All motorcyclists have a fantasy collection assembled in the dream garage that lives in their heads. Mine would include a 1000cc sportbike, a 250cc four-stroke MXer, a 450cc dual-sport, a 300cc two-stroke enduro and something with bags that can be ridden two-up all day. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible for most enthusiasts—myself included. That my garage is too small is a crappy excuse, but the fact that I can’t afford a fleet of single-purpose motos is something I think most people can relate to. Apparently, Ducati saw this as a dilemma back in 2003, as well, when it introduced the first-generation Multistrada 1000DS.
Multistrada 1200S Touring
That original multi-tool of a motorcycle was a good, yet flawed, bike. To say that the seat sucked and that the Pierre Terblanche styling was bizarre—well, few would argue. But refinements two years later helped it win the Best Sport-Tourer award in Cycle World’s Ten Best balloting.
Fast forward to the present: With the 2010 Multistrada 1200, Ducati has completely redefined what multi-purpose means. The concept behind this bike was not just versatility but, in Ducati’s words, to make a motorcycle that is quattro moto in una, or four bikes in one.
Ducati wasn’t the first to take a crack at big-bore, multi-surface machines, but it has applied a ton of technology to create a bike that can change its demeanor at the touch of a button. At the core of the concept are four distinct riding modes—Sport, Touring, Urban and Enduro—that the rider can select on the fly. And within each of these modes, load settings can be varied and include single rider, single rider with bags, two-up and two-up with bags.
BMW offers a similar system with its ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment), but what sets Ducati’s arrangement apart is its “global” nature. That is, choosing a riding mode instantly puts into motion changes that alter three different areas of the Multistrada’s dynamics: level of traction control (DTC), electronic suspension (DES) setting and ride-by-wire (RbW) engine response/output parameters.
As a society, we have become accustomed to personalizing things like the desktop layout on our computers or the menus on our music players and cell phones, so it is no surprise that the Multistrada allows the same kind of flexibility. As delivered, category defaults should work well for most riders, but a little exploration through the multitude of menus reveals much opportunity for specific tailoring of performance. And if you screw it up, you can always hit the reset button, just like when you’re getting your butt handed to you in a video game.
Our pre-production testbike was the top-shelf 1200S Touring, which, like all models, comes standard with the aforementioned DTC but adds ABS, DES, heated grips, saddlebags and a centerstand. If you are more comfortable tickling carbs before kickin’ it over than booting it up (and I don’t mean the ones on your feet), this bike may not be for you. But if you’re completely competent in finding Motörhead’s “Killed by Death” (please tell me you have that song) instantly on your iPod, you’ll do just fine.
I know that reading instructions isn’t manly; but if Y-chromosomers don’t read this bike’s manual or get a thorough lesson from a dealer, it’s likely to take them a while to figure out how to start the engine. All Multistrada 1200s feature a keyless ignition; the rider carries a key fob in his or her pocket (a PIN code can be entered in case of a lost key), which communicates with the bike (within a 6½-foot range) to switch on the ignition and disengage the electronic steering lock.
Sounds easy, right? So far, it is, but you’re still not ready to make noise. First, you have to activate the electronics by holding down the red button that slides over the top of the starter button when the bike is turned off, then slide it back up to uncover the starter; now you can fire away. Yeah, it’s a few extra steps, but you get used to it quickly. Inside the fob is a switchblade key that manually opens the fuel cap and bags. For fueling convenience, the optional “Hands Free” tank-filler cap is a must, even though it costs a whopping $320; like the bike, the cap unlocks with fob proximity and is opened by a pushbutton.
LED marker lights like those on many European sedans outline the four-beam, multi-reflector headlights.
Our first order of business was to photograph the bike in action. Fortunately, our selected location was 175 miles north of our Newport Beach offices, allowing me to pile on miles to and from. For the freeway, I selected Touring mode, a setting in which engine output is set to “150 Low,” which means maximum power but with a progressive delivery (150 represents Ducati’s claimed horsepower measured at the crankshaft; our test unit produced 136.5 rear-wheel hp on the CW dyno). Simultaneously, DES adjusts preload and damping on the Öhlins TTX shock and damping on the 48mm Öhlins fork (fork preload is set manually) to a comfort setting, while DTC is set to level 5 of 8.
In my first couple of hundred miles, I fooled around with every setting I could find. Most of the menus function only when the bike is at a standstill—a good thing, because even with that limited accessibility, I was at times more distracted than a housewife driving a minivan full of screaming kids. This is why the system only allows the rider to change modes and load settings on the fly. Touring proved a good compromise for highway cruising, but I later fiddled with suspension settings (click-by-click customizable in the menu) to soften the ride even more.
With more freeway droning than I care to remember under my belt, I headed out a few days later on a route that would incorporate virtually every type of road the Multistrada was designed to tackle. The day started with a post-rush-hour blast on the Ortega Highway to South Main Divide Road. A freshly paved section of Ortega includes fast-and-flowing third-gear sweepers that I attacked in Sport. In this mode, power defaults to maximum output but with a more lively delivery than in Touring. Suspension is firmed up significantly (I measured 8mm less static sag at the rear), while DTC is set to level 4.
On a fast section of road like Ortega, the 1200S was impressive. It likes sweepers best, flowing through them with ease and the rider in a commanding, upright posture.
The Multistrada may look like an adventure- or sport-touring bike but lurking inside is the Testastretta 11-degree engine, which is based on Ducati’s 1198 superbike mill. The engine’s name stems from the 11 degrees of overlap between the opening of the intake valves and the closing of the exhaust valves compared to the superbike motor’s 41 degrees. That cam timing, along with a lower, 11.5:1 compression ratio (compared to 12.7:1), makes the engine user-friendlier for the Multistrada’s all-road intentions. Yet it still pounds out 85.0 foot-pounds of torque while producing fewer emissions and allowing better fuel economy (we recorded a high of 47 mpg and averaged 38) than the superbike.
In Sport mode, the throttle response is very aggressive (aided no doubt by short final-drive gearing), especially when the LCD tachometer swings past 5000 rpm and heads toward the 7700-rpm torque peak. Drive out of corners is comparable to that of liter-class repli-racers and will give unsuspecting sportbikes all—or more than—they can handle.
Two-screen LCD dash divides “right now” info (speed, rpm, etc.) on left from “deep” functions, such as running mode and fuel range—plus sub-menus for the ABS, DTC and DES systems—on right.
In terms of fuel delivery, our preproduction bike had issues with surging and hunting at cruise, behaved lean off the line and occasionally would flame out and stall. Bikes at the Canary Islands press introduction didn’t have these troubles. According to Ducati, our stateside testbike was still running a very early-version map. Having been through this already with our preproduction Streetfighter S last year, which ran pretty well but was followed by our production Streetfighter testbike with poor stock fueling, we’ll have to leave the jury out until we get our planned long-term Multistrada 1200.
On Main Divide Road South (best suited for dual-sport and adventure bikes), the unrelenting delivery of Sport mode was a handful. Calling this asphalt path a road is misleading; it’s little more than a lane wide, strewn with gravel, dirt, potholes and drainage waterbars every 100 yards—in other words, the perfect road for testing the Multistrada.
At first, I tried Urban (power setting 100, DTC level 6 and suspension set soft), and it was in this mode that I really became aware of the DTC system at work. Not only was the frequent ignition interruption impossible to ignore, the warning ring around the sub-screen on the dash would flash red to indicate that intervention. Because I was, in theory, on a paved road, I left the ABS system switched on. The Brembo arrangement worked well on the mixed surfaces but delivered a bit more pulsing at the lever than many of the latest sporting ABS systems. Although Urban was ideal for the conditions, I quickly lost interest and decided to give Enduro a try.
That Ducati’s engineers included such a setting suggests that their view of off-road riding and our North American interpretation are vastly different. This is no BMW GS or KTM Adventure on which you can bomb down a rock-strewn road with little consequence. One look at that Testa-stretta four-valve, dohc cylinder head and exhaust header poking out behind the front tire was all I needed to realize I should take it easy in the dirt. Hard-packed dirt roads? No problem, but are you willing to take your shiny, $20,000 Italian motorcycle down a sand wash? Didn’t think so…
As it turned out, the switch to Enduro was far more entertaining than I had anticipated. The primary difference in this mode, intended for dirt surfaces, is the traction-control setting, which, at level 2, intervenes far less. So, low levels of grip, combined with very little DTC intervention and manually shutting off ABS, equated to lots of tail wagging. And despite Enduro defaulting to the 100-horsepower setting, I discovered that I could change it to allow full power in any mode. Nothing is quite as scary as a 136-horse, 500-pound dirtbike wannabe! Enduro’s default suspension settings were firm enough to handle leaps over waterbars without bottoming out yet still capable of gracefully sucking up potholes and washed-out sections of road.
More storage space is available with an accessory rear top-case kit ($599).
Later that day, I charged up one of Southern California’s crown jewels, Palomar Mountain Road’s south grade, which has approximately 20 hairpin corners in its 7 miles. The 1200’s wide handlebar provided lots of leverage to get the bike turned into those tight corners while the wet slipper clutch tamed multiple downshifts through the slick gearbox on corner entries.
Up until this point, I had been trying to put my finger on the cause of the bike’s tendency not to finish corners (trying a variety of tire pressures and suspension settings). Although the ’Strada is very versatile on multiple surfaces, I eventually concluded that the front dual-sport Pirelli Scorpion Trail tire—specific to this bike—was causing a slight bit of understeer on corner exits. To be fair, I only noticed this sensation when riding at a very brisk sportbike pace; but if that is something you also plan to do, and if you intend to keep your bike on the asphalt, I recommend fitting a set of stickier sporting tires.
Despite the excellent long-travel suspension (6.7 inches of wheel up-and-down at each end), the centerstand would drag in left-handers. A quick fix was just a few clicks away: I simply went into Sport mode’s settings and increased rear preload to a maximum of 16—no tools, no busted knuckles. This greatly improved cornering clearance but didn’t keep my left heel from coming in contact with the stand when I was riding on the balls of my feet.
Over the short week and a half we had the Multistrada, we managed to amass about 1000 miles on the odometer. Considering that the bike offers a seemingly infinite number of DTC, DES and RbW settings, we didn’t even come close to trying all of the possible combinations.
What’s more, even though we at first were skeptical about the Ducati’s technical wizardry, the systems proved that they’re not just gimmicks and gadgets but rather convincing proof that the electronic motorcycle has truly arrived. The Multistrada 1200S Touring really does fulfill the role of many bikes. Of course, at $19,995, it also costs about the same as two or three other bikes. But just think about what you’ll do with all that extra garage space—not just in your house but in your head.