Somewhere up around 5,000 feet, I wove along a black asphalt ribbon among rock faces and steep slopes drenched in ancient pines. Hidden further up the road, and higher still at 6,000 feet above sea level and about 5,500 feet above the resort town of Palm Springs, was the alpine town of Idyllwild. I had never been there, but the route felt easy; the bike I was astride had no trouble sticking to the meandering road. Power was surging yet manageable; the chassis was tame yet felt agile. I wasn’t even halfway through the day’s ride, and I couldn’t wait to see how many different types of turns I could throw at this sunflower yellow Ducati Scrambler.
MORE MOTORCYCLING: A Love Letter to a Kawasaki Ninja | 5 Best Starter Bikes | Primer: Learning to Ride
More and more motorcycle companies are starting to realize what the riding community has known for decades: new and younger riders can’t jump on a 190-horsepower liter bike while their motorcycle license is still warm from the printer and not feel they’re about to earn a Darwin award. Big-bore sport bikes are intimidating and off-putting to most prospective riders — not to mention only about 2 percent of riders can actually get 100 percent out of those bikes (and that’s only on a track). Because of this widespread awakening, the entry-level market has seen a boom with an increasing number of beginner-friendly and fun bikes, the best of which still intrigue veteran riders.
Ducati is known for top-notch technology, blistering performance, high power and exclusivity. This becomes obvious when you see their poster child, the 1199 Panigale, a $25,000 track day stalwart. The Scrambler, Ducati’s newest bike, represents the Panigale’s antithesis: fun rather than intense, individualized rather than perfected, accessible rather than the stuff of dreams.
Ducati’s goal with the Scrambler is quite obviously luring a new generation of motorcycle riders. Everyone with a Ducati business card might cringe at the term, but this is their entry-level bike, tailored to a younger rider’s price range, needs and style. Accessibility starts at the price, which is just below $8,500. And while most bikes on the road today give the impression that they’ll turn into 30-foot robots and start exchanging haymakers at any moment, Ducati styled the 2015 Scrambler as if they hadn’t stopped making it in 1974.
The Scrambler proved to be more playful than a terrier with a tennis ball.
But aside from the name and the style nothing has been brought over to the new model. The Scrambler, with its low 31-inch-high seat height and accommodating standard ride position, looks like a bike you wouldn’t mind taking your road test on, rather than a piece of high-end exotica. Its engine is the same 803cc one found in the 796 Monster, but it’s been slightly detuned to 80 hp and 50 lb ft of torque. That makes the Scrambler Ducati’s least powerful bike, but that doesn’t matter. The spread of torque from low revs to the mid range means that during everyday riding you won’t be bouncing off the limiter searching for power.
Up in the mountain passes above Palm Springs the Scrambler delivered smooth power through long sweeping turns and creased hard-stopping hairpins easily. The engine communicated well enough when it wanted to shift — something that came in handy, since the tach, a simple digital display, became unreadable in direct sunlight. Connecting banked turns, arching from one sidewall to the other, the Scrambler proved to be more playful than a terrier with a tennis ball. The bike doesn’t handle on a knife edge, but it doesn’t trundle around either. There’s enough performance to for an exciting ride, but not so much that you’ll fear overstepping the bike’s limits. When an unexpected patch of sand found the front tire, mid-turn, I flinched even though the bike seemed to not even notice. Qualms were few, though in town, the sharpness of the throttle was more noticeable when going from light to light; the fuel delivery system is a carry over from their sport bikes, which would explain why it acted more like an on/off switch than a smooth roll-on to power.
Unlike the other bikes Ducati has on offer, the Scrambler comes in four different flavors right out of the box, all with the same basic core, power and performance. There’s the Icon, the version I rode and the closest in style to the original Scrambler of the ’70s, but with modern touches. The Full Throttle, almost flat-track inspired, has more aggressive handlebars and riding position and comes with a sport exhaust (though you can get the sport exhaust on any of the four). The Urban Enduro is a military-style bike that’s optimized for utility rather than sport, with the ability to attach extra-large side bags. The Classic harks back to the ’70s the most, aesthetically, but is doesn’t really differ from the Icon aside from spoke wheels and a different paint job. Ducati’s also touting highly visible customizable accessories from the factory like removable panels on the tank with different font, high mounted exhaust pipes and spoke wheels.
Simple, retro looks, a lack of technological wizardry, and an accessible price tag: this is clearly a brave new world for Ducati. The Scrambler’s going to attract the jeans-and-T-shirt customer rather than suit-and-tie riders with engineering degrees. It’s a simple, understated bike. But by aiming to make a fun and friendly bike rather than a competitor in a power and performance pissing contest, Ducati has shifted into a new gear.