MILAN – With commercial-vehicle markets down worldwide, it hardly seems the right moment to launch a new light-commercial range in Europe, but that’s the game plan Italy’s Piaggio SpA put in motion last week with the rollout of its new Porter model.

Best known for its deep lineup of motorbikes, including the Vespa scooter, Piaggio is less recognized as a maker of CVs, but that side of the business has grown steadily over the past few years.

In 2008, the CV operations, which encompass the Porter and Quargo models, plus the 3-wheeled Ape popular in India, took in E390 million ($517 million), up 28% from 2005 levels.

Piaggio produced more than 180,000 CVs last year at its plants in Pontedera, Italy, and Baramati, India, where it also has a joint venture with farm and construction machinery specialist Greaves Cotton to set up an engine plant to build a new line of diesels.

The Porter was launched in 1992, but with the exception of sales in Italy, it primarily has been directed at emerging markets, such as India, China and Vietnam.

Even in Spain, a market similar to Italy, the Porter has failed to achieve much volume. Only 14 units were registered in March and 82 in the entire first quarter, just two more than in like-2008.

But, Franco Fenoglio, head of Piaggio Commercial Vehicles, is looking to change that as he gets ready to launch a marketing offensive throughout Europe for the new model.

To accomplish his goals, Fenoglio knows he needs a pan-European dealer network, and he is looking to take advantage of the current low demand in the heavy-duty truck sector to lure some of the best dealers into carrying the Porter.

“I know that not all the heavy-duty truck dealers will be valid for selling our small vehicle, but some of them will do,” says Fenoglio, who once headed up sales and marketing for Fiat SpA’s Iveco SpA CV arm and is expected to focus his recruitment efforts on Iveco retailers.

The new Porter is powered by either a Daihatsu Motor Co. Ltd. 16-valve, 56-hp, 1.3L gasoline 4-cyl. or one of two diesels supplied by Italy’s Lombardini Motori S.R.L.

The diesels will be replaced in the lineup within the next few months by the new engines Piaggio will build in India.

A 5-speed manual transmission is the only available gearbox.

Gross vehicle weight ranges 1.5-1.7 tons (1.4-1.5 t), depending on the bodies used by the Porter. Payload is about 1,874 lbs. (850 kg), and the Porter offers up to 106 cu.-ft. (3 cu.-m) in volume.

Two equipment levels are available: normal and extra.

Normal includes a dashboard prepared for a car radio with MP3 and GPS navigation devices. The Extra line includes power windows, fog lights, a parking sensor and an antitheft device with a central locking system.

Electric power steering now is standard and 4-wheel drive is available.

Piaggio also plans to offer an Eco-Power version fueled with liquefied petroleum gas and a Green Power line that can run on methane. An electric powertrain is in the works, as well.

Prices will start at E10,350 ($13,721) in Italy.