The Ducati 1198 Superbike incorporates the least amount of street into its race-inspired design. All it takes is one quick spin to realize the 1198 was developed first as a racebike before adapted to life on the street. It starts as soon as you ply you’re body onto its track-oriented control surfaces. Everything from the tall narrow seat, that’s virtually devoid of any padding, to its low-slung handlebars and raised footpegs are all engineered because they’re optimal on the track, plain and simple.
Depress the engine start button and the sheer energy required to move the Ducati’s two humungous pistons sucks so much juice from the battery you can’t help but think that it is a bit underpowered for its application. Nevertheless, the Ducati starts every time with a fury of mechanical clamor and sets into its lumpy idle cleanly, albeit with noticeably more vibration than any of the other bikes. Fan the hydraulically-operated clutch lever and enjoy the chang-chang-chang rattle of its racing-style dry clutch.
In terms of engine performance, we thought that last year’s Ducati’s 1098 Superbike couldn’t have gotten much better. Yet it has, as Ducati wedged the up-spec 1199cc L-Twin engine in its production superbike. Like most of the literbike competitors there is plenty of power to loft the front wheel in the first three gears, but perhaps, it was the easiest on the Ducati. With over 80 lb-ft of torque from between 7000 and 10,000 revs, any time you hammer the throttle you’re almost guaranteed to be on the back wheel.
It’s crazy what an extra 100cc of engine displacement can do for a motorcycle. Where last year’s 1098 Twin was ideal on the streets, the new 1198 is complete overkill. Therefore it’s no surprise that we all love it. There is so much more torque and horsepower all across the rev range that it is impossible to accelerate hard without the front wheel hanging in the sky. Its 427-lb curb weight (tying the Honda as the lightest) surely helps and has allowed Ducati to obliterate the gap on the Inline engines. Just look at the quarter mile times: The Ducati, Suzuki and Kawasaki are separated by a mere 0.08-seconds and all boast trap speeds over 138 mph with the 1198 actually crossing the stripe at a hair under 140 mph. That’s the kind of performance numbers you expect to see from a half-million dollar supercar.
Thus if you prefer to keep yourself from going to jail, avoid any sudden bursts of acceleration in a low gear. Otherwise you’ll find yourself standing on the rear brake pedal just to keep from accidentally being rewarded with a reckless driving ticket. Yes, it’s that crazy.
Said performance does come at a price though. No we’re not talking about its $16,495 MSRP, but its horrific 27.8 MPG average. Add in the fact that the 1198 has the smallest fuel tank, with a capacity of only 4.1 gallons, and you’ll be lucky if you can get 100 miles out of a full tank.
On the road the Ducati’s chassis translates more feedback to the rider, which is great on the track, but on the broken highway pavement it can be uncomfortable. Add into the fact the Ducati’s massive engine power output and its non-adjustable steering damper and you have a recipe for massive amounts of headshake in the right scenarios. Another problem is the excessive heat radiating from the underseat exhaust.
“While riding the Ducati on the street is cool because everyone seems to get ga-ga over its sexiness, it does tax you a bit,” says Kenny boy. “For starters the underseat exhaust is hot, but not as hot as the R1, and the riding position is aggressive as we all know. But add into the mix this even more powerful engine and now suddenly you’re a high-dollar hooligan as well. This boost of displacement seems to be just what the doctor ordered to keep you thinking about the speed limit instead of how bad your wrists are hurting after a long street ride.”
The 2009 Ducati 1198 is the torque king. It pumps out nearly 10 more lb-ft than the Honda CBR1000RR.
The same six-speed transmission is carried over from last year, as is the final drive gearing, which on the street it feels like it is geared to the moon. Launching the Ducati from a stop requires the most amount of clutch work this side of the R1 and at 60 mph you can’t even use sixth gear, or fifth for that matter. The gearing is so tall, in fact, that if you’re going less than 100 mph in top gear the bike resists a bit as it begs for more mph. We also weren’t too impressed by how much gear shifter free play and how long the actual shifter throw is in order to change gears. It just makes the bike feel not as high-quality as it is. Although the Ducati is the only bike in this test without a slipper clutch, the only time you’d ever be able to tell is during grossly negligent downshifts or pushing for lap times around the track – but that’s another story…
Throttle response at low rpm, especially below 5000 revs is particularly hasty and you can feel the Ducati’s FI-system is mapped super lean, no doubt to ensure compliance with California’s strict air and noise standards. Of all the bikes in this comparison the 1198 would benefit the greatest from an ECU remap and aftermarket mufflers. We still love the sound emanating from those twin underseat canisters but after hearing Ducatis uncorked over the years, they sure sound better sporting a pair of Termignonis.
Ducati’s Digitek display not only looks cool but it works as well. It’s especially legible with its new fonts and can easily read day or night.
“On the street the Ducati sucks. It’s even worse than the Kawi,” muses tech-dude Wallace in regards to Ducati’s racy riding position. “The Ergos have you stretched out really far. Plus you have to literally be careful not to give it too much throttle because it’ll just wheelie everywhere. Not to mention it’s got a hard ass narrow seat and the same crazy heat issues as the Yamaha. It rides stiff and rattles my kidneys. But…And this is a big but: It just looks and sounds so bad-ass, and it’s a Ducati, and that in a nutshell is why I have one in my garage.”
A quick glance at the spec sheet proves that the same powerful Brembo radial-mount monobloc calipers operated through stainless-steel brake lines and a radial-mount master cylinder return from the 2008 model, yet the brakes just don’t feel the same as last year’s. Specifically, they have less initial braking bite and also sound noisier than before. While both power and feel are still exceptional, you need to use a bit more lever input initially to get things slowed than what we expected. The limited range of front brake lever adjustment will also irritate riders with small to medium sized hands.
Ducati’s multi-function Digitek dashboard display returns and is ever-so slightly more readable this year due to more legible number fonts. The dash is clean, informative and easy to read day or night. Plus it provides a wealth of data all controlled via an up/down toggle button on the left handlebar.
There’s no doubt this year’s Ducati 1198 is faster and more powerful, but on the street it’s become borderline overkill. Where the outgoing version was loud, fast and uncomfortable, the new one is so fast that it can be a handful on public roads. However, the reason we’ve always liked Ducati Superbikes on the street because they’re a racebike first and foremost.