Electronics Done Right

Ducati, where the rider-aid interface is concerned, just gets it.

I have come into the camp of fully appreciating rider aids, finally. Technologies such as ABS and traction control—it says something that we don’t feel the need to explain what the letters ABS mean anymore, and we’re close with TC, too—are undeniably good for rider safety. Especially where high-horsepower, short-wheelbase sportbikes are concerned.

How much do I assume everything has some electronic aid? Well, I’d ridden Honda’s new Gold Wing F6B for a day before I realized that it wasn't fitted with ABS. (Indeed, it’s not even offered.) Worse, I rode it down a mountain road like it had ABS. Oops. I'm glad that didn't end badly.

Anyway, while the whole rider-aid thing works for me on the street, few companies have the interface figured out, and fewer still offer the kind of setup flexibility I prefer. An on/off switch with TC doesn't cut it for me, any more than does suspension whose range of adjustment is Soft and Hard. Or an adventure-touring bike that you have to trick to temporarily defeat the ABS. (Mr. Super Tenere, I'm looking at you.)

[That brings me to the Ducati Multistrada with the new Ducati Skyhook System semi-active suspension. For starters, the system works extremely well without calling undue attention to itself. You can just barely sense the suspension changing character as you turn, brake, or accelerate, but the alterations are fairly subtle and in no way detract from the Multi’s naturally great chassis. The suspension does a wonderful job of keeping a tall, powerful motorcycle with superbike-grade brakes and sticky rubber largely under control.

For me, the inveterate tinkerer, the best part of the Multistrada might be the ability to manipulate so many parameters independently. For example, both the TC and ABS thresholds can be altered separately, and those setups remain associated with one of four ride modes: Sport, Touring, Urban, and Enduro. There are factory presets, of course, but you can override them in the setup mode, and, just as important, there’s a way to return to factory defaults quite easily. (Getting lost with suspension setup via screwdriver is one thing, doing it via the computer is even more humbling.)

That’s just the beginning. In each mode, you can preselect the engine’s max power (150 or 100) and throttle response (high or low). If you want, you can change the Urban’s default setting from 100-horsepower/low to 150/high. Just for fun.

Why would you want to do that? Well, to start with, each basic ride mode determines how Skyhook scales damping rates. In Sport, the system acts more aggressively to control chassis motions; as you move from Sport to Touring to Urban, DSS becomes progressively less aggressive in its reactions. So if you prefer the way the suspension feels in Urban but don’t want to give up that 50 bhp and crisp throttle response, you don’t have to. Go into the setup menu for Urban, select 150 bhp and high throttle response, and you’re set.

Believe it or not, it actually gets better. Ducati’s Skyhook allows you to predetermine such things as rear-spring preload and assign a starting point for the damping schedule, independently for the fork and shock. Ducati offers five baseline settings from Soft to Hard at both ends, and a 24-step rear-preload adjustment. These are grouped in four categories that are selected separately from the ride modes: solo, solo with luggage, two up, and two up with luggage. Within each of these, you can preselect as you desire.

[Say, for example, you want the solo setting to be plush for commuting. Simply preset the system to Soft in damping and minimal preload. Now you’re starting with a soft setup that Skyhook will then tailor according to the ride modes. If you want, you can then make the solo-with-luggage setting extremely hard for canyon riding. You don’t have to go in logical order from soft to firm just because of the categories.

This kind of flexibility makes me weak in the knees. Just to see how Skyhook worked, I put the solo setting to full soft and the solo-with-luggage setting to full hard. Press a button—in this case, the turnsignal cancel—change the mode, and the bike completely changes character from taut to downright stiff. (If you think that's a funny way to gain access to setup menus, imagine my surprise when I learned that you punch the starter button [with the bike running] to turn on the heated grips.)

So far, I've spent a couple of hours trying different Skyhook baselines and comparing them in the various ride modes. It could be as bad as riding and texting, but do try to keep my mind on the traffic.

Bottom line, though, is that Ducati has done exactly the right thing here. The Multistrada is an expert-level motorcycle, and the company has given us credit for the ability to tweak suspension adjustments and ride modes like adults. There’s no more powerful indication that Ducati understands its customer, and gives respect.