September 19, 2011
Just over a year ago, in the go-go-boot hip-hop sensory overload of Milan’s humongous EICMA motorcycle show, Ducati showed a heavily updated Monster off to the press, a bike that was maybe a bit overshadowed by the 848 EVO and love-it-or-hate-it Diavel. But the new Monster deserves another look.
It’s the first air-cooled Monster to make 100 claimed horse at the crank—not bad, when you consider the six-figure NCR Leggera (which I got to ride last year) only makes 30 percent more power. That’s thanks to re-worked heads, camshafts and pistons in the Evo, and the cooling has been improved to bump reliability. The shotgun dual exhausts are new, as is the addition of the Ducati Safety Pack, which includes ABS and Ducati Traction Control. To make it even more civilized, the clutch is now bathed in oil (“Sacrilege!” shriek the Ducati faithful in their chat rooms. As for us, we really don’t get the appeal of the dry clutch, although it does sound cool at stoplights) and equipped with a servo mechanism to reduce lever effort.
The chassis is much the same—only there’s a bit less of it. Ducati’s engineers managed to shave four pounds off the bike, getting it down to a claimed 373-pound tank-empty weight (other publications report air-cooled Monsters weigh in at about 50 pounds more than the claimed dry weight with a full tank). The standard ABS adds back four pounds, which really means you get the ABS at no weight premium. The 43mm fully adjustable fork is now Marzocchi instead of Showa. The brake calipers are still the cast Brembos, sadly, instead of the monobloc racing units the 848 EVO sports. Rake stays the same at 24 degrees, as does the 57.1-inch wheel base. The ABS takes up a bit of fuel tank troom, leaving only enough room for 3.6 gallons. But best of all, pricing also stays the same at $11,995.
But like all Ducatis, the Monster is more than a sum of its spec sheet. Thanks to the ever-friendly and indulgent Samson at Munroe Motors in San Francisco, we got to spend some quality seat time with the new bike. Here’s what we thought.
Alan Lapp (6′2”, 245 pounds, 46 years old): Monster (s)Mash
I was so stoked to throw a leg over the Monster, I didn’t get any quality time with the owner’s manual to familiarize myself with the ample and generally well-working electronics package. So I left the traction control on in the least intrusive setting for my test ride. New bikes are—love it or hate it—very dependent on electronics, and I don’t see that changing any time soon; we had better get used to the idea that our vehicles are controlled by more processing power than Apollo 13.
My initial impression was that the ergonomics are very humane compared to a sport bike. The bars are a moderate bend, and the reach is reasonable. The seat is firm, but supportive. I didn’t notice any “hot spots” in the saddle or rub points that would become uncomfortable on a long ride. While the levers and pedals on the test bike were out of whack for me, it was clear that they could be adjusted in a wide range of motion to accommodate nearly any size rider.
Firing it up requires a brief wait while the computer does a self-check. It starts instantly and settles into a slightly ragged idle. The shifter has a pleasantly short throw, and clicks gratifyingly through the gear box. I did find a couple of unauthorized neutrals, but I trust that with properly-adjusted controls this would be a non-issue. The only other gearing quirk is that 6th gear is so tall, it’s pretty much useless unless you are well in excess of most speed limits.
The motor is awesome. It makes great noises, and is very responsive and torquey. The fueling, once underway, is very nice without any latency or touchiness, and even over bumpy roads, there was no tendency to ‘whiskey throttle.’ Only a few years ago, extracting this much power out of an air-cooled motor would have required full-on race tuning, resulting in a thoroughly uncivilized motor. The fuel injection and ignition timing computers make this high state of tune not only possible, but livable.
The suspension is quite nice as well: the high-end, fully adjustable components are firm but quite well-damped without being excessively harsh over bumps. The spring rate and damping are well matched front and rear. Combined with the Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires, I found the handling to be extremely predictable and confidence-inspiring. It holds a line very nicely, but squirms a bit if you touch reflectors on the center line. I’ll admit to not flogging it terribly hard on my test ride: my willingness to risk balling it up is inversely proportional to the MSRP.
Oh, and let us not forget that it’s a gorgeous bike in a way that only the Italians do. I don’t see this as a do-everything bike—I wouldn’t use it to ride to say, Alaska—but for 85 percent of the riding I do, it would be ideal. The torquey motor would be a hoot in the city. The narrow, light chassis is great for lane sharing. The outstanding handling would be a pleasure on the Sunday Morning Ride.
Now, I just wish my house weren’t $200,000 upside down, with my credit swirling the bowl…
Gabe Ets-Hokin (5′6.999”, 160 pounds, 42 years old): Monster? Maybe.
Oooo, I do love me some Ducatis, improbable products that could only come from Italy, products that have never left Borgo Panigale in a fully finished state. Sure, they’re rideable as is, but who leaves them as is? Ducati just starts building your bike before it gets sent to the dealer for you to pick up, and no wonder—if you waited for the company to actually finish building it, you would probably never take delivery. As it is, you just take it home so you can finish the job.
If you (not unreasonably) feel like you should get a completely developed, no-warts motorcycle for your $11,995, you may not be a Ducati person. You may not understand the appeal. You may not like this Monster EVO. I can’t blame you.
For the rest of us, though, the Monster’s rough edges are its charm. Like all Monsters, the seating position is comfortable, but sort of wrong, unless your arms are longer than your legs (note that Alan liked it). Fueling is okay, especially when the bike is WFO, but is surge-y at lower cruising speeds. The suspension is, of course, set up too stiff, and build quality is great if you’re used to Ducatis, but would result in a Honda QC inspector being sent to repair shut-off valves in Fukushima if that kind of fit and finish rolled out of the Kumamoto plant. In an era where even inexpensive Chinese-made products are universally expected to possess a kind of bland perfection, the fact that you can own something handmade—and slightly imperfect—is comforting, reminding me that we still live in a world where not quite everything is made by desperate robots. Yet.
Let me give you some less-esoteric impressions, lest you think I’m a paid apologetic shill. On a twisty road, this little bike is all you need, and it works well. The motor’s torque and throttle response make it easy for a less-experienced rider to go fast, or an experienced rider to go fast without working as hard as usual. It’s very light and nimble, but its compactness makes it feel sharp and aggressive. The motor is everything a sporting motor should be, with good pulling power from three or four thousand rpm until you shift or the engine explodes. For an air-cooled Twin, it hauls ass, and more importantly, feels like it’s going faster than it is, important when you’re talking power-to-weight ratios that you’d have to use a time machine set for 1992 to impress middleweight sportbike riders with.
The electronics did what properly designed electronics should do—work properly and only when needed. The traction control didn’t interrupt my riding, and the ABS system, when activated, felt as seamless as a modern ABS system could. The brakes felt a little weak and mushy compared to the monobloc calipers, but you expected that, right?
So yes, this bike is flawed, as are we all. The seat is painful, the engine surges and flames out occasionally, the turning radius is wider than an ‘urban’ bike’s should be, and the motor is noticeably buzzy at certain rpm. Oh, and seeing your low-fuel warning come on at under 100 miles is disappointing on a bike this fun to ride. Happily, aftermarket fixes to almost all these problems are out there.
And that’s Ducati’s evil genius—giving the right consumer a bike he or she needs to improve will make that consumer bond to your bike—and to your brand once that bike is custom-tailored to the rider. Don’t believe me? Count the Ducati T-shirts the next time you’re at your local moto-hangout. I’m guessing the number will come in second only to another purveyor of air-cooled, two-valve Twins. You may like to ride more than “improve” your bike, and prefer something perfect for your needs right off the showroom floor. I hate perfection—nothing is more certain to cause me to get rid of a bike in a relatively short time. I think this is the best air-cooled Monster yet, and although it’s not perfect—because it’s not perfect—I’d consider getting one.
Lucien Lewis (6′3”, 210 pounds, 45 years old, very grouchy): Monster? Meh…
The success of the Monster is a strange phenomena. Ducati’s best-selling bike, one that has at times accounted for more than 2/3rds of the company’s annual sales, is not a motorcycle that was carefully planned out and designed, component by component, but was built on a budget out of the parts bin, with an 851 Superbike frame, a 750SS front end, and a 900SS mill (the same basic motor design it has used since its initial inception in 1992). The bike has morphed over the years with different engine sizes and refinements, but is, at its core, still not that far from its original roots.
Despite the latest generation of Monsters being purpose-built and not an amalgam of different bits, I found the bike rather a chore to ride. It seems you should be able to ride it hard like a hooligan bike, but it fights you if you do, quickly tiring the upper body. Let up a little on it and it complains less, as do the hands, wrists and shoulders. Because of its light weight and modern suspension components, the bike gets down the road fairly quickly, but it is not comfortable, and after 45 minutes the seat is reminiscent of a medieval torture device (why can’t Europe produce a seat built for a human rear end?). My passenger fared no better, giving the seat zero stars and a raspberry. She also complained of the footpegs being so far apart that the seating position reminded her of squatting over a hole in a third-world country.
This is a modern, sub-400 lb 1100cc bike, but it only makes 100 hp and feels rough and unrefined. Below 2500 rpm it chunks and coughs, then starts picking up strongly until, before you know it, you are bouncing off the 8500-rpm rev limiter. Let off on the throttle and a pleasant burble comes barking out of the ‘love it or hate it’ oversized side-mount muffler. The motor has the feel of a vintage bike—unsurprising from a basic design that’s more than 20 years old. Yes, it goes, but there is nothing smooth or modern about it.
The traction control system, while a cool safety feature, seemed more invasive than necessary, completely choking power delivery when the rider even thinks about getting a holeshot, and you can forget about lofting the front wheel. I ended up being much happier with it turned off. The ABS, however, seemed to work well front and rear, engaging when it was supposed to with minimal pulsing.
The standard controls are well laid out, but the digital display could be a lot better thought out. The tach makes up the bulk of the display, and for some unknown reason the speed is displayed in relatively small numbers at the lowest point on the unit. Not exactly conducive for quick mph monitoring.
They do have the look, sound and feel that’s unmistakably and purely Ducati. That’s enough for tens of thousands of Ducati guys and gals all over the world; just not enough for me.