2008 Moto Guzzi Norge Bike Test

March 10, 2008
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Moto Guzzi is taking on the sport-touring market with its V-Twin-powered Norge 1200.
Moto Guzzi is taking on the sport-touring market with its V-Twin-powered Norge 1200.

Riding up the Pacific Coast Highway near San Simeon, California, travelers are greeted with a beautiful, yet odd, sight – the Hearst Castle. Resting halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the 1920s-era mansion was built by the notorious media tycoon William Randolf Hearst. Based off European architectural conventions, the Hearst Castle is beautiful but conspicuous, looming over the San Simeon coast like the palace of a feudal lord.

It was an inspiring sight, and a serendipitous analogy to the motorcycle we happened to be riding – the Moto Guzzi Norge 1200.

At that moment the Norge was one of six MCUSA test bikes trekking up the coastline for our 2008 Super Sport-Touring Shootout, including a quintet of four-cylinders. In its own way the two-cylinder Moto Guzzi Norge was just as out of place in our S-T shootout, as the Hearst Mansion on the coastal landscape.

Compared to the roaring four-cylinder competition, the air-cooled Italian Twin is an altogether different bird, but we were keen to evaluate it. As we scrutinized the Guzzi alongside other “touring” bikes, we tried to keep the unfair performance comparisons to a minimum, while still evaluating the Norge’s sport-touring creds with a more critical eye than a typical single bike test.

Alright, back to the Norge’s grunty, air-cooled Twin. With an oversquare 95mm bore and 81.2 stroke, the 1151cc mill belts out a crisp, pleasing bark. On the dyno the MG cranked out 70.3 hp (just a little over half of the 133.8 generated by strongest in our S-T flock – the mighty Kawasaki Concours 14). Torque production peaked at 61 lb-ft, with the Norge delivering over 50 lb-ft right off the bottom between 2-3000 revs.

Moto Guzzi utilizes its distinctive transverse-mounted V-Twin for the Norge  with the 1151cc mill delivering torquey pop.
Moto Guzzi utilizes its distinctive transverse-mounted V-Twin for the Norge, with the 1151cc mill delivering torquey pop.

The torque down low allows the Norge to chug through the corners. More often than not, however, a rider has the Twin revving up high near the 8K indicated redline, as the sweet spot up top lies between 6-8 grand. On the road a rider will be pleased with the punchy delivery, but the MG mill does generate a fair amount of vibes and not the good new-agey vibes, but the ones that shake up through the exposed transverse-mounted Twin and into your teeth fillings. The Norge mill won’t get described as dull, that’s for sure, as it looks and feels unique.

Shuffling through the six-gear transmission is easy enough, with MG providing a convenient red shift-light assist on the analog tach to remind you it’s time grab a higher gear. Clutch pull is light and engagement simple, but no one will mistake the Norge’s notchy gearbox for the smooth-shifting precision found on most Japanese machines.

“Clutch action is pretty good, but the transmission is clunky and I missed a few shifts and hit false neutrals on more than one occasion,” confesses one of our S-T test riders, MCUSA Graphic Designer Robin Haldane.

While the MG’s transmission isn’t super smooth, neither is the fueling. Throttle response is abrupt, but the big-bore Twin produces torquey pop down low which exacerbates the sensation. In tighter terrain, the Guzzi is able to hustle along with its sportier rivals, but any time we opened things up during our SST Shootout, the Guzzi lagged behind – perhaps something to keep in mind for those who are running with the sport rider crowd and feel a compulsion to not be the caboose.

1929 GT 500  built after Guessepi Guzzi took a 4000-mile trip from Italy to Northern Norway - the inspiration for the Norge name.
The first GT from Moto Guzzi, the 1929 GT 500, was based on the machine Guessepi Guzzi took for a 4000-mile trip from Italy to Northern Norway – the inspiration for the Norge name.

But full-throttle hooliganism isn’t really the mindset behind this Moto Guzzi tourer. The Norge is all about piling on the miles in style and comfort, with the model named in honor of an epic 4000-mile 1928 Nordic expedition into northern Norway headed by none other than Giuseppe Guzzi himself. While Norge owners may not be headed above the Arctic Circle any time soon, a rider need only relax and motor along with the Twin’s growling exhaust note as melodic accompaniment to channel the spirit of the original Guzzi trek.

The Norge’s soft perch and restful ergos are willing to comply with its long-distance touring credentials. At 31.5 inches the seat height feels even lower, with most riders able to touch down with ease straddling the slender bike. Reach to the bars is natural and the footpegs are well placed. And riders can expect to stay in the saddle for long stretches, since the Norge was the most fuel efficient bike during our 1100-mile S-T excursion at 43.3 MPG, with a 260-mile range from its six-gallon tank.

We did experience some issues with the luggage attachment system, however, that drove us batty. In fact, it would be difficult to design a more awkward luggage system than the one adorning the Norge. The loose-hinged main latch has to be folded down, with a secondary latch snapping down as well. To remove the bag a rider has to push down and pull to disconnect it from the mounting bracket… Just trying to explain how the bags work is irritating! Let’s just say that compared to some of the other modern luggage we’ve encountered, the Norge system is primitive.

The Norge is a comfortable platform to pile on the miles  with a soft seat  heated grips and decent wind protection.
The Norge is a comfortable platform to pile on the miles, with a soft seat, heated grips and decent wind protection.

“The most complicated saddlebag system since the old-school BMW,” says a kinder, more forgiving MCUSA Editorial Director Ken Hutchison. “Once you get it figured out it is not too bad, but it’s like a Rubik’s Cube, I swear.”

On the plus side the Norge’s attractive instrument cluster presents a bounty of info, which helps satiate the madness brought about by the bags. One minor gripe with the impressive layout is the large analog speedo conceals part of the right-side LCD display from a clear view. Another grievance is trying to cycle through the plentiful information on tap with Guzzi’s mystifying switchgear.

“One of the things that the Norge does weird is to utilize triggers on the switchgear to operate different functions,” explains Hutch. “This made it difficult to find out how to adjust the odometer and other multi-function options that are usually easy to manipulate on other bikes, that is unless you actually take the time to read the owner’s manual.”

Another quirk on the MG is its adjustable windscreen, with two separate buttons for up and down located about an inch too far from the handlebar grips. The button positions require the rider to take their hands off the handlebar to adjust, unless you have freakish eight-inch-long thumbs. Compared to the easy adjustment switches on the other bikes we happened to be riding at the time, it’s a definite pain. On the plus side, the small windscreen and fairing provides decent protection from the elements and another touring perk from the Guzzi are the heated handgrips, which warm without roasting your hands.

The curvy Pacific Coast Highway gave us ample opportunity to evaluate the Moto Guzzi Norge s handling.
The curvy Pacific Coast Highway gave us ample opportunity to evaluate the Moto Guzzi Norge’s handling.

Getting thrown around the curvy PCH as it winds northward towards Big Sur, the Moto Guzzi does an admirable job of tackling the terrain but is not the best handling bike we’ve ever tested. Sporting a 25-degree rake and 58.8-inch wheelbase the geometry isn’t radically different, but it feels loose compared to the super-stable sport-touring competition.

“I never found any situation where I was comfortable with the handling of the Guzzi,” recalls Robin. “It felt twitchy and unstable while cornering and even in a straight line I wasn’t quite confident.”

The 45mm telescopic fork and rear shock aren’t bad on paper but the front-end feels awkward. Something is akimbo in the Norge chassis, with turn-in and transitions delivering the occasional heart-in-the-throat moment until you understand how the bike reacts and plan accordingly. The steering quirks are easy to ride around, but our bike/rider rotation during our four-day coastal run had the splendid-handling Yamaha FJR following the Guzzi, bringing the Norge’s faults even more into focus.

The dual four-piston Brembo calipers, which pinch down on 320mm rotors, should be more than adequate for the 614-lb MG (578 lbs tank empty). But instead of even, progressive stopping, squeezing the lever brought a skipping, jerking sensation. At first we suspected the ABS was at fault, but the disheartening trait worsened the further we rode, so we surmised a warped rotor was to blame. In the beginning of our four-day tour, however, the Brembo units, front and back, were effective and received praise in most notepads until the warping set in.

The MG mill does generate a fair amount of vibes and not the good new-agey vibes  but the ones and shake up through the exposed transverse-mounted Twin and into your teeth fillings.
A comfortable ride, the Moto Guzzi’s touring credentials are bolstered by it 260-mile range via a six-gallon tank and 43 MPG efficiency.

One area we can’t really complain is in the style department, with the Norge an Italian looker from one of the oldest manufacturers in motorcycle history. The European lines and pedigree may carry a $14,990 MSRP, but the Guzzi is also a visual treat. Our cherry red test model was popping in photos and many of our testing crew thought it molto bello. Plus, at gas and food stops, the MG attracted curious gearheads of all ages, who can’t help but gander at the Italian machine and its exposed Twin.

“The Norge is the one bike that got more attention than all the others anytime we stopped,” says Hutch. “Its Italian red paint and unique lines prompted a lot of questions regarding its origins. So, if you want to get some love from the public the Norge is a good option.”

The Moto Guzzi also demands a lot of attention from other drivers, as the Norge’s headlamps burn bright. In fact, while traversing the PCH the powerful dual Guzzi lamps blared almost as brilliant as the Point Sur Lighthouse cutting a swath across the coastal landscape. The trait meant our S-T test group got hit with bright-light defiance from oncoming traffic on the PCH more than a few times, but we’ll take the extra visibility from the cagers whenever we can get it.

After our long-distance trek was over, we had some time to stew over the Norge’s place in the motorcycle world. While it is no match for the Inline-Fours we originally intended to pit it against, it does exude some natural flair. Sure, we nitpicked some flaws, but overall the Norge is a decent machine – the best aspect being it just oozes character. And who doesn’t like a little bit of character?

The Norge gets a lot of attention thanks to its red paint scheme and Italian lines.
The Norge gets a lot of attention thanks to its red paint scheme and Italian lines.

“The bike grows on you after riding awhile,” admits our cruiser expert, Bryan Harley, summing up our general opinion of the MG.

We don’t feel quite right judging the Norge this time around, as we couldn’t help but compare it a little to its four-cylinder rivals. What we really need is a clean slate and a couple air-cooled Twin competitors to put this machine into perspective. Until that day, we’ll just have to savor the memories of growling exhaust notes and seemingly endless miles of coastline on a beautiful, exotic machine.

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