Road Test Review
[This 2009 Ducati Monster 1100 Road Test first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
In April 2008 Ducati held its collective breath as it released the new Monster 696 to the press in Barcelona. This was the first complete reworking of the 1993 Monster platform on which the company’s very existence has depended more or less ever since, and despite the 696’s modest entry-level status, an array of international dignitaries was lined up to see the Bologna factory’s new baby off into an unforgiving world, including the Italian Ambassador to Spain. Don’t expect the British Ambassador to the USA on the next Triumph presentation, but in Italy, motorcycles matter….
Luckily for Ducati, and anyone who kept the faith and bought the 696 Monster, they got it right. So right that since then, it’s been the best-selling Monster in the history of the model, not just in the home market but across Europe and in many more markets around the world. Which bodes well for the new Ducati Monster 1100, launched this time in the glamorous celluloid-star-studded, French Riviera town of Cannes and subsequently flogged by the rest of the Rider staff back home on our budget Riviera. The omens were good because the 1100 shares its frame and styling with the 696, adding revised longer travel suspension to raise it from the ground and increase cornering clearance, and of course it’s fitted with a larger, air-cooled engine. The motor is not simply migrated from the Multistrada and Hypermotard. The crankcases are a new and much lighter design onto which the Multistrada cylinders and heads have been grafted, using the new Vacural casting technology which has also shaved 7 pounds from the liquid-cooled engines’ crankcases. The 1100’s crankcases alone are more than 6.5 pounds lighter than the old ones, while the Ducati Monster 1100’s single-sided swingarm is some 11 pounds lighter than the 1098’s, all factors in making the bike just 416 pounds wet, the lightest in its class by a considerable margin.
Rightly so when weight has been deemed important, and so has low-rev torque, and in contrast to its mass the Monster has lots of this. Peak horsepower is a claimed 95, coming down to a measured 85.4 at the back wheel on the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno, which sounds adequate rather than exciting. But at lower revs than the claimed 75.9/measured 68.2 lb-ft torque peak at 6,000 rpm the bike has stacks of grunt. Did I say peak? Just look at that curve…it’s more like a plateau with a gentle rise at 6,000 rpm, and from 3,500 rpm up to 7,500 rpm the L-twin is churning out more than 60 lb-ft.
For those who know what really makes a good road bike, this is very promising stuff. Yet sit on the machine first and it feels pretty much what it is, a jacked-up Monster 696, and no real clue about the bigger motor that’s been slipped into that distinctive trellis framework. For taller riders it’s more natural than its smaller sibling, though the revised seat shape (which the 696 also gets for 2009) improves comfort, too, and the Ducati Monster 1100 doesn’t feel a lot heavier. As with the 696, it’s disconcerting at first not being able to see the low-set, compact headlight in front of you, just the MotoGP-style comprehensive LCD dash in the center of the tapered diameter handlebar, giving you a sensation of being right over the front wheel.
Fire up the big L-twin and you’re greeted by the sound Ducati fans wouldn’t be without, the rattle and chogga-chogga clatter of the dry multiplate clutch. Which is exactly why it’s fitted (although it’s lighter than a more conventional wet clutch, too): a common Monster mod is to fit an open clutch cover just so this characteristic racebike rattle can shout “Ducati” to a wider audience.
The clutch lever action is heavier than average though, and at certain revs those unlubricated friction plates bray like a stressed-out donkey as they come together and the drive slack is taken up…but then that’s exactly what Ducati riders like. They call it “character,” and after a diet of homogenized perfection from so many others it’s hard to argue. You don’t need to use the clutch much anyway since that monster Monster torque dispenses casual high performance with nonchalant ease once the cold-blooded bike warms up, which takes awhile in cooler temperatures. Letting the revs drop below 2,000 rpm is a recipe for transmission roughness, but above that the bike charges forward with immense thrust and no delay to allow the revs to rise. This is what the wise rider knew would happen: you can go quicker on other bikes, but with so much angry twist on tap regardless of the revs, the Monster is both quick and effortless. Change gears when you feel like it, and if you can’t be bothered it doesn’t matter, you’ll have more than enough thrust at your beckoning anyway. Canyons are fun without being frantic, highway overtakes are a shrug and a throttle twist.
Other naked bikes will have the beating of the Monster, especially the superbike-based liquid-cooled ones, but you’ll have to work them much harder, and on tighter roads they won’t be able to make use of any horsepower advantage anyway because you just can’t keep the engine spinning fast enough all the time. The Ducati has more in its performance arsenal, hitting back with its exceptional agility, too, flicking happily left to right and back like a middleweight (which it is in all but engine capacity), and like so many Ducatis before it, steering perfectly as it purrs and twitters into corners then booms out of them-more character and distinction, and this shouldn’t be dismissed as some esoteric apologizing for perceived deficiencies. Owning a motorcycle is ultimately about how it makes you feel, and all these quirks and characteristics simply make you feel good.
There are some less welcome ones, though, including an uncharacteristically stiff and uncertain gearbox. At low revs and ratios it takes a good boot to find the next gear, while occasionally it balks at changes. It was enough for me to try a different bike in case mine was a one-off, but it and our U.S. test bike also suffered the stiffness, doubly annoying as Ducati cog-swopping is usually a slick and dependable pastime. The gearbox itself is essentially the same as that used in other Ducatis so there’s no obvious reason why this should be, unless it’s something to do with the new crankcases, or maybe this was just an early production batch with the issue. At least things are unobtrusive at everyday urban speeds so it doesn’t interfere with urban riding, and frankly it’s no worse than some other bikes anyway, it’s just that after years of perfect ratio changes on Ducatis this was noticed. And when you’re riding around town, you may notice a significant amount of heat emanating up from the air-cooled motor. Pleasant on a cold day, less so on a hot one.
The front suspension could be better, too, as it is firm and slightly underdamped, giving a harsh, choppy ride on poorer surfaces. It’s not too bad, but at $11,995 for the base model you’d hope for a little better. The Monster 1100S, which we didn’t ride, has top-quality Ohlins suspension which will undoubtedly perform better, but as that, gold paint on the wheels and a few carbon fiber panels are all you get for an additional $2,000, it’s simply too expensive. You could get your stock fork reworked for a lot less.
Down long highways with harsh surfaces the ride could become a little jiggly, but it’s not a bike many riders will be covering great distances on. The fuel economy is not too bad at an average 37.7 mpg although it’s not exceptional either, and while you can persuade it up to 41.6 mpg, the fuel tank isn’t generous at 3.8 gallons. Expect the low-fuel warning to irritate you after 120 miles, ruling out any serious touring, which is a shame as despite the lack of wind protection, that new seat and the more upright riding position than on Monsters of old mean it’s not a great ergonomic challenge to spend many hours in the saddle. Among many others we spent one good, full day on board and despite being a little too tall at 6 feet, 3 inches, I had no particular problems with comfort. Inevitably at speed the wind drags you back, and if this is a generic trait rather than a Monster-specific one, you are especially exposed on this bike even compared with other nakeds. Still, for those who’d be bothered by this the bike shouldn’t be on the options list anyway.
If there was a complaint from some riders, it was that the brakes are weak, but bear in mind the bikes we rode were very new. I was unimpressed with my French bike’s stoppers at first, then saw its initial double-figure mileage, gave them a good workout and some distance, and after that they were efficient and easy. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, if you take one for a test ride and it’s fresh from the crate. They’re still not sportbike sharp even when up to full strength but they do provide progressive power and no fade, well matched to the needs of the bike, and out on quiet, demanding back roads they won’t let you down.
The Ducati Monster 1100 really asks for busy built-up areas to exercise its talent for turning heads: it’s an extraordinarily good-looking machine, like the 696 but with the added class of its single-sided swingarm, and that raised stance lends it a certain poise and presence, too. It might be an all-new bike but the look is completely faithful to the original, yet it’s as fresh now as it ever was. Where it’s changed and progressed is in its usability: the turning circle is now acceptable where it used to be obstructively large, the mirrors show something of the view behind (though they’re still not great), servicing costs and intervals are little different from mainstream Japanese bikes, the riding position doesn’t feel like it was designed by the Spanish Inquisition, while the quality of finish is excellent. Judging by demand for the smaller version and the durability of modern Ducatis, I’d expect depreciation to be low.
But what matters, and what shines through all the rationality and number crunching is Ducati’s specialty: this bike feels good, and it makes you feel good, too. What else do you really need?