Ducati Multistrada 620

Ducati's Multistrada 620 was designed to be light, agile and easy to ride, the press kit said. Just as well. The hail of a few minutes ago had turned to sleet. Now I was winding my way down a Sicilian mountainside, aiming the little V-twin around a succession of steep, slippery hairpins with hands so frozen I could barely feel the controls.

By the time we reached our hotel I wished this Ducati had heated grips from the accessory catalog. But the smallest Multistrada does live up to its design brief. It's controllable on a sleet-lashed mountain pass and great fun everywhere else.Ducati's liter-size Multistrada was a hit. That inspired this year's upscale 1000S along with this entry-level 620, somewhere between the original Multi and a Monster 620. There are some welcome updates, including a 2-inch-taller screen and mirrors spaced 1.6 inches farther apart. Both the rider and pillion's halves of the saddle are broader and softer for added comfort.

This smaller 'Strada uses the air-cooled 63-horsepower 618cc V-twin from the Monster 620, with a slipper clutch for drama-free downshifting. As on its big brothers, the fuel tank is a molded plastic unit that extends under the seat. Capacity drops from 5.3 gallons to 3.9 without the 1000's complex ventilation system, but Ducati says the smaller engine's superior economy leaves the range unchanged. The new tank also drops the seat height from 33.5 inches to 32.7 and allows some storage room underneath.

Cost-cutting compromises include an instrument panel sans a multifunction display and basic suspension. The 620's steel-tube trellis frame is identical to the bigger bikes', but it uses a conventional steel swingarm. At a claimed 403 pounds dry it's 29 pounds lighter than the 1000, with slightly less trail and a narrower, 160-section rear tire. Along with its wide handlebar, these changes make the smaller version quite agile.

The clutch's light feel and reasonably smooth-shifting six-speed are welcome, as is the crisp throttle response. Still, there's more vibration than acceleration below 3700 rpm. And though it is supposed to be more practical than exciting, the 620 has plenty of Ducati character. Its desmo lump is a sweet-revving unit, with ample power to wheelie with a handful of throttle in first gear. It cruises happily at 80 mph, rumbling toward a 115-mph top speed. Road manners are well up to Bolognese standards in faster curves. The suspension lacks the bigger 'Stradas' sophistication, but delivers comfortably taut handling nonetheless.

The Sicilian roads were too damp and dirty for the stock Pirelli Diablos to find much grip. Nonetheless, a succession of tight hairpins underlines the benefits of a light V-twin with a wide bar and upright ergonomics. Ending the day with a cold, slippery trip down the mountain to our warm hotel highlighted the Multistrada's tractable, user-friendly nature. That personality along with a relatively competitive $7995 price ($500 less for the Dark, with matte-black paint and a single front disc) will make it irresistible for plenty of riders. The Multistrada 620 is far from the most exciting new Ducati, but it's arguably the most practical--even if you never ride down a mountain in a hailstorm.