Late last Fall, on one of those stunningly, crisp days we live for here in the Midwest, I was blasting down one of my favorite serpentine country roads on the back of a Ducati Panigale R, the Bologna companies thinly-veiled race bike, the red of its fairings the color of impure thoughts, its exhaust note the sound of guilty pleasures. As I came up over a small ridge, I spied a 35-mph left-hander about a hundred yards down the road. I’ve ridden this road a lot and know that while it’s intimidating on lean-in, it opens visually almost immediately. Gravel and grit are rarely an issue due to the road’s camber, and it had rained the night before so the pavement was perfectly clean. I was confident that as long as I stayed just to the left of a small asphalt repair patch about two-thirds of the way through the corner, there was plenty of runout to really open the throttle. This is easily a 75-mph corner on a bike with this much grip. So I braked, went down a gear, shifted my weight, committed to my lean, looked through the corner to pick my line, began to open the throttle, and…
…just then noticed a dead raccoon splayed right on the riding line mid-way through the turn.
The Panigale R is lots of things but what it most certainly isn’t is a bike that tolerates indecision. It rewards commitment; it is not a fan of half-assed measures. There was only one thing to do: I goosed it, shifted my lean even further, tightened the line as much as I could, let the multi-processor traction control system do some serious ciphering, and aimed improbably for the inside of the unfortunate animal’s squished entrails. My knee came as close to grazing the pavement as is responsible on public roads. I swear I felt the bike’s rear tire twitch a little on the slick bits as I went zooming by and over.
All this happened it about three seconds.
The big superbike handled all of this with barely a deep breath, of course, the limits of the Panigale R being so far above my relatively meager own as to always be humbling (I’m certainly no Casey Stoner). One of the appealing things about riding sportbikes is the way that any road can challenge a rider’s reactions; it’s those electric moments that make motorcycling so invigorating, so engaging. But you know, sometimes it’s just nice to exhale. At the risk of bruising (if not losing) my motorcycle man card, high-test sportbikes just aren’t that comfortable to ride, nor are they…here it comes…really that much fun on the street. Rewarding, yes; exhilarating, certainly. But fun? Not so much.
Which brings me to the Ducati Scrambler, a motorcycle with an entirely different design brief from the snarling, hair-raising Panigale lineup. It’s a motorcycle designed to do nothing so much as induce grins, a low-maintenance and low-effort machine over which to toss a leg and head off down the street or to the coffee shop or across the field or wherever whimsey compels you. And did I mention it has a high hipster quotient? More on that later.
(The bike tested here has an as-ridden price of $10,495. Thanks to Reno’s Powersports in Kansas City, Missouri, for the extended test ride.)
Ducati first released the Scrambler model back in 1962, a 250cc single sold primarily in the American market. The bike was an immediate hit and over the next number of years grew into a 450cc machine (sold as the Ducati Jupiter) that ultimately included Ducati’s iconic desmodromic cylinder head. It was Ducati’s first “lifestyle” machine, an adjective I fairly-well loathe but which well describes the notional idea of a motorcycle as cultural touchstone. Of its many key features, it’s excellent frame was so well engineered that it was used, stock, for flat-track racing in the States. That’s a clear testament to build-quality right there, folks. And then, as these things happen, the original Scrambler was summarily killed off in 1974.
In 2014, attempting to again tap into the generational zeitgeist, Ducati rolled out a reimagined Scrambler at the INTERMOT show in Cologne, Germany. Rather than being entirely retro, Ducati sought to capture what the Scrambler might have become if the line had never paused. Now a few model years on, the Scrambler platform has spawned six differentiated variations, including a bobbed-tail café racer model complete with clip-ons and a recently introduced Enduro model, the “Desert Sled,” that’s equipped with rally rubber and greater suspension travel (and which I find the most desirable of the entire line).
The bike you see here is the “Full Throttle” model, a bike “inspired” by the flat trackers of old (and not to be confused with the Scrambler “Flat Track Pro” model). It comes equipped with a burbling Termignoni twin-can muffler, Pirelli dual-sport tires mounted on 10-spoke alloy wheels, a truncated seat, a slightly lowered handlebar, and other visual affectations to differentiate it from its cousins. It’s flat-black paint and yellow highlights inevitably draw comparisons to a bumblebee, but it’s a purposeful look, simple and not overworked, appealing in a minimal and functional way. It’s an easy bike to look at, the stylishly-packaged mechanicals supported by a simplified version or Ducati’s classic trellis frame.
Controls are simple, legible, and easy to use. The simple, circular LCD gauge holds up in even bright sunlight, and the round LED headlight manages the delicate balance of being both retro and modern.
All Scramblers come equipped with the same engine, a slightly detuned version of the one used in Ducati's 796 Monster. It’s an 803cc, SOHC V-twin (which Ducati calls an L-twin because Italian), which is air- and oil-cooled and delivers 75hp at 8250rpm and 50-lb/ft or torque at 5750rpm. The engine is as juicy as a ripe peach, the arrival of maximum torque with so many revs left in the range providing immense flexibility and responsiveness, and it’s easy to ride with both verve and predictable control. And while 75-hp seems paltry in this age of bruising power, in practice it’s more than enough power to motivate a combined bike-and-rider weight of around 600-pounds.
The Scrambler stops as well as it goes, it’s semi-knobby Pirelli tires (110/80-18 front, 180/55-17 rear) hauled into check by a capable Brembo, two-channel ABS-equipped system, four-pistons in the front and a single in the rear. The ABS system is about as simple as they come, either on or off, but provides protection against overbraking on a wide variety of road types (asphalt, grass, gravel, dirt, free-range farm pastures).
Riding the Scrambler is one of motorcycling’s simple little joys. Straddling the bike is easy for my 6’ frame, neither too tall nor too wide. At slow speeds, it’s 57-inch wheelbase and general compactness make it nimble as a caffeinated house cat, and riding the bike while standing on the foot pegs feels natural and inevitable. Every roadside field is an invitation to do the silly thing, jump over the berm and tear off across the grass and dirt with a rooster tail of happiness spraying behind you. It’s a hoot.
Now, back to that hipster thing. Ducati has gone close to overboard with marketing the Scrambler to a specific demographic, and if the abundance of “pre-customized” models don’t make that point, the vast catalog of factory accessories does. And not just for the bike; for the rider, there’s an entire virtual department store of clothing (flat-brimmed caps included), helmets, trinkets, gizmos, gadgets, and frippery available to “curate” (to use the verb of the moment) an individual owner’s experience. But to criticize the Scrambler as a simple lifestyle embellishment misses the point. It’s a bike that's just about perfect to introduce new riders to motorcycling; never underestimate the power of “cool” to attract interest, and interest often morphs into commitment and long-lasting passion. The Scrambler is also unintimidating enough for both men and women to enjoy, and effortless enough for experienced riders to jump on and go, leaving their more bruising bikes in the garage, for a jaunt down to the coffee shop or through the trees or on a trail. If that makes me a hipster rider, then so be it.
The Scrambler exists in a crowded field, with virtually every manufacturer having jumped onto the retro-modern or “neo-classic” trend in some way. (My current favorites are the Moto Guzzi V7 II Stornello, the Triumph Thruxton, the BMW R nineT URBAN G/S, and the Yamaha XSR900.) The shear variety of styles and sizes currently available speak to the diversity of the marketplace, and of course the hunt for a truly vintage Honda CB750 occupies the fever-dreams of many an enthusiast. In my book, all of that is a good thing.
As much as the original Scrambler was in vogue in the Sixties, Ducati has clearly ginned up another winner with their renewed and reimagined lineup. It’s no surprise that the Scrambler outsells all other Ducati models by a large factor, and in fact the Scrambler became Ducati’s first bike to slip into the global top-10 of bikes sold for the first time ever in 2015; it continues to lead the way in sales for the company today. And before any purists poo-poo the mass-market appeal of the Scrambler as somehow diluting Ducati’s upscale image, I’ll remind them that the massive influx of cash ultimately results in drool-worthy new bikes such as the XDiavel and revised Monster line-up, to say nothing of the exciting new Supersport.
The Ducati Scrambler is everything fun about motorcycles in one small package. It’s a simple good time. Well done, Ducati.