Ducati Multistrada (2012)- Bolt Upright

2012 Ducati MultistradaThe 2012 Ducati Multistrada 1200 is touted in Ducati’s marketing material as four bikes in one, made to travel many roads, according to its name. This is an appealing concept for many riders who own only one motorcycle and feel restricted to a specific style of riding, or have bought two or more bikes in an attempt to cover more bases, so to speak.

The Multistrada has plenty of competition in the bike-for-all-reasons category. There are like-minded models from most manufacturers, in many engine sizes, pricepoints and wide variety in the bike’s primary mission or focus. What makes the Multistrada special, unique perhaps? Why should someone buy it instead of one of its competitors? Is it a good long-term companion or more of a sexy one-night stand? Is it worth the premium price? We recently had a great opportunity to get to know the Multistrada and ponder these and other relevant questions as we spent a week’s vacation riding the bike on all kinds of California roads for over 2,000 kilometres. From the perspective of two ordinary riders who have enough experience to understand Ducati’s latest offering but are not professional testers, here’s what we found.

IN MANY YEARS OF OWNING motorcycles we had never had reason to rent one. In retrospect, we missed opportunities to experience new bikes in real-world circumstances, something you don’t get with those escorted, 30-minute factory demo rides. We fixed that shortcoming when Dennis, who lives in San Francisco temporarily without a bike, rented a brand new base model Multistrada 1200 (with ABS brakes and fitted with a Givi topbox) from a local rental company.  Nick, who lives in Victoria rode his trusty ST1100 to San Francisco, spent a week touring and sampling the Ducati with Dennis and “flew” back home on the big Honda.

Our trip started with an afternoon ride along the scenic, coast-hugging Highway One in hilly countryside north of San Francisco, to familiarize ourselves with the rental bike and get ready for the big departure the next morning. This two-lane highway would have been a perfect introduction to the Ducati but, to our frustration, heavy weekend traffic meant lots of slow riding with little opportunity to pass. Even in those conditions the Ducati behaved well, never once complaining about operating in an environment for which it was not designed. Or was it?  

We soon realized that with its relatively low weight, upright riding position, wide handlebars and “Urban” setting on its engine management system, the multi-talented Ducati felt right at home in day-to-day traffic.  A couple of opportunities to instantly pass two or three cars at once in very short available space revealed what could be accomplished with a quick twist of the right grip followed by heavy application of the ABS brakes, even at the detuned Urban mode.  As might be expected, the contrast with the ST1100 could not have been more stark: laughable really. Right from the start we found the Ducati to be flickable, razor-sharp and predictable, a young-at-heart person’s bike.

We left San Francisco the next morning and headed south, initially on the freeway and then on motorcycle friendly, twisty Routes 35 and Nine toward the famous Alice’s Restaurant and onto Santa Cruz. This being Sunday morning, we had little traffic to contend with and soon started finding out what the Ducati was capable of, which is more than we had anticipated.

On-the-fly selection between four settings, Urban, “Enduro,” “Touring,” and “Sport,” produced surprisingly noticeable changes in the character of the bike. 

We imagine these changes are even more noticeable on the upscale “S” Multistrada, whose engine management system modifies suspension settings as well. 

Urban and Enduro modes limit engine output to 100 horsepower and deliver a predictable, linear response to throttle inputs. Touring mode brings the other 50 ponies out of the barn but retains the civilized, mellow connection between the right wrist and the rear wheel—as well as the front, come to think of it.  However, it is in Sport mode that the gloves finally come off, revealing what this
motorcycle is really all about. It instantly transforms the Multistrada into a full-bore sportbike with the extra benefits of a wide handlebar, upright riding position, comfortable seat and all around good ergonomics for attacking tight, twisty roads for hours on end. This is where this bike is in its element. In addition to unleashing the full potential of the engine through ultra-quick throttle response, the Sport mode highlights other impressive attributes of the Multistrada. 

The bike offers excellent, confidence inspiring handling, which seems to emanate from a spot-on combination of light and well-distributed weight, well-calibrated and fully adjustable suspension, perfectly balanced steering geometry, a rock solid frame and sticky, predictable tires. It amazed us how much effect the sharp, immediate throttle response had on the bike’s feel and behaviour.  

Equally amazing was the effect the Sport setting had on the rider. We had to constantly guard against getting too enthusiastic and confident in our ability to push the limit. The Multistrada in Sport mode demands full attention from the rider and full control of the right wrist. Although it is a very capable, safe and forgiving bike, it cannot overcome rider foolishness.

During this first  real opportunity to explore the Multistrada’s personalities and potential we discovered the bike’s one flaw—its brakes left us perplexed. Specifically, the almost complete lack of braking effect on the back wheel, no matter how hard we stomped on the lever, and the opposite on the front wheel, where braking effect was too abrupt, lacking progressiveness and “feel.” This is puzzling because Brembo is typically the standard by which other brake systems are judged and the components on the Multisrada are top-shelf. We learned that the factory, to correct a known “issue,” had already updated the rear master cylinder. Well, the fix didn’t work. Yes, rear brakes on sportbikes are designed to be relatively weak to avoid wheel lockup, but this was excessive.

We tried to compensate for our bike’s weak rear brake by downshifting early and the slipper clutch kept the back wheel from locking up every time.  Logically, this is a great safety feature that, like Traction Control, is increasingly necessary as ever more powerful bikes are built. On an emotional level however it highlighted an unexpected feeling of remoteness we got from the Multistrada, whose electronic wizardry can be a reminder of the diminished importance and involvement of the rider in the whole process of riding a modern motorcycle.  

The bike is so capable, it does so much of the thinking and decision making, that the rider can feel left out, not in control. Thankfully for us, that feeling disappeared every time we rocketed to the next sharp turn and got saved by the ABS brakes. On such a powerful bike, we’ll take the electronic wizardry, thank you.

Back to the trip, our stop at the famous Alice’s restaurant was most entertaining.  Being midday on a sunny Sunday, its two parking lots were full with bikes and sports cars of all descriptions. Right in the midst of the constant stream of arriving and departing traffic, we couldn’t believe our eyes when a car made a near-disastrous left turn into the path of an oncoming CHP police bike. The officer’s training paid off. Instead of attempting to stop before the car got to him, he executed a textbook evasive manoeuvre of using his rear brake to throw the bike into a controlled left slide, which changed its direction away from the car, avoiding it by mere inches. Without ever taking his feet off the pegs, he then used throttle to spin the bike around in the narrow roadway and went after the car. Very impressive riding and proof that advanced rider training is invaluable. Also, we now know what the BMW R1200RT can do in the right hands.

We decided to make San Luis Obispo the day’s destination and that meant a couple of hours of freeway riding to make some time. Highway 101 is reasonably interesting in that area, featuring a 115 kmh speed limit and fast sweepers through undulating terrain with beautiful scenery. 

We used the cMultistrada’s Touring mode personality to further entertain ourselves, effortlessly reaching spirited speeds in short bursts when there were no cars around. While lots of fun, this type of riding revealed a limitation to the bike’s enjoyment. As a consequence of its bolt-upright riding position and wide handlebar there is minimal wind protection offered by the windshield, even when adjusted to its tallest setting.  Suddenly, the ST1100 wasn’t such a bad choice.

The Multistrada emerged as the clear winner again the next day when we returned to twisty, convoluted secondary roads leading inland from the coast to Ojai, and then Hwy 33 heading north of that town into the Sulphur mountains. In this part of California it is hard to believe how sudden the change is from traffic-choked cities, towns and freeways along the coast to practically deserted, mountainous, very twisty secondary roads barely 10 miles inland.  

Highway 33 is one of the very best examples of a perfect motorcycling road, the kind theDucati Multistrada devours.  Miles and miles of turns, ranging from first gear tight to second or third gear sweepers, followed by short straights, then more turns, mostly on steep uphill and downhill grades.

After crossing Los Padres National Forest Hwy 33 descends to the Bakersfield Valley and becomes a straight, boring, lightly traveled secondary highway, where great distances can be covered in a short time with little risk, shall we say. We thoroughly explored the Multistrada’s behaviour at a very fast pace and can report that it is impressive indeed, as one might expect from a 150-hp bike. Lucky for us, there are enough gas stations in this area of California despite its remoteness. The big Ducati gets quite thirsty when used to its full potential and needs fuel every 200 kilometres or so, (premium please and thank you). Here’s another case where the ST1100 seemed not a bad choice.

We decided to head for Oakhurst and spend our remaining vacation days enjoying Hwy 49, another unforgettable road that makes motorcycling in California so worthwhile.  We had to cross the built up, congested Fresno area to get to Oakhurst and were reminded again that no matter how wonderful the motorcycle, riding in heavy traffic on big freeways in hot weather is best avoided. Even the Multistrada couldn’t cheer us up until we got to the mountains again.

 We followed Hwy 49 as far as Auburn, thoroughly enjoying this must-ride road and the Ducati, which seem to have been made for each other.  We changed plans and took I-80 back to San Francisco when cold, steady rain took away the fun of continuing north into the Sierra Mountains. Hours of freeway riding in rain and strong sidewinds are not what the Multistrada was designed for, but we made it home safe and sound.  

AN OUTRIGHT HEAD-TO-HEAD comparison of the Multistrada with any other bike in the category is difficult because the Ducati seems designed and equipped to be a top notch, easy to live with sportbike first and foremost. It combines most of the amenities, comfort and versatility of other bikes in the dualsport category and then adds the most powerful motor and state-of-the-art electronics to enable full use of this combination. Other high-end “Adventure” motorcycles offer electronic adjustments and safety features but they are designed and kitted toward more off-highway use.  This bike seems destined to make pure sportbikes redundant.

 The Ducati’s V-Twin in the detuned settings (Enduro and Urban) felt comparable to a Suzuki 1000 V-Strom and significantly more torquey below 5,000 rpm than the KTM 990 Adventure. When the full-power settings are selected (Touring and Sport) comparison with the Honda RC51 and old Suzuki TL1000R motors is more appropriate. In both cases the Ducati would probably win a race although, at those levels of power, differences are hard to measure and irrelevant away from a racetrack.  

We thought the Duc’s motor had an unrefined, lumpy quality to it, but we were probably influenced by the ST1100, whose motor could be mistaken for being electric by comparison. Still, there’s room for improvement if the RC51 motor can be an example.

We also feel the need for improvement in the Ducati’s muffler, which emits a hollow tin can tone. We didn’t get a chance to hear the bike with aftermarket exhaust, but one shouldn’t have to pay extra money to get good sound out of a new bike. True, the manufacturer has to satisfy noise restrictions, but we think better sound quality is needed here, not volume.

Rounding out the mechanical aspects of the Ducati Multistrada, we found its transmission to match the motor in terms of lack of finesse and refinement.  We admit to being picky, but there are better examples of slick-shifting gearboxes out there, the RC51 and KTM being just two. On the other hand, gear ratios are perfectly spaced on the Ducati, overall gearing is spot-on for the bike’s intended use and the clutch is very light and linear.

In terms of handling, the Multistrada felt a lot like a 990 KTM, though with a more confidence inspiring front end owing to the 17-inch front wheel and sticky street tires. Like the KTM, the Ducati displays an uncanny ability to hide its weight and practically disappear underneath the rider.  Changing direction or braking in mid-corner seems to be achieved with mere thought, requiring little physical effort.  So does getting into a corner in the first place and staying there. A wide handlebar, good steering geometry, sorted out suspension and low weight contribute greatly to these abilities.  Combine that talent with buckets of torque from the monster motor and we know of no bike that can match the Multistrada for pure joy in the twisties.

As noted already, the brakes on the bike we rode left us disappointed.  We suspect the rear brake needed more work and perhaps different pads might soften up the abrupt front brake.  There is no reason a bike of this capability can’t have brakes to match.

The Ducati Multistrada’s ergonomics also set it apart from the crowd, not necessarily for the better in every respect.  We found the wide handlebar and upright riding position just about perfect for using the bike to its fullest. By definition, that becomes a liability as speeds climb to the levels this bike easily delivers, but the good definitely outweighs the bad here. The seat was quite comfortable and supportive, but totally restricted fore and aft movements with a steep, bolstered step up to the passenger pad. Ducati didn’t want us sliding off the back of the bike with all that torque. Not a big thing, but we would have preferred cutouts in the gas tank for our knees. There’s something unnatural and unnerving about riding with knees spread so far apart.

Instrumentation on the Multistrada is impressive, being informative, intuitive and entertaining at the same time.  Switchgear is relatively simple and understandable, given the myriad functions it accomplishes. To be sure, it takes time and effort to learn all there is to know and what each switch or button does, but it’s all well thought and laid out. We’re still not sure we like the key-in-the-pocket push button ignition and all the drama that goes with it, but we’ll take the electric steering lock.

Fit and finish is top notch, as is the apparent quality of all cast, painted or plastic components of the bike. This is expected on a motorcycle in this price range (MSRP $17,495) and the Ducati doesn’t disappoint. Subjectively speaking, we think the overall look of the new Multistrada is better than the older generation, which may be faint praise indeed. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we hope Ducati will get rid of the beak and nostrils in next year’s model.

OUR WEEK-LONG ROMP WITH THE Multistrada showed us that it is truly unique because it is basically an all-out, top-notch superbike dressed for everyday duty on everyday roads. Its competitors are softer or more broadly focused; most are heavier and none has that killer motor. Yes, top notch suspension, solid frame, full electronic safeguards and livable ergonomics are requisite credentials these days and can be found on other bikes. But the Ducati’s intoxicating power makes it special.  

So, if someone is looking for the most powerful and sport-oriented Adventure motorcycle out there, the Ducati Multistrada is an obvious answer. 

by Nick Marshall and Dennis Pilarinos