by Kevin Duke

Ducati Charts New Territory with 2004 Multistrada

There is a two-wheeled version of the new Porsche SUV, the Cayenne. It may seem to have off-road pretensions, but it’s not really intended to stray far from the pavement.

After a ride on the 2004 Ducati Multistrada, we’re pleased to report that, like the new Porsche, it is still imbued with the legendary sporting DNA that has built the status of its hallowed marque.

“This is a Ducati to the core of its existence,” asserted Michael Lock, CEO of Ducati North America, at the Multistrada’s press launch in Dana Point, California.

The Multistrada is a new branch in the Ducati tree, and one that it sees as critical to expanding its appeal to a larger demographic. Underlining the importance of the new bike to the Italian manufacturer was the appearance of Ducati’s top dog at the press introduction. It was the first time in my six-year motojournalism career that the head of a foreign manufacturer has traveled overseas for a press launch.

“It’s not going to be a complete success unless we conquer the U.S.,” said Federico Minoli, CEO of Ducati Motor S.p.A. Minoli added there were three recent major challenges for Ducati, ranking the launch of the Multistrada up there with the ambitious MotoGP project and the debut of the new 999!

Ducati originally planned to build 5,000 of the new bikes, but upped the production order to 6,500 after strong initial demand in Europe. In fact, the entire production of the Multistrada is already sold out in Italy. Ducati North America reps say 520 Multistradas will make their way to America.

From our day riding the do-it-all Multistrada on a wide variety of roads, we think Ducati should have no trouble selling its meager American allotment.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to achieving sales success will be the Multistrada’s styling. Ducati’s chief designer Pierre Terblanche has received widespread barbs for his work on the controversially styled 999, and from initial reaction, the Multistrada likely won’t quiet his detractors. But other than the bulbous lower section of the fairing, the Multistrada is quite captivating in person. A hideous evaporative canister on the left side of the forward cylinder is the most obvious styling wart.

The totally reworked air-cooled engine is cradled nicely by the traditional Ducati tubular trellis frame, unencumbered by the ugliness of hoses and radiators that accompanies liquid-cooled mills. The red version (with red frame tubes) screams Ducati, while the silver version (with gray frame rails) is almost BMW-like in its understatement.

The gorgeous new rear wheel is proudly on display thanks to an all-new single-sided swingarm and eye-catching underseat exhaust. The new front wheel, patterned after that on the 999, is a significant 2.6-pounds lighter than on the Monster line while also being stronger. The 320mm front brake rotors are attached directly to the wheel via floating pins instead of using a rotor carrier as on other Ducatis and most bikes, saving a bit more weight.

The new 992cc V-Twin is the same as fitted to the new Supersport 1000DS we rode in Spain and in the new Monster 1000S we pitted against a Buell Lightning. Making about 85 hp at the rear wheel, the “Dual-Spark” motor has twin spark plugs per cylinder in its more modern head, and revisions include a host of durability increasing modifications to transform it into a thoroughly tractable street powerplant.

As fitted to the Multistrada, the injected mill has a newfangled “5.8” version ECU that runs at 25mhz instead of 20mhz, and it drives a stepper motor to enable an automatic choke for one-button cold-starts. Even on a chilly morning, the 45mm throttle bodies deliver good responsiveness, and the bike pulls cleanly from as low as 2,000 rpm once warm.

If you look carefully, you’ll notice a large steel goiter in front of the rear wheel. This bulge is a pre-silencer that allows the main muffler under the seat to be acceptably small; the same bulge contains a catalytic converter in non-U.S. bikes. From there, a single pipe travels to the single, dual-chamber muffler that looks like twin canisters. The exhaust note is the typical Ducati thrum, though it’s a bit more subdued than we’d prefer. A Termignoni exhaust system is part of the Multistrada’s extensive accessory catalog.

One Ducati sound that is noticeable in its absence is the rattling from the dry clutch. The quieter operation is due to the clutch basket and plates now made of aluminum, which have the side benefits of less weight and easier modulation. Both the clutch and brake levers are adjustable.

A chrome tubular handlebar looks a bit out of place on a Ducati, but it offers a neutral riding position, slightly leaned forward. If the ergos don’t suit you, the bars can be rotated for rider preference or easily swapped out for a different bend. The aluminum footpegs are positioned similar to a dirt bike, resulting in a relaxed knee bend, but they can be a bit slippery when wet. The 33.5-inch seat height was manageable for my 32-inch inseam, but shorter riders will be intimidated.

A freeway stint preceded our ride’s twisty bits, which was a good time to judge the Multistrada’s protection from the elements. Wind protection is decent, with a breeze hitting high-chest level. The upper windscreen cleverly pivots with the handlebars so that it could be made wider than possible while still retaining a fairly generous steering lock, while the lower part is fixed to the frame; taller and lower windscreens are optional for under $100. Upper legs are protected by the frame-mounted fairing (that includes a handy storage compartment in its right side), but not the lower legs or feet. The oddly shaped mirrors offer a decent view behind, and they have front turn signals with clear lenses integrated into their front sides.

The Italian word multi strada translates into all-road, and as such, touring roads are part of the Multistrada’s repertoire. Those with miles to burn will want to order the optional hard luggage from Ducati. Nicely integrated with the bike’s styling, hard bags come in either 18-liter or 24-liter sizes for just under $800. The hard-shell trunk will cost nearly $900 including the required rack.

An attractive new electronic instrument panel supplies all the usual information, including a clock, fuel gauge and oil temperature. An on-board trip computer informs the rider of average or current fuel mileage, and a low-fuel warning. A GPS system is optional for an extra $1,600. The headlight angle is electrically adjustable to compensate for varying loads. The broad seat is seemingly comfy, although I didn’t spend more than 45 minutes in the thinly padded saddle at once. The optional “comfort seat” ($260) might be a better choice.

The Multistrada’s ride quality on the highway is, as you’d expect from such long-travel suspenders, quite comfy. With 6.5 inches of travel, the 43mm inverted Showa fork is able to suck up just about anything you can throw at it, while the rear shock’s 5.6 inches doesn’t respond quite as well over big, sharp-edged hits. Still, the Showa rear damper is fairly trick, incorporating a hydraulic remote preload adjuster to accommodate varying loads, plus its length can be altered over a 10mm range to give a 20mm ride-height adjustment.

As plush as the fork is, it was a total surprise to find out it has amazingly good pitch control under heavy braking, with negligible front-end dive. More surprises were in store when cranking the bike over in hard steering transitions, a situation that really unsettles most other big “trailies” like a Triumph Tiger or BMW GS.

Credit for the MS’s chassis stability must go to the forged (instead of softer cast) steel tubes in the lower frame section and the fact that the swingarm pivot is contained not only in the engine cases as is typical of Ducatis, but also in the lower frame rails, giving more strength and longer bearing life. In addition, the Multistrada’s steering stem tube is longer for less load on bearings over bumpy roads, according to Ducati.

The Multistrada also surprises at its adeptness trail-braking into corners when running in a bit hotter than intended, as it refuses to stand up under braking like some other sportier machines. Brembo 4-piston calipers provide strong stopping power, and steel-braided brake lines provide a nicely firm front brake feel.

Turn in is fairly light, thanks to its wide handlebar. Ducati claims 48% of the Multistrada’s 441-pound weight sits on the front wheel, which results in a neutral chassis balance. Peg-scraping angles of lean are difficult to achieve on the street since the pegs are so far from the ground to begin with.

Road conditions on our ride varied from cold and wet to warm and dry, with a bit of gravel thrown in for fun. Through it all, the Multistrada’s Pirelli Scorpion Sync tires provided good grip from the get-go. Developed by Pirelli for use on the Multistrada in 120/70 and 180/55 17-inch pairs, the Syncs utilize the same carcass as Pirelli’s excellent Diablo, but they sport a new rubber compound and unique tread pattern. We’d recommend these tires for other so-called adventure-touring bikes that aren’t taken far off-road.

Although it will never out-pull a Gixxer Thou up top, the MS’s 90-degree Twin has an impressively linear horsepower curve. In the real world, it’s a flat torque curve that provides the responsiveness needed for immediate acceleration, and the Duc has it in spades: More than 50 ft.-lbs. are available from 3,500 rpm until the rev limiter steps in at 8,500 rpm. For reference, that’s more torque than any of the latest 600 sportbikes can twist out at their peaks. Max torque of 63.5 ft.-lbs. arrives at 6,200 rpm.

This tractability pays off on tight, unfamiliar roads such as a little one-and-a-half-laner we rode at the intro. First gear is rarely needed, even around 15-mph corners, as the grunty Twin torques smoothly away on the exits. This is an excellent motor for all but the fastest street conditions. And, unlike some injected bikes, the Multistrada has none of the abruptness coming back on the throttle that can unsettle a bike when leaned over in the corners.

Going into this test, I must say my expectations of the Multistrada weren’t very high. A do-it-all bike is usually one afflicted with too many compromises. But by the end of our ride, I’d have to rate the $11,495 Multistrada as Ducati’s best all-’round street machine.

It’s a capable backroad blaster, a comfortable commuter and, with optional hard luggage, a versatile touring machine. It’s got loads of style, a legendary heritage and, on a small racetrack with a talented rider, the MS will even embarrass some pure sportbike riders.

The Multistrada may not be for everyone; it’s for everything.