When Ducati motorcycles was purchased by Audi’s division of the Volkswagen Automotive Group (VAG) in 2012, there was concern that the Italian company’s passion would be diluted by layers of corporate bureaucracy. The German conglomerate (VAG) was hellbent on becoming the world’s number one automaker and, despite Ducati’s incredible success both in showrooms and on podiums, it was unclear where the bike brand would fit in the four-wheeled company’s portfolio. Now two years into the relationship, the passion is stronger than ever. With free reign on development (and deeper pockets), Ducati’s built a lineup that’s billed as faster, sexier and more nimble than anything they’ve produced before. After spending a day piloting them through the Catskill Mountains, it became clear that this may be their finest vintage yet, at least for the majority of their models.
Our day in the saddle began astride the Multistrada S Pikes Peak ($22,495+). The consumer version of the four-time mountain race winner, the Pikes Peak is Ducati’s top-of-the-line answer to the fastest growing segment in motorcycling: adventure bikes. While the competition from Germany, Japan and Austria boast better off-road prowess and overland potential, Ducati dialled this beast in to excel on the tarmac, where most riders will actually spend their time; this sacrifices its prowess on knobbies, but its 150 hp Testastretta 11, L-Twin motor makes it an absolute blast on mountainous roads. Its upright riding position and wide bars provide all-day comfort while Ducati’s shift-on-the-fly power modes make tailoring the power-band to conditions (and rider confidence) a breeze.
Getting in the saddle of the Panigale, blipping the throttle and waiting for other riders ahead to clear felt like watching Scarlett Johansson disrobe.
The iconic Monster, in 1200 S ($15,995+) trim, uses that same brilliant engine and software but, packaged as it is, doles out a much more aggressive riding experience. Ripping through the winding asphalt of the Catskills the Monster came alive, barking during downshifts and delivering one of the most engaging rides of the day — when given the choice, this was the bike we came back to for seconds. The minimalist approach of the Monster’s design, combined with top-shelf componentry from Ohlins and Brembo, provides rider feedback in droves. The rear brakes did feel a little vague, but with engine’s 12.5:1 compression ratio, rolling off the Ride-by-Wire throttle made them superfluous when it came to negotiating the twisties.
Then came the 1199 Panigale ($18,995+), a bike with heaping gobs of power and a taut suspension aimed toward the track; it’s an intimidating ride. Getting in the saddle, blipping the throttle (safe to say its 195 horses are not very tame) and waiting for other riders ahead to clear felt like watching Scarlett Johansson disrobe. Slowly. Throttle response is instantaneous, the ergonomics scream “checkered flag” and its exhaust note is addictive — but the Panigale rides like an infinitely civilized machine. It builds speed like a bullet, sure, but never once did it feel twitchy, on edge or beyond our control. What’s truly scary is how rideable and confidence-inspiring the Panigale was.
The Streetfighter 848 ($13,495+) was an entirely different animal. A ergonomic mash-up of the Monster and the Panigale, its seating position is aggressive, with wrists bearing the brunt and knees hugging the tank. Compared to the rest of the fleet, the Streetfighter was the bike that channeled the frustrations of Ducati’s of yore. The clutch was grabby, the throttle was twitchy and it demanded more attention than a struggling comedian. We wanted to love the Streetfighter, but abusive relationships never end well. After a mere twenty minutes in the saddle it was clear why the 1098 version was dropped from the lineup.
Our day came to a close on the most controversial product in Ducati’s stable: the Diavel ($20,995). The styling of Ducati’s hypertrophied power cruiser is decidedly polarizing — think Michael Bay, not Michelangelo. It’s far from the best looking bike in Ductai’s posse: bruisers never are. The headlight sits too low, the massive plenums flanking it are overly stylized and its lines just don’t flow. Even user controls suffer: the keyless ignition button sitting below the secondary dash can only be accessed by a slightly bent popsicle stick held by a rider with the dexterity of a safe cracker. In the saddle, it’s an admittedly different story. Where most cruisers, even those of the muscle bike persuasion, tend to enjoy loping around at low RPMs, the Diavel demands to be ridden hard and fast. The torque curve is linear and unending; it pushes you back in the saddle with each and every blip and encourages you to point and squirt through corners like you would on a sport bike, despite the laid back seating position.
2013 will go on record as Ducati’s best yet, and with this lineup, there’s no reason 2014 shouldn’t build on those sales numbers. Sales are up across the board, both in Europe (51 percent of bikes sold) and in the U.S. (24 percent), which is increasingly becoming a vital market for the brand. The Monster 1200 S, the Panigale and the Pikes Peak are the incredible bikes that will drive increasing sales; though the Diavel and the Streetfighter might need some work, there’s no reason not to expect a trend toward the better from this passionate brand.