In case you weren’t aware, this right now is a great time to be alive. Not only is there jet travel, mechanized farming and a vaccine for smallpox, there's also a wide variety of fully competent adventure bikes on the market that anyone can buy.
We know -- we just rode what many consider the best of the bunch, the Ducati Multistrada 1200 S. Granted, there are those who swear by the granddaddy of all adventure bikes, the mighty and popular BMW R 1200 GS. Those guys have a point; the BMW is a great bike. Maybe we’ll ride that next. And there are supporters of other adventure bikes like the KTM Adventure R, Triumph Tiger Explorer and Yamaha Super Tenere, to name just three more. But this isn’t one of those comparo tests from “Cycle Schnauzer” where everybody on staff decamps to a remote and trackless wilderness to compare seat cushion density and throttle linearity. It’s just me, and as cool as I am, I can still only ride one bike at a time. This time, it was the Duck.
Ducati introduced the first Multistrada in 2003 and the first Multistrada 1200 in 2010. In the last 14 years, the Bologna, Italy-based moto-maker has been improving the breed with every model year. The 2017 model has better midrange torque, for instance.
The 1200 S’ 1198.4-cc V twin engine sits longitudinally in a trellis frame and makes 160 hp at 9,500 rpm and 100.3 lb-ft of torque at 7,500. Considering that the bike weighs just 518 pounds wet, that’s a heck of a power-to-weight ratio. Each of those 160 horses has just over 3 pounds of Duc to push around.
Ducati manages all that power through the miracle of electronics. A Bosch Inertial Measuring Unit is the middle ear of the motorcycle, constantly determining whether you’re about to slide out, pop a wheelie or do a crowd-pleasing stoppie. The IMU is the centerpiece of a phalanx of electronic controls: everything from wheelie control, traction control and both ABS and cornering ABS to four separate riding modes. IMUs came on the market only fairly recently on hyperbikes and are slowly making their way down to the rest of the lineup, just as airbags and ABS started on luxury cars and are now on everything.
The biggest draw of the Multistrada is its versatility. Ducati says it’s four bikes in one: sport bike, tourer, daily rider and enduro. The way it manages that is at least partly through those four ride modes: Sport, Touring, Urban and Enduro. Each has different amounts of electronic safety net. Sport allows maximum power, sets the Ducati Skyhook suspension in sporty and draws minimal interference from traction control, wheelie control and ABS. Touring also allows maximum power but with a softer throttle response and higher intervention from electronic controls. Urban limits power output to 100 hp while softening the suspension and maintaining the touring settings for electronic controls. Enduro is also limited to 100 hp but sets the suspension in off-road mode, sets ABS to the lowest intervention level and turns off rear-wheel and cornering ABS altogether.
So yes, it really is four bikes in one.
As soon as I got on it, I found the Ducati a very comfortable all-around bike. The seat is higher than a lot of sport and touring bikes, but it adjusts from 32.5 inches to 33.3, so you will probably find a setting that fits you. You could have this as your only motorcycle even if you lived out on a ranch and had to go off-road occasionally.
I rode it a couple hundred miles from L.A. to Santa Paula one Sunday and was generally quite happy to have done so. The seat cushion density was, indeed, pretty close to just right. The cruise control (thank you, electronics) made the ride easier on my right hand. The adjustable windscreen kept bugs out of my dental work and generally made the ride less fatiguing. I found that, despite the Desmodromic Variable Timing on both intake and exhaust cam shafts, the engine didn’t really come alive until 3,000 rpm, didn’t really get the bike moving until 4,000 and wasn’t truly happy below 5,000 revs.
The ride was quite smooth on L.A. freeways and on two-lane highways farther north, especially in the touring setting. The single swing arm rode nicely over anything Southern California could throw at it.
However, there was no dirt involved in that ride, and I thought I should at least turn a wheel on dirt, since it’s a Multi-, not a Monostrada. So I rode up Azusa Canyon in search of the mythical Rincon Shortcut Trail. One source I spoke with said you’d need a permit to get on that trail. Another said the trail was closed forever. Up the paved Highway 39 I rode, leaning far into the corners and powering out of them. This bike is taller than almost anything out there, so you can only lean so far (sure, YOU can lean farther) but it’s not a pure sport bike, and you are reminded of that in the mountain twisties. The Pirelli Scorpion Trail IIs held on in the curves, and they didn’t make a lot of noise, so a real pro -- you -- could get a lot more out of this than I was getting. But I felt confident leaning around bends the whole ride, so it works in the twisties.
I finally found the Rincon Shortcut trailhead, and it was, indeed, locked. Really well, I might add. No one without a plasma cutter (or the lock’s combination) was going to open that thing. And there were cement anti-tank structures all around the gate, too, so there would be no sneaking in. Maybe I’ll make a call and see what the story is. They might be concerned with hot exhausts starting fires, which I could understand. That Ducati has some hot exhausts, the heat from which seems to get trapped in between the rider’s legs and just sort of roasts your next generations, even if you’re flying down the highway.
The locked gate left me with some dirt turnouts to play around in instead of the long dirt trail ride I was hoping for. I did a few loops but never got a sense of how well the Multistrada performs off-road. I certainly never looked like those guys in the dirt bike magazines.
Things I liked: The mirrors were actually useful, allowing you to see what’s behind you; so often mirror design is handled by the design department alone, which is trying to impress other designers and win awards while creating that otherwise useless, flyin’-blind, slit-like look. These mirrors are big enough and mounted high enough that you can see out of them. The windshield pulls up to make long rides a little more comfortable. The big LCD instrument panel has an easily readable tach and the easiest-to-read gear position indicator ever made. The cruise control was as easy to engage as the cruise control on any car (wish it responded quicker to the speed increase/decrease buttons, though). Brush guards on the handlebars are nice for bushwacking, though granted, I never bushwhacked. There’s a rise between the front and rear seats that functions like a minor lumbar support. There are even big, easy-to-grip grab bars in back for the passenger.
Things I didn’t like: The hard plastic saddlebag/boxes have recalcitrant latches on them that are pretty awkward to use. Removing the bags is also awkward and requires a solid rearward whack to release them. Nonetheless, it's convenient to have the storage, though my normal-size Shoei full-face helmet had to be jammed into the larger bag/box, but it finally fit in there. The engine, as noted above, is miserable below 3,000 rpm and only starts to come alive at 4,000. By 5K, it’s happily making power and torque. For just motoring around town among stoplights and traffic, it feels like it’s missing torque way down low, though, or maybe the gearing is set up for high speeds at the expense of parking-lot puttering. I had to keep the revs up even during slow-speed maneuvers. The weight of this class of bike, though the bike is supposed to be for occasional off-road use, requires skill to maneuver over bumpy, slippery terrain. It's not a beginners bike, but none in this class are. And again, the V twin acts like a giant heat pump, exotherming radiant heat like a miniature Three Mile Island. This can be good on cold mornings, less so on hot afternoons. Seems to be a Ducati trait.
Sticker price for a Multistrada 1200 S is $20,295, which includes destination, etc. If that price just knocked you on the floor, consider that there is a new Multistrada 950 that stickers for just $13,995 and does a lot of the things the 1200 S does. Competitors are often cheaper to buy, too.
The idea with these adventure bikes, especially with this one, is that they can do everything -- the Swiss army knife of motorcycles. If you could only have one bike to do everything, you’d want an adventure bike. If you could have only one adventure bike, you might find that you want a Ducati.
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