Road Test: 2007 Ducati Monster S4Rs

Ducati's meanest Monster. Has King Kong seen this?

mon*ster (`mn(t)-st&r;) noun
Etymology: Middle English monstre, from Middle French, from Latin monstrum omen, monster, from monEre to warn. 1 a : an animal of abnormal form or structure b : one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character. 2 : a threatening force. 3 a : an animal of strange or terrifying shape b : one unusually large for its kind. 4 : something monstrous; especially : a person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty. 5 : one that is highly successful

Merriam-Webster's definition fits Ducati's Monster as well as any and better than most. But you won't find a Monster more worthy of that name than the 118-horsepower, hlins-suspended, blood-red '07 S4Rs, which is a very good thing. Give Ducati credit for defining the modern production naked bike in '93 with the original M900. But up until now, the Monster, even the heretofore-definitive 109-horse S4R, wasn't all that monstrous compared with, say, BMW's 141-horse K1200R or Triumph's 120-horse Speed Triple. Fun? Loads. But it felt, well, old, with ergonomics and handling that were an acquired taste at best.

This new maximum Monster's ergonomics still take some getting used to. But there's a lot more of everything else--more horsepower, for sure, with the suspension and brakes to back it up. Think of it as a more powerful version of the magic formula that pumped upward of 170,000 Monsters through the factory gates during the past 13 years. One look tells you that much. Look again and you'll see the Borgo Panigale brain trust has turned up the volume in all the right places, borrowing a few magic words from the Superbike department: Testastretta. hlins. Brembo. Marchesini. Presto! Instant S4Rs.

Pried successfully from Ducati North America's protective grasp months before anyone outside the factory gates had ridden one, the only S4Rs in America blends seamlessly into a Southern California Saturday morning, where tragically hip, carbon-fiber- and titanium-encrusted Monsters are only slightly less common than unemployed actors. To pick this one out of the mix you need to know what to look for. The phat retro racing stripe running stem to stern is centered, not offset as on lesser Monsters. Checkered-flag S4Rs logos on the tank, instruments and carbon-fiber side panels also designate it as the flagship Monster. But the heart and soul of the brute is Ducati's 998cc Testastretta twin.

The broad, curved radiator, deep sump and king-sized triangular oil cooler say this twin is no 996. So do narrow cylinder heads that give the Testastretta its name. They live above 100.0 x 63.5mm cylinders; they're more oversquare than the S4R's 98.0 x 66.0mm holes, but less so than the 104.0 x 58.8mm cylinders that make Ducati's 999R the only 999cc 999. And though the S4Rs engine is essentially identical to what you'd find in a standard '06-spec 999 and 999S, there are subtle differences.

With no room for the 999's 54mm throttle bodies and shower-type injectors, this Testastretta twin inhales through new 50mm bodies fitted with hybrid, 996-style injectors. According to Project Engineer Giulio Malagoli, the only other differences are massaged engine-management software, new cylinder-head covers and some aluminum milled off the crankcases to make room for the Monster's single-sided monobraccia swingarm. Cams are the same as the '06 999 and 999S's. This Monster's catalyst-equipped exhaust system complies with squeaky-clean Euro 3 emissions rules, but smaller throttle bodies and the relatively convoluted stacked-silencer design cost the S4Rs 10 horsepower compared to a standard 999. According to Malagoli, "The catalyst itself has almost no influence on performance."

Shelling out $14,995 for an S4Rs--which makes the '05 S4R seem suddenly overpriced at $13,495--buys you a whole lot more than that motor. The inverted hlins fork and piggyback shock were designed specifically for S4Rs duty, complete with stiffer springs than the '05 R-model's Showa equivalents. And according to Malagoli, those radial-mount P34 Brembo calipers are essentially the same as the ones that stop the Xerox Replica 999R Superbike. Only the fluid reservoir and brake hose configuration are different. More? How about lightweight, 10-spoke Marchesini wheels, adapted from the 999R.

All that adds up to a slinky little 446-pound package that undercuts the suddenly quaint-looking S4R by a full 13 pounds. Both bikes share Dr. Frankenstein's mix 'n' match approach to Monster assemblage, but the S4Rs feels like a real motorcycle instead of a bunch of pirated parts. It's still a Monster, which means that wide, flat aluminum handlebar and those cruelly high pegs still take some getting used to. Comfortable? Not especially, unless you've got short legs and long arms. No matter--the Monster makes no concessions. Accept its quirks or ride something else.

Long-haul touring? Best stick to a Gold Wing. Still, ticking over 4500 times every minute with 75 mph on the speedometer in sixth gear, Il Mostro is plenty smooth, but rear-view mirror images are a hopeless blur. The bikini fairing is more like a thong, and provides about the same protection from the elements. At least it looks good. And the trademark 3.6-gallon tank fits perfectly between most knees, even if it does keep you on a 140-mile leash--25 miles less if you enjoy twisting the throttle. And when it comes to this throttle, trust us ... you will.

There's nothing here a little artistic rationalization won't fix. It's all a question of priorities. That wide 'bar keeps hands and/or switchgear from fouling that nice plastic tank at full lock. A gigantic turning radius becomes homage to the signature steel trellis frame and fat, 43mm fork. Sure, the clutch lever is hard to pull. It's a Ducati dry clutch, capisce? Soon you will be able to crush walnuts with your left hand. The gearbox is a little notchy, but it gets smoother with mileage, so relax. And if the headlight isn't the best in the business, you should slow down. It's dangerous out there at night. It's all in how you look at things. You want polite? Practical? Read Miss Manners and take the bus.

It starts and idles obediently, even on a nippy 30-degree morning. Acclimate to its ergonomic eccentricities and the Monster becomes a light, agile urban weapon, and much more potent than any of its ancestors. The short-throw six-speed gearbox is a bit stiff through first and second, but otherwise excellent. The dry clutch also functioned superbly, soldiering through L.A. traffic without the usual noisy, grabby complaints. After that, brace yourself for all the subtlety of brass knuckles.

Despite its smattering of mechanical differences, this Testastretta mill acts more like a 999 than a Monster. More racehorse than workhorse, the latest four-valve twin balks at a quick handful of throttle below 4000 rpm. Who cares? Not us. The new engine revs so much quicker than the old 996, it's tough to spend much time down there anyway. Once past 4500, the tach needle heads north in a big hurry. By 6000, the front Michelin loses interest in the pavement. Take corrective measures or oncoming traffic gets a good look at that deep-sump drain plug.

At that rate, 60 mph arrives 3.1 seconds after the last green light. If said light marks the beginning of a bona fide quarter-mile dragstrip, Mr. Monster arrives at the other end in 10.7 seconds doing a respectable 126.6 mph. That's marginally quicker than our '05 S4R, which got from 0-60 in 3.3 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 10.8 seconds at 126.1 mph. On paper, both bikes are in the same performance zip code as Kawasaki's ZRX1200R. Shift to the pavement and it's not even close. Analog output from the seat of the perfectly tailored Editorial Levis gives the quicker-revving Testastretta-powered Rs a clear advantage.

Relatively short gearing serves up the meat of the power curve--a generous slab of desmodromic rapture between 6000 and 10,000 rpm--in a big hurry, punting the Duck from the exit of one corner to the entrance of the next as quickly as anything on the street. Point and shoot, or carve gracefully--with this chassis, it's your choice. But overshoot a rough, decreasing-radius right-hander somewhere in our beloved Santa Monica Mountains just once and you will send handmade Christmas cards to all the R&D; types at Brembo, hlins and Michelin.

The four-piston, four-pad Brembo calipers squeezing 320mm rotors are as good as motorcycle brakes get. There's more power and feel here than most riders can use on the street, which adds a measure of confidence you don't get on other motorcycles. The two-piston rear caliper is nearly as good, providing ample power with no tendency to lock up prematurely. And compared to the flaccid Showa suspension on our '05-spec S4R, the SR4s's hlins fork and shock are nothing short of miraculous.

Armed with more aggressive spring and damping rates at both ends, the rear remains a tad soft for anyone over about 175 pounds. Still, cranking in two turns on the shock linkage adds 8mm of ride height and yields a dramatic improvement, curing the nose-high chassis attitude that slows steering and makes the Monster reluctant to finish a corner. As opposed to the average Japanese sportbike's suspenders, a click here or a turn there on these spring or damping adjusters makes a real difference. The beauty of this hlins stuff is that if you take the time to dial it in, there's a broad enough latitude of adjustment to take you exactly where you want and need to be.

Once dialed, the hlins bits are hugely compliant, providing impeccable feedback and control even at speed on the roughest, most pockmarked pavement. Even the best sportbikes don't have this thing's composed, rock-solid feel at Big Speed.

Factor in brilliant suspension, great brakes and that thoroughbred Testastretta V-twin, and you have twisty road capabilities that go deep into pure sportbike territory, and are far beyond those of most other naked bikes.

Except this isn't a sportbike--or your average naked bike. It's not particularly comfortable or practical, and it's surely not what we'd call affordable. The S4Rs is a Monster, pure and simple. And the first Monster in years with enough muscle and moves to live up to that name. That's just fine with us.-MC


MSRP: $14,995 as tested

Type: l-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 8v
Bore x stroke: 100.0mm x 63.5mm
Displacement: 998cc
Compression ratio: 11.4:1
Transmission: 6-speed
Final drive: chain

Weight (wet): 446 lb. (202kg)
Weight (dry): 424 lb. (193kg)
Rake: 24.0 deg.
Trail: 3.78 in. (96mm)
Wheelbase: 56.7 in. (1440mm)
Seat height: 31.5 in. (800mm)
Fuel capacity: 3.6 gal. (14L)

Front: 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear: Single shock adjustable for spring preload, ride height, compression and rebound damping

Horsepower: 117.0 @ 9750 rpm
Torque: 68.2 lb.-ft. @ 7500 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 10.71 sec. @ 126.57 mph 0-60 mph 3.12 sec.
Top-gear roll-on: 3.32 sec.
Fuel mileage (low/high/average): 32/40/36

Adopt the requisite elbows- out, Ben Spies riding position and the S4Rs will carve twisty bits with anything on two wheels. Cornering clearance abounds, but there's little room for boots bigger than size 10.