IT WAS DUCATI'S chief test rider Andrea Forni who convinced me about the Multistrada, though I didn't realise it at the time. The Ducati had felt good all morning on the damp roads of Sardinia, impressing with its roomy, near-upright riding position, its torquey engine and its light and flickable feel. But still there had been a slight doubt in my mind about how well this bike with its wide handlebars and generous suspension travel would work when the pace got hot.
That was answered in the afternoon, when I found myself on a twisty road that was finally dry, following a guy with a distinctively painted helmet and a very quick and neat riding style. Suddenly I was having to ride mighty hard to keep up: gunning the 992cc air-cooled engine through the gears, braking late for the endless succession of tight bends, hurling the Ducati from side to side through the bends with its footrest tips and my boot toes scraping, and the sticky Pirellis being worked to their sidewalls.
For a hectic twenty minutes I just about managed to stay in touch, and it was only when the rider slowed because he was getting low on fuel that I realised it was Forni. By then, any doubts I'd had about the Multistrada had been blown into the weeds. The test rider's pace had made me to ride hard enough to confirm that in its handling and roadholding, as well as its desmo V-twin engine, this very different motorbike is very much a Ducati. An extremely important Ducati, too, because this bike is not just another new model but the first of a family of machines that the Bologna firm hopes will allow significantly increased production in the next few years. Looking for ways to expand from their traditional super-sports niche, Ducati's development team asked themselves not just what they liked to ride, but where. One answer was the nearby city of Florence - via the Futa Pass, the hilly, twisty, beautiful and sometimes badly-surfaced road that winds over the Apennine mountains.
"The guy this bike is built for is old enough to know he's never going to win the World Superbike championship, but he still wants to get over the Futa as fast as his friends on sports bikes," says Ducati's design chief Pierre Terblanche. So while the Multistrada is intended to appeal to new riders with its less aggressive style and riding position, the aim was to achieve this without compromising performance.
"It's very much a sports bike with some extra features, not an enduro bike adapted for the street," says Terblanche. "It had to be small and light - much lighter than bikes like the Honda Varadero and BMW R1150GS. It had to have hyper-sport based brakes, suspension and so on; the really good stuff. And it had to be simple, comfortable and practical. We also wanted a basic, mechanical look, and to provide some storage capacity without adding weight."
The inevitably tall machine he created has received a mixed reaction since being unveiled in prototype form at the Milan Show almost two years ago, and there's no doubt that the Multistrada lacks the sleek, racy lines that many people expect of a Ducati. Equally there's no denying that this is an innovative and bold design, not least in that fairing with its top section that pivots with the handlebars, in the style - as Terblanche cheerfully concedes - of the Yamaha XS1100 Martini Special tourer, designed by John Mockett in the late 1970s.
The storage Terblanche mentioned comes in a lockable cubby-hole in the right of the main fuel tank section, which covers the large airbox as well as holding fuel. This did not allow the 5.3 gallon capacity deemed necessary for sufficient range, so more volume was required. Modern rotational moulding techniques allowed Ducati to create a complex one-piece plastic tank that extends beneath the seat, whose tall 33.5 inch height is intended to give a commanding, dual-purpose type riding position.
Many other parts are also new although, apart from its wide and slightly raised one-piece handlebar, the Multistrada's layout is typical Ducati. Its engine is the 992cc, sohc air-cooled desmo unit first seen in this year's Super Sport 1000 DS, complete with dual spark plugs. The engine is mechanically identical to the SS lump but has a larger, airbox, and a new exhaust system ending in a pair of linked high-level silencers under the seat, similar to those of the MH900ie. Peak power is 84bhp at 8000rpm, fractionally down on the SS.
The frame is obviously a steel trellis -- it is, after all, still a Ducati -- but it's new, and differs from previous designs by supporting the single-sided swing-arm's pivot with frame tubes as well as with the engine's crankcases. The headstock is also considerably larger than on previous models, increasing rigidity. Suspension is a typical blend of multi-adjustable upside-down forks and vertical monoshock, but gives 6.5 inches of travel at the front and 5.5 inches at the rear.
Wheels come in conventional 17-inch diameters, with a 5.5in rear, but the Multistrada's different personality is emphasized by its tires. Pirelli's new Scorpion Sync radials, designed for this bike in collaboration with Ducati, are not remotely dual-purpose, but have considerably more tread pattern than super-sport rubber. The front brake's design is new too, as the 320mm discs are bolted directly to the hub, saving weight by negating the need for carriers.
The Futa Pass is too high and prone to snow for Ducati to risk a launch there in April, so they looked south to picturesque Sardinia, where the weather was merely wet. First impression was that the bike is indeed tall, with a seat height that won't please short riders, although being tall I could get both feet down easily enough. In its favor the Multistrada immediately felt slim, light and maneuverable. Its weighs 441 lbs. without fuel, making it much lighter than most dual-purpose bikes (and KTM's Adventure V-twin, just), albeit roughly the same as Yamaha's TDM900, its closest competitor. Immediately after leaving the hotel grounds I took a wrong turn, and was glad of the ample steering lock provided by the pivoting top half of the fairing. The fairing worked well on the main road, too, keeping wind off my chest and giving notably little turbulence although my head remained in the airstream. This meant the bike was comfortable at normal cruising speeds, despite its upright riding position and the improbably generous legroom provided by the combination of high seat and fairly low footrests.
If there was one pleasant surprise about this bike, it was how good the updated air-cooled V-twin engine felt. Having sampled it a few months ago in the Super Sport 1000 DS, I'd been expecting a powerplant with plenty of low-rev punch, and the Multistrada certainly delivered. When the road began to get twisty, the two-valve motor's flexibility and excellent fuel-injection response made for a very quick and forgiving bike. Several times I glanced down, with the Multistrada surging forward enthusiastically from a tight bend, to find only about 4000rpm showing on the tach.
But I'd expected this from riding the SS, and it was at higher revs that the Multistrada had the edge. My memory of the Super Sport is of a fair amount of top-end harshness, which discouraged me from revving it hard. But the Multistrada's identical motor seemed distinctly smoother; so much so that I frequently found myself taking it to 8000rpm through the excellent six-speed box. Even when I tucked down as far as possible behind the screen and held the Ducati flat-out to an indicated 127mph that is probably not too short of its true top speed, vibration wasn't a problem.
The smoother ride is presumably due to the new, more rigid frame as well as to the insulating effect of the wide handlebars and under-seat fuel tank. The chassis did a great job in its main role, too, delivering a super-stable ride plus the quick steering, agility and all-round cornering performance required of any bike built for the Futa Pass. I took a little while to get used to it, even so. The wide bars initially seemed to put my hands almost by my knees, which seemed strange when I started to flick the bike through bends. And even on damp roads, the front forks' extra travel allowed more front-end dive than I wanted when the powerful Brembo front stopper was used in anger.
The Showa rear shock gave a well-controlled ride straight away, and was improved still further by a couple of turns on the handy remote preload adjuster. The Japanese firm's forks are also multi-adjustable, and compression damping is set via an external screw that is more accessible than conventional adjusters. But it still needs a screwdriver and, while I wondered whether to stop for fine-tuning, more spits of rain on my visor meant there was no point. In town or on bumpy roads the standard suspension settings would have been fine. But how about adjusters that can be turned by hand next time, please, Ducati? Mind you, that thrilling late-afternoon chase after the speeding Forni, when the roads had finally dried out, confirmed that the Multistrada is capable of serious cornering speeds even on its standard fork settings. The new Scorpions delivered heaps of grip, too, on Sardinia's superbly smooth and almost empty (in April, at least) roads, as well as contributing to the bike's agility. And the tall, slim Ducati had enough ground clearance that only footrests and, more often, the toes of my boots touched down.
That last blast confirmed that the Multistrada works well when the going gets hot, but this bike has been created to provide un-Ducati-like ability in town and at slower speeds, too. In most respects it looks like delivering. (Thankfully Ducati didn't devise a launch route through rough city streets to prove it.) Thoughtful features include the headlight, which can be electronically adjusted for height when carrying a pillion; the mirrors, which neatly house the front indicators and also give a reasonably clear view of what's behind; and the broad, if not particularly well padded, stepped dual-seat with its built-in grabrail. If you're a rider whose main interest is the traditional Bolognese blend of head down, high-speed charging, the Multistrada is almost certainly not for you. But if you've always fancied a Ducati V-twin but have been put off because you ride in town as well as on the open road, and travel long distances with a pillion as often as you attack a racetrack, then the Multistrada has just opened up a whole new world. It's not as fast, taut or sexy as some, but its comfort, versatility and potential for slightly more relaxed fun might just make up for that.
Ducati's 2004 MultiStrada will be available this summer for the cool price of $11,495.