Goat Riders in the Sky: BMW R1200GS vs. Ducati Multistrada 1200S

MC Comparison

They are as different as any pair of tools designed for the same job can be. Sharpened by three decades of going places that would make most street riders wet themselves, BMW's GS is the original choice for going just about anywhere two wheels can take you. Undeniably huge, inimitably German and currently defined by a stronger twin-cam version of the 1170cc Boxer-twin, the R1200GS looks like an adventure sitting still. Just add 21 contiguous vacation days, a clean American Express card and shake vigorously.

Aside from being manifestly smaller, lighter, faster and explicitly Italian, Ducati's new Multistrada 1200S leaves more than a little room for interpretation. Especially when there's a new GS parked next to it. Are these bikes really different means to the same sort of all-encompassing ends? Or just different? After gnawing on that one for all of 5 minutes, we figured the answer was beyond the fluorescent-lit, climate-controlled splendor of Motorcyclist's El Segundo headquarters. How about Randsburg (population 85 or so, depending on who you ask), a.k.a. our favorite desiccated Mojave Desert gold-mining town, sitting near the coccyx of California's Sierra Nevada range?

That's 150 miles north and east of the MC M.C. as the Gold Wing flies, or 293 for those of us who really do have all day to get there and a couple of motorcycles to wring out. Either way, you end up in a dusty little chunk of 1896, surviving on a powerful combination of self-sufficiency, sheer meanness and savvy tourists rolling up from greater Los Angeles (population 17.8 million if you're still counting) looking for an antidote for urban pre-ignition. Though it's too hot in the summer for all but sun-struck desert rats and the occasional tortoise, mile after mile of legal off-highway vehicle trails make Randsburg a Mecca for Southern California's off-road cognoscenti during the winter. Brace yourself for a crush of happy, dusty people on dirtbikes if you head up on Thanksgiving weekend, but we probably won't push the census needle past 87 on this exceptionally unexceptional Friday afternoon.

Rolling up the San Diego Freeway on cast wheels and street tires with delusions of off-road grandeur, we'll steer clear of the rocky single-track and aim for a rough little rollercoaster of pavement draped across those mountains up ahead, just south of the Tehachapi Pass. Thanks to the miracle of modern fuel injection and electronically adjustable suspension, either bike will put 180-200 relatively humane freeway miles in the rear-view between fuel stops, but the BMW feels more comfortable doing it. That goes double for anybody taller than 5-foot-8.

Roomier in every dimension, including the pocket of acceptably calm air in its cockpit, the Beemer trundles along between 70 and 80 mph with just a whiff of vibration from the engine room. The mirrors provide relatively clear images of looming cement trucks and CHP cruisers, unlike the Multistrada's frustratingly undecipherable blurs. The Ducati's seat is comfortable enough to keep most riders happy for 2 or 3 hours, but there's considerably less fore/aft fidgeting room. That slim adjustable windscreen allows more turbulence into the cockpit than we'd like, but the airflow evens out a bit beyond 75 mph. It's enough to get by until you save enough lunch money for the larger one in the accessory catalog.

Typically tall Italian gearing fends off objectionable vibration anywhere near the legal limit in sixth gear. On the flip side, you can't quite light that desmodromic afterburner at 70 mph without dropping into fifth. Punch up Touring mode on the Ducati's dot-matrix display and its Öhlins fork and shock erase most surface imperfections more effectively than the GS's Telelever/Paralever setup. Scrolling through all the possible permutations for the first time is a little too much like programming some vintage Italian VCR, and the standard shock spring is too soft for anyone to the right of 185 lbs. Order up something stiffer if you're adding a passenger and packing those hard saddlebags. Otherwise? No worries. Once you've taken the time to dial it in, Ducati's on-the-fly adjustable suspension delivers a smoother ride on any sort of pavement than BMW's ESA, even if the latter is more intuitive.

Traversing the suburban sprawl between the six lanes of straight pavement and two twisty ones, the Multistrada feels 50 lbs. lighter and a foot shorter amid the clots of Sport Ubiquity Vehicles, Starbucks and strip malls designed to look like authentic imitation Mediterranean villas. The Ducati actually undercuts the Beemer by 25 lbs.-33 lbs. with both bikes wearing their factory hard bags-but the Ducati feels twice as athletic in traffic. Switching to Urban mode drops peak power to 90 horses, slowing throttle response just enough to tone down the 1198's initial attack inside the city limits. Fueling is still a bit fluffy around 3000 rpm, and a stiffer hydraulic clutch makes stop-and-go more irritating than it needs to be. Especially when the GS is fundamentally perfect on both counts, pulling like a Schwartzkopff-Löffler locomotive from 2200 rpm through its fundamentally dummkoph-proof dry clutch. Unlike its excitable Mediterranean cousin, the Boxer is willing to chug along in low gear all day. Thankfully, that won't be necessary.

Making a clean break from traffic, the Ducati switches back to Sport mode and disappears. It's much more nimble, especially on roads that never let you past third gear. Sitting bolt-upright on something superbike-fast takes some getting used to, especially if you're more accustomed to assuming the more fetal Committed Riding Position. Most everything else comes naturally. Steering is astonishingly light-enough to take some getting used to after a couple of hours on the BMW. So do the exceedingly strong brakes. The only thing you won't get used to is the evil ergonomic abomination Ducati calls a centerstand. That's standard equipment on the Touring model and crowds your left boot in every turn-bin it and buy a race stand. If you can work around that, the friendliest Testastretta twin throws down hard enough between 6000 and 9000 rpm to leave the Boxer half a dozen corners behind. Traction control and ABS remain mercifully discreet, just in case you write a check Pirelli's sticky Scorpion Trail radials can't cash.

Despite less power and more of everything else except grip from its Bridgestone Battle Wings, the BMW is capable of extraordinary backroad velocity as long as you're willing to keep it spinning around 7500 rpm, conserving precious momentum with classic, Hailwood-esque cornering lines. If you're not, there's enough punch below that to keep the Ducati from disappearing into another zip code.

The 2010 twin-cam Boxer feels stronger below 5500 rpm and more willing to rev from idle to the new 8500-rpm redline. Those extra pounds disappear with speed, but come back again when second-gear corners outnumber the straight bits out here on Cameron Canyon Road. Dialed up toward the sportiest of its nine pavement settings, the Telelever fork gives up mid-corner feedback in favor of astonishing stability, which comes in handy when you need to drop a lot of speed in a hurry for some diabolically tight corner. Integral linked brakes and optional ABS never get in the way when you carry a little too much momentum to the apex and need a whiff of rear brake to calm things down.

We're still an hour away from the air conditioning, cold beer, satellite TV and comfy beds waiting at Goat's Sky Ranch (see sidebar on page 59), but there's more than enough daylight left for a little creative high-desert meandering. Even within the intrinsic limits of cast wheels, glorified street tires and self-preservation, the GS is 150 percent more fun when crumbling pavement gives way to sandy desert two-track. More linear power and brakes along with a more cooperative chassis make all the difference. The Multistrada's ergonomics are better suited to sitting down than standing up, and those Pirellis struggle for grip in the loose stuff.

A touchy throttle and brakes along with a pavement-spec 17-inch front wheel make the Ducati considerably less forgiving on any surface resembling dirt. Switching to Enduro mode slows down throttle response enough to let the rear tire find something to hold onto, but the Italian's traction-control system is too heavy-handed in the dirt. Both bikes' systems overreact to any off-road wheelspin, taking away too much power too quickly. And while street-biased tires let you tiptoe through the mildly rough terrain in low gear, a talented/lucky rider can get away with more than that on the BMW. Push your luck any distance into second gear and the Ducati's lighter front end will drift wide of its appointed line or lose interest in the dirt altogether, with painful/expensive/embarrassing results. With more power, less ground clearance and the aforementioned 17-inch rolling stock up front, the Multistrada feels like what it is out here: a streetbike. After considering said imprecision and the sort of impression various local rocks could make on the front cylinder and/or its defenseless header, we headed for Trona Road and Goat's, in that order.

Good call. After a therapeutic drone back to the sky rancho, we're sharing the deck with two cans of Coors Light and a magnificent high-desert sunset. No traffic, car horns, sirens, barking dogs or blaring stereos. It's just the wind, an optimistic cricket down toward the General Store and the two-wheeled horses we rode in on cooling in the street. Choosing the best one to ride out requires the same expenditure of mental energy as cracking another Silver Bullet.

If you really are taking the long way up, down or around, take the BMW R1200GS. The Germans have an uncanny ability to improve their best seller just in time to stay ahead of everyone else, and they've done it again this year. Yamaha's impending Super Ténéré may shuffle the do-it-all deck when it lands stateside next year, but the GS owns that particular chunk of real estate for now. Just pony up another $500 for the optional rock-resistant cross-spoke wheels, lever on some off-road-worthy rubber and have a crack at just about any part of the world with enough oxygen for internal combustion that isn't under water. As good as it is most everywhere else, the Ducati doesn't have the chassis or the bandwidth for real all-surface adventures. But don't buy more bandwidth than you need, especially considering the extra bulk that comes with it.

If asphalt slots in right there with electricity, the flush toilet and twist-off bottle caps on your list of must-have modern inventions, take the Multistrada. If all you ever wanted was a mildly domesticated 1198 capable of commuting or crossing a few state lines without stopping for regular chiropractic care, the 1200S is light-years ahead of everything but the twist-top beverage-delivery system. Advanced command/control electronics and maybe 40 percent more power make the Ducati more fun and more comfortable on more different kinds of pavement than any pure pavement scooter, regardless of its chosen niche, engine displacement or national origin.

Off the Record
Aaron Frank
Age: 35 Height: 5'7"
Weight: 145 lbs. Inseam: 31 in.

Ironically, my most recent Multistrada miles were on a racetrack, at Putnam Park in Indiana. The Ducati 848 EVO I was scheduled to ride was late to arrive, so I warmed up on a nearby Multistrada 1200S demo instead. Talk about "all roads" ability! Even with saddlebags, squirrelly Pirelli Scorpion Trail tires and curb-feeler footpegs, the meaga-strong Multistrada easily managed an A-group pace. Thank signores Testastretta, Brembo and Öhlins for that. So what if GS jockeys mock the road-biased Multi as a poser enduro? They'd also drink their own urine, if only Touratech sold a titanium collection device. If the majority of your adventures take place on asphalt-and especially if you're sized more like me than T.C.-the stronger, smoother, more sophisticated Multistrada 1200S is the superior choice. If graded dirt is as dirty as you plan to get, your ADV oval sticker belongs on the duck-billed Duck. Off the Record

Tim Carrithers
Age: 52 Height: 6'3"
Weight: 215 lbs. Inseam: 35 in.

When a late-season blizzard in the Sierra Nevada tried to turn its coming-out party into the Donner Party, the 2010 BMW R1200GS was the reason I made it home. No other motorcycle I've ridden before or since could have pressed on regardless of variously obstinate terrain and 31 flavors of atmospheric ugliness without ending up in the ditch. And thanks to those heated grips, I can still type. Once everything thawed out, the big Bavarian omnivore surpassed its predecessors just enough to make me start saving up for one. The Ducati is faster and infinitely more engaging on the street. Especially my favorite twisty bits. But the BMW is better at more different things on more different kinds of roads-or no roads at all-than any other motorcycle in the world. Bar none. It isn't light or cheap. Otherwise, the GS is just about anything you'd like it to be.

**BMW R1200GS | $18,629 (as tested)

Chain-driven overhead cams ride horizontally in the new heads, cueing one intake and one exhaust valve each via lightweight rocker arms. Meanwhile, two spark plugs ignite combustibles inside the compact new 12:1 combustion chambers. Larger valves and new cam timing allow more fuel and air in, so more power comes out.

BMW's Integral ABS is brilliant on the street. Switch it off in the dirt. ASC traction control is less sophisticated than the Ducati's, and equally useless off-road. Enduro ESA adjustable suspension offers fewer options than the Multistrada, but it's easier to use and nearly as effective for most riders.

With some help from a few steel tubes, the Boxer's über-stiff engine cases effectively double as its frame. The Telelever front suspension's pivoting A-arm and the robust single-sided Paralever swingarm/driveshaft bolt up to it. Light? No, but it shrugs off a Dakar-style pounding better than anything short of an M1A1 Tank.

The standard cast hoops look nice in brochures, but BMW's optional cross-spoke wheels-standard on the GS Adventure-are what the bike was meant to roll on. Tough enough to fend off rocks that would destroy their cast-aluminum counterparts, the wire wheels are worth every nickel of the extra $500 you'll pay.

Adding 5 peak ponies and another 3 lb.-ft. of torque to the herd is nice, but the DOHC Boxer's all-surface edge comes from the useable quality of its power. Perfectly seamless fuel delivery helps the cause as well.

Tech Spec
Engine type: a/o-c opposed twin
Valve train: DOHC, 8v
Displacement: 1170cc
Bore x stroke: 101.0 x 73.0mm
Compression: 12.0:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Dry, single-plate
Transmission: 6-speed
Measured horsepower: 89.1 bhp @ 7500 rpm
Measured torque: 68.9 lb.-ft. @ 6000 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 11.68 sec. @ 115.24 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 3.15 sec
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 46/33/42 mpg
Frame: Steel trellis with single-sided aluminum swingarm
Front suspension: Telelever featuring Showa shock with electronically adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Paralever featuring electronically adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 305mm discs with ABS
Rear brake: Brembo dual-piston caliper, 265mm disc with ABS
Front tire: 110/80R-19 Bridgestone Battle Wing
Rear tire: 150/70R-17 Bridgestone Battle Wing
Rake/trail: 25.7°/3.9 in.
Seat height: 33.5/34.2 in.
Wheelbase: 59.3 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): **569/537 lbs.
**Colors: **Black, gray, red, white
Warranty: 36 mo., 36,000 mi.

Contact: BMW Motorrad USA
300 Chestnut Ridge Rd.
Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677

Roomier in every direction relative to the Ducati, the BMW feels about 50 percent bigger from the saddle as well. The reversible handlebar clamp and adjustable seat make the GS cockpit more amenable to different riders and riding styles.

Ducati Multistrada 1200S Tour | $19,995 (as tested)

Ducati's Testastretta 11° gives up 1198-spec valve overlap to get 15,000-mile adjustment intervals and cleaner, more efficient combustion. Less aggressive compression and cams plus ingenious intake/exhaust tuning favor a fat midrange over top-end thrust. Three different maps in the engine's Mitsubishi CPU let you match power delivery to road conditions.

From its ride-by-wire throttle to traction control, ABS and electronically adjustable Öhlins suspension at either end, the Multi-strada offers more potential digital intervention than anything else. There's even an electronic key that enables vital systems from inside your jacket pocket once you're within 6 feet of the bike.

The Multistrada skeleton combines Ducati's signature steel-tube trellis with a pair of aluminum castings that support the footpegs, top shock mount and single-sided aluminum swingarm. Up front, a crafty magnesium subframe supports the instrument pod, headlights and fairing to minimize heft high on the bike.

Looking suspiciously similar to what you'll find under a Ducati 1198, the Multistrada's 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels are one big reason the bike behaves better on the pavement than off. Pirelli's Scorpion Trail radials can take a little dirt, but lay down amazing grip on the pavement.

Captain Sensible's Testastretta twin starts out a tad soft, but more than makes up for that shortfall above 4000 rpm in Sport or Touring mode. Switch to 90-horse Urban mode and the GS can keep up.

Tech Spec
Engine type: l-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve train: DOHC, 8v desmodromic
Displacement: 1198cc
Bore x stroke: 106.0 x 67.9mm
Compression: 11.9:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Measured horsepower: **130 bhp @ 9250 rpm (Sport mode)
**Measured torque:
79.4 lb.-ft. @ 7500 rpm (Sport mode)
Corrected 1/4-mile: 10.80 sec. @ 127.57 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 3.3 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.):45/34/39 mpg
Frame: Tubular-steel trellis with single-sided aluminum swingarm
Front suspension: 48mm Öhlins inverted cartridge fork with adjustable spring preload, electronically adjustable compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Öhlins shock with electronically adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual Brembo radial-mount four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
Rear brake: Brembo two-piston caliper, 245mm disc with ABS
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Scorpion Trail
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Pirelli Scorpion Trail
Rake/trail: 25.0º/4.3 in.
Seat height: 33.5 in.
Wheelbase: 60.2 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): **518/486 lbs.
Red, black, white
Availability: Now
Warranty: 24 mo., unlimited mi.

Contact: Ducati North America, Inc.
10443 Bandley Dr
Cupertino, CA 95014

Markedly more compact in the fore/aft dimension, the Ducati also sits a bit closer to the pavement than the BMW. Pillion types sit higher than the rider, which tends to increase steering effort on enthusiastic two-up sorties

"Either bike will put 180-200 relatively human freeway miles in the rear-view between fuel stops, but the BMW feels more comfortable doing it."
BMW's unlikely assemblage of parts has evolved into a best-seller. It works far better just about anywhere two wheels can roll than that post-modern aesthetic might lead you to believe.
HP2-derived DOHC heads conspire with new pistons and larger, sodium-filled valves to give the 2010 Boxer more punch than its predecessors. Still, it's no match for the Multistrada on pavement
Though it looks a bit primitive compared to the Ducati's MotoGP-esque display, the more intuitive GS dash tells you all you need to know with predictable German ease and efficiency.
"The friendliest Testastretta twin throws down hard enough between 6000 and 9000 rpm to leave the Boxer half a dozen corners behind."
Ducati's best Desmoquattro street engine ever is exactly that: a street engine. Its light, low-slung armor looks nice, but offers little protection against an obstinate Mojave Desert rock.
It's unlikely to be mistaken for anything less, but the Multistrada looks much sexier in person-even with a black plastic snout in place of the Sport model's carbon-fiber one.
The Multistrada's dash is much less daunting after some quality time with the owner's manual, but it can be harder to read than the Boxer's analog instruments, especially in bright sunlight.