Multistrada vs.The World!

Ducati calls the new Multistrada the ideal all-arounder, but exactly where are its limits? We pit Bologna's oddest Duck against Honda's Interceptor and Yamaha's YZF-R6 to find out

We've seen that face before. You're looking at this curious red motorcycle like a dog that smells bacon but sees an empty frying pan. Don't worry. The Multistrada gets a lot of that. OK, so what is a Multistrada? To paraphrase Monty Python's Flying Circus, it's something completely different.

From Ducati's refreshingly off-center perspective, the Multistrada is a new breed. More mutant than clone, it's an iconoclast. A heretic. A category-buster meant to blend the best of the resolute 999 Superbike, broadband Supersports and ST sport-tourers--as well as the stylish Monster--into one motorcycle. It's also a tall order. Beyond its adventure-touring stature, the Multistrada has no off-road ambitions. So how do you test the bike that's supposed to do (almost) everything?

We slid it in between two benchmarks: Honda's eminently sporty VFR Interceptor and Yamaha's YZF-R6--the feistiest, most responsive 600 super-sport you can buy. Spec sheets and masters of the obvious suggest the Multi won't be as good a pure sportbike as the R6, nor as good at long distances as the Interceptor. Maybe, but what about all that riding in the middle where we all spend most of our time? Let's see....

Multistrada in a nutshell
First, a quick Multistrada primer. Ducati started fresh here. No leftovers. The Multi has an all-new frame cut from traditional Ducati chrome-moly steel tubes. It rolls on a longish, 1450mm (57.1-inch) wheelbase--10mm longer than a Monster's, 30mm longer than a 999's and a whopping 55mm longer than a new Supersport 1000's. The rest of its chassis geometry is sportbikelike, with 24 degrees of rake and 99mm of trail. The only other oddity is that long-travel fork--1.8 inches more travel than a SS 1000 DS. The fully adjustable Showa suspension is softer than a pur-sang sportbike's to stay calm on rough roads.

Motivation comes from Ducati's latest 992cc desmodue engine, reverentially air-cooled with two valves per cylinder. But that's hardly fair. Ducati ostensibly lifted the valve covers off its old lump and slid this one underneath. Most of the parts accentuate low-rpm torque and cleaner, cooler running. Cranking out 83 rear-wheel horsepower and 67 foot-pounds of torque, the DS twin--as in dual spark, as in two plugs per cylinder--is 5 horsepower and 8 foot-pounds stronger than the last 900 we tested.

It's not what you think.

As with the 999, the Multistrada's beauty emerges slowly, seldom in photographs and for some, not at all. The tall, narrow fairing and wide bar makes it tower over other bikes like Herman Munster at Cub Scout camp. Still, seat height is moderate. Parked next to the Interceptor, the Multi looks compact and purposeful because it is. Ducati wanted an upright riding position behind a conventional tubular handlebar and lots of legroom. Mission accomplished. The upper fairing was split horizontally to accommodate that wider bar, allowing the windscreen to turn with the front wheel (see below). More compact hand controls and clutch/brake reservoirs are also used.

Saddle up and the Multi's ergonomics feel strange at first--partly because of the low, forward-set pegs and thinly padded seat. Wind protection is good except for the air blasting your neck--Ducati's taller touring screen helps there. Still, sitting up behind the wide bar provides amazing control over what the front tire is doing--a sensation at the heart of our testers' comments. Steering effort is low, while chassis feedback and stability are amazingly high. Thanks to its relatively low weight--undercutting most standards and naked bikes at 486 pounds wet--the Multi flicks into corners like a smaller, shorter machine. The suspension strokes with fluidity except over concrete expansion joints, when the fork kicks more than it should.

**Yeah, but how about the sporty bikes? **
Three motorcycles could hardly be more different. The YZF-R6 is tiny, tight and so responsive it could be Firewire'd to your brainstem. On a tight, indifferently maintained back road the confidence-inspiring R6 edges ahead of the Ducati. It's fast, but you earn the extra speed by spinning the little four above 10,000 rpm. The R6's 415-pound wet weight and quick reflexes let the pilot change direction with minimal time and effort. Decreasing-radius turns are suddenly fun as the R6 proves light really does make right.

Meanwhile, the Multistrada is right on the R6's taillight, having a ball without breaking a sweat. The Italian twin is short on top-end speed and cornering clearance--you'll drag toes, pegs, the exhaust guard on the right and the sidestand on the left. Still, the Multi vaults out of slow corners as only a big V-twin can, gaining ground as the R6 hunts for the fat part of its powerband.

The Multi's riding position provides a confidence-inspiring view of what's ahead, especially for inexperienced riders. In addition, the Multi tolerates midcorner trajectory changes more readily than the R6. So the R6 barrels along on great brakes and trustworthy manners, while the Multi booms from corner to corner, grabbing an advantage whenever the road turns rough.

Six corners back, the Honda feels like a 1973 Vega wagon full of anvils. Maybe that's a little harsh, but at speed you fight the Interceptor's heft and relative imprecision in every turn. The linked brakes are vague compared with the R6's or the Multi's. Honda's V-four feels sluggish against the supposedly ancient Italian V-twin until the VTEC kicks in at 7000 rpm, and strained above. On the plus side, the Interceptor is utterly stable, and it will pick up the pace if you insist. Still, compared with the other two, going fast is work.

Beyond such idyllic weekend swervery, the Interceptor redeems itself with superb weather protection, a great seat and ergos, and perceptive aerodynamics that make it a comfortable synthesis of sport and tour. Interceptor fans have always lauded it as the ideal all-around sportbike, and we agree. It's ideal for a 50/50 mix of back-road and highway use, though the '03 model delivers more tour than sport. Good as the Interceptor is at crossing three of four state lines, we miss the old Interceptor's sporting edge. Somewhere under all that overweight techno-gimmickry there's a great motorcycle screaming to get out.

The R6 is a sportbike, if a surprisingly comfortable one. It's small, frantic--turning 7000 rpm at an indicated 80 mph--and aggressive. That's the only knock against it on the long and not-so-winding road. In its sporty element, the R6 is stellar: good seat, humane ergos, effective mirrors and a host of details to make real-world riding easier. Given its overall performance, the little YZF is great at mundane exercises such as getting to work or visiting Uncle Mert in Bakersfield every Easter.

People tour on bikes far less obliging than the R6, but the Multi is in another league. Up to approximately 90 mph, the seating position is great. You settle into the credit-card-thin seat as if you were sitting behind a desk, feet way down there and slightly forward, back straight and shoulders relaxed. For anything but track use and triple-digit touring, the Multistrada is nearly ideal.

We'd prefer a slightly lower handlebar with more pullback, and a softer seat. Hopefully the optional "comfort" saddle will actually provide some. Also, the new 1000 DS engine isn't quite as smooth as the old 900, but it's hardly objectionable on that count.

**Answer the question **
As a sportbike--on real roads, with real riders--the Multistrada sticks to the Yamaha's tail on the strength of pure confidence. This Ducati delivers loads of the stuff, erasing most of the R6's power-to-weight edge by convincing you it won't bite. That's especially true on tight roads, where the Multi's bullish low-end grunt reels in those high-strung R6 horses. The Honda? It doesn't even get to throw a punch in that fight.

As a pure sportbike--with maybe a dash of track use thrown in--the R6 wins. Ducati maneuverability overcomes its relative lack of power, but the R6 is a purpose-built sportbike. Advantage: Yamaha.

As a comfy sport-touring bike, it's hard to fault the Interceptor. Especially in terms of high-speed wind protection and long-haul comfort. Advantage: Honda, followed closely by the Ducati.

Commuting comes down to the Multi or the R6. Keep the Interceptor option open if work is 50 or more miles from home. The R6 is light and nimble.

The Multi gives you a see-over-it-all riding position, effortless maneuverability and instant-on torque. The Multistrada's main downfall is those vile mirrors and wide bar. Watch out for oversized SUV mirrors or get bark-busters. Advantage: Take your pick.

You can crunch these numbers all day and miss the big picture. The Multistrada can't beat the Interceptor or R6 in their strongest suits in a straight fight. They're here as reference points. What the Multi can deliver is comfortably stunning back-road performance, utter humiliation to unwary super-sport poseurs, work-week practicality and singular Ducati style. On these merits, it's an out-of-the-park, grand slam home run. Unique, and uniquely accommodating, this is a motorcycle that does almost everything well. In English, compromise usually means you give up more than you get. In the Multistrada, Ducati's translation is different. For $11,999, you get just about everything.