Earlier this week, we posted a story about all the juicy Vespa gossip we’ve been hearing in the past few months. Much of that was officially confirmed just a few days later with the Italian debut of the new Vespa Sprint. While in one sense the Sprint is simply an update to the Vespa S in the same way the Primavera is an update to the LX-150, both updates can’t be looked at without considering one other key model: the Vespa 946.
Since its conceptual debut at EICMA 2011, the 946 has been at the center of Vespa conversation. The design harkens back to the original Vespa prototype — to the company Vespa was when it began. Yet its hand-assembled construction and asking price of $9,946 reflects the brand’s present positioning as a premium scooter company. The promise of limited numbers and exclusive features like ABS and traction control further set the 946 apart, and in Vespa’s thinking, help justify the asking price. That’s now been called into question with the revelation that not only will the Sprint feature the 946’s ABS and traction control as an option, but the 946 will not be the one-year-only limited run it was originally billed as. Will the 946 be a victim of its own success? Does the very ethos of the 946 erode the core of the Vespa brand? Let’s dig into it.
The 946 represents a particularly rarified example of a “premium” scooter. It definitely feels removed from Vespa’s cheep transportation roots. Yet before anybody sets up an “Occupy Vespa” chapter, we have to remember that the 946 is only one bike in the Vespa lineup. While still more expensive than their plastic-clad competitors, “regular” modern Vespas are still very good value, in my opinion — especially considering that they’re still built on pressed steel monocoque chassis and feature premium touch points. The new Primavera and Sprint models will carry on in that vein of making an accessible, premium scooter under that iconic Vespa name. More interestingly, they’ve also inherited many design cues from the 946, and as we reported in our rumor round-up, the Sprint will also inherit the 946’s previously “exclusive” ABS and traction control systems as options.
Therein lies the rub, or potential rub anyway, for those who plunked down nearly $10,000 for the “exclusive” Vespa 946. Many have wondered if, with the advent of the Sprint, the 946 doesn’t look quite so shiny. For some, sure, but I’d argue that this won’t hurt the 946’s success in the long run. Here’s why.
Most Sprint buyers were never going to buy a 946 in the first place
As consumers we’re rewarded for selfish behaviors. “I want that!” is the driving force behind most of the global economy. Yet from that impulse, it’s easy to lose perspective that not every product on the market is actually for me. The market of buyers is bigger and more diverse than just what the majority will be interested in, and especially more diverse than what any individual would want. Often, there are facets of a niche like scooters that are big enough to support a successful product. The BMW C-Series scooters come to mind. That idea of a faceted market is what Vespa is banking on with the 946. They will continue to offer lower-priced, more accessible models like the Primavera, Sprint and GTS in addition to the more expensive, more rarified, less practical, more aspirational Vespa 946. In the end, the person shopping for a Sprint was never really shopping for a 946, so instead of simply not selling a 946, that dealer will have sold a Sprint and Vespa makes money either way.
Think about it like music. Seeing the Rolling Stones in concert these days is extremely expensive. So the people who will go see a Rolling Stones concert are in that intersection between those who like the Rolling Stones, and those who can afford to purchase a ticket. I don’t personally like the Rolling Stones that much, so I don’t care how expensive their tickets are. Yet the Stones will have no trouble at all selling out their expensive concerts because there are more than enough people who do like them and are willing to pay the premium to see them live.
Similarly, if for me a Vespa 946 is too expensive, but a Sprint is affordable, then I’m still not a 946 sale lost. I’m a Sprint sale gained. I was never really a 946 customer in the first place.
Most people shop on more than just price and specs
For some people, price is the primary deciding factor when they purchase anything. Yet this isn’t true for everyone. Again, the market is a big place with lots of different types of consumers who have different tastes, different priorities, and different budgets. The word “value” really does mean different things to different people, and while we like to think that we’re all very logical with how we spend our money, the reality is that we’re actually very emotional about it most of the time. We buy this or that because we feel like we’re getting a good deal, or simply because we’re enthusiastic about it and can afford it. We feel like it’s a good value, even if we haven’t necessarily run the spreadsheet on how this thing stacks up against that thing.
From time to time here at ScooterFile, we do hear from one of you spreadsheet folks. Let me just say that you’re not doing it wrong, but you are doing it very differently from the average buyer of, well, anything. For you folks, you’re asking the question this way:
How do I get the most for my money?
Maybe “most” means power, or storage, or warranty or style, or all of the above. Yet for a lot of buyers, the calculus is different. It’s a simpler equation:
Do I like this thing enough to pay what they’re asking?
That’s it. Do I like it enough? Do I really care about ABS or traction control? Maybe, but maybe it’s not the deciding factor on dropping $10k. For your typical Vespa 946 buyer, I’d say they’re asking the second question a lot more than they’re asking the first. For them, yeah, they like the 946 enough to pay nearly $10,000 for it. Some of that is going to be the beauty of the object. Some of it may be that it’s a low-volume, hand-assembled vehicle. Yet for many, they just want the thing and that’s enough. Desire is a powerful thing and it’s rarely rational.
$9,946 isn’t actually that much money, plus Vespa is offering incentives
Step into any Vespa dealership right now and comment on the price of a 946, and I guarantee you the sales person will say some version of the following:
“You know, it’s a lot more affordable than it sounds. Vespa is currently offering zero down and 0% APR on the 946.”
While that certainly won’t be enough to make the value equation add up for most people, that’s a financial reality of less than $200/month. For most folks considering a $10,000 scooter in the first place, $200/month isn’t a heavy burden. In fact, that’s what your average daily Starbucks drinker is spending on coffee in a month. I don’t say that as some sort of sales pitch for the 946, but simply to point out that especially spread out over 60 months, $10,000 isn’t exactly a fantastic sum of money.
The 946 is also in the same price range as other scooters, such as the Suzuki Burgman 650 or a BMW C600 Sport. It’s much less expensive than a lot of other motorcycles out there. I can think of a handful of $30,000 motorcycles from Ducati, BMW and Honda off the top of my head. To think about the 946 as just “125cc for $10,000″ is to miss the point of the bike entirely, in my opinion. It goes back to what I said earlier. If I’m thinking about the 946 in those terms, then this simply isn’t the bike for me. Big market, remember?
The 946 is still very unique
While it looks like there will be a fresh crop of 946s each model year, production numbers are still projected to be much lower than what we’ll expect for the regular models such as the Sprint and the Primavera. Seeing a 946 in the wild will likely be pretty rare. One or two might turn up to a rally. There might be that one person in your local scooter club who has one. Meanwhile the Primavera and the Sprint will likely be as commonplace as the LX and S are today in a few years. For the buyer who wants something unique, the 946 is still able to offer that. Especially if they’re coming to their local Vespa dealer for the first time with no knowledge of what this model was originally thought to be.
Beyond just the numbers, the 946 remains a distinctly separate model from the Sprint and the Primavera. Yes, both bikes take design cues from the 946, but neither features the cantilevered seat, or any of the aluminum components that you’ll find on the 946. Neither have the 946’s exact lines either. While in some people’s view, a Primavera may indeed be a “poor man’s 946″, I’d say that for people who think about it that way, they fall into the category described earlier: people who were never interested in actually buying a 946 in the first place.
There is strong precedent in other industries
As our sources have described it, the future of the 946 is as a pioneer within the Vespa lineup. It’s where Vespa will debut its latest and greatest tech and design each year. Yet the whole point of that seems like it would be for those features to eventually trickle down into the rest of the lineup. We’ve seen this in cars for generations. Years ago, features like ABS or cruise control used to only be available on the most expensive cars. Now they’re standard on most of the cheapest cars you can buy. So just because a version of the Sprint will be available with ABS and traction control, that doesn’t make the 946 any less special for having pioneered it. I think we’ll soon see ABS available across the whole lineup, including the next generation of the GTS. Eventually, it’ll be standard. So the threat to the 946 is not in having its innovations trickle down to less expensive Vespa scooter models. The threat would come from Vespa failing to continue on that innovation track in the future. The 946 will only become less special if Vespa fails to make it special year after year. As we understand it, next year’s 946 will only feature a couple of new colors in terms of “innovation.” Not a great start, but we’ll have to wait and see if they have something else up their sleeves in 2016.
Not everyone is a hard core scooter nerd
One sentiment I’ve been hearing from some scooter fans, even just about the 946 in general, is one of contempt. They feel like this is a decadent, overwrought model that’s indicative of a company out of touch with its proletariat roots. However, I don’t think this is a sentiment shared by the majority of scooter fans, Vespa fans, or especially people out shopping for modern scooters today (i/e, people who don’t currently own vintage Vespas). Truth is, while some of us know the history — the early promises of just one year of 946 production, for example — the vast majority of people who would actually go shop for the Vespa 946 will have no idea about all that. They’re not going to bring any baggage to it. They’re just going to see a gorgeous machine that’s priced itself into a certain degree of exclusivity.
For some people that’s going to be appealing. For others, it’s repugnant. That’s pretty much par for the course in the entire luxury goods market. Some people buy $1,500 hand bags. Most don’t, but that doesn’t seem to hurt the sales of $1,500 hand bags. The question at this point is, which group will actually impact Vespa’s success? The jaded, the indifferent, or the enthusiastic? In that vein, perhaps the basic question of this essay should be re-asked. Does the Vespa 946 jeopardize the success of other Vespa models?
I think the answer is of course not. I think in the end the 946 will (and has) accomplish exactly what it was intended to accomplish. The 946 has brought a new level of focused attention to Vespa. It’s injected fresh design thinking, new technology and for many, an aching desire to own a scooter (any scooter) with that iconic name. Even if those buyers can’t afford a 946, having just enough 946 in the new Sprint might be what pushes a prospective buyer over the brink and into Vespa ownership. That’s Vespa’s plan. Now to see if it works.