The lightweight Monster 696 won't disappoint out on the road, with the Showa suspension and Brembo brakes delivering solid performance.
More good things come in the form of the Showa upside down fork, rear shock and Brembo radial calipers. Stand back from the 696 and it's a bike you can enjoy. There is no impression that Ducati has not given its all to this machine and it shows. In short, it is one heck of a lot of motorcycle for your money and it makes Suzuki's SV650 look $3,000 too expensive.
However, the 696 is not perfect. Bizarrely, the front brake lever is not adjustable and the reach, even for a full-size male like me, is far too long. Clearly, with twin 320mm discs, and four-pad radial calipers, the front brakes work fine but all the pleasure of having that power there for the asking is hidden. There were so many complaints at the launch that the word from the Ducati technicians is that fully adjustable front brake levers will soon find their way onto production bikes.
The other major design failure is the shields on the exhausts. The twin exhausts look gorgeous and somehow, despite legislation, sound well too. However, the pillion passenger's legs are protected by two tiny covers which simply do not work. If you have sold the idea of buying a Monster to your loved one so that you can both go for a ride into the mountains on a sunny Sunday, then get ready for the divorce letter from her lawyer because the shield fails to the point of being dangerous. It needs fixing now before the lawsuits start - it's that bad.
What might save the divorce is an offer to buy your loved one her own Ducati Monster
. With a 30-inch saddle height and a claimed dry weight of only 355 lbs, the 696 is very manageable. Ducati has also taken care to make the tank very narrow and female colleagues on the launch pronounced it very comfortable. Equally, at 5' 11", there was plenty of room for me without any sense of being cramped.
One flaw in the Monster 696 design is the amount of heat coming off the underseat exhaust, with the temps making a potential pillion ride a hot one.
But now to the heart of the bike - that wonderful 696cc V-Twin. In some ways, this was the most difficult part of Ducati's job. In engineering terms, the motor builds very much on known Ducati practice with the same short stroke, 88mm x 57.2mm, dimensions as the old engine. However, the cylinder heads are new and the camshafts run directly in the head. Dispensing with the bearings makes the head lighter but will demand a premium quality lubricant and meticulous oil changes.
Clearly, fuel injection is essential to meet current emissions but Ducati has been very smart by having an ECU with two programs for differing parts of the powerband and separate, individual mapping for each of the two cylinders. This is super smart, real-world engineering and results in a torquey, smooth and glitch-free power delivery which is excellent.
Power is now a superb 80bhp @ 9,000rpm but what is just as important is the way that the power is delivered. At low revs, the 696 is a real pussycat and totally inoffensive to even the newest rider. Get the revs up to 6,000 plus and it becomes a very perky little motor which provides a lot of fun for anyone - no matter how demanding their tastes.
But the joy of the 696 is the slipper clutch. Even banging in the lower gears really hard into corners on the slippery Spanish mountain roads of the Ducati
test route could not upset the clutch - or get the rear wheel near locking. It is brilliant engineering and better than the vast majority of hyper sportbikes.
Ducati insisted that we ride the bike round the streets of Barcelona - through the traffic jams, the stop lights and the Moms wandering across the road pushing baby carriages - in order to see that it was a fun, safe and practical motorcycle. Okay, so it is. The hydraulic clutch is feather light, the engine torquey and the steering lock much improved from the old Monster. Is it as good as a 400cc scooter for urban use? Absolutely not, so let's get it out on to some real riding roads.
Not forgetting the largest growing demographic in motorcycling, Ducati's Monster 696 has a light weight and low seat height for the lady riders out there.
The steep, tight and bumpy mountain roads were the real home territory for the Monster. Miguel Angel Galluzzi, the gifted Argentinian who built the very first Monster as his personal toy, designed it to be a mountain road plaything. Fortunately, Ducati still holds to this ideal.
Even driven very hard, the 696 has a wonderfully calm, planted feel which is totally confidence inspiring. The power is creamy smooth all the way to the cut out at a little over 9K, and the engine runs with a permanent grin when it is really hammered hard.
The Showa suspension is first class, at both front and rear, and was completely unfazed even when a Spanish kamikaze car driver forced me off the road and into a deep pothole. Best of all, the Ducati has the feel of a true thoroughbred, constantly gossiping with the rider through the chassis and motor. It's a bike which just begs to be ridden hard and long and when you stop to wipe the sweat out of your eyes, the 696 exhausts are pinging with the heat - and the bike has a smile on its face as wide as yours. This is not an urban fashion accessory by any stretch of the imagination but a really special motorcycle.
But there were a couple of "if only" moments. If only Ducati had spent another 50 cents on an adjustable brake lever, I would have been able to trail brake all the way into the apex of bends and then squirt the 696 out. The motor was willing, and the chassis would have welcomed the task but you can't brake sensitively if you have to stretch.
The bars are also very straight and this leads to wrist ache. They're like this to improve the steering lock around town. The fix is to reduce the lock slightly - easily done with one spanner - and fit some 'bars swept back by an inch. Then, you could ride the 696 all day.
No one can say for sure if Ducati has another best-seller on its hands with the Monster 696, but it seems like a pretty safe bet to us.
That's another fascinating part of the 696. With a 3.8-gallon tank and extremely comfortable saddle and riding position, this is a bike which really will be fun over a couple of hundred miles.
The gearing is miles too high and when you buy this bike from your Ducati dealer absolutely insist on having a 14 tooth gearbox sprocket instead of the 15t which comes as standard. This is not Ducati's fault - merely a by-product of getting through Euro 3 emission regulations. Unless you intend on competing at Daytona, gear it down.
The 696 needs to be a success, because without it you can forget MotoGP or any road going Ducati exotica. Fortunately for Ducati, and the buying public, it is an outstanding motorcycle and hits, almost, every button. But perhaps best of all it remains a thoroughbred Ducati which anyone of any experience or income bracket will be proud to own. And that's a trick the Japanese still haven't mastered.
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