Moto Guzzi's California 1400 Custom is a head-turning cruiser. (Piaggio Vespa )
Moto Guzzi is Italy's oldest and most elegant motorcycle marque. In continuous operation at its Mandelo del Lario plant since 1921, and now owned by Aprilia and Vespa parent company Piaggio Group, the brand was invented by three young men who'd met during World War I in an Italian flying squadron -- hence the wings on the company's logo -- and went on to dominate the Italian motorcycle scene for decades to come.
The Guzzi's signature V-twin, shaft-driven engine was the power plant that drove dozens of Isle of Man TT and MotoGP winners, as well as the Los Angeles Police Department, after Guzzi became the first foreign motorcycle company selected for an American police motorcycle unit.
Photo gallery: Ten most expensive motorcycles
The California 1400 is the latest iteration of that noble V-twin line, and is said to be the largest-capacity V-twin ever manufactured in Europe. A Cadillac of motorcycle cruisers, it is a wonder of elegant design and engineering.
It's a land yacht. Riding it is a little like riding a grand piano -- a Steinway, for sure, but a grand piano just the same. Standing still, or maneuvering into a parking place, it's as sturdy and stable as a bank vault -- and, at 701 pounds, about as agile. At 96 inches in length, it's a little shorter than a Gulfstream G650.
But it's just as sleek. Once underway, this beautifully appointed Titanic begins to change character. The gentle rock of the crankshaft -- friendly and familiar to anyone who's ever ridden a Guzzi -- gives way to gutsy, torquey pull. Even in Turismo mode -- a much calmer mode than the most exciting Sport mode -- the quiet power of the engine is evident.
Photo gallery: Ten very fuel efficient motorcycles
At speed, the real joy of the machine beings to express itself. The California stops feeling like Battleship Potemkin and starts feeling like Starship Enterprise. The acceleration is impressive up to and well past 60 mph, with an effortless pull from 60-90 mph and beyond. You can push this bike very hard and not get to the bottom of the power band.
Like the Ducati Daivel line, this machine is meant to appeal to a rider who wants a stylish cruiser, and is willing to pay a premium for Italian styling, but is too hip for a Harley.
That customer gets a lot for the $14,900 MSRP. Standard features on the hand-built California include ride-by-wire throttle, traction control and ABS, cruise control, tooled leather seat and chrome parts that look like they were hand-carved from blocks of pure Italian silver.
Motorcycle-savvy friends of mine were interested in the California's horsepower and torque. Non-motorcycle friends were much more impressed with the styling -- caught by the winning combination of heavy metal, black leather and chrome.
Indeed, the California has so many functions and options you almost expected it to be able to make its own espresso, or at least offer roadside barista service. It's that cushy.
The "Touring" model of the same Guzzi comes standard with windscreen, panniers and other long-distance features -- including a sticker price of $17,900.