2009 Moto Guzzi Stelvio

Road Test Review

Of all the manufacturers attempting to cash in on the success of BMW’s R1200GS by producing rival machines, Moto Guzzi ought to have the best potential of all. After all, the basic specification of the GS–shaft drive, single-sided swingarm, 1200cc air/oil-cooled twin, dry single-plate clutch–could just as easily come out of a Guzzi catalog as a BMW one, cylinder angle aside. And let’s not forget, in the past Guzzi was BMW’s main rival as a touring bike manufacturer.

Even a small slice of GS sales would count as cashing in very nicely for Moto Guzzi’s new Stelvio, as the old Italian marque is making only 8,500 bikes a year now, where the GS is one of the world’s best-selling big-capacity motorcycles. A tenth of the GS sales figures would represent a major increase in Guzzi production numbers. Yet potentially the Stelvio could achieve that, if the dealer network and marketing are up to it.

The bike itself is powered by what is essentially the same eight-valve engine as that fitted to the Griso 8V–ignore the Stelvio’s quirky 4V designation, this is definitely an eight-valve engine. The factory’s dithering in deciding if this is four valves per cylinder or an eight-valve motor typifies a lack of organization which still needs to be addressed at Guzzi.

It’s ironic then that the Stelvio would do better for being fitted with a torquier four-valve engine. As it is, the Stelvio feels like it has an engine in the wrong state of tune for the use to which it generally will be put. Spin the big twin beyond 6,000 rpm and it revs eagerly and pulls hard, right up to the 8,000-rpm redline. Here it’s fast and willing, but you’re caning it like a sportbike when the rest of the machine is designed for being loaded up and putting plenty of scenic miles behind it. Indeed, the bike’s name comes from the Alpine Stelvio Pass, known for its 84 hairpin bends and 9,049-foot altitude, not ideal circumstances for unleashing the full complement of 105 horsepower. Having said that, the engine is smooth and doesn’t protest at being lugged along at much lower revs, and the midrange torque is adequate in everyday riding. But throw in some steep hills and a passenger, and you’ll be wishing for the BMW GS’s much stronger pull–the German bike is effortless where the Guzzi rider has to keep working the gearbox. At least gear selection is light, smooth and dependable, as is the fuel delivery –the bike is a little snatchy in low gears on small throttle openings, otherwise the throttle response is easy and reliable.

The rest of the transmission is unobtrusive, too, the carefully designed shaft drive/swingarm geometry working well to cancel out the vertical back-end pitching which used to be a feature of Guzzis, and of course it doesn’t dirty the bike’s rear end and needs little maintenance. It’s often the case that shaft-drive bikes have poorer ride quality than their chain-driven equivalents, but the Stelvio soaks up bumps well, if anything, exhibiting some ride harshness from the front rather than the rear.

The suspension generally works effectively though, soft at the expense of some feedback which is as you’d expect on a bike of this nature, and it doesn’t dive too much under heavy braking despite the long wheel travel. This is not a bike you’ll be flicking rapidly through corners–it’s tall, heavy and has a long wheelbase, but stability is good in turns and at speed, if the steering itself is disconcertingly light, taking a little time to get used to, in fact. The steady handling again underlines the disparity between the nature of the engine and the rest of the bike.

Other features that are especially important on a bike of this nature–forget the dirt-bike pretensions, it’s a long-distance tourer–include comfort and fuel range. The seat is very roomy and I’d guess will cause no problems even at the end of a day’s riding (we didn’t get so long on the bike), and the same applies to the passenger accommodation. Inevitably the rider does need to be tall as even in the lowest of its two height positions the seat is 32.3 inches from the ground. It can be raised to 33.1 inches if required, but it’s still not as high as the BMW GS’s lofty 33.5/34.3-inch seat, which could be an important advantage to some riders looking at the two.

The bars are wide and the footrests positioned to allow plenty of legroom, while there’s some scope for adjusting both the gear lever and rear brake lever to match small or large feet, while the screen’s height can be adjusted manually without leaving the seat or using tools. In the high position most riders will find the airflow quiet and smooth, although taller ones still get some wind noise. But the fuel capacity is half a gallon less than the GS’s at 4.76 gallons, and although we didn’t get an opportunity to measure fuel consumption, you’d hope for a larger tank than this on a bike made for the long haul. As it is, it’s likely only gentle riders will see 190 miles before the tank runs dry, which in the real world means refilling at 150 miles or less, not really enough in this class.

You do get the accessories adventure bike riders expect, such as panniers (color matched), heated grips, spotlights and satellite navigation, but so far no ABS. This will likely be an option later in the year. The standard Guzzi/Aprilia dash, an awkward mix of round tach with square info panel, usefully does include fuel economy and range, average and peak speed, although ambient temperature is missing.

Which leaves the looks. Show prototypes of the Stelvio were clumsy visually, but the production version is much better, with a strong presence and its size is well disguised by attractive lines. It’s only around the headlights that the style stops working so well. The colors available are red, black or white.

The Stelvio could end up as Guzzi’s best-selling bike as it mimics several of the GS’s most appealing features, but an engine designed for more torque and less horsepower would make it better, and a bigger fuel tank would be useful, too. The build quality is generally good, although on my example the cubby-hole set into the tank (and operated electrically by a button on the left handlebar) would fly open at high revs–there goes my passport! BMW’s ace is the much higher quality and distribution of its dealers. Guzzi still has a way to go here.