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Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Test Ride

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S

Since its release last year, Ducati has made many claims about the new Multistrada 1200, calling it four bikes in one: A tourer, a commuter street bike, an enduro, and, not least, a sport bike.  That’s a pretty tall order, even for a pretty tall bike like the Multistrada.  Does it live up to the Ducati hype? Or to the hype from Cycle World, which named it the Best Open Streetbike of 2010? To answer that question, I showed up at Moto Forza in Escondido, to try one out.

The Multistrada comes in three basic configurations, but I got to take out the top of the line S model with Öhlins suspension, Ducati Traction Control (DTC), and the on-the-fly riding mode/ suspension setup.

Visually, the Multistrada looks like a big bike–and a tall one, too, with a long-travel suspension to support its enduro pretensions.  Despite looking like a large, unwieldy bike, the specs tell a slightly different story, as the Multistrada weighs only 423 lbs dry, and 478 lbs fully fueled and ready to ride. That weight puts it in sport bike territory, and despite its size it’s surprisingly light once you’re sitting on it.

The center of gravity is very low.  The Multistrada uses the same engine as the 1198 sport bike; the L-Twin cylinder, 4 valve per cylinder, Desmodromic, liquid cooled power plant that puts Ducati racers on the podium. The engine has a power output of 150HP at 9250RPM and 87.5 fl-lbs of torque at 7500 RPM. In the Multistrada’s case, the engine is placed with one cylinder parallel to the ground, so the weight of the both the crankcase and cylinder are placed as low as possible.  This makes the Multistrada very well balanced, and easy to hold up–even on tiptoes.

As you’d expect, the 1198 engine has been slightly neutered from its superbike version, which has a peak output of 170HP and 97ft-lbs of torque.  The compression ratio has been similarly reduced from 12.7:1 to 11.5:1. Still, the Multistrada’s peak output far outshines its GS-style competition–and most street bikes.  By way of comparison, the FJR1300 outputs 145HP…and weighs 200 pounds more.

The ergos are extremely comfortable, from the well-cushioned stock seat, to the easy reach to the wide handlebars.  The ground was a bit of a reach for my 5’10″ frame and 32″ inseam. I couldn’t quite flat-foot the bike, so, shorter riders will certainly want to opt for the optional low seat which is 1″ shorter, but, sadly, not as well padded.  The passenger seat also serves as a short backrest/support for the rider, and is something you’ll be happy to have when you open the throttle. The position of the mid-mounted foot controls is very natural and comfortable, and the upright seating position is perfect for long-distance riding. Practically everything, from the brake and clutch levers, to the foot shifter are exactly where you’d want them to be, with everything in almost ridiculously easy reach.  It’s hard to see how Ducati could have done a better job creating a bike that caters to your creature comforts.

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Instrument Panel

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Instrument Panel

The instrumentation on the Multistrada is well thought out, too. It’s all electronic, with an LCD readout that’s easy to read even in bright sunlight. The image to the left is a good representation of what you see as a rider in bright daylight.  As you can see, the entire panel is quite legible, with a large speedometer readout on top, and the tachometer readout stretching all the way across the bottom.

You’ll also notice the round “Set Up” readout on the right, showing that the engine output is set to “Urban”, with the suspension set to one rider with luggage.  This “Set Up” system is central to the Multistrada riding experience, as it controls the engine’s output, the DTC setting, and the suspension preload and rebound.

The riding mode has four settings. The Enduro setting limits engine output to 60% of maximum, or 100HP, while setting the DTC at a relatively loose setting to allow for some power sliding (on well-maintained unpaved or gravel roads, anyway). The Urban setting also limits the output to 60%, while tightening up the DTC to provide more intervention when traction is lost. Both the Enduro and Urban settings provide very linear, controllable throttle response from the Mutistrada’s fly-by-wire throttle system.  The Touring setting opens up the full 150HP available from the L-Twin power plant, while providing the same linear, controllable throttle response of the previous two modes.  Finally, there is sport mode, which unleashes the full power of the engine, full DTC, and an extremely responsive–but not frighteningly so–throttle. In short, the mode control offers noticeably different ride characteristics. It’s definitely not a fancy switch that costs lots of money and does nothing.

Similarly, the suspension control automatically adjusts the preload and rebound of the Öhlins suspension to handle a single rider, rider with luggage, two riders, or two riders with luggage.

In addition to the preset factory settings, you can also set the DTC, engine mode and suspension setup independently, and you can store those personalized settings in order to call them up at need.  this allows you to tailor the engine modes, DTC, and suspension settings to your personal preferences for various types of riding.

Starting the bike is done via a keyless ignition system that depends on the close proximity of an electronic key fob. If you lose the fob, however, all is not lost, as an alternate method is available that allows you to start the bike by entering a 4-digit PIN.  Also, if you’re on the road, and you drop the fob out of a pocket or something, the electronic display immediately flashes a message telling you that the fob is lost, which substantially narrows down your search area.

There is, by the way, a price to be paid for all this electronic goodness, which is that there is a constant drain on battery power at all times.  Leave the Multistrada sitting in the garage over the weekend, and you’ll be OK.  Leave it there for a week, and you’ll need to hook it up to a battery tender.

Once the engine is running, the Multistrada produces a throaty growl that hints at the vast reserves of power on tap. Clutch pull is fairly easy, allowing for one-finger operation.  The friction point is also set very close to full out, so that the clutch engages with very little pull. Give it a little throttle, ease the clutch out, and the Multistrada pulls right away from a stop, without requiring excessive revving.

Starting out in downtown Escondido, I set the engine setup to “Urban” and I was off.  The Multistrada is very maneuverable in town, although, if you plan on splitting traffic at stoplights, you need to be aware of the extra-wide handlebars. The Urban setting provides very controllable power in traffic, and you can flick the bike from lane to lane with ease.  There’s more than enough power to pull away from traffic or for passing, but the 60% power limit ensures that it’s never anywhere near the limits of the rider’s control.

Two minor shortcomings are apparent in city driving. First, the engine hates anything under 3,000 RPM.  It shudders, rumbles and coughs. It’s nowhere near as revvy as a sport bike, but it clearly doesn’t want to stay in the low RPMs. Above that, however, the throaty L-Twin smooths out, with surprisingly little vibration. Second, the transmission really wants to make neutral easy to find when downshifting from 2nd gear.  Kicking the shifter, releasing the clutch, and being rewarded with a screaming rev and no power is…embarrassing.  You need a firm foot to get it back down to first.  It’s easy to learn, and it only happened to me once, but it was a bit of a surprise.

Prior to getting onto the I-15, to head towards my favorite canyon road near Bonsall, I changed to Touring mode.  Throttle response was still very smooth, but you could certainly feel the increase in torque, as the acceleration pushes your butt back against the front of the passenger seat. I told you you’d be happy to have that passenger seat back there, because, even in touring mode, the Multistrada has a ton of acceleration.  First gear on the 6-speed gearbox is fairly short, but in second, the 10,500 redline allows you to hit speeds in excess of 90MPH almost instantly. But be careful: when you hit the redline, the rev limiter kicks in and it is not unobtrusive.  On the freeway, 5,000RPM translates to 90MPH indicated in 6th gear. At highway speeds, 6th gear is relatively gutless, requiring a downshift to pass briskly. The rear-view mirrors, while having a noticeable amount of vibration, are still usable at highway speeds.

Ducati Multistrada 1200 Cockpit

Ducati Multistrada 1200 Cockpit

Also, at highway speeds, you notice that the relatively small, manually adjustable windscreen comes up a bit short in the wind protection department.  There’s a lot of airflow over the shoulders and arms, and noticeable buffeting on the helmet.  There’s an optional, larger windscreen, but it’s only about 1/2″ wider and 1″ taller, so I’m not sure how much of an improvement that would provide.  As such, long-range touring, while technically possible with the 5.3 gallon tank, would get a little tiring over the course of the day. Happily, California Scientific already has an aftermarket windshield to help solve that problem. What can’t be helped is the Multistrada’s high profile, which does make it susceptible to freeway crosswinds, so it does do a little bit of a dance in those situations.

Other than that, however, this is a very comfortable highway bike.  The ergos are so natural and the seat is so comfortable that solving the air management problem would make the Multistrada a truly all-day steed. What would make it even more of one, would be to have cruise control, and maybe self-canceling turn signals, neither of which seems like an unrealistic expectation in a motorcycle with a $19,995 MSRP.

Getting off the highway to attack the curvy canyon road of Camino Del Rey, going into Bonsall, I set the Multistrada up for Sport mode, and tightened the suspension to the firmest setting. At the lower settings, the long-travel suspension seems a bit too cushy for serious sport riding, being comfortable but lacking that firm, sporty feel.  Once tightened sufficiently, however, it transmits the feel of the road right to your seat and hands, and it turns the Multistrada into a surprisingly–and highly–capable sport bike.

Strafing the canyons on the Multistrada is a real pleasure.  Its height makes it easy to lean, and gives you tons of ground clearance. Both 2nd and 3rd gears are fairly wide, so you can pick a gear appropriate for the desired audacity of your attack.  If you choose 2nd gear, the Multistrada accelerates aggressively, and once the L-Twin power plant hits 5,000RPM the Multistrada is a rocket. It can power through curves at a speed substantially north of twice the suggested speed, taking curves with a suggested speed of 30MPH in excess of 80MPH. The throttle, while noticeably more responsive than in Touring mode, is aggressive without being snatchy. Even in full-on Sport mode, the Multistrada is a confidence-inspiring bike, and allows attacks on the curves to be far more aggressive than I can manage on my FJR1300.

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Front View

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Front View

Turn-in requires a bit more input than you’d expect, thanks to the Multistrada’s conventional, even conservative, geometry. It’s not telepathic like an R1 or a Gixxer. So, initiating a turn requires some input on the bars or in body English. It’s not a lot of effort, but the Multistrada needs a little more rider guidance than a full-on sport bike. The upside to this is that the Multistrada will pull an enormous amount of lean while remaining rock-steady through the turn. It is in no way as jittery as a CBR, with its more aggressive geometry, and doesn’t require constant inputs through the turn to hold a line. Instead, it holds a line like no one’s business. Or like it’s on rails. Take your pick of metaphors. When you hit the apex of the curve and roll on the throttle it rockets out of the turn, once again scrunching your butt into the front of the passenger seat. You’d think a more low-slung sport bike would work the turns better. You’d be wrong. The Multistrada eats curves for lunch, and miles of tarmac for dinner.

It also transitions from side to side very well, remaining composed and stable. Again, flicking from side-to-side takes a bit more effort than a dedicated sport bike, but it’s extremely compliant, following the rider’s inputs to the letter. In short, the guys on ZX-10s will not be leaving you behind when the going gets twisty. If you know what you’re doing, quite the reverse may be true. And you’ll be far more comfortable throughout the day, with no sport bike kinks to work out of your back when you’re done. Did I mention the Multistrada was comfortable? It’s quite nice to get sport bike performance without suffering through the tortuous sport bike ergonomics.

The canyons also show off the power and reliability of the Brembo brakes.  The brakes simply have loads of feel, and the response is progressive and powerful.  They can get you out of trouble about as fast as you can get yourself into it. The key word, there, being “about”.

The ABS isn’t intrusive, nor is the DTC when you get into serious sport mode.

Heading back to Escondido, on the long sweepers of Old Highway 3, I switched back into touring mode, and set the suspension to the cushiest, single-passenger setting.  The suspension smoothed out the rather poorly maintained tarmac, while the user-friendly throttle response smoothed out the bike’s acceleration, while not taking much of anything away from its exhilaration.

There was one final problem I noticed with the Multistrada, which is the annoying tendency of the speedometer to display triple-digit speeds, when your seat of the pants speedometer is telling you that you are traveling substantially slower. When it’s in Sport, or even  Touring, mode this bike is, as our friends in Boston would say, wicked fast.  You expect something more like the BMW R1200GS in performance when you look at the Multistrada. But when you ride it, you notice that you’ve hit 90MPH…and haven’t shifted to 3rd gear yet.  50MPH on the Multistrada seems…painfully slow.

I didn’t take the bike onto a dirt road or fire road, so I can’t speak about its Enduro performance. I suspect the 17″ front wheel would limit its Enduro ability, compared to the BMW GS, with it’s 21″ front wheel.  But I can say that for city streets or canyon-carving, Ducati has created a truly enjoyable, versatile motorcycle in the Multistrada. I would be perfectly happy to have this as a replacement for the FJR. This is about the best all-rounder I’ve ever ridden.

So, it seems like Ducati’s claims for the Multistrada’s versatility are not so much hype as…the truth.

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