Ask your older motorcycle-riding friends about the UJM: that’s the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. During the ’70s and ’80s, a slew of big, comfortable motorcycles models paraded out of the Big Four Japanese factories, bikes with big gas tanks, wide, comfortable saddles and tall handlebars. They were useful for about any kind of motorcycle mission, from roadracing to touring to weekday commuting, and they sold by the millions.
Observe: the Universal Italian Scooter. It’s big enough to tour on, is as comfortable as old sweatpants and offers all the style you’d expect from an Italian scooter. But it also gets great gas mileage, has lots of storage room and isn’t so big it’s not agile and easy to pilot.
Meet Piaggio’s BV 350. It’s an all-new model for 2012, with interesting features and design elements. I thought it merited a closer look, and in fact had an opportunity to really test its touring mettle by riding it from the San Francisco Bay Area back to the Piaggio Technical Center in Orange County in the heat of Indian summer.
Before my ride, I boned up on the technical details of the new model – and there are plenty. Piaggio’s design brief was to pack the power of a 400cc scoot into something sized like a 300. The new motor is a fuel-injected, liquid-cooled four-stroke Single with a four-valve cylinder head. It’s oversquare (the bore is wider than the stroke, and a short distance for the piston to travel means a high-revving motor) at 78mm by 69mm, for a displacement of 330cc. Lubrication is by dry-sump, which gives you a more compact design and smaller oil capacity. Claimed power is 33.3 horsepower, which works out to something like 100 hp per liter of displacement, once a benchmark for car racing, no?
But of interest to real scooter nerds is the new wet-clutch transmission. Don’t let the word “clutch” scare you – it’s still a twist-n-go CVT (that means “continuously variable”) transmission, so no need to learn how to work a clutch or gearbox. Gone is the dry centrifugal clutch that’s driven twist-n’-goes since the ’80s, now replaced by the smooth, efficient goodness of oil-bathed plates, which promise greater reliability and longer service life. In fact, all the innovations added together mean oil changes are needed but every 6200 miles, and major services are a globe-trotting 12,400 miles apart. Efficiency is boosted, too: Piaggio claims the BV will return 70 mpg.
The chassis is standard scooter stuff. It uses a tube and sheet-steel frame enclosed with plastic bodywork. Rear suspension is provided by twin shocks, adjustable for preload. In front, there’s a 35mm fork. Braking is handled by single discs fore and aft, but it’s a linked system – squeeze the right lever and two of the front caliper’s three pistons squeeze the 300mm disc; add in some left-lever action and the center front piston works as well as the two pistons in the rear.
Riding the Beverly is a pretty familiar experience for those who know Piaggio products. Starting is quick and easy, with the FI setting the busy little engine into a smooth, quiet idle. Rolling on the throttle produces rapid acceleration, and while the gearing seemed tall for lower speeds, midrange acceleration was impressive. The entire bike has a solid feel that may seem top heavy if you’re coming from another brand. The seat is tall, but the bars are close to the rider. All the controls and switches work fluidly and feel well made.
It’s studded with luxury touches, which you’d expect on a $5499 scooter. Instrumentation is very complete – there’s a fuel as well as a temperature gauge and an info-packed trip computer. There’s also a fold-down man-purse hook, and pushing the ignition lock in opens the big weatherproofed glovebox, which contains a 12-volt outlet, little cubbies for your stuff and a lever to open the lighted underseat trunk. Said trunk is pretty big – there’s enough room for a full-face helmet and a jacket (or two half helmets, but we don’t wear those, do we? We like solid food, don’t we?). A rain cover is cleverly hidden under the seat, along with the fuel filler, battery and tool kit. My BV came fitted with the optional trunk, color-matched and backrest equipped. That’s a lot of storage capacity, and the trunk comes off with a press of a button if you don’t want it, leaving a big, square mounting pad behind.
Take it to a twisting two-lane country road and you’ll have some fun. The long wheelbase means stability, but the small wheel sizes – 16 inches in front and 14 behind – mean responsive and smooth steering. The motor is responsive, too, with the new CVT keeping the Single in the powerband for aggressive corner exits. Like many modern scooters, you’d be amazed how fast you can go on the BV, but it’s still a scooter, and my confidence was limited by the rearward weight distribution of the drive unit bolted to the back wheel. Still, I found the twin shocks offered good spring rates and adequate damping. The Michelin City Grip tires provide all the stickiness I could handle (and promise good wet-weather performance), but ultimately, fun is limited by the centerstand, which can make sparks in left-hand turns. And at that point, you’re leaned over pretty far.
The long wheelbase of the BV 350 provides stability while the small wheel sizes offer responsive, smooth steering.
The braking is good, although it takes some new habit-forming. If you’re used to motorcycles, you may choose to not use the rear brakes in corners as your toes are up on the footpeg for aggressive cornering. If you do that, you’ll find adequate slowing power from those two front pistons. Get into the habit of using your left brake and you’ll be rewarded with pronounced feel and power from getting the extra three pistons (the left lever operates two rear, one front—remember?) into the mix. In straight-line stops, the BV350 just hunkers down and halts with little drama, thanks to a proportioning valve that keeps the scooter level under hard braking.
Around town, the BV350 works very well as a scooter, although I think it’s too big and heavy to offer the hooligan functionality I like. Still, ridden by a sane, law-abiding person, you could do a lot worse – it’s quick off the line, maneuvers easily and the linked brakes offer plenty of confidence with their easy-to-access stopping power. It’s also great with a passenger, with the big, stepped saddle, integrated grab handles and slick fold-out passenger footpegs. But 5-foot-seven-inch me felt like the 390-pound machine with its 61-inch wheelbase was kind of a handful in tight situations compared to a 50cc or even 200cc-class scooter. Most BV riders seem to use this scooter for intercity commuting rather than tooling around town, according to Fuelly.com.
Red-upholstered seat is as comfortable as it is good looking. Author removed the small back support from the seat to give himself more room.
Where the BV350 is remarkable is long-distance comfort. After riding it for a while one day, I began to feel a little sore, a little cramped, a little windblown. And then I realized I was cruising at 70 mph (it will hit 90-plus indicated on flat ground) down a bumpy two-lane road half-way between San Francisco and L.A. On a 330cc scooter. I had put well over 200 miles on the thing that day, and it was still 2 p.m. Did I mention I took the accessory windscreen off because I didn’t like the buffeting? There are plenty of naked motorcycles of much larger displacement, costing two or three times as much, that I would balk at taking on that trip. The BV did it without a single stutter, hiccup or problem of any kind, and after 430 miles in seven hours I still felt good enough to go out to dinner.
Even though it’s good on twisties and a half-decent tourer, the BV350 really shines as a maxi-scooter, commuting for distances over 15 miles each way on big, limited-access highways. Cruising at 70 mph, you’ll see fuel economy in the 60s, and with a 3.4-gallon tank that means a lot of riding between fill-ups. The reduced service costs should contribute to your bottom line as well. Wind protection is ample at freeway speeds and there’s good storage. The brakes are also very good for commute use, but to make it better, it should have anti-lock brakes and maybe stability control – I’d expect those to be offered (or more likely, added) in the coming model years.
I’m yet again impressed with a Piaggio product. The BV is smooth, stylish, fun, refined, well-engineered, reliable and a solid value, what everybody hopes they will get from an Italian factory and rarely does. Let’s hope the UIS is a lasting trend.