First Ride: Vespa 946

Vespa’s flagship scooter, the 946, is arguably the biggest thing to hit the scooter world in recent memory. Essentially a concept vehicle put into production, the 946 is remarkable precisely because it’s so un-compromised from its original design. It hasn’t been reconfigured to account for under-seat storage. It hasn’t been made out of less expensive materials or mass-produced to drive down the price point. Vespa is wholly unapologetic about what the 946 is and what it isn’t. More than a vehicle, the 946 is a statement about what Vespa thinks the future of scooters ought to look like. As such, the 946’s design elements and drive train have trickled down into conventional production scooters such as the Primavera and the Sprint. Yet for all its positioning and hallowed place as the brand’s ambassador model, is the 946 any good to ride? That’s what I wanted to find out as I climbed aboard the 946 for the first time.

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In terms of its form factor, the 946 is what I’d still consider a small-frame Vespa by modern standards. It’s lower and smaller overall than the GTS-series Vespas. It also shares its engine and suspension components with the Primavera and Sprint, which are squarely in that small-frame Vespa range. The key difference in the 946 chassis is actually overall length. It’s the first thing I noticed about the scooter when I first laid eyes on one in the metal. The wheelbase of the 946 is stretched nearly three inches over the Primavera, which gives it nearly six more inches between the wheels than the outgoing Vespa LX-150. The result is a scooter that looks long and low — a definite aesthetic distinction for Vespa’s flagship bike. However, this extra wheelbase doesn’t just help define the 946’s overall looks, it dominates how it rides as well. More on that in a moment.

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As stated previously, the USA-spec 946 uses the same 3-Valve, 155cc single-cylinder engine as the Sprint, Primavera and Piaggio Fly 150. It also features ABS and traction control systems, which at the time it debuted, were the first ever offered on a production scooter. Vespa has since offered ABS (but not traction control) to the Sprint, and it wouldn’t surprise us if this technology made its way into the upcoming refresh of the GTS-series scooters as well. I mention the engine again because it relates to that longer wheelbase in one key aspect: weight.

The Vespa 946 weighs in 322 lbs dry, which puts it in the same ballpark as my old Vespa GT200L — a large-frame Vespa. Compared to the 258 lbs of a dry Primavera, that the two scooters share the same engine becomes all the more relevant. At just 12.7 hp, a 25% increase in vehicle weight over the Primavera was the first thing I felt when I set off on the 946. From a stop, this scooter is, shall we say, deliberate in its acceleration. I wouldn’t call it slow, but I wouldn’t call it quick either.

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Where’s that extra weight coming from? Well, it’s mostly that extra 6″ of overall wheelbase and all the steel monocoque it takes to bridge that extra gap. The cast aluminum pieces such as the front fender and headset are also more substantial than their plastic counterparts on other modern Vespas. Granted, that substance is part of their appeal, but it’s ironic that while aluminum is generally known for its lightweight properties, in this case it’s actually adding weight to the 946.

All that said, the weight penalty in that longer wheelbase is more than offset in how the 946 actually handles. Between its steering geometry and overall longer wheelbase, the 946 is a pleasure to ride once it’s in motion. It soaks up road bumps and uneven pavement with ease. It turns in smoothly and holds its corner lines very predictably. It’s as much a magic carpet experience as one can really have on a scooter. In that luxury mindset, the 946 is definitely more Rolls Royce than it is Lamborghini. It’s a cruiser. It doesn’t ride so much as it strolls, and the result, I must admit, is pretty charming.

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Riding the 946, it really seems best suited for more relaxed cruises from point to point, or perhaps to nowhere in particular. If you’re in a hurry, this is the wrong scooter. Not because it’s slow (it isn’t) but because it’s just not a hurried chassis. In that respect, the way the 946 encourages you to relax and take your time is something the two-wheeled world could use a little more of, if you ask me. Horsepower is easy. Refined character is difficult. Sure, like any scooter, the 946 wouldn’t hurt for a variator swap and roller weight adjustment, but I really think that simply isn’t the point of this Vespa.

Roll-on acceleration is decent, albeit not particularly zippy, but what I quickly realized was that the 946 is the way it is very much on purpose. The road manners are 100% intentional. I really don’t think Vespa simply “ended up” with the 946 in terms of how it is to ride. I think they’ve made it comfortable and subdued from the get-go. Where some might find the 946 slow, I think it has to be taken in the context of having never been intended as a sport scooter. It’s intended to be chic. Can you imagine Coco Chanel running after a bus? Of course not. In this regard, I can already feel the ire of more practical-minded scooter fans begin to boil. Is the 946 just a pretentious exercise in excess? Is it simply Vespa’s bloated brand ego manifesting itself in a ridiculous scooter?

No. At least I don’t think so.

Riding the 946, what I came away with was a machine that was simply elegant. The 946 overall is an exercise in refinement, not performance. I think that if you’re trying to justify the 946 on paper in terms of specs, or horsepower-per-dollar, then this simply isn’t the scooter for you, and that’s okay. That very simple market premise — that the 946 doesn’t even pretend to have mass market appeal — is core to the reality of this scooter. Furthermore, if the 946 does turn out to be a long-term success for Vespa, it will be precisely because they’ve given it a narrower appeal. It is not the “most” scooter you can get. It’s not even, from a riding standpoint, the best scooter that Vespa makes. (That honor currently goes to the Sprint, if you ask me.) Instead, the 946 is a package of qualities that are uniquely its own, and you’re either into it or you’re not.

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As I dodged Chicago pot holes and meandered through the late Saturday afternoon traffic, what I found most endearing about the 946 was simply how solid it felt. It’s long, low, comfortable and that iconic steel Vespa monocoque is as stiff as ever. That stiffness lets the suspension do its job, and between that and the bike’s longer wheelbase, the result is as comfortable and well-composed a small scooter as I think it’s possible to create at any price point. It’s very approachable and easy to ride, especially with some of the typical scooter front-end lightness dialed out of it. In that regard its extra weight is actually an advantage.

All in all, the 946 is extremely pleasant and simple to ride. Some, if not most scooter fans, will probably find it a bit stuffy. Most will simply think it’s slow. Yet for those who are drawn to the 946 for its design, its exclusivity, and its iconic place in Vespa’s future history, the way it rides just makes sense. That the 946 is so easy and approachable is completely appropriate given that the majority of its buyers are likely not going to be your typical scooter fans. They’re going to be in it for the stroll and the style. In that regard, the 946 is exactly what it seems like it should be.

Special thanks to Grant at Motoworks Chicago for use of “his” Vespa 946 for evaluation.

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