Ducati ST4s

An old friend brought to maximum potential

Marketing gurus the world over are, no doubt, having a good old chuckle at Ducati's expense. These self-imagined shapers of public consumption, between sips of iced mocha and morsels of maple oat-nut scones, are certainly poring over Ducati's brochures and wondering openly, "What's the deal with this new ST4s?"

How the new ST4s cross-threads into the large and well-worn receptacle of modern marketing has to do with--believe it or not--value. This is a top-rung motorcycle, demanding of a serious premium over the more pedestrian models of similar performance and pedigree. (Pay no attention to the matte-gray color scheme because it's meant to be cool, not cheap, unlike the matte-black finish on the 750 Sport. Red and yellow will also be imported.)

But Ducati broke the marketing man's main rule. This new sport-tourer, based largely on the ST4 we know well, gains not just the full 996cc engine from the top-range supersport Ducati but also high-grade suspension components, the very hardware any well-to-do gearhead would (and in many cases does) apply to the standard ST to help create the ultimate sport-tourer. Yet, at $14,995, this ST4s costs just $1200 more than the standard ST4 and comes with the Nonfango hard bags to boot. Way back in Marketing 101, the textbook said you should always charge more for the upgraded bike than it would cost the consumers to make the upgrades themselves; otherwise you'll smother the sales of the bike upon which this new model is based and fail to create the needed cachet of the new bike.

These upgrades dramatically improve the ST4 and were easy to do, because most of the pieces were already in Ducati's inventory. Basically, Ducati techs grab the 996 engine slated for the superbike and toss this wonderful desmoquattro engine into an ST chassis rolling down the line. (The 916cc engine is physically the same size.) Oh, and the engineers were called in to rework the ST4s' cam timing and fuel-injection calibration in hopes of bolstering the ST4s' midrange, a perfectly rational intention for an ST. To get 996cc, the 916 engine has an additional 4mm of bore (up to 98mm) while the stroke remains at 66mm. For the ST4s, this engine receives smaller throttle bodies (50mm vs. the 996's 54mm units) and a lower compression ratio (11.2:1 vs. the 996's 11.5:1 figure).

Small changes, to be sure, and the 996's race-winning personality remains undiminished as a result. Hugely stout in the midrange (the ST4s punches out 66.7 foot-pounds of torque at 7000 rpm and more than 60 foot-pounds from 5000 to 9250 rpm), the revised engine, amazingly, keeps a regular 996 in sight all through the dyno charts. You'd expect the lower compression ratio and the smaller throttle bodies to chop top-end power, but the ST4s gives up just 2.0 horsepower at the peak and a mere 2.9 foot-pounds of torque. Job well done, Ducati.

Numbers are one thing, of course, but it's the way the 996cc engine puts the power down that makes twin-cylinder fanatics go weak in the knees. With a new Marelli computer (the 5.9M), the ST's brain is chock full of smarts; the system meters fuel with near perfection. From right off idle, the ST responds rapidly and accurately, yet there's not a hint of lurch or oversensitivity. And while throttle response is not quite as progressive as on some big twins, it takes all of approximately five seconds to become familiar and proficient with the Ducati's responses. Thanks to this seamless power delivery, it's possible to meter power exactly as you want.

What's more, the Ducati delivers the goods with a soundtrack. Even with fairly quiet mufflers in place, the ST is more than a little charismatic, with a prominent intake honk and well-defined power pulses juddering through the chassis. You can only imagine how much fun this bike would be with some freer-flowing cans. (Hello, Termignoni?)

Our low-mile test bike's gearbox freed up considerably during the test, but the short-engagement-band dry clutch proved to be everything you'd expect of the type. You can get it to graunch impressively from a standing start and we still wonder why Ducati can't get the lever effort down. Oh well....

Complaining about the clutch on a Ducati is like bemoaning political indiscretion; talk all you want but it won't change a thing. With the ST4s, like the Monster S4 we had earlier in the year, extremely tall gearing is no help in the matter of launching the ST with elan. Suffice it to say that a trip to the Ducati Performance catalog for a larger rear sprocket should be on any ST4s owner's to-do list. On the plus side of the gearing deal, the bike will jam along at 80 mph at approximately 4000 rpm, an almost vibrationless engine speed that's not so far below the torque peak to render the bike sluggish. Still, it's common to find yourself cruising along, somehow knowing the bike's not in sixth, only to be surprised to find it in fourth. Between the engine's soothing cadence and tall gearing, the ST4s' natural cruising speed seems to be somewhere north of 80 mph; indeed, this might lead you to tempting the highway patrol at 100 or 120 mph for miles at a time.

At speed the ST4s' ergonomics come into their own. Compared with other sport-tourers, the ST4s has quite a sporty riding position. Next to, say, the Honda VFR800F, the Ducati's clip-ons are slightly closer to the seat (28.1 inches vs. the Honda's 28.8) but considerably lower (with an effective rise of 4.9 inches compared with the VFR's 6.1). In fact, the ST's ergos are closer to 600-class sportbikes; the middle-of-the-road Yamaha YZF600R has more handlebar rise. In addition, the Ducati's bars are quite flat; there's not much pullback or droop. So you feel like you're reaching quite a ways forward to grip a drag-style bar.

Matched with a smallish fairing and short windscreen, this torso-forward riding position is best suited to long trips at highway speed and for getting much-needed weight over the front wheel to help keep the Michelin on the road. We wouldn't call the ST uncomfortable, because the seating position fits the character of the bike perfectly, but there are more accommodating sport-touring mounts out there. We also wouldn't mind a more compliant seat.

Turn off the highway for a two-lane diversion and the ergo complaints evaporate. Not only does the ST4s have by far the best handling of Ducati's ST line but it's right in there with the best of the best. (A few of us consider the ST4s the nicest-handling Ducati period.) Why is this? We're at a loss to fully explain the ST4s' delicious turn-in or absolutely neutral steering response because the bike's frame and general dimensions are unchanged from ST2- and ST4-spec. It's possible that the Michelin Pilot Sports just "get along" with this bike particularly well or that the Oehlins shock is a tad longer than the Showa on the pedestrian ST4, which would quicken the steering. The titanium-nitrided-slider Showa fork is lifted off the 996 and adjustable every which way; the Oehlins shock is likewise sourced from the 996 and has a remote hydraulic-preload adjuster in addition to compression and rebound damping adjustments. That shock works through a new aluminum swingarm.

But the ST4s is also tremendously stable. One of our test roads has a series of medium-speed corners crisscrossed with bulges and ripples and overlaid with tar strips. On many bikes, you're left to slow a bit and just get through the section. But on the ST4s you can carry on unabated. All the while, you're aware of the suspension stroking over the small and large bumps with little perceptible friction and all the control in the world. In fact, if you had to describe the Ducati's suspension in one word, it would be control. Although the spring rates are appropriately modest for sport-touring duty--the bike uses the majority of its travel on gnarly/bumpy roads, as it should--the tires follow the ground with astonishing accuracy and manage the chassis with a firm hand. What then stems from the suspension doing its job is heightened rider confidence. Hop on, go fast and have fun.

The remainder of the ST4s' hardware is equally top-notch, and shows that Ducati really can sweat the details. Four-pot Brembo's up front stop the bike right now, though we'd love to have the adjustable lever from the Monster. Those Nonfango hard bags (nicely watertight but slightly fussy to use) fit sturdy mounts that require the pipes to be lowered slightly, which in turn pushes the centerstand down some. If you envision track days or serious thrashing, you'll want to remove the brackets and return the pipes to the full upright and locked position before takeoff.

An accurate fuel gauge--one that indicates good range, on the order of 180 miles before the low-fuel light comes on, at which time you still have 1.5 gallons in there--occupies most of the LCD information panel on the dash, but there's also a clock and a coolant-temp readout. Plus you get an electronic immobilizer that requires you to take great care of your specially coded ignition key. Those swoopy mirrors are actually large and steady enough to offer clear previews of impending constabulary action.

Most of these last items are shared with the ST2 and ST4, and both these bikes have seen price reductions in recent years. In fact, by inflation-adjusted currency, today's ST2 is cheaper than the original 1998 model, which didn't even include the luggage. (Hard bags were standard on all STs for '01 and will be for '02.) Good enough, but we can't imagine passing the ST4s by for the savings of a few dollars. Ducati has imbued this motorcycle with talent and capabilities utterly unexpected for the modest tariff over the standard ST4. We couldn't care less that marketing types will find Ducati's product positioning unconventional and distasteful. Tough luck.

We'll just take one, in yellow, please.

Off The Record
Age: 27
Height: 5 ft. 9
Weight: 140 lb.
Inseam: 29 in.
Fave sport-touring trek: Any ride first thing Monday morning
Sport-touring bikes, eh? I'd love to own one, but the problem is I'm not 40 years old. But because it's my job, I took the ST4s out for a spin and quickly discovered I know two things about sport-touring bikes: jack and squat. The ST4s absolutely shreds twisty pavement, and felt so composed and powerful at all times I could have sworn I was riding a 996 racebike with hard bags! Oh wait, I was. It's hard to believe, but this is a touring bike that will surely hold its own in the twisties, on the racetrack and on that trip up the coast, two-up even. Now I just wish every manufacturer would take their best liter-class engine and put it in a comfortable and competent chassis with factory hard luggage. Yes, I'm talking to you Suzuki. --Josh Norem

Age: 39
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 225 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
Fave sport-touring trek: Zurich to Interlaken, via Monaco
Call it what you will--old age, softening brain matter, early signs of Alzheimer's, whatever--but I'm really digging today's sport-tourers, especially those with the emphasis on sport. I used to thumb my nose at the things (larger, taller and heavier STs such as the Kawasaki Concours and Honda ST1100), preferring instead to grab a true sportbike when long-distance trekking was called for and simply add the obligatory tank or tail bag--and maybe, if the trip was longer, a set of soft bags. No more. The latest wave of sport-tourers offers reasonable comfort and loads of sportiness. And in the case of Ducati's new ST4s, you're talking racebike-quality suspension, actual sportbike handling and that legendary Italian booom--always a good thing. Heck, the ST even sounds good with the stock cans. OK, so it's expensive. But with this one you definitely get what you pay for. If we do this Italy staff tour thing next year, I've got dibs on the ST4s.--Mitch Boehm

Ducati ST4s
Engine 9 Now a full 996, in fine fettle
Drivetrain 8 Stiff clutch, tall gearing...still!
Handling 10 This is an ST? You've got to be kidding!
Braking 9 Solid performance from the Brembos
Ride 9 Control in the twisties, plush on highway
Ergonomics 7 Odd bars, hard seat; otherwise livable
Features 9 Luggage, centerstand, U-lock, etc.
Refinement 8 Better than ever, but not quite Japanese
Value 8 You get a lot for your 15 grand
Fun Factor 9 The longer you ride the higher the score
Verdict: Lukewarm performance of the ST4 (and ST2, for that matter) completely overcome by righteous 996 engine and superlative suspension. This is the ST we'd always hoped Ducati would make.
Ducati ST4s
MSRP $14,995
Warranty 24 months, unlimited miles
Colors red, titanium gray, yellow
Type l-c {{{90}}}-deg. V-twin
Valve arrangement dohc, 8v
Bore x stroke 98.0 x 66.0mm
Displacement 996cc
Compression ratio 11.2:1
Carburetion Marelli electronic fuel injection, 50mm throttle bodies
Transmission 6-speed
Final drive #525 chain
Frame tubular-steel trellis
Weight 521 lb. (wet) 488 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 5.5 gal.
Suspension, front 43mm inverted cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Suspension, rear single shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Brake, front dual four-piston calipers, 320mm disc
Brake, rear single two-piston caliper, 245mm disc
Tire, front 120/70ZR17 Michelin Pilot Sport
Tire, rear 180/55ZR17 Michelin Pilot Sport
Corrected 1/4-mile* 10.74 sec. @ 126.05 mph
0-60 mph* 3.07 sec.
0-100 mph* 7.07 sec.
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph* 4.39 sec.
Power to weight ratio** 6.41 lb/hp
Fuel mileage (low/high/average) 39/47/44
Cruising range (exc. reserve) 176 miles
Brembo four-pot calipers grip stainless discs with the help of braided lines. A titanium-nitride finish on the Showa fork reduces friction, but the real benefits stem from better internals.
Standard ST2/4 cast handlebar risers greet the ST4s pilot. We'd prefer a less-flat angle, but the ST4s' sportier ergonomics are perfectly in keeping with the bike's character. Accurate fuel gauge, clock and temperature displays are on the small LCD panel.
Top-notch Oehlins shock provides superior control, a generous range of adjustability and the convenience of remote preload manipulation. It would cost more than two-thirds of the ST4s' premium to put this shock on a regular ST4. Such a deal.