Thursday, March 7, 2013

Test Ride: 2011 Ducati Diavel

Cruisers are not for me. They are loud, crude, soft, and silly. Nearly everything a cruiser does can be done better with another kind of bike, except for hanging out with the cruiser crowd. To me, a cruiser is all about the image of riding and much less the thrill. So imagine my shock when Ducati announced in 2010 that it was going to be introducing a bike with the styling of a cruiser, but the performance of a sport bike. Everything about this bike seemed downright heretical to both cruisers and sport bikes. Color me intrigued. Luckily for me, Ducati was kind enough to offer several demo days specifically to introduce the Diavel, so I suited up, fired up my bike, and rode out to see what all the fuss was about.
Arriving at the parking lot of a public park, the two rows of gleaming bikes stood waiting like soldiers at attention. Before being allowed to touch the bikes, each rider was required to sit through a safety briefing, primarily to explain the technology on the Diavel. This bike is loaded with an absolute butt load of tech, none of it new to the motorcycle industry in concept, but the execution was second to none.

First, the bike uses a keyless ignition system, similar to the keyless ignition systems used in cars. One does not need to insert a physical key to start the bike, just having the keyfob on you as you approach the bike allows you to unlock the steering head and start the bike. It is a very convenient feature, but seems someone frivolous given that a key is still required in order to access the fuel tank. In fact, on the demo bikes, each bikes key was inserted into the fuel filler cap, sort of proving the point that this was really technology for the sake of technology.

As the talk continued, we were walked through the different power modes available on the Diavel as well as the range of adjustabliity within each. What is genuinely amazing is the level of fine tuning one is able to make to the motorcycle to have it suit your needs. Everything from the engine mapping, suspension stiffness, ABS intervention, and traction control level could be tailored in each mode to allow a user to personalize the characteristic of bike to the heart's content. All of the changes could be viewed on a color LCD mounted into the forward section of the tank while many other functions were displayed within the instrument cluster itself. All told, it is a bit overwhelming for a motorcycle, though given the price, it seems like the technology is necessary to justify the cost.

We finished up the safety talk and a couple of attractive looking young ladies walked us over to the bikes and gave us a tour of the design. At first glance, the bike looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. The sense one gets is that there is a lot of weight concentrated in front of the rider and that the whole bike seems immensely substantial. I was stunned when we were told that the bike weighed just over 430 lbs as the first impression would have made me believe it if they told me it weighed in at a hefty 650 lbs. Ducati has gone out of its way to give the bike a beefy look without actually having it weigh as much as a small house. The real stand-out surprise, however, was around back. Mounted on the rear wheel was a cruiser-like 240 mm width tire. It looks absolutely massive, giving the rear view of the bike a sense of drama and presence unlike any other Ducati currently on the market. Combine that with the two massive exhaust tips dangling below the riders right leg and the black paint accented with matte trim, the whole look looks like it would fit perfectly in Batman's garage.

Sitting on the bike, the riding position is certainly laid back and quite comfortable. The pegs offer sufficient room for even tallish riders and the reach for the bars is comfortable. Switching the bike on, I took a few moments to familiarize myself with the switches before hitting the starter button and bringing the massive 1198cc L-twin to life. With the jingle of the Desmodromic valves now ringing in my helmet, I lifted the bike up off the side stand and could immediately sense that this was going to be fun. The motor is the same one used in Ducati's 1198 superbike as well as the Multistrada. In this application, it makes 162 hp and makes all kinds of beautiful noises through the the double-barrel exhaust just below my right leg. Being a twin, the requisite level of vibration is to be expected, although it is smooth enough to not be bothersome in any way. I have to admit, if nothing else, Ducati's engines do genuinely have a tremendous amount of character.

With the rest of the group finally ready, we set off on our ride. I started out with the bike in touring mode, offering high levels of traction control, ABS intervention, and a smooth throttle map. The bike responded well to throttle inputs, allowing me to quickly get comfortable with the power on tap. Before long, we found ourselves cruising through the back roads at a rather brisk pace, chucking the Diavel into sweeping bends without so much as a care in the world. Despite the massive rear tire, the bike responded readily to steering inputs, leaned easily into turns, and could hold a steady line without extra inputs at the bars. Everything about it just felt relaxed and comfortable, but all the hard bits were also far enough off the ground that there was never any fear of scraping the hard bits in even the most aggressive of corners. Power, as expected, was on tap at even the slightest twitch of my wrist and the sound track of 10 Ducatis rumbling through the woods of suburban Virginia was exhilarating. I was genuinely stunned at how much fun I was having on a cruiser!

As we pulled off the twisty wooded roads and back onto the highway, we were given an opportunity to experience just how deceptively quick the Diavel really was. Switching it over to power mode, I used an on-ramp to just pin the throttle full open. The Diavel responded with all 162 horses screaming at full song and the bike launched rapidly onto highway, a small strip of rubber the only evidence of where we had just been. This thing was going to live up to its name with this kind of thrust available. It has enough power to easily match the performance of most sport bikes and the massive Brembo calipers were certainly more than up to the task of bringing everything back from warp speed when we finally ran out of road. There is certainly no lack of performance with this bike, despite its unconventional design, and it really is hard not to end the ride with a big smile plastered on on your face.

Bringing the bike back into the parking lot, I was conflicted. In so many ways, this is an excellent bike, providing excellent comfort, huge personalization potential, and impressive performance. Even handling wise, while it certainly was not a sport bike with its relaxed geometry and longish wheelbase, it performed admirably and definitely lives up to the Ducati name. Appearances, of course, as a personal decision and while I find the styling a bit ungainly from certain angles, there are far worse designs out there on the market today, and all of them almost certainly weigh substantially more than this rather featherweight cruiser. I found myself thinking about this bike from the perspective of a possible buyer, and discovering a big of a quandary: the typical customer looking for a cruiser is almost certainly never going to look at this bike as it is not a Harley; sport biker riders will almost certainly find fault with handling limits; touring riders will find the lack of luggage and comfortable pillion accommodations unacceptable; and casual riders will die of sticker shock. This is, in many ways, the answer to a question no one seemed to be asking. Ultimately, it is probably competing against a small handful of bikes, such as the Suzuki V-Max and Triumph Rocket, that are about big, comfortable cruising, more than anything else.

This is too bad because this truly is a very unique bike. If I can get over the looks, I think it would make an excellent purchased on the used motorcycle market in a few years time. For now, I can admire it from a distance, knowing that a cruiser does exist for even those riders who hate cruisers.