Ducati and Superbikes go together like risotto and Bardolino. So it’s no surprise that of all the motorcycles in this shootout the 2011 Ducati
1198 ($16,495) makes you feel like you are riding a World Superbike. From the thunder generated within its 1198cc Twin cylinder engine, to the teeth rattling jangle of the racing-style dry clutch, the Ducati 1198 is the machine for motorcycle connoisseurs seeking the most visceral riding experience.
Swing a leg over this exquisitely-styled Italian stallion and it feels like a pure-bred race bike. It is tied for the tallest perch, with CBR1000RR’s at 32.3 inches, but it feels taller thanks to its low clip-ons and high pegs. Weight-wise it’s one of the lighter bikes in this test, again tying the Honda at 443 pounds with a full 4.1-gallon fuel load in its shapely fuel cell. You are aware of every piece of the Ducati when you are in the saddle, and that’s a trait that makes it interesting and at the same time more difficult to live with on the street than the sublime feel of the Japanese machines.
Despite feeling like a race-replica the Ducati 1198 feels very top-heavy when you’re idling around town. This makes it more cumbersome when maneuvering at lower speeds. Instrumentation is one of the best in this group with a fully digital LCD display identical to the ones used on Ducati’s MotoGP and World Superbikes. It also features a standard-issue traction control system that has always been pretty good on the track but on the street our more experienced riders weren’t as impressed. The DTC is too intrusive compared to the latest generation TC found on the BMW and Kawasaki. It cuts out much of the fun that comes from riding an open class sport bike, unless you turn it off. It will come in handy for superbike rookies but we like our Ducati a little more raw and unrefined.
The Ducati is very thin between your legs too. In fact, it’s even narrower than the svelte KTM which earns it the title of slimmest bike in the group. However, it can be difficult to get a good grip on the 1198 tank with your knees. Given its racing pedigree, it is no surprise that the ergonomics and seating position are the most aggressive of the group, demanding a riding stance that makes more sense when flying around turns at break neck speeds than commuting to work. Ducati doesn’t offer any height adjustment on the foot pegs, so riders must tuck knees high on the bike. The seat is also the least padded, so it ranked low in overall rider comfort once the roads were long and straight, devoid of turns or anything else that could take your mind off the cramped riding position. Then there are the mirrors, which offer a dismal view of what’s behind – the racetrack-bias again hinders some real-world street bike practicality. It is worth noting, however, that it employs a large and well-shaped windscreen which does an above average job of shielding the rider from wind.
Launching from a stop is the more difficult on the Ducati than any of the other superbikes thanks to its combination of a tall first gear and vague feeling clutch lever. It also has the heaviest lever pull despite employing hydraulic assist. Sure, the rattle of the dry clutch is a trademark of the Ducati superbikes but it has proven to be one of the areas where we heard regular complaints from our test riders. We also weren’t impressed by the sloppy feel of this particular test bike’s gear shift lever. It would occasionally pop out of gear while riding and was difficult to find neutral when stopped. This hasn’t been the case with Ducati liter bike clutches in the past, so we are chalking it up to this particular bike. But you only get one chance to make a good impression and we have to call it like we see it.
Bury the throttle from a stoplight and the Duc feels really quick off the line. On the roads, the 1198 always seems to have an edge in roll-on acceleration too thanks to its second-best-in-class torque. Twins are typically equipped with bulging mid-range and the 1198 is no exception. Get the revs up higher and the rider is rewarded with nearly 89 lb-ft of peak torque arriving at 8000 rpm. That’s 2.78 lb-ft more than the KTM and 10.12 lb-ft more than BMW’s Inline-Four.
Looking at outright horsepower the 1198 pumped out the lowest peak netting 151.02 at 9800 rpm. But think about this for a minute. This is a Twin and it produces only five less horsepower than the third-place Suzuki GSX-R1000 at 156 hp. Just a few years back the Inline engines were barely breaking the 150 hp barrier so it’s impressive to see the Italian machine close the gap on the Japanese bikes. Tie this together with a low 443-pound curb weight and what you have is an excellent power-to-weight ratio.
Surprisingly, even with its abundant low-end torque, with upwards of 70 ft-lb available from as low as 5500 rpm, the Duc registered the second slowest 0-60 time at 3.07 seconds. Its quarter mile acceleration time of 10.42 seconds @ 142.6 mph was also at the back of the field, which was again a shock considering it employs an electronic quick-shifter that allows the rider to upshift without letting off the throttle. We found that the clutch again was the culprit. It’s more-grabby and the tall first gear makes it difficult to get a great launch off the line. For sure a faster time could have been achieved if it wasn’t so demanding to launch and had shorter final drive gearing instead of the stock 15/38 configuration.
Ducati Traction Control and a electronic quick-shifter are now standard features for ’11. Too bad they do not perform as well as the set-up employed on the BMW S1000RR.
“The Ducati’s got that boat-pulling torque that the other bikes just don’t seem to have,” explains stunt riding extraordinaire Brian Steeves. “Maybe it’s the roar of the engine or the fact that it’s constantly wheelieing in the lower gears but it certainly feels the fastest when you’re riding around town.”
Those bigger engines sure do suck down the fuel fast too. The Duc’s large-displacement Twin recorded an average of only 30.7 mpg which had it languishing near the bottom of the pack. Factor in its dainty 4.1-gallon fuel capacity and you have a range of about 125 miles between fill-ups. If the aggressive riding position didn’t prove this isn’t exactly a sport-touring machine, maybe that smallish range will put the kibosh on it. Then again, this motorcycle was intended to make you feel like a super hero and it does just that despite not putting up the most impressive acceleration times at the drag strip.
While the Ducati may not be the fastest bike out there, it is certainly one of the most rewarding to ride as evident by its high score in the Engine Character category. Each one of our test riders was mesmerized by the rhythmic pulse of the engine and thunderous roar emitted from the twin undertail pipes. It sounds particularly good in the heart of the mid-range as it reaches a crescendo around eight grand. Maybe that had something to do with the low MPG reading but no matter how you slice it the Ducati is fun to ride.
“If we were judging the bikes purely on soul, looks and how much fun they are to ride than for sure the Ducati would win,” comments test rider and certified Ducati-phile Bobbi Ali. “It isn’t the easiest bike to ride, nor is it the most comfortable, but when you lay into the throttle around a corner it certainly is the most exciting.”
In our stationary sound comparison test, the Duc tied the Suzuki for the highest decibel level at idle with an 86 dB reading. At half of maximum rpm (5250) it belted out 101 dB, which ties with the KTM for the loudest exhaust note.
(Above) With 86-plus lb-ft of torque available it is difficult to keep the front wheel on the ground in the lower gears. (Below) While it isn’t the easiest bike to ride it sure is fun.
As we mentioned earlier, at parking lot speeds the Ducati feels awkward, a sensation compounded by its limited steering lock and hard line ergos. Add third- or fourth-gear speeds and a few flowing corners into the equation and it transforms from a ponderous pickup truck to a ground-hugging sports car. At speed the chassis delivers favorable flex characteristics, which in turn fosters a high level of confidence to better explore its cornering prowess. As long as the road is smooth, overall stability is fantastic though bumps and broken pavement disrupt the chassis. Combined with the suspension’s more rigid settings, this severely compromises ride quality for everything except back country blasts through the canyons.
“The Ducati is a pain to ride around town,” explains novice rider Ray Gauger. “The suspension is stiff and it jolts you around when you hit bumps. But when you’re riding on a freshly paved back road though, it is hard to beat.”
Strong braking performance has always been a trademark feature of Ducati Superbikes and it continues to impress with its Brembo set-up despite not having a great showing on our performance testing. Even though it recorded the longest stopping distance from 60 mph at 141 feet, our testers were generally pleased with the overall feel and power of the front brakes. For those riders who use the rear brake aggressively – like our ham-fisted Brian Steeves – the rear brake didn’t receive real high praise as he cited its lack of both power and feel.
Despite our complaints there is no easy way to quantify what riding a Ducati brings to the table. It’s is exotic, fast, fun to ride hard and a generally no-nonsense sportbike. Riders looking for the raciest, loudest, and most aggressive-feeling superbike in this test will love the Ducati. Riding down your favorite back road there isn’t a more fun bike out there. The problem is that it’s so hard-edged and demanding to ride that it’s overkill on the street, like bringing a bazooka to a paintball match. While it is fun to ride, the Ducati is nowhere close to being practical. As far as we are concerned the Ducati 1198 is a pure Superbike that works best on the track. For the Ducatisti among us, they won’t care about sore wrists, cramped backs or cooked butt cheeks. They understand the allure and embrace it while the rest of us limp off towards the next ride in search of day-to-day comfort instead of a pure, raw race bike with lights.