She was straight out of “The Golden Girls,” all white curls and peach polyester, and as she hurried toward me in the grocery store parking lot I braced for some geriatric comment. Instead, I got this: “Well, that’s not a Harley,” as she circled the Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom like a hound on a foxhole. “When I was a girl, my uncle had a Panhead and he taught me to ride it. I’ve always liked Harley-Davidsons, but my boyfriend, he rides an 850 Eldorado. Is this the new Guzzi he’s been talking about?”
It is the new Guzzi everyone’s talking about. The reinvented California, offered in a Touring and this Custom version, powered by the biggest engine Guzzi has ever produced—the largest V-Twin to come from the Old World—and sporting loads of New World technology, including traction control, ABS and ride-by-wire electronic injection.
Yet the bike’s physical stance is pure Guzzi, with retro-cruiser architecture visually anchored by the transverse 90-degree V-Twin engine for which the company has become most famous. At the first push of the starter, the California also sounds and feels as it should: substantial, slightly quirky with its offset engine pulse and immediately comfortable thanks to a wide, dished seat and neutral, upright seating position. The Piaggio Group, Moto Guzzi’s adoptive parent company, has done well to guard what assets separate the California from other cruisers, while infusing the new model with advanced technologies that make it not only smoother and faster, but also slicker to corner and quicker to stop.
As you’d expect, the California Custom gushes torque, and this new version of the cam-in-head, eight-valve V-Twin, now enlarged from 1155cc to 1380cc, pulls heartily from a stop, and depending on your mood, will immediately hurtle the bike to illegal speeds, or chug along all afternoon in its flexible mid-to-low range. There are three selectable injection modes: Veloce (sport) Turismo (touring) and Pioggia (rain). We found the flexible Turismo map to be preferable in almost all dry conditions, including high-speed romps through the twisties where the light-switch-sensitive Veloce setting requires a surgeon’s hand to deliver anything like smoothness. That setting’s exuberant acceleration and engine braking might be saved for select burger night shenanigans. Injection formulas can be selected with a push of the starter button when the bike is running, and at any speed as long as the throttle is momentarily closed.
You can also employ traction control (MGCT) by selecting one of the California’s three levels of intervention, settings that Moto Guzzi tells us use the same calculations as Piaggio’s World Superbike-winning Aprilias. To activate the system, the bike needs to be at a stop—a good idea because the process is more involved than switching among the injection maps. You first need to toggle the bike’s mode switch through the tripmeter settings to “MGCT,” then once you’ve selected that mode (with a long center push), you can toggle to access settings ranging from “3” (maximum intervention) to “-” (you’re on your own).
The California’s standard-equipment ABS further limits the possibility of unwanted antics, and works seamlessly with the bike’s magnificent Brembo setup, which consists of radial mounted four-piston calipers with 320mm discs in front and a two-piston rear with a 282mm disc. With the big cruiser weighing 714 pounds, you wouldn’t expect a stopping distance of 29 feet from 30 mph, much less 116 feet when pulled down from 60 mph. But that’s what you get from this Guzzi—the braking power of a much lighter, sportier bike, delivered with utter evenness.
We didn’t get the brakes to overheat on spirited romps, nor does the California grind parts when you go around the slightest curve, as seems to be the norm for the current crop of cruisers, especially those coming from Japan. Of course, it will occasionally throw sparks when you dive in deeply, but the floorboards give benignly, folding up long before any hard parts touch.
Putting this mighty cruiser through its paces is a pleasure. The new double-cradle, steel frame feels impressively solid as matched to a huge 46mm Sachs fork and twin rear shocks. Although a bit heavy at the bar for walking speeds, the Custom becomes light to steer and very predictable once you’re traveling over 10 mph, offering terrific feedback and stability around town, on the highway, and best of all, on the tangled backroads where big cruisers can often feel like a ton of work.
And not only are you having fun riding the thing, you’re remarkably comfortable doing it. The ergonomics of the Custom are neutral and forward, though by no means a stretch for average-size riders. The Touring version of the California offers more upright seating with its wider, pullback bar, as well as a generous windshield, luggage rack, heated grips and more humane passenger accommodations, all which combine to increase the bike’s overall weight by 42 pounds. Mechanically, the only difference is the Touring’s use of slightly shorter Sachs shocks.
Both versions offer tour-friendly cruise control actuated by a simple on/off switch located on the throttle housing. The system is easy to use, and much appreciated on a long stint. Another pleasant addition to the California is its new single-disc clutch assembly, which lightens lever effort considerably, something California aficionados will appreciate.
What hasn’t changed about the Moto Guzzi California since its 1971 debut as an everyman’s version of the then-coveted Los Angeles Police Department motorbike, is its essence. Its authenticity reigns. And that’s despite some clashing style elements, such as the futuristic-looking LED taillights and turn signals embedded in the rear fender. Additionally, both fenders are cast in plastic (to reduce cost and weight) instead of steel, which would make the new California a better platform for customization.