With 200,000 units sold over a 15-year lifespan, the Monster is without doubt the bike that's kept Ducati afloat and therefore able to produce-and race-much more glamorous machinery. There have been many variations down the line, but the Essence of Monster (we believe there's an aftershave planned) is simple: engine, frame, wheels, off ya' go, enjoy.
Replacing an iconic design is never easy (as Ducati knows too well), but with its brand-spanking-new Monster 696 the Italian manufacturer has nailed it squarely. The familiar air-cooled V-twin has been fettled with new cylinder heads (like the Multistrada/Hypermotard design) featuring plain-bearing cams and larger valves, plus a finer-tuned fuel-injection system using one Lambda sensor per cylinder. The factory claims 11 percent more torque and 9 percent more power, but in truth the mini-Monster still feels a little flat, especially down low. There's quite an impressive honk from the airbox beneath the dummy fuel tank when you wind on the throttle, but that's about it. Get it spinning above 6000 rpm, however, and the 696 hustles along with a tad more verve, and the (wet) slipper clutch and six-speed gearbox are sweet to the touch-as they need to be.
In all honesty, this is a bike designed to be non-threatening and easy to use; it's the entry point for budding Ducatisti, after all. And if the engine has been lightly warmed over to appease emissions rules, the real work has gone into the chassis. A thin-wall tubular-steel lattice frame bolts to the engine, an aluminum subframe supports the rider, and the Sachs shock is offset on the aluminum swingarm to give the exhaust pipes a clear run to the twin, high-mounted silencers. A 43mm Showa inverted fork carries Brembo four-pot radial calipers and floating 320mm discs. All good stuff on paper, all the correct boxes ticked from a marketing perspective.
In reality, it all works together really well. The 696 is a sweet-steering little tool and can be hoisted around a snaking backroad effortlessly. Of course, its relative lack of weight and compact dimensions help, but cornering clearance is also greatly improved-thankfully, because that was a real problem on the 695 and most of the Monster clan. You can change line with the lightest of touches on the wide, low handlebar, trail-brake hard and deep into a corner, and nothing seems to upset the poise and confidence emanating from that front end.
The race-refugee brakes may seem like overkill, but they're actually fingertip-sensitive with a gentle initial bite yet really powerful when you want them to be; squeeze 'em hard and prepare to stop hard. Around town the 696 is just as handy as the 695 was, and while the suspension is firmer than before it's still supple enough to soak up the big hits. Of course the new bike looks much cooler, which helps garner an edge in the urban maelstrom.
On the subject of comfort, while the new seat is lower than before it's also steeply angled, sliding the rider forward against the back of the tank cover. This occasionally led to a sensitive-organ/motorcycle interface, of which more than one hapless journo remarked. Personally, I didn't find it a problem.
There's all sorts of clever stuff going on with the 696's new electronic dash, too, including a lap timer, scheduled maintenance warning, trip fuel and air temperature. The important bits-tach and speedo-are easy to read and digest, and the mirrors give a reasonable view of what's just happened behind you.
According to Ducati, 60 percent of 695 buyers were first-time motorcyclists. The good news here for anybody slinging a leg over a 696 for their first two-wheeled outing is this is a far more competent bike.