Multistrada 1200S 2/4: What’s It All About?

Firstly, and for anyone who hasn’t come out of hibernation in the year to date, here’s the what of the new Multistrada, which shares only its name with the previous model. This is a machine with longer wheelbase (in fact about 25mm longer than the R1200GS), long-travel suspension, two comfy seats, an adjustable screen, built-in pannier mounts and dual-purpose tyres. Sounds like a GS then, doesn’t it? But wait, these are Italians we’re talking about: Ducati’s brief to their espresso and adrenaline-crazed design team was very simple: “Build the bike you’d want to ride on the road“. They evidently took that to heart so here we have a machine which in its ‘S’ incarnation has:

  • 142 real horsepower delivered at the rear wheel (according to Bike magazine’s dyno — on which the latest GS has just under 100). More to the point, in taking 20bhp off the top-end of the 1198’s engine, they’ve stuck it all back on at the bottom end and mid-range — below 6750rpm, the ‘Strada makes way more power than an 1198, which itself isn’t notably short of low-end grunt. For perspective, a 2010 Honda Fireblade puts out roughly 75bhp at 6000rpm. At the same revs, the Multistrada is punting out about 90bhp. Sure, the ‘Blade has another 20+bhp at the top-end, but the rider has to wind it up first. Meanwhile, the Multistrada is over the hills and far away…
  • An all-up weight around 225kg — about 20kg less than a GS, about the same as a VFR800 and just under 20kg more than the current generation of litre-class sports bikes.
  • Multiple choices of engine map: full power delivered as fast as you can twist the throttle (wherein it does exactly what it says on the tin), a more relaxed delivery of the same power for touring (especially good for avoiding Nodding Dog syndrome two-up) and a very laid-back 100bhp mode for urban and off-road use.
  • Electronically adjustable suspension for everything bar front preload, with four different modes available, each with four sub-modes (labelled solo, solo+luggage, two-up and two-up+luggage), giving a grand total of sixteen suspension modes, all controlled from a handlebar button by an idiot.
  • ABS, naturally.
  • Traction control, with eight different levels of intervention.

More to the point, all of these bar the ABS are integrated, so that when you switch modes, all adjust at once. And all are completely customisable: you can change settings and assign new settings to any mode or sub-mode. There is also (thankfully) a “Numpty” button to take everything back to stock settings once you’ve terminally confused both yourself and the bike. Oh, and you can switch modes whilst riding — something I was a tad dubious about ahead of time, but it does prove to be a real boon on the road — I can leave Edinburgh, hack across the wet city cobbles in Urban mode (low power, soft suspension and traction control ready to pounce), flip into Touring mode on the motorway (high but relaxed power and firmer but lightly damped suspension to cope with those tedious motorway miles), chop into Sports mode when I peel off onto the glory of my local Highland roads — despatching most visiting sports bikes in the process — and, finally, drop into Enduro mode for the last three miles of broken single track into our village and the near-mile of motocross track that masquerades as our drive. Works for me and the modes really do make a difference to the feel and usability of the bike in each situation.

That’s the toys accounted for, but now for the big basic question: Stuff the gizmos and the numbers, how does this bike feel on the road? OK, here goes: it inspires. it exhilarates. it terrifies (but in a good way). It relaxes. It gets me 500 miles in a sitting without a twinge. And it may yet land me in front of The Beak, on charges where all I could plead would be guilty with diminished responsibility and mitigation of, “The bike made me do it!“.

Most frequently used phrases whilst riding: “Wooo-Hooo!!” and “Holy S**t!“.

Least commonly used phrases: “Are we nearly there yet?” and “What’s on the telly?“.

But don’t get the idea that this is an unreconstructed hooligan of a machine: it certainly can be, but it’s biggest talent is being able to adapt to suit your mood and intent: want to bimble along a beautiful coastline? Do so. Want to mix it in the fast group at a track day? Fine, no problem. Commute, Tour, Play — all are within the machine’s ambit and always just a button push away. The toys work.

Climb aboard the 1200 and it’s a tall but narrow bike — seat height, at 850mm, is on a par with a GS in low-seat mode (there’s a 25mm lower seat available as an option). I’m 1.83m, longish in the leg and wouldn’t want to be much shorter and have a ‘Strada. It does carry its weight well though and, once on board, feels much lighter and more compact than a GS. Pulling away, the clutch is no more than moderate by Japanese standards and rather lighter than Ducatis of yore. And the traditional Ducati overture of a dry clutch that sounds like a bag of spanners on a spin cycle is relegated to history by the adoption of a wet slipper clutch. I rather miss that. And, having moved off, the whole plot is light and pliant — the overall feel being that of a well-balanced and responsive machine with the pilot nicely poised at the heart of things. There isn’t a huge amount of fore and aft space on the seat before you butt up against the step to the pillion perch, but I very quickly got used to that and now find it rather reassuring, especially under enthusiastic acceleration.

Onto the open road and wind it on a bit — in Touring mode, the bike simply leaps forward — any revs, any gear — and accelerates hard until it reaches about 6000rpm, at which point it really starts to take an interest in proceedings. In Sports mode it doesn’t bother with even that modest build-up and just launches itself like it’s been bungee’d to the horizon. This is a seriously quick bike. And, unlike most previous Ducatis, it’s not notably over-geared — sixth gear is described by Ducati as an overdrive (they claim top speed in fifth) which rather concerned me as I much prefer bikes that are geared for optimum performance rather than as a nod to economy. I needn’t have worried — there’s so much power and torque on tap that sixth remains a perfectly usable road gear. It’s also the most town-friendly Ducati, which is a relative term, as v-twins just aren’t that comfortable at very low revs, but whereas most need 3500 revs to avoid the lurch’n’shudder effect, the ‘Strada is quite happy from under 2500rpm and trundles along happily at 30mph in third. There is a slight surging from the engine at these constant low revs, from which some bikes seem to suffer worse than others — there’s now a software update and a tweak to the cylinder air valves (no, I don’t know what they are either) to address this and mine is having that installed soon, although I don’t find it a major problem. Vibration is low, and mostly of the usual large v-twin variety — a low frequency throbbing that smooths out with speed and which never intrudes — even the large and useful mirrors are tolerably clear at most revs (and are improving as I get more miles on the bike).

This new generation of Testastretta Evo-engined Ducatis are rather different beasts from earlier bikes — the now-classic 748 and 996 would build power quickly and punchily but fairly softly by comparison and the smaller twins were definitely the smoother and sweeter engines. Of the recent machines, I find that the 848 retains that earlier generation of delivery and character whilst the 1098/1198 are something else entirely — with a big torque step in the midrange that makes it very difficult to keep the front wheel down. The Multistrada’s 1198 11° (named after the valve overlap angle if you really must know) is more linear and progressive here but, in Sport engine map, has real hair trigger responses — it does take practice to develop the degree of subtlety with the throttle necessary to ride it smoothly in high power mode. After 3000 miles though, I’m finally calibrating my right hand to the fineness of control needed and absolutely loving the responsiveness of the engine, but I can imagine that if you’re coming straight from something like a VFR it would be a bit of a shock.

At constant speed cruising, I am a complete addict of the steady thrumming of V-twins, finding them very relaxing and without that high-frequency component from some fours that can be very tiring. I’d always valued the linearity of the throttle response on the 996 engine in my ST4s but, going back to that now after the Multistrada, the 996 feels like the throttle is attached by rubber bands, such is the linear punch from the newer engine. The ‘Strada does however retain have that bipolar feel of good Ducatis though — below about 6000 rpm, it’s relaxing and very quick, delivering with a rather muffled bellow – above 6000 there’s isn’t so much of a power step (certainly not like a VTEC VFR800), but the delivery changes and — once run in — it then heads for the top end of the rev range like a Scotsman heading for the bar in happy hour, with the engine note changing to that wailing drone that nothing but a Ducati (or indeed a Scotsman heading for the bar) can make. At that point it changes from being merely very quick to utterly, hilariously insane.

And that’s the engine, something which dominates first impressions of the bike — this is truly one of the great motorcycle engines.

All of which is a major slight to the frame and cycle parts. On the stock, very impressive, expensive and currently unobtainable Pirelli Scorpion Sync dual-purpose tyres (which still just about have useful tread after 3000 miles and a track day) the ‘Strada is a neutral and progressively steering machine — it turns quickly and positively, with a light touch that takes time and practice to get used to if you’re coming from a narrow-barred bike like a sports tourer or outright sports machine. At first I found that it didn’t turn in with the alacrity I’d expected and had a tendency to run wide on corner exits. That was until I realised that, because the steering was much lighter than that of my other bike, I was gripping the bars too hard so that, on countersteering to start a turn, the combination of my grip on the unweighted bar and the leverage of those long bars was slowing and limiting the rate of turn. Workman, not tool. Once I’d worked that out, I found I could turn quickly and accurately, scything through long sweepers and flicking through the twisties like an oversized supermoto — the ‘Strada is a rapier to the 1198’s scalpel: marginally less precise but a damn sight more fun to play pirates with. If you’re really getting a move on, toe sliders are the first things down, followed by the footpegs. If you’ve got the centrestand fitted, the ironmongery hits the road rather sooner. The high riding position is also probably worth 20bhp on it’s own — the longer sight lines it gives you make forward planning and overtake decisions dramatically easier.

The downside of this light steering and the high riding position is that the bike will occasionally react to crosswinds or passing the bow wave of large trucks with a slight and brief wiggle from the bars. It doesn’t remotely affect the bike outside of motorways and mid-corner stability is stupendous, in the defining manner of Ducatis.

The Öhlins suspension does its usual magic carpet act and every click of adjustment (via the setup function on the dash for everything bar the front preload and a bloody great spanner for that) makes a noticeable difference. What isn’t so good is the stock rear spring — I’m guessing that Ducati work on something like a 75kg/50kg rider/passenger combo, meaning that us larger Northern European types (ahem) run out of rear preload adjustment very rapidly. After bottoming out a few times two-up, even at maximum preload, I’ve ordered a heavier rear spring, which should sort matters out. Cutting down on the pies may also help.

The brakes — ABS-assisted Brembo radials — work fine but seemed surprisingly weak at times, until I realised that I was entering bends 20mph faster than my thought processes — this machine takes the famous “Ducati Deception” of actual speed relative to perceived speed to a whole new level, even after you’ve allowed for the 8% over-read on the speedo (which Ducati even document in the manual). Some journalists have claimed that the ABS is over-eager, but I’ve so far not found it so, even on track — I’ve only had it kick in when deliberately trying to provoke it. Your experience may vary — braking definitely isn’t my strongest point as, being a Scotsman, I feel culturally obliged to avoid wearing out expensive brake pads — my original RoSPA test report included the nicely understated comment that, “Richard has an occasional tendency to substitute his considerable faith in his machine’s abilities for the Speed phase of The System“. God knows how it would have read if I’d had this bike at the time.

I also now know what the traction control really feels like. I’d initially only had it cut in when the bike had unloaded off crests and gotten a little air, so having the wheel out of contact with the road at the time really didn’t count. The other day we had a lot of rain. Then a lot of sun. Then both at once, so by the time I was heading out it was wet, but drying in patches, but the grip ‘should’ have been just fine on that particular bit of road. Left-hander, moderate speed and moderate throttle on the exit when the back end stepped out. I was in Sport Mode so it went a fair way and I was just getting my reactions together to gingerly back off the throttle when the bike got there first — it picked itself up, fishtailed a few times in a nicely and progressively damped fashion and carried on — the immediate sensation was rather like having a rapid puncture. There was no violent correction or over-correction (which I suspect would have happened without the DTC) and it was nicely unobtrusive in action — I could almost believe that I’d gotten it back unaided. Almost. This was the biggest slide I’ve had on a road bike and I simply can’t say if it would have come back without the software, although I’m not prone to throwing bikes up the road. I do however suspect that, because I know the DTC is there, I’m getting on the power harder and earlier in the wet, and this was payback time.

The windscreen is adjustable vertically by about 100mm — I’ve found that I tend to leave it in its lowest position, where I get a certain amount of wind pressure but no serious buffeting. But this is such a personal thing that everyone has their own opinion — one rider’s supportive breeze is another’s howling gale — and there are already a whole range of official and third-party accessory screens available if you so desire. Overall, and for me, I’d rate the wind protection as a slight improvement over the (fully faired) ST range and noticeably better than a GS. Wind noise is certainly there and various owners have commented on it, but I hadn’t actually noticed it until others made comment — again, I suspect this to be a case of what you’re used to.

Lights. Ah yes, those… Now the Multistrada 1200 has four (count ’em) headlights: the two outers of which are permanently on as dip beam, switching to the two inners for main beam. Flashing from dip lights up all four. Now you’d think that with a clean design sheet and modern CAD systems to work with, making lighting that ‘just worked’ (TM Apple Inc) would be a bit of a no-brainer, wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it: whilst the ‘Strada’s dip beam is OK-to-decent, main beam is so bad that, the first time I rode after dark and flipped main beam on, I genuinely thought a fuse had blown — I took to riding on dip and holding down the flasher when I really need a little more illumination. The problem seems to be that they’ve set the main beam up for range and not spread, so that distant road signs and itinerant UFOs are lit up from several miles away but there’s absolutely nothing closer to the machine, which could be considered something of a disadvantage for night travel. I’m going to try an HID upgrade on the main beams, but without huge optimism – as with the atrocious stock headlight on the ST range, it seems to be a problem of beam design rather than raw output.

Now for that other bane of aspiring touring machines: tank range. The ‘Strada has a 20l tank, which Ducati claim should give a 200 mile range. Now if you kept speeds even vaguely sensible (for which read, “legal”) over a tankful, that would indeed be achievable. And if you can do that, you’ve got a great deal more self-control than I have. I usually end up filling up at about 160 miles, with the range remaining indicator on the comprehensive digital dash showing about 20 miles. The fuel consumption display is about 10% optimistic but the remaining range indicator is Germanically accurate: when it reaches “0 miles”, you’d better be ready to start walking.

Staying briefly on the topic of bodily fluids, I’ve also just put some oil into my machine for the first time: about 150ml needed at 2700 miles, so that’s been consumed since the oil change service at 780 miles. Not bad at all, especially compared to certain flat twins of common experience…

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