Its considerable charm and utility notwithstanding, Vespa’s ET4, the 150 cc scooter with which the Italian company made its return to America in 2000 after a 20-year absence, does have its limitations. Although it is ideal for puttering along winding back roads or navigating city streets, it lacks the brawn necessary for highway travel, which is not inconsistent with the nature of a scooter. Nevertheless, Piaggio, Vespa’s Italian parent company, now offers the X9 Evolution 500, a $6,300 scooter equipped with a 460 cc four-stroke engine that can propel the vehicle to a top speed of 98 mph, enabling it to venture onto the freeway and even into the passing lane.
Weighing 470 pounds and stretching 83.8 inches, the X9 exhibits dimensions comparable to those of some motorcycles. Unlike many of its two-wheeled cousins, though, it has a design that emphasizes the rider’s convenience and comfort: A compartment under the seat is spacious enough to accommodate a briefcase; twist-and-go propulsion eliminates the need for shifting; and the upright riding style eliminates the back pain that so often accompanies long-distance rides. “A motorcycle is not designed for commuting, while the X9 is,” asserts Costantino Sambuy, president of Piaggio USA. “In traffic, you don’t kill yourself changing gears every two seconds.”
While narrower roads have made the X9 a natural fit in Europe, questions arose concerning whether the scooter would acquit itself on the wide-open stretches of American highway. The proving grounds were the freeways of Los Angeles, where Piaggio engineers and executives successfully tested the X9 at high speeds and frequently in stop-and-go conditions, nose-to-wheel with cars and trucks and tractor-trailers.
Sambuy cautions that although the X9 does not require a motorcyclist license (in California, at least) and is equipped with an automatic clutch, it is not intended for novices. “If somebody has to start, I wouldn’t recommend the X9,” says Sambuy. “It’s a powerful machine. A first-time buyer who wants to buy a car should not buy a Porsche. You buy a simple car, and then move on from there and one day get a Porsche.”