Naked Bikes Rule!

New-School Cool Takes On Old-School Cred. A Sideways Leer At The Naked Class, Circa 2005

By Charles Everitt, Photography by Kevin Wing

Ducati Monster S4R
No other production naked bike has a pedigree that can touch that of Ducati's iconic Monster. Il Mostro leapt from the pen of designer Miguelangel Galluzzi as the combination of Ducati's signature steel-tube trellis frame from its 851/888 Superbikes and the air-/oil-cooled 904cc Pompone V-twin from Ducati's supersport range. The result hit the halls of the Cologne Messe at the 1992 motor show with an impact still felt today. In a single stroke Ducati legitimized the naked bike concept, and it was only a matter of time before others followed.

One of those others was Ducati's own hot-rod S4R in '01, which took the concept a step farther by utilizing the liquid-cooled 996cc V-twin previously seen in the firm's Superbikes. Now in its fifth year and relatively unchanged, can the Monster S4R still take on all comers?

Climb onto the deeply scooped saddle (but not as radically so as the Triumph Speed Triple's) and check out your office. Ducatis have long had a high bling-factor, and it's especially evident in the S4R. In a way Harley-Davidson owners could understand, the S4R Monster puts many of its mechanical bits on display, like jewelry. The Brembo front brake and clutch hardware with their separate master cylinders and fluid reservoirs have a rich gold hue, as do the TiN-coated sliders of the 43mm fully adjustable Showa fork. The desmoquattro engine, previously content to hide behind slippery fairing panels on the Superbike, looks busy as its various surfaces vie for your attention. Some find the overall effect sublime; others ... well, Carrithers said the S4R "looked like it had crashed into the plumbing department at Home Depot."

Get rolling and right off you notice the stiff clutch pull and the shortage of steering lock-incongruous given a naked bike's comparative emphasis on urban riding. Still, those are longtime quibbles about Ducati's Monsters, easily fixed via the aftermarket (a common solution to Ducati shortcomings in general). The handlebar is a problem, however; the aluminum Magura bar is peculiarly shaped due to sweep restrictions placed on it by the fuel tank, and the reach to it is quite long. Swapping it for a different bend means going taller, something many Monster owners don't want.

Otherwise, the S4R comports itself nicely in the city. Throttle response is crisp and immediate, while the bike's low weight (459 pounds wet, the lightest in this crowd) and relatively short gearing make the Monster feel aggressive and punchy. "Short gearing?" you say. "Not possible." Well, it is; overall gearing in the first three ratios is significantly lower than any of these stablemates. The top three, though, are typically Ducati-tall. Very soft springs and damping yield a ride quality that's predictably plush.

Get past the city limits, however, and the Monster quickly begins to suffer at the hands of its latest competitors. That storming 996cc desmodromic V-twin might have been able to strap it on the inline-fours back in the day, but not anymore. In pure acceleration, the S4R can barely hold a ZX-6R at bay, let alone outperform it. In this company the Ducati falls behind a bit. Its light weight and rather short first three gears can't make up for the tall upper gears and a general shortage of horsepower at almost any rpm. Which was perfectly OK for the staff wrists, as they complained about the Brembo brakes' nonlinear response. Squeeze the lever and you get decent stopping power. Squeeze harder, though, and you get more than you bargained for.

When the roads get twisty, the S4R feels somewhat out of its depth. With the stock suspension settings the Monster rides nose-high, especially with a 200-pound pilot on board, which doesn't help the oddly tail-heavy weight distribution. Adding preload doesn't help much; the rear spring is simply too soft. And the long reach to the handlebar just makes matters worse. The rider feels off-balance, as if he's been dragged forward across a pool table by his shirt collar. Even after setting up the bike to Ducati's suggested specs-raise the fork tubes in the triple clamps 5mm, increase rear spring preload to eliminate static sag and bump compression and rebound damping at both ends-neither end offered crisp control or feel. In handling and acceleration, the Monster S4R seems a generation behind its latest competitors.

No one enjoys pointing out an engaging old friend has been left behind by the times, but there it is. True, the Monster S4R enjoys the esteem of being the original, and arguably the highest-profile naked bike in motorcycling. And as with most Ducatis it makes a fine kit-bike to fettle with thousands of dollars of aftermarket goodies, though that's pretty hard to swallow given the $13,495 asking price.

Besides, we've long heard rumors of an all-new high-performance and more aggressive-looking Monster, one with a newer, even tricker chassis along with a real-deal 999 Testastretta engine with its own pedigree of World Superbike championships. Just like the original, such a Monster would again give its competitors a new target.

BMW K1200RTesting multiple bikes at once is practically guaranteed to yield conflicting opinions. But even within this extraordinarily diverse universe of motorcycles, BMW's newly minted K1200R generated more opinions than any other motorcycle. For example, every single tester said, "The K1200R is just a blast to ride!" "I'd never imagine this from BMW!" And Barry Burke, our resident wrist who's scarily at home on Suzuki's fire-breathing '05 GSX-R1000, said, "This is the first BMW I'd seriously consider owning."

The reason behind such a love fest between people who can barely agree on where to eat lunch? Well, there are about 140-141.1, to be exact, the number of peak horsepower the K's inline-four bats out at 10,250 rpm. That makes the K1200R the most powerful stock production BMW motorcycle ever seen, and it gives the bike undeniable performance and presence. It also means the K-bike dusts the other three motorcycles here in every meaningful measure of speed, from the quarter-mile to top-gear roll-ons.

But the rest of the motorcycle isn't just a life-support system for a crackerjack engine, nosiree. BMW loaded the K1200R with every techno-trick in the firm's arsenal: There's the Fior/Hossack-style Duolever front end that separates braking and suspension forces for reduced front-end dive when braking on corner-entry; servo-assisted EVO brakes with optional ABS; and optional electronically adjustable ESA suspension. In certain ways the K1200R makes other motorcycles seem stone-ax primitive.

Some of that technology, however, led to another unanimous opinion. The BMW is the least intuitive bike here when you first get on it. It just takes some getting used to. That's true of many BMWs, and it's especially so with the K1200R. At first, almost every control input feels distinctly artificial. Throttle response from the fuel-injection system is precise and linear about 99 percent of the time. For that other 1 percent it's impossible to smoothly crack the throttle from fully closed, so you invariably get slightly more thrust than you wanted when exiting a turn. Likewise, the response from the EVO brakes isn't entirely linear, which is disconcerting until you gain enough confidence to really hammer them. Lastly, our test bike's steering damper suffered from overly aggressive damping, so slow-speed steering was a series of slightly incorrect inputs followed by correction after correction. BMW even changed the steering damper on our test bike, but the problem remained. A K1200S we rode at the same time didn't evidence this shortcoming.

Most of those peculiarities could be overcome with increased saddle time, though it's worth mentioning other more conventional motorcycles don't display such quirks. Still, the K1200R makes the learning experience worthwhile. As Burke said, "Once you get used to it, you can go so quickly and smoothly on the BMW." In tighter corners, you can use the engine's remarkable flexibility to make haste more easily than with the other three. "Just leave it in one gear and ride it like a tractor," opined Carrithers.

Tighter turns, though, also highlighted the additional effort it took to steer the BMW compared with the others. That's hardly surprising; the K1200R has a 62.2-inch wheelbase-6 inches longer than the Speed Triple's-with steering geometry among the slowest here, along with the highest wet weight. Such things make for outstanding stability, but they also guarantee the bike simply cannot be as nimble as smaller, lighter competitors.

One high-tech touch that's definitely an advantage is the optional ESA; just push a button to choose from nine different rear spring and damper settings. Both the Comfort and Normal damper positions, with rear preload set for a solo rider, served up a creamy smooth ride over pockmarked pavement for average-weight riders (165 to 170 pounds); for faster stuff you can just punch the button on the left handlebar to dial in the Sport damper position on the fly. Fast-guy Burke did notice some patter from the front end in rippled corners-an excess of high-speed compression damping-and would have liked more feel from the front end, but he was largely alone in that sentiment.

There was one last point on which every tester did agree. And that is the K1200R, while a magnificent, sophisticated piece of technology and engineering, astoundingly quick and with all-around capabilities almost equal to the Yamaha's, still isn't the nonpareil naked bike. It's just a little bit too big and heavy, too practical and yet too quirky to provide the necessary big-time Looney Tunes experience on two wheels one expects from a true naked bike.

By Charles Everitt
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