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km : First Ride

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14 April 2011

Preconceived notions are a hell of a thing. We have no doubt that with the exception of those at Ducati’s head offices in Borgo Panigale, the whole motorcycling world collectively scratched their heads the first time they saw the new Ducati Diavel. During our sneak-peek at last fall’s Los Angeles Auto Show, we overheard more than a few, “what were they thinking” and “look, the Italians built a D-Rod” grumblings. We’d love to be able to say we understood the Diavel all along, but we were just as near-sighted in our assumptions.



For starters, while Ducati doesn’t outright say so, the new Diavel (pronounced dee-AH-vull) is not a cruiser. Looking at the silhouette, we understand how that comparison can be drawn, with its raked front-end and low seat height. But just as a back seat doesn’t turn a sports car into a family-hauler, Ducati says the ergonomics of the Diavel don’t make it any less a sportbike than the rest of its lineup.



The Diavel also isn’t as porcine as it looks. In fact, the Diavel isn’t heavy at all. At just 456 pounds, it’s lighter than Ducati’s own ST3 sport-tourer and a mere twenty pounds heavier than its former flagship, the 998 Superbike.



And it is most assuredly not slow. The 1198-cc powerplant is an evolution of the Testastretta 11-degree mill — itself a variant of the 1198 Superbike motor — that first debuted last year in the kilometer-staff favorite Multistrada 1200. With a new ECU, larger airbox and shorter exhaust system than the MTS 1200, the engine now pumps out 162 horsepower and 94 lb-ft of torque. Not bad for a starting price of $16,995.



But all the specs and PR spin in the world don’t hold a candle to an actual ride. It was only during an afternoon bombing through the canyons of Malibu that we fully understood the true essence of the Diavel.



The first thing we notice as we straddle the Carbon version ($19,995) of the Diavel is the massive fuel tank — or fuel tank cover, actually. There’s no way of getting around the fact that it’s incredibly large and makes the Diavel look bigger than it is. The bulbous appendage is really just a carbon fiber cover (or painted steel on the standard Diavel) that houses both the airbox and the fuel cell. The black anodized side plates are air runners, and the vents beneath them house the symmetrical twin radiators flanking either side of the engine.



Picking the Diavel off its side stand quickly dispels any notion that the bike is a heavyweight. The center of gravity is quite low, with the heaviest parts of the motorcycle sitting well below its horizontal centerline. Just as Ducati had promised, turn-in on the Diavel is quick — even more so than some sportbikes we’ve ridden — with almost unlimited traction enhanced by the massive (and Diavel-exclusive) rear tire’s huge contact patch at full-lean.



With 28 degrees of rake, the front-end geometry of the Diavel is obviously less aggressive than a superbike, but it’s still significantly steeper than any of the sportier power-cruisers like the Yamaha V-Max, and Harley’s new V-Rod Muscle (31 and 34 degrees, respectively). In addition, both Ducati and Pirelli claim the Diavel will handle with the best the sportbike market has to offer because of the specially designed rubber it rolls on. To us, 240 millimeters worth of rubber out back just screams chopper, but the shape and crown of this tire were designed to be almost identical to those of a MotoGP rear slick.



Unlike other long and low motorcycles, which tend to grind their footpegs flat when the roads start to get twisty, the Diavel has ground clearance. Having the pegs much further back than on a cruiser means that we were able to peg-steer the motorcycle by using our weight to press on the inside peg, with less counter-steering of the handlebars.



The unique placement of the rear shock allows for both ground clearance and low seat height on the Diavel. It sits almost horizonally below the swingarm and has a link-less attachment to the rear of the engine. A fully adjustable Showa unit, the spring preload can be fine-tuned with a knob near the rider’s left knee. Also standard are a pair of manual adjusters on the fork caps to adjust preload, while compression and rebound dials are at the bottom of the Marzocchi forks.



Despite surprising us with how the Diavel corners like, well…a Ducati, it pales in comparison to the almost overwhelming power of the 90-degree V-twin engine. The bike is so absurdly fast — with a record-setting run to 60 mph in just 2.6 seconds — that to launch harder requires machinery with U.S. NAVY printed on its wings. We partly credit this to the added traction from the gigantic rear tire and the 1590-mm wheelbase to help keep the front end planted. Ducati tells us that the sophisticated DTC traction control system also aids in preventing front wheel aerobatics, and as a result the Diavel will actually out-accelerate Ducati’s flagship 1198 SP superbike.





And it’s not just sheer power that makes the Diavel’s powerplant a modern marvel; the multiple fuel mapping systems, selectable on the fly, give the rider a choice of not only how many horses, but how violently he’ll receive them. A single button on the handlebar toggles between the three modes. The first two, Sport and Touring, offer the full 162 horsepower, but with different preset throttle responses and traction control settings. We liked Touring mode the best, offering the most power but with a softer throttle that made it easier to handle at low speeds. The third mode limits output to only 100 horsepower with the traction control set rather high. Called Urban, we really think its main use will be for when the weather turns south or if there’s a black-n-white on your tail.



Of course, being a Ducati means stopping distances are equally impressive. The Diavel is Ducati’s first bike to allow the rider to take full advantage of the Brembo brakes. Dual monobloc calipers — the same units on the Superbikes — are fed by a radial master cylinder that clamps down on 320-mm full floating rotors. The Carbon model we rode had aluminum carriers that were first anodized and then machined for a truly unique look.



Forged, anodized, then machined nine-spoke wheels were another of the highlights on the Carbon model we rode. In fact, the biggest component in the Carbon’s twelve-pound weight difference to the standard Diavel comes from the 5.5-pound weight savings in the wheels alone. And though it may be all in our heads after learning of these differences, we think the Carbon version brakes and handles just a little better than the base Diavel.



Dual instrumentation is unique to the Diavel. At first glance, we wondered why Ducati chose to split up the instruments, but it makes sense to keep certain information separate. The dashboard atop the handlebars feeds the most important data — road speed, engine speed, and fuel. The secondary instruments on the fuel tank are for ancillary functions like DTC, ABS, and fuel mapping. An industry first, the lower instruments use a Thin-Film Transistor LCD multi-colored display with automatically changing backlighting for daytime or nighttime.





With just two buttons on the handlebars, each becomes an iPod-like multifunction controller. While we applaud the idea that every function is accessible and adjustable without needing to take our hands off the bars, Ducati has unfortunately created a bit of a double-edged sword. For instance, we occasionally press the turn-signal cancel button while riding just to make sure that we didn’t forget to turn them off. But doing so when the blinker isn’t illuminated inadvertently puts our bike into Urban mode when we aren’t paying attention. It leaves us wondering if Ducati’s US headquarters in Cupertino might be situated just a bit too close to Apple’s.



Other nitpicks include passenger pegs that bump into the rear seat cowl (our test bike already had scratches from just 275 miles of use) and an exhaust heat shield that’s so close to the footpeg, our right boot left some black rubber scuffs on it. We were also a bit underwhelmed with the brick-like perch that Ducati optimistically calls a seat. After just 45 minutes, we — and more than a few other test riders — found ourselves squirming trying to find a comfortable position. The riding position is cramped as well. In an effort to get the seat height as low as possible (and it is low, with one 5’8” rider being completely flat-footed with room to spare) the ergonomics between the seat and the foot pegs are incredibly close.



Finally, the headlight appears to be pushed a little too far backwards, meaning the front of the bike looks a lot longer than it is. If Ducati really wanted to dispel the notion that the Diavel is a cruiser, its designers should’ve tried harder to make it look less like one.



The Diavel may look like a cruiser, but it performs like a sportbike, reminding us a bit of the Porsche Panamera. Just as Porsche claims that its four-door sedan is actually a sports car, Ducati insists the Diavel is really a sportbike wearing the guise of a standard. Last fall, we spent a week living with the Porsche and came away with a new definition of sports car; after a thorough ride on the Diavel, we think it may be time to suspend a little more disbelief. Despite a crisis of identity, Ducati appears to have added yet another formidable machine to its already impressive lineup.


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