makes up for in looks. It is svelte and aggressive - particularly in the classic shiny black livery offered as an alternative to red, grey and yellow trim.
PIAGGIO X8 250
Engine: 244.3cc single cylinder, liquid-cooled, four-stroke.
Maximum power: 22bhp (16.2Kw) @ 8,250 rpm
Maximum torque: 20.2 Nm @ 6,500 rpm
Transmission: Twist-and-go automatic clutch with continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Brakes: front single 260mm disc, rear single 240mm disc
Seat height: 785mm
Tank capacity: 12 litres
GILERA RUNNER VXR 200
Engine: 198cc single cylinder, liquid cooled four-stroke.
Maximum power: 19bhp (14Kw) @ 9,750 rpm
Maximum Torque: 17 Nm @ 8,000 rpm
Transmission: Twist-and-go automatic clutch with CVT
Brakes: front single 240mm disc, rear single 220mm disc.
Seat height: 815mm
Tank capacity: 8.7 litres