In previous arm-wavings I’ve argued that a crucial factor in the move from Analogue to Digital experiences in vehicles is how much of the decision-making the vehicle does for itself, both to carry out its functions and to determine the amount of feedback it chooses to give you.

A perfect illustration there – albeit in cars – is the steering in a Porsche 911 as you move from the 997 model (legendarily informative ‘traditional’ hydraulic power steering) to the current 991 (electric power steering with programmable ‘feel’). The former give you EVERYTHING and it’s up to you to learn how to filter the signals and learn to use the parts that make you a better driver. The latter makes lots more decisions for you and only gives you what it (or rather, Porsche’s engineers) think is necessary for you as a driver in the presumed demographic for that model. And they actually do a pretty good job of this: the demographic for their GT3, Cup and RS cars is in a different place, so a different set of signals is provided. If I’m driving for utility, I’ll happily accept that compromise, where of course I happen to fit the profile. If however I’m driving for fun (accepting that practically any modern vehicle is capable of outperforming most roads and most drivers) then I want the full engagement that makes me work to learn how to filter the signals and create my own riding or driving experience rather than the one the manufacturer thinks I ought to have. Bikes simply don’t have that problem, given the direct and mechanical nature of their steering, although that does in turn create its own compromises.

Priorities are slightly different when it comes to suspension, though, particularly in a car. Unlike bikes, most cars don’t come with adjustable suspension and, where they do, it can be a complete pain to get to. And even then most of us (self included) don’t have the experience to set them up properly. So most cars have a single mechanical setting that’s been developed by the manufacturer as the optimum, again for the driving demographic footprint of that model. And if you fit that demographic, then fine – it’s worked pretty well for over a century. However, an increasing number of cars do have semi-active suspension, where a fixed damping setting is replaced by computer-controlled sensors and actuators that respond in real time to how the vehicle is being used. That I do have on my 911, and it works just brilliantly: it allows the car to have a firm ride where control and precision is needed at speed and a soft and compliant ride around potholed towns and country roads. And that’s something that is just starting to appear on bikes, so far on BMW’s S1000RR and on the latest incarnation of my Multistrada. Both get glowing reviews.

My own Multistrada however, has very high quality ‘analogue’ Öhlins suspension, albeit with the convenience of electronically adjustable damping adjustment – but not active damping. And, over many years, I’ve done the analogue thing: I’ve learnt how to set up bike suspension for my weight, the roads I ride and my riding style. So the first thing I do with a new bike is spend time – a lot of time – doing just that, and then refining those settings. It’s also one of the reasons I don’t change bikes very often – I reckon it takes a year or two to get them set up right and to learn to ride them properly (although I will allow that perhaps I’m just a slow learner). The question now becomes whether the new generation of computer sensors and embedded algorithms in these new machines can outwit my (or anyone else’s) experience in setup for any given circumstance AND provide a system that works over a much rider range of conditions than is possible with any analogue system.

The obvious thing then is to ride my Multistrada back-to-back with a current Skyhook model, and I intend to do just that. But first, a little digression into industry supply-chain politics: To provide their Skyhook semi-active system, Ducati has switched from Öhlins to Sachs as their suspension supplier. Now, I’ve nothing against Sachs in principle, save to note that their prior reputation on bikes has been as a budget/mid-range supplier, against the decidedly high-end reputation of Öhlins. And indeed, the Sachs kit on the new ‘Strada certainly doesn’t – at first glance at least – meet the fetishistic engineering standards of their Swedish rivals. And here I start speculating that this move by Ducati has pissed Öhlins off right royally, given that for years they’ve had their own active damping systems waiting in the wings. I suspect that Ducati’s move was, at least in part, cost-based.

Because Öhlins has responded by releasing a plug-in “Mechatronic” replacement for the original 1200 Multistrada’s Suspension Control Unit (SCU) which takes it from electronic adjustment to providing active damping. And they’re rather uncharacteristically doing so at a price (about £300 inc VAT) that is a complete no-brainer. If it works.

Unlike Ducati’s system, which has sensors front and rear (the late and much-missed Kevin Ash explained it beautifully here) the Öhlins unit has to do whatever it can either in the SCU itself or from monitoring the signals on the ‘Strada’s CANbus communications pipe. And that sensing has to be at least somewhat indirect, given that there are no sensors in the machine’s forks or shocks. Öhlins are rather coy about what goes on in the box other than to boast of ‘a bunch of smart algorithms’ but I’m guessing that there may be a multi-axis accelerometer (a la iPhone) which integrates with the CANbus data and feeds a control matrix that’s based on a LOT of heuristics from testing. If they’re good enough, they may even be able to do it without the accelerometers. I don’t like not knowing and it’s the main reason I haven’t sprung for the Mechatronic box before now.

The only pre-requisite then is that the damping actuators fitted to the bike are up to the job of continual rather than occasional adjustment. Which they appear to be, rather making me wonder if this was something of a long-term Trojan Horse play by Öhlins.

The old and the new

The old and the new: original unit on left.

Enough rambling, on with the doing: The new SCU is an entirely unremarkable little black box, which plugs in under the left-hand side panel of the Multistrada, replacing the marginally larger but equally unremarkable original unit. It actually takes less time to install that it does to either explain or to take the photographs, the only pre-requisite being that you disconnect the negative battery terminal first. It really is a five-minute job. Documenting any pre-existing custom suspension settings before starting is helpful, too, but then we all keep a full log of changes to setup, don’t we?

What does take more time is remembering how to reset the clock and display units and re-enable the DTC traction control system, all of whose settings get lost when the battery is disconnected. Then there’s a thumb-numbing 15 minutes or so to be spent setting the damping settings for all the modes to “1”, which tells the Mechatronic system to take over from manual settings.

Ready for surgery

Ready for surgery: note disconnected battery terminal.

I’ve actually migrated my manual settings for fast road work, wet track and dry track (having translated the DES damping settings to the new Mechatronic equivalent – thre’s a table in the manual and I’ve been sad enough to create a full table from the trend equation) to the first three settings of Urban mode, allowing me to make on-the-fly comparisons. I’ve a track day at Knockhill in a couple of weeks and will make further comparison there. I have however left the final Urban setting at factory solo level, as that’s the low preload setting that Ducati want us to use when adjusting the chain.

Insert black box here…

Insert black box here…

First impressions then, on a slightly damp 25 mile blast up the Glens: In comparison to my (I think) tolerably good manual Sport mode setup, the Öhlins seems to offer a subtle but genuinely useful improvement. Most noticeable is an broadening of the comfort zone for that setting, which is pretty much what you’d expect given the technology at work. Urban speed limits are handled more supply than before, the optimum open road zone for which I’ve set the manual suspension up seems just a little smoother with the Mechatronic brain doing its stuff and, at higher speeds, the bike is definitely much more planted. I have a manual setup for track work that is optimised for high speed, where it works well, but it’s hopelessly over-firm at sensible speeds on public roads.

What is a Revelation though is Enduro mode, which will come in handy when slouching to Babylon for the shopping: although I use this mode every time I go out, in order to get up and down our motocross track of a drive, I’ve not got around to doing a full manual setup. Here it transforms the ride into a real magic carpet – a lot, lot cheaper than having the thing resurfaced. Again.

It’s still early days, but my tentative conclusion is that the Mechatronic does help: if your machine has already been properly set up for your needs, you’ll find any improvement subtle but significant. If however you’re still bumbling along on the factory defaults, I suspect the new kit will transform the feel of your machine. The last thing left to do is to do that back-to-back comparison with a Multistrada equipped with the Ducati Skyhook Suspension – it’ll be interesting to see if the greater range of tailoring available in each mode in Ducati/Sachs’ system is sufficient to overcome Öhlins smart algorithms and higher perceived component quality. More fun.

Update, September 2014: I’ve just come back from giving the Mechatronics system a thorough workout over the bumpy roads of the SW Highlands. I’ve spent a couple of hundred miles switching back and forth between the Öhlins SCU in Sport and Touring mode and my own manual settings. For local conditions, I’m finding that the Öhlins Sport mode is a little over damped and therefore harsh-feeling for the local roads and the Touring settings slightly – very slightly – on the soft side. That’s running solo, with light load and with the uprated rear spring. The Öhlins however does, as previously indicated, seem to adapt to a fairly wide range of conditions so is a good no-brain solution for two-up loaded running over varying roads. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, switching back to my own custom setup gave me the exact level of suppleness and control that I prefer for solo running. All of that said, the Öhlins sport mode on track was, quite simply, awesome, with a planted feel, reduced dive under braking and railroad-level mid-corner stability.

One limitation that’s occasionally annoying is that it’s not possible (as far as I can tell) to have the Touring engine map with the Sport suspension setting (or indeed, vice versa). This is because the Öhlins system doesn’t appear to be able to read the Ducati’s suspension modes (Sport, Touring, Urban and Enduro) from the Multistrada’s CANbus electronics – it switches its settings purely on the basis of whichever engine map you have selected (which it obviously can read from the machine). That then gives you just the three automatic modes, but does mean that you can keep one mode for your favourite manual settings for when you want to use those. I use Urban mode for that, with my favourite fast road, wet and dry track settings in three of the four sub-modes and the settings for chain adjustment on the fourth.

Some sort of conclusion? If you’re preference is to just go with whatever settings the factory provides, a Mechatronic upgrade will give you better suspension performance over a wider range of conditions than the stock passive system. If however you’ve got the experience or will pay to have your machine’s suspension set up professionally, you will get a better result from that than from plugging in a Mechatronic box, for the conditions that you’ve set up for. If you run two-up with varying loads over multiple types of road, then the balance definitely tips in favour of the Mechatronic.