Monday, September 22, 2014
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Vespa recalls its heritage, looks to the future with 2015 Sprint

Pienza, Italy: Yellow Piaggio Vespa scooter parking in a street of the ancient village of Pienza, Tuscany.
Pienza, Italy: Yellow Piaggio Vespa scooter parking in a street of the ancient village of Pienza, Tuscany. iStock

(MCT) -- Vespa is the Harley-Davidson of scooters. Sixty-eight years old and counting, it is the oldest continuous-production scooter maker, the most iconic and the most likely to raid its brand heritage and push it forward with new models that recall vehicles of generations past.

Take the new 2015 Vespa Sprint. The smallest and sportiest small-body scooter in the Vespa lineup is a nod to the Super Sprint of the '60s, when freewheeling Italian youth whisked from cafe to pizzeria enjoying the fruits of the mother country on two wheels.

Updated for modern realities, the 2015 Sprint is even sportier, with a fuel-injected engine and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.

The Sprint is available in two sizes - a 20ish mph 50cc version and the larger 150cc model I was testing that seats two. Both are fuel-injected singles, but only the 150ie uses a unique three-valve engine - two for fuel intake, one to puff out the exhaust - the results being a triple threat of improved combustion for better acceleration, increased fuel economy and reduced emissions.

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    It isn't something I generally recommend, and I probably would have steered clear on Vespa's newest had I strictly adhered to the spec sheet, which lists the Sprint's top speed as a mere 59 mph. But after a week or so bombing around L.A.'s streets on the Sprint, I felt confident enough in its acceleration and agility that I routinely took it on higher-speed roads, where I eked almost 70 mph out of Vespa's barely freeway legal machine.

    Speed can introduce unwanted vibration, but the Sprint was quite smooth. The engine is mounted differently than other models, with a double rubber damper to stop pesky vibes from transmitting through the seat and grips.

    Like its model mates, the Sprint is characterized by a unique sheet steel unibody, pressed and welded into submission to yield its iconic Vespa shape. What's different about the Sprint is the level of rigidity, which has improved 36 percent from the Vespa S it replaces, the upshot being a more stable ride at speed and better handling in the swoops and turns of city riding, which is where the Sprint should really be.

    At $5,099, the Sprint 150 costs about twice as much as many scooters of this size. The reason to consider a Vespa when so many other perfectly good Korean and Taiwanese 150s can be purchased for half as much? It isn't just style or the Vespa legacy. It's the modern technology a premium-priced scooter enables, such as anti-lock brakes.

    ABS isn't only a rarity for scooters of this displacement - it's unusual for scooters, period. Only a handful of models offer it, usually on much bigger, and even more expensive bikes. It's an excellent safety feature that adds significant cost to an extremely price-sensitive product, but Vespa, being the Cadillac of scooters, can do it.

    The Sprint 150 is the smallest scooter on the market to offer ABS. The just-introduced Suzuki Burgman 200 is the only other scooter in the midsize segment to include ABS in its base price.

    The ABS puts the clamp on larger wheels than Vespa has ever offered on a 150. The Sprint rolls on 12 inchers, which are similar to Vespa's largest, most sporty model, the 300 cc GTS.

    The Sprint's overall body style is the same as the updated Primavera, which, for the 2014 model year, replaced Vespa's longstanding bestseller, the LX. For a small scoot, the Sprint offers more leg room than the LX. Even more noticeable was the seat height, which is lower than many Vespas I've tested that have kept me tippy-toed at stops. The Sprint's saddle being 31.1 inches, I was able to flat foot it.

    There are subtle utilitarian improvements throughout the bike, such as a larger underseat storage compartment. Moving the battery into the footrest tunnel opened up more space than was previously available on the Vespa S. It isn't quite enough for a full-face helmet, but I had no problem fitting an exceptionally large purse on one trip and a decent-size bag of groceries on another.

    The beauty of the Sprint is really in its details. While some of its styling cues were lifted from the 48-year-old original, such as the rectangular headlight and a pointed and tapered "wasp" tail, the Sprint otherwise imports components from the so-innovative-it-didn't-seem-like-a-Vespa 946, which injected a healthy dose of modernism into the legacy brand. Like the 946, the Sprint has more chiseled-looking mirrors and LED running and brake lights.

    With its Sprint, Vespa has achieved something difficult and impressive: It has simultaneously captured its heritage while embracing modern necessities.

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    2015 VESPA SPRINT 150IE ABS

    Base price: $5,099*

    Powertrain: Fuel-injected, air-cooled, single-cylinder, 3 valves per cylinder, SOHC, CVT

    Displacement: 154.8 cc

    Maximum speed: 59 mph

    Overall length: 73.2 inches

    Seat height: 31.1 inches

    Fuel tank capacity: 2.1 gallons

    Manufacturer-estimated fuel economy: up to 117 mpg

    Road test fuel economy: 77 mpg

    *Not including destination charge

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    (c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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    Susan Carpenter The Orange County Register