Creative types in motorcycle design departments are either high or have been watching too many Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters likeTransformers. That must be the explanation for the path that the styling and niche focus of modern motorcycles has taken, right? Or I suppose it could simply be that it was time to break the mold and get away from the stagnant rut into which sportbike design had fallen.
Neither the new 2010 Ducati Multistrada (ours in 1200 S Sport form) nor the Honda VFR1200F (a manual shifter) neatly falls into any one category. Sport-tourers? Sure. Open-classers? Yes. Sportbikes? I think we can all agree on that.
First, the obvious: The Multistrada was always meant to be a crossover machine. Just look at its upright, motocross-like seating position, long-travel suspension, potent sport engine, sticky tires and the ability to tackle light dirt sections when needed. Combining these attributes initially resulted in Pierre Terblanche’s strangely styled original in 2003—far more function than form—but much-loved by those who own them. The new Multistrada amplifies the concept and gives it a new styling edge.
Less obvious is the Honda VFR1200F. Like the bike it replaces—the 781cc Interceptor—it’s not really an ultra-sport, sport-tourer or repli-racer and therefore kind of falls through the cracks. In reality, it can be any of those, and that is the beauty of its design. It should appeal to a broad range of buyers. Like the previous Multistrada—but perhaps much more so—the Interceptor has a rabid owner following that really didn’t want its beloved three-quarter- sized machine messed with or blasphemed, according to some. But such is the tide of progress.
These two non-traditional sportbikes are likely to be on shopping lists of buyers looking for comfortable, high-performance machines that are versatile enough to eat up long days in the saddle, blast apexes on the weekend or even commute to and from work.
Jumping back and forth between these bikes is like switching from a mountain to a road bicycle. The seating positions couldn’t be more different.
“Shortly into our ride, I was enjoying the Ducati’s upright riding position and cushy seat, even adjusting its windscreen on the fly—made easy by its big knobs,” said Associate Editor Mark Cernicky. “I looked down the road and watched Blake put one hand on his hip, like sportbike riders sick of leaning forward tend to do, and comfortably snickered.”
As different as the riding positions are, handling is even more dissimilar. Without sounding like Captain Obvious, the Multistrada is like riding a monster supermoto machine. Awesome leverage at the bars allows it to be flicked into the tightest of corners with uncanny ease, while the VFR requires much more muscle to get turned.“
The Honda feels very heavy compared to the tall-bar Multistrada,” said Cernicky. “I felt like the front and rear wheels were in different zip codes and I was in the middle trying to send the bike messages about what I wanted it to do.”
From midcorner through the exit, the VFR is the epitome of stability, while the Ducati sometimes fails to communicate the level of grip available from the Pirelli Scorpion Trail front tire. But the bottom line is the Multistrada takes far less effort to ride, not only at a fast sportbike pace but even cruising along at more sane speeds.
It doesn’t take long to get spoiled by the Multistrada’s DES electronic Öhlins suspension, either. It’s so nice to transition from a tight winding road to the freeway and be able to optimize the suspension and ride quality instantly with the push of a button. Our only complaint with the Multi’s suspension is that we still managed to drag the kickstand and even bent the shift lever on one hairpin-strewn road (preload was set to max in Sport mode). As for the VFR, it is heavy (592 pounds gassed up) and when the pace heats up you want to make sure to dial in all the preload that’s available from the Showa shock to keep the pegs from dragging. The 43mm Showa fork did a good job managing the bike’s weight under heavy, ABS-invoking braking.
As Cernicky and I discovered while riding these bikes back-to-back on a wide variety of roads, getting to the same point in roughly the same amount of time doesn’t always tell the full story. These two very different Vee engines ultimately produce similar results in terms of performance, but we were surprised how differently they performed under sport-riding conditions.
Engine management comes in a couple of forms here: The VFR’s ride-by-wire system over-manages the 1237cc V-Four engine’s power output in the lower two gears. Comparing output in second gear versus that produced in fourth shows a 25-hp/10-ft.-lb. deficit between 4000 and 6000 rpm in second! This was not only obvious but very annoying while trying to chase the Ducati up one of our favorite SoCal roads. Let the revs drop too much in second gear then snap open the throttle and the engine will only gradually deliver what the right wrist is requesting. Maybe Honda knows something we don’t, as later in the day during a photo shoot in a faster sweeper where the engine could sing in full glory from 6000 revs up, the VFR was laying down long, arcing trails of black rubber a la Dani Pedrosa on his RC212V MotoGP racer.
Ducati’s 1198ccTestastretta90-degree V-Twin not only has a very meaty midrange but its sophisticated electronics actually let you use it—saving you from yourself via its eight-level-adjustable DTC traction control and several different output modes. The Multistrada has linear power and torque curves that provide excellent delivery at any rpm without the annoying low-end flat spot encountered on the VFR. Putting the “11-degree” version of the 1198 mill (so-called because of the short-overlap, torque-friendly cam spec) into the Multistrada was a brilliant choice.
While we prefer the Ducati’s overall power and delivery, the Honda loves triple-digit cruising. Said Cernicky, “The VFR doesn’t even start working until you’re going over a hundred—hello,autobahn!”
As for answering our concerns about the Multistrada’s fuel injection, all is still not perfect. Although it is much-improved compared to the pre-production Tour model we tested for the June issue, the engine in our Sport still surges and hunts a bit when you’re trying to hold a steady throttle, especially between 3000 and 4000 rpm; unfortunately, this range is exactly where the tachometer reads when sixth gear is selected between 60 and 70 mph. But fueling when accelerating away from stops or picking up the throttle exiting tight corners is definitely much better.
These two freaks of sportbikedom fulfill many of the same roles, and we still have every intention of gathering up bagged versions of each and hitting the highway for a proper sport-touring comparison. But as Cernicky said, “If you just need to cover an entire time zone, pick the VFR, but for a long day’s ride on everything this multi-surfaced world can throw at you, give me the high-bars and electronically controlled desmo Twin.” The Ducati may not fit neatly into any single category, but it definitely has redefined what a sportbike can be. Or what a sport-tourer can be. Or what an Open-class streetbike can be. Get the idea?