2017 Ducati Monster 1200 S

First Ride Review

When the Ducati Monster M900 was introduced back in 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton lived in the White House, the Internet was in its infancy and Kevin Schwantz battled Wayne Rainey for the 500cc GP title. Miguel Galluzzi’s design, with the tubular-steel trellis frame and air-cooled, desmodromic, 90-degree L-twin hanging out in the breeze for all to see, was simple, brilliant, muscular and elegant. The Monster became a standard-bearer in the naked bike segment and a mainstay in Ducati’s lineup for more than two decades, built in countless variations, everything from air-cooled to liquid-cooled, dry clutch to wet, 600cc to 1,200cc, analog to digital.

For 2017, the Monster family has six members, with the newest models occupying opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end is the all-new Monster 797, the smallest, least-expensive model, which represents a return to the Monster’s roots, with throwback styling and an air-cooled engine (the 803cc Desmodue L-twin from the Scrambler). On the other end are the Monster 1200 and 1200 S, standard and up-spec models that were overhauled for 2017 to make them more powerful, sophisticated, agile and stylish.

Introduced for 2014, the 1200 and 1200 S were the first Monsters to get the versatile, torquey, liquid-cooled, 1,198cc Testastretta 11˚ L-twin that also powers the Multistrada 1200 adventure tourer and Diavel power cruiser. Like the racy Monster 1200 R, which was introduced last year and remains in the lineup, the 1200 and 1200 S get new cylinder heads, bumping the compression ratio from 12.5:1 to 13:1, and larger 56mm throttle bodies, which are elliptical instead of round. Although the 1200 R makes more horsepower—160 vs. 150—the new 1200 and 1200 S are tuned to be smoother at low rpm and, as a result of steady improvement in throttle-by-wire calibration, have a more direct connection between the right grip and the rear wheel. Also, compared to the R, they’re also equipped with a more advanced electronics package, including Bosch cornering ABS, Ducati Wheelie Control and (on the S) Ducati Quick Shift, which allows clutchless upshifts and downshifts.

Such enhancements were greatly appreciated during the Monster 1200 S press launch, held in Monte Carlo, Monaco, best known for the legendary Formula One race that is run on the city’s narrow streets and the James Bond movie, Casino Royale. Since the principality of Monaco occupies a tiny sliver of rocky Mediterranean coastline that’s chock-a-block with high-rise casinos and condo towers, we rode inland into France, on the impossibly narrow, steep, gnarled roads of the Maritime Alps. The route was so much like a spilled plate of spaghetti that I rarely clicked the transmission into fourth and rowed through the lower gears constantly. Hello, quickshifter! Adding to the fun were temperatures in the low 50s and pavement that was either rough, wet, scattered with the evidence of farm animals or all three. Hooray, cornering ABS!

Bending the Monster through all of those turns—I craned my neck to look through so many hairpins that I was sore the next day—was made easier thanks to sharper steering geometry and a tighter wheelbase, the latter achieved by making the single-sided swingarm shorter yet also beefier. With the L-twin used as stress member of the chassis, the Monster felt as solid as the rock the roads were carved from. Suppleness comes courtesy of fully adjustable Öhlins suspension that strikes a balance between road-holding firmness and easy-to-live-with plushness. Just as primo are the Brembo M50 monobloc radial front calipers squeezing 330mm semi-floating discs, which freeze-frame the scenery like a pause button, and the grippy Pirelli Diablo Rosso III tires.

There was never any snatchiness when rolling on and off the gas through all those first-gear switchbacks and off-camber chicanes, and there was always a deep well of torque to draw from (claimed peak is 93 lb-ft). Evolutionary changes to the Testastretta L-twin over the past few years have helped it run smoother with minimal unwanted vibration, but its big-bore twin power pulses and booming exhaust never let you forget this is a Ducati. New switchgear makes it easier to toggle between the three riding modes—Sport, Touring and Urban—which offer preset levels for power, throttle response, ABS, traction control and wheelie control (settings can also be customized). The updated, full-color TFT instrument display has crisp, easy-to-read graphics and all of the pertinent info is shown or easily accessible.

Ducati, of course, paid plenty of attention to styling. Reshaping the steel gas tank made it narrower between the knees, but also reduced capacity from 4.6 to 4.36 gallons. To give the bike a more compact profile, the tail section was made narrower and shorter (and raised 0.4-inch). New die-cast aluminum footpegs are rubber covered to reduce vibration, and the passenger footpeg brackets no longer crowd the rider’s feet. A removable passenger seat cover adds to the sporty look, and grab handles are cleverly recessed under the tail. As a naked bike designed for the street, the Monster has the most comfortable seating position this side of the Multistrada, with an upright handlebar, a wide seat and humanely positioned footpegs.

The 1200 S, in addition to its higher-caliber suspension and brakes, has a carbon fiber front fender, new triple Y-spoke cast aluminum wheels with exclusive “S” graphics, an LED daytime running light embedded in the headlight and LED turn signals. It’s available in Ducati Red with a red frame ($16,995) or new Liquid Concrete Grey with a black frame ($17,195). The standard Monster 1200 ($14,695) features a fully adjustable Kayaba fork, a preload- and rebound-adjustable Sachs shock, Brembo brakes with M4.32 monobloc radial front calipers squeezing 320mm discs and 10-spoke cast aluminum wheels, and is available in Ducati Red with a red frame.

Ducati’s new Monster 1200 S wears its icon status well, with head-turning Italian style, ample horsepower and torque, better handling, premium components and the latest-and-greatest electronics. It’s the best Monster yet, but it isn’t perfect. The engine puts out a lot of heat (the exhaust heat shield on the right side gets mighty toasty), the quickshifter can be clunky in lower gears and, on a premium street bike like this, heated grips and cruise control should be standard. But the temperamental qualities of old Monsters—such as grabby, stiff dry clutches, balky low-rpm performance and questionable reliability—have long since been engineered out of the picture. Today’s Monsters blend character with refinement, style with maturity and performance with versatility. They’ve gotten better with age. If only we could all be so lucky.