The Marmite Machine

Sometimes, just sometimes, there is no middle ground of opinion, no equivocation and no compromise possible for those times, places, events or objects which excite lust, disgust, incomprehension, inspiration or apoplexy — anything but apathy. As with Marmite (that’s Vegemite to the antipodally-challenged) itself, you either love it or hate it, and, if you’ve enough confidence in your product, you can even make an advertising campaign out of it. To be a tad more specific, if you are a motorcyclist and have ever seen a Ducati Multistrada, you have an opinion. You will either consider it an abomination, to be consigned to the pit whence it came, preferably as the headstone of its designer, Pierre Terreblanche, or as a bold and unconstrained leap into the future of what a motorcycle should be.

Confession time: I’m in the second camp — I love the concept and the looks of the thing and have done ever since Ducati released the first knowing ‘teaser’ photographs a couple of years ago. And, all credit to Ducati, they stuck with the design in the face of a deal of criticism and released it earlier this year, unapologetically unchanged. To some, this is the real-world bike redefined, suitable for spirited riding over variable and varied roads and focussing on the delivered experience over the cant of horsepower. To others, it’s the bastard offspring of a preying mantis and a motocrosser — neither fish nor flesh but certainly foul. So much for the hype and cant — now is the time to find out what it’s like as a functioning machine. I’d had an earlier poke around one of the first to arrive in the UK, courtesy of Alvin’s in Edinburgh, but hadn’t had the chance for a ride. Until now, that is — Snell’s of Alton have my ST4s for its long-overdue 6000 mile service and they’ve very kindly offered me their Multistrada demonstrator for the day. Now I could ride it home, park up and do all the sensible necessities of the day — I have a house to clean for prospective buyers who may turn up any decade now and I have a bunch of admin and tax stuff to do. Oh yeah, and I’m leaving the country tomorrow. It’s all too much and I don’t like this game any more. And what to do if you don’t like a game? Easy — play another or break the rules. So today’s game is ‘play with shiny red toy’. And the rules to be broken? As it transpires, most of them…

Impressions

First up, the looks, in the round and in the angles: Like all the other Terreblanche designs I’ve seen, it presents a complex interplay of angles and surfaces, that rely on a constantly shifting viewpoint for an appreciation of form and line. Such do not respond well to the imprisonment of the moment inherent in a photograph, or at least that’s my guess as to why modern Ducatis tend to look better in life than in pictures.

Keys in hand, I climb aboard, to find that the narrowness of the machine belies its seat height — although tall, and looking taller, the narrowness of the seat nose makes it easy for me to plant both feet firmly on the ground. Bars fall, ah, readily to hand, giving the most upright riding position I’ve encountered on an Italian bike. Feels very poised and balanced. There’s a grin starting…

Instruments are clear, even if the digital display’s mode-change push buttons have the tactile feedback of soggy blancmange, and the small screen is surprisingly high in front of me. Start the beast up, warm it up and find that the engine is surprisingly quiet for an air-cooled lump, then into gear (‘click’ rather than ‘clunk’) and move off.

Riding the Thing

Starting with a sensible and sober potter through Alton, I’m finding it smooth and responsive — each generation of Ducati fuel injection appears to improve on the historic jerkiness of the on-off throttle response. I’ve chosen to head out over the twisty back roads, so I reach the national limit and let rip. Five miles later, the grin is nailed to my ears, and I’ve probably given seizures to every other driver on the road — including the other bikes I’ve just ridden around the outside of, not just the cars whose offside front fenders I’ve used as turn-in points — this is a true hooligan machine — not especially fast, but very, very easy to ride to its (and my) limits — it picks up well in pretty much any gear, the suspension works well and is well set-up out of the crate (now there is a first for a Ducati) and the brakes work very well indeed. The wide bars make it easy to turn in very late and very quickly and the long-travel suspension keeps it stable and composed over bumpy and broken surfaces mid-bend. Compared to my ST in its current suspension incarnation, it’s not quite as precise in placement, but compensates by being rather more relaxing to ride — it’ll happily change line with no notice, without any sign of nervousness, and I never managed to seriously upset its overall composure.

The high and upright riding position makes it very easy to see a long way ahead and set up overtakes that simply aren’t possible with more extreme sports bikes — as witness here, I will call the R6 rider who chased me (briefly) down a busy A283. After 70 miles or so of hunting down ever narrower and more twisty lanes, I finally managed to restrain my Supermoto Mania, and returned home (by then I was well and truly lost somewhere on a forest track in deepest Sussex, to the confusion of the local badgers) in more of a touring mode. That’s where the ‘Strada shows its limitations — the screen is fine up to about 90mph, but things get a little blustery after that. Much over 100 and the response tails away rapidly — I wasn’t about to be completely merciless with a brand new machine with only 1200miles on it, but I’d guess 130mph or so to be a realistic indicated top-end. And of course I wouldn’t know that it’s easy to wheelie with just a little encouragement from the clutch

As something of a race-rubber snob, I was pleasantly surprised by the OEM Pirelli Scorpion tyres — while they seem to squirm a little at high lean angles, they just gripped and kept on gripping, and didn’t even disgrace themselves with a little impromptu green-laning. Other than a brief transit of a local ford (as opposed to an encounter with a local Ford Transit, which is another story entirely), there was no chance to test wet weather grip.

Comfort and Practical Bits

One thing above all springs to mind, or rather bum: until I rode the ‘Strada, I’d not hitherto encountered a motorcycle seat quite as uncomfortable as that of the 999. This is worse: similar, but even less comfortable, as the more upright riding position places more weight on the seat. I’d really not be keen on meeting (other than from morbid curiosity) whoever Ducati now uses as a model for its seating ergonomics — I’ve never met anyone with a transverse slot across their buttocks.

The mirrors are smallish, but do work well, albeit with some vibration apparent. And the vibration does seem to bother the mirrors themselves — they were both flopping loose on their stems every five miles or so — after a while I gave up trying to tighten them, and spent the rest of the day indicating turns to passing aircraft, and trusting to blind faith that I wasn’t about to get Pulled by the local constabulary (there’s a 5′ 4″ in-joke there). And, while on the subject of important bits that don’t, Ducati don’t give up — since they finally moved away from their trademark flip-up side stand a couple of years ago, their spares revenues have obviously plummeted to unacceptable levels. So now we have a valiant attempt to redress that, with a side stand that appears barely able to balance the unloaded motorcycle on a smooth level surface. Trying to park it up on a camber with the optional (two sizes) hard panniers and a tank bag attached would be paranoia-generating in the extreme. That’ll be another sale of the £130 optional centrestand then.

Returning once again to the 999 comparisons, there’s the exhaust: I described the stock 999 exhaust as being akin to two hamsters having a farting contest in a tin bucket. The Multistrada is of the same genetic stock, although possibly more hedgehog than hamster — a slightly gruffer mammal. It’s attractive enough, in a Flash-Gordon-Ray-Gun sort of style, but just doesn’t have THAT sound. The replacement Termignoni should improve things, but at a cost of nearly £700, it damn well ought to.

To Conclude, M’Lud

The Multistrada is a Stanley knife to the scalpels of the Superbikes — it may lack their ultimate precision and power, but you can use it for what it’s designed to do in more times and places, and run less risk of cutting yourself. That can only be good, right? I’ve discovered roads I didn’t know existed. I’ve taken gravel tracks and country lanes with grass down the centreline; I’ve had to slow down through having my vision obscured by tears of laughter and sniggering schoolboy guilt at my own behaviour. In slowing down, I’ve been doing so from vaguely legal speeds. That all is good – this motorcycle is a complete hoot, it is forgiving where other machines will bite and is in its fun zone at speeds that vaguely relate to real-world sense and sensibility.

There is of course a dark side: Bikes like the ST4s or 99x will simply cause your license to be ceremonially consigned to the shredder for grotesque and repeated abuse of the national speed limit, simply because they don’t sit up, take notice and become amusing companions until you’re operating way outside the envelope of legal (and occasionally social) acceptability. The Multistrada however, provides that engagement at much more readily attainable velocities. In doing so however, the sheer manic behaviour it inspires will have you condemned to the Tower on a charge of sedition and sentenced to transportation for life to the colonies, if we still have any.

Ducati have done it again: as with the 999, they’ve come up with a fundamentally brilliant machine, but one that is rather compromised by gratuitous cost-cutting and lack of detail final development — seat, mirrors and side stand all conspire to devalue the experience and confidence just a little. If I were looking for an all-rounder for commuting, leisurely(ish) touring (seat allowing) and weekend sporting insanity though, it’s right there, right now, even allowing for cost. It does however lack the comfort and top-end to eat up continents — what it really needs for extended distances is a serious horsepower hike and a more effective screen — the new 102bhp DesmoTre would be ideal, the full monty Testastretta DesmoQuattro wonderfully insane. Not sure where they’d put the radiators, though but, given Ducati’s record in eventually applying most of their engines to most of their chassis ranges, I can’t believe that this hasn’t been designed in. Can I? But that’s slightly missing the point – there already exist bikes in the range, most notably mine, that fit the überblaster bill very nicely.

Price is where things start looking a little less rosy — the bare machine is £7600, to which I’d say you need to add, as a bare minimum: £160 for the comfort seat option (about £300 in total for both perches) and £689 for the Termignoni exhaust. That’s excluding legal defence costs. That takes the cost to around £9000, for an air-cooled, 84bhp V-twin. There are several bikes which sit in the same generic territory — the pig-ugly Suzuki wossname, Yamaha’s TDM900, the BMW R1150GS and the gorgeous new KTM Adventure. All of which, bar the BMW, will leave you useful change from £7500. Which does leave the Multistrada looking rather out of place in its Pradarelli loafers beside the Birkenstocks of the Beemer.

One Comment

  1. Waypoint September 25, 2005 at 9:08 pm #

    Thank you for your valuable and highly entertaining review of the Multistrada, which I read as part of my research before buying a used 2003. The bike is so fun and easy to ride that I feel as if I must be cheating–no suffering for my art here.
    I also must say that your writing is inspirational as well. After your comments regarding the “hamsters engaged in a farting contest in a tin bucket” and likening the Multistrada’s exhaust note to “gruffer mammals”–hedgehogs, the bike found its “pet” name–Spiny Norman. If you were ever a fan of Monty Python, you might remember the criminal Pirahna Brothers, one of whom, Dinsdale, occasionally halucinated an 8′ tall hedgehog named Spiny Norman that would call out to him in a most baleful voice. Given the “space deco” design elements of the Multistrada, naming it for a halucination seems somewhat poetic.
    Yes, I do understand that naming bikes is a bit childish, but, well, they are there for fun. Now, if we could have a similar epiphany for my husband’s ST4S…
    Thanks!

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