When Commander in Chief Boehm said a new Moto Guzzi was joining our test fleet, the older staffers began reminiscing like war buddies about the first Guzzi they rode back when Carter (or was it Dewey?) was in the White House, while the younger staffer scratched his head and asked, "Is Moto Guzzi still in business?" As it turns out, the fabled marque is doing just fine, thanks to a large capital infusion from its new owner Aprilia. The deal works out for both sides, actually, as Moto Guzzi is finally able to upgrade its facilities and pump out some bikes it's had on the drawing board for a while, and Aprilia now has motorcycles in markets heretofore ignored by the scooter and superbike manufacturer. Plus, Moto Guzzi not only has an extensive racing pedigree and corporate history, it also has a fanatical customer base.
The Special Sport is a "sport" variant of Guzzi's popular California cruiser, a V-twin endowed with classic styling and Italian flair. The Sport moniker isn't the result of more horsepower or any other traditional performance hop-up, just several minor modifications. The frame and swingarm have been redesigned to allow a wider rear tire-still only a 140/80-17 bias-ply, but it's an improvement-plus, there are new springs in the rear shocks, and long-range comfort has been boosted by more padding in the seat. As with all Guzzis this year, the Special Sport boasts an air-cooled, 1064cc, V-twin engine mounted longitudinally for that "look at those monster cases sticking out of the sides" effect.
Guzzi claims a 29-inch seat height for the Special Sport, but the seat is uncommonly wide, which makes the bike feel taller than it is. Plopping down into the comfortable seat one's gaze falls onto the tastefully painted yet bulbous tank rising forward below your body as if you were astride a two-tone hot dog. The tank meets a handlebar riser as well as an analog speedo and tach, both of which look like handmade Swiss watches. The new 30mm-thick handlebar curves nicely backward for a short stretch to the controls. Turn the key, hit the starter and just like that she's up and running. Word is Aprilia helped remap the fuel injection on the new Guzzis-and it shows. The bike starts without any hesitation whatsoever.
Pulling out of our top-secret underground facility it's apparent the Special Sport lives up to the Guzzi reputation for producing tractor engines. The dyno chart shows more than 50 pounds of grunt at the ready from 2000 rpm all the way to 6500 rpm, making the Sport an ideal mount for rolling down the local strip. With this torque on tap, gear selection is somewhat arbitrary in cruising mode, though as the revs climb the vibration tends to blur the mirrors and Thighmaster your lower body. Power delivery is aided by the sublime Marelli fuel injection, which delivers snappy throttle response throughout the entire 6250-rpm-wide rev band; no apparent pauses, glitches or dead spots, just satisfying power that can be dialed in easily. Helping matters is a slick five-speed gearbox that Moto Guzzi says has been redesigned to make shifting and finding neutral easier, and we don't doubt it. (A six-speed version of this box debuted on last-year's V11 Sport and we loved it there.) Although shifting requires a semifirm foot on the lever, action is positive and smooth at all times. Interestingly, the Sport features a shift lever for your heel as well as your toe, so you can take your pick. The only downside to this option is the heel shifter is placed too close to the footpeg, so when you rest the ball of your foot on the peg, your heel is resting on the shifter, which can induce unwanted gear changes.
Although most cruisers become unglued or start to drag hard parts when the pace picks up, the Special Sport does neither. Damping is quite firm both front and rear, which contributes to a feeling of rock-solid stability when stuffing the Guzzi into corners. Turn-in is quick and neutral, and not once during testing did the bike ever get out of hand. It takes a concerted effort to drag hard parts. The only fly in the bike's sporting ointment is its pseudo linked-braking system. The hand lever activates one of the 320mm discs up front, causing four Brembo pistons to go to work. Pushing the foot lever engages the second front disc as well as the rear disc, with a proportioning valve doing its best to modulate brake pressure between the two to prevent rear-wheel lockup. This system is kind of a poor man's ABS. Around town it works very well, allowing you to stop the bike controllably at all times. The problem is the single disk up front is never enough, so you always end up using the rear brake (and therefore, some of the front when you may not want it), which takes getting used to if you're accustomed to a conventional brake system.
Of course, that firm suspension will rattle your kidneys like a string of sucker punches around town or on the freeway. The sporty damping doesn't mix well with potholes or freeway expansion joints, and on the Guzzi they'll have your rump flying up out of the seat as your body absorbs the impact. The suspension is nonadjustable too, which is a shame. We tend to prefer firm suspension over the squishy type, but it would be nice to have some adjustability.
In the final tally the Special Sport is just that: special and ready to sport. If this bike is indicative of what's to come from the "new" Moto Guzzi, we can't wait to see what the future holds.