Ducati proudly bares it all

By Norman Mayersohn / New York Times News Service

Credit for popularizing the style of unembellished motorcycles known as naked bikes goes largely to Ducati, whose introduction of the Monster model line two decades ago extended the brand’s appeal to a far broader population of riders.

Naked bikes grew into a durable market segment, an elemental style with a hint of a rowdy streak. As Ducati and other companies dropped all pretenses of modesty, riders took delight in the eye-candy details: frames artfully welded, brackets skillfully fabricated, thoughtful details everywhere the eye roamed, especially, it seemed, on motorcycles made in Italy.

The magnificently capable Monster 1200S is the third generation of the family and a significant redesign, incorporating a domesticated edition of the company’s 1,198cc Testatretta engine. The signature Ducati trellis frame — an abbreviated scaffold of steel tubing, rather than the aluminum extrusions that support most performance bikes — is on full display, and the exhaust pipes snake proudly down the right side instead of tucking under the seat.

Step closer, though, and you might wonder: Have Ducati’s designers taken naked too far?

In their zeal to provide full disclosure, the stylists of the Monster 1200S gave us the full monty. I’m pretty sure I don’t need a view of the radiator cap while riding, and the evaporative canister for the emissions system really might have been more creatively located.

The unabashed nudity, even by comparison with other bikes in the naked class, has real drawbacks. Chief among them is the visibility of the TFT panel where speed and other vital data are displayed. It simply cannot be read when the sun falls directly on it. On the Interstate, all you can do is pace the traffic and hope for the best; even a vestigial hood or tiny fairing to shade the panel would solve the problem most of the time.

The picture brightens once you hear the soulful exhaust note and head down the road. The Monster 1200S (10 more horsepower than the standard 1200 and an upgrade to an Ohlins suspension and larger front brake rotors, for a $1,500 premium) quickly endears itself with a slim profile and wide handlebar that make it a cinch to maneuver at a walking pace.

The V-twin engine, while derived from Ducati’s desmodromic-valve superbike power plants, is smooth and civil, but it is definitely happier when kept above 3,000 rpm. Gone is the bucket-of-bolts rattle from Ducati’s former dry-clutch layouts, and the exhaust barks with authority when coasting with the throttle shut.

The electronics offer three riding modes: Urban (reduced power), Touring (full power, quicker throttle reaction) and Sport (no limits). The intervention of traction control and antilock braking can be selected individually for each mode.

Ducati’s goal was not to produce the ultimate canyon-road terror, but the Monster 1200S still gets first-class hardware. The engine delivers enough power for 0-60 times of 2.6 seconds, according to Cycle World, and Brembo dual discs up front are no less impressive.

Less expected to those who’ve logged some miles on Ducatis is how comfortable the seat proves to be and how agreeable the suspension is, balancing superb stability (the longish 59-inch wheelbase helps) with excellent compliance, never abusing the rider over small bumps and highway expansion strips.

Whatever the Monster 1200 may lack in nimbleness — very little, actually — it gives back in good highway manners, a quality that separates keepers from bikes that are too much trouble to tolerate. A discreet cover-up would finish the job smartly.