scooterlife - photog's blog

Motorcycles. Scooters. Wheelchairs. Tape. Whatever rolls.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Stella test ride

The great Stella test ride was one of the scheduled festivites for our weekend in Hot Springs--also known as the 2005 Eastern ADVrider Annual Rendezvous. About 75-100 or so adventure riders descended on the sleepy little burg of Hot Springs to get together and ride motorcycles, camp, eat BBQ, and tell stories.

Since for us this weekend was more about being pampered and not about the GS, we stayed in a cabin and relaxed. After arriving Friday evening and enjoying the cookout, we got some shuteye in preparation for a glorious day of visiting a nearby scooter shop in Asheville, then being pampered at the local spa. Sound expensive? It really wasn't. Besides, this was our first full weekend off in nearly a year. Most folks get a one-week vacation...we were thankful for two consecutive days off.

On Saturday we got up at a leisurly pace, rode Highway 209, and arrived in Asheville around lunchtime. The shop we visited was a Stella dealership as well as a rental shop.

If you don't know what a Stella looks like, think PX-series Vespa. The Stellas are in fact license-built vehicles from the LML factory. Here's a shot from the Genuine Scooter site:

We picked out a light green Stella to try, and both of us gave it a run around the hilly terrain of downtown Asheville. The engine fired right up and after a moment on the choke settled into its signature popcorn-popper idle. A quick check of where the turn signals resided, and I was off.

At no point did the little scooter seem challenged by the hills; it was as peppy at downtown speeds as anyone would want or need, whether cautious beginner or experienced hooligan. Steering was quick yet the little beast felt solid, never overly twitchy, even when I hit a few largish potholes. The bike was still in its break-in period; this showed in a bit of snitty behavior from the clutch, which grabbed a bit on uphills and gave me a rough launch occasionally. I'm sure that with some adjustment after the typical cable stretching, it would ease itself in after a few hundred miles. The transmission itself was positive and easy-shifting, with a solid thunk letting you know you had passed neutral on the handgrip and had found second. Third and fourth gears settled in nicely. Downshifting was equally easy.

It seemed to be happy whether it was being short-shifted or wound up a bit. I didn't find the 2-stroke peakiness I expected, but then, I didn't have much distance to really wind it up to feel it get on the pipe. Perhaps an aftermarket kit would give it that familiar 2-stroke slingshot feel, maybe the catalytic converter--a nice touch for environmental friendliness--had intruded a bit, or perhaps it just needed more break-in time. However, that didn't detract one bit from its jalepeno-flavored performance. This is a motorcycle that will welcome a new rider with its predictability, yet charm an experienced rider with its competency and willingness to be flung into corners.

The bike sits tall; my 30" insteam was challenged by the seat height and at a stop I was on tip-toes. No problem, though; the scooter is light and easily manageable. Steering is light but positive and there's plenty of room on the seat and good legroom fore and aft, though slightly less aft room than some scooters. If you are tall, you won't be cramped at all; I found myself a bit more forward, like a sportbike rider's crouch, and if I was taller I'd be more upright. Again, no problem--the bike is friendly enought with its light weight to welcome an inexperienced short rider while giving a taller rider, inexperienced or otherwise, a nice roomy cockpit.

It shows itself as a serious transportation device, solidly-built for decades of service on rough roads--true to its Italian heritage of conquering Europe 2-up and daily use on rough unpaved roads in India. I crawled beneath it to see if there were any flaws hidden beneath the cowls and peeking underneath it found only nice welds and solid machinery; the underside was as attractive as the rest of the bike, another indication of the durability this bike is intended to have through attention to detail. The disc brake up front is light and predictable and in concert with the Bitubo front shock, brings the bike to a halt quickly even over rough surfaces; the rear brake is quite effective though it takes a bit of adjustment getting used to moving one's right foot to the pedal, though it's roughly where a motorcyclist would expect it to be.

Getting used to the twist-grip shifting took only a moment and then became effortless. After a minute I was shifting like I had owned one for years. The throttle feels precise, and the engine responds with a nice linear answer to throttle input--more so than I expected from a two-stroke. It had enough pull down low that idling along in slow stop-and-go traffic was as easy as any 4-stroke.

What stuck with me the most was that the Stella is true to its rugged, practical, and sexy roots with a bit of upgraded parts savvy thrown in. Side by side with other Vespas in the shop, it held the same appeal: curves abound, with painted steel and aluminum everywhere--no plastic for the Stella. The chrome "Stella" badges are heavy and shiny; the paint is thick and evenly applied with no waves or orangepeeling. On the road, the Stella feels light, but never cheap or flimsy, with no rattles or chassis oscillations on rough roads, though the firm suspension felt harsh at times--again, some break-in as well as attention to the adjustable shock's settings may help there. Although I didn't have a chance to take it up to its top speed for an extended period, there's no doubt in my mind that it would be up for it, even with its smallish 10" wheels. I didn't look much at the speedometer while dodging urban traffic, so I can't say what speed felt like what, but that's the nature of that scoot, anyway: it's a bike that lets you focus on the ride with the mechanical methods of conveyance fading into the background. It simply goes, and goes well.

One of the salespeople confessed that it was tough to sell the Stella--the younger folks tend to lean towards the plastic automatic scooters, he said, while the Stella is a 30-and-up age bracket. Although he seems right, I still pondered that statement for hours afterwards. At $2900 it's not cheap, nor does it give you the freeway capabilty of a used motorcycle in that price range. What it does give you is absolute competence as an urban commuter along with gobs of style, plus the endless amounts of Vespa customization goodies, and membership in any of the scooter clubs worldwide that admire and ride these scooters with all the gusto intended by their designer.

I spent the five hour ride home figuring out what to sell in order to buy one.

If there is anyone who has longed for less motorcycle, but the same durability, with more classic appeal, this is the route to take. It is not a lesser being; it's not a compromise. It's a design that'll take years of commuting and weekend trips in stride. If someone is looking for a functional urban vehicle without the weight and wheelbase of a larger motorcycle, this is it.

If you're looking for a smallish bike to take to the end of the street and back every other weekend, I don't think this is the bike to have. It isn't a bigger version of a Honda Spree. It's a design that is the 2-wheeled Volkswagen for several generations, serious transportation with a bit of fun thrown in. The engine is clearly designed to be run daily; the bodywork is stout and easily replaced, and chrome fender guards complete the urban assault protection.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Stella could easily replace a car for all urban trips, lend itself to light touring duty on back roads, and welcome short jaunts on the freeway.

Since I have a bit of adventure touring background--I pack light and delight in detours--I'd have no qualms going from North Carolina to Alaska on one.