The thing about adventure bikes is that while they look like they're ready to blaze a trail through the Darien Gap, most of them aren't great off-road. They're big and heavy and, in most cases, they wear their weight way too high in the chassis to feel stable when the surface gets slippery. In many ways, they're kind of like the crossovers of the motorcycle world.
One line of ADV bikes has made precious little claim to its off-road chops, instead choosing to focus on the real strength of the form factor: its utility. When Ducati came out with the Multistrada, the company seemed to know that not only did it not compete with the likes of the BMW GS in the dirt, but more importantly, it didn't have to. That freed Ducati to do what Ducati does best: put powerful engines in competent chassis and create engaging machines.
Today, Ducati offers the Multistrada in a couple different flavors. For the ego-driven or just plain silly (in the best way, of course), there iswith its honking-big superbike engine and a price tag north of $20,000. It's a hell of a machine, but it's a little much for most people most of the time. The true cognoscenti know that it's the newer, smaller Multistrada 950 S that hits the sweet spot of performance, utility and practicality.
The Multistrada 950 S is based on the totally dreamy 937-cc liquid-cooled desmodromic L-twin that we recently experienced in the(there's a non-S version, but we're not getting it in the US). It produces 113-horsepower and 71 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to get silly with. It's arguably the rowdiest engine in the middleweight adventure category, and thanks to its plentiful torque and excellent fueling, it's a treat to use in this more practical application.
The Ducati six-speed transmission is still excellent, with a competent if not class-leading quickshifter that lets you move both up and down through the gears sans clutch. Speaking of the clutch, it's still the same bummer of a unit that we experienced in the Hypermotard. It's one of the few touchpoints on the bike that doesn't feel great thanks to its heavy pull and dislike of being slipped.
When it comes to suspension, the Multi doesn't mess around despite being the entry level ADV from the brand. The 950 S comes with an electronically-controlled fork and shock that comes with presets not only for the various ride modes (City, Touring, Sport, Enduro) but also for different rider and baggage combinations. Riding with a partner? There's a preset for that. Ditto if you've got luggage on the bike. This is serious kit on a bike in this category, and I love seeing it on a sub-$20,000 bike from Ducati.
The brakes are -- surprise, surprise -- Brembo units and they work just about as flawlessly as one would expect. The dual front brakes offer good initial bite with smooth modulation at the lever. The rear brake provides adequate power, and the high-zoot lean-sensitive ABS that's standard on the bike makes sure that your overzealous right foot doesn't get you into trouble. As a bonus, in the Multi 950's Enduro rider mode, rear-brake ABS is turned off, allowing you to back the bike into corners, just as the off-road gods intended.
The Multi's wheels are another win in our book -- specifically, the fact that Ducati chose to go with spoked wheels (always cool-looking on an adventure bike) but shelled out the extra coin to make them tubeless. Most manufacturers in the middleweight ADV bike segment offer spoked wheels, but they're of the old school innertube type. The benefit to the Ducati set up as an on-road bike is that fixing a flat takes a couple of minutes and doesn't require removing a wheel.
The ride modes and various suspension settings are managed through the Multi's excellent color TFT dash. It's the same unit seen on other Ducatis like the Hypermotard and the Monster 1200, but it's clearly laid out, with simple menus and all the information you could want on the main screen.
Other high points for the Multi 950 S include the brilliantly simple height adjustment for the windscreen. You simply pinch the latch and move the screen -- no need for tools or electronics. I also love the Ducati hand controls. Again, it's basically identical to other modern Ducs, but the control buttons feel high quality and are well laid out. Bonus points for them being backlit, too.
Being an adventure bike, it's essential to talk about luggage. While the Multistrada 950 S isn't going on any transcontinental expeditions with its aerodynamic, paint-matched bags, they are surprisingly practical. The bags are keyed to the bike (same as the fuel cap and other parts, though the ignition is keyless), which means less stuff to carry around or lose.
The bags are plastic, so crashing with them is probably going to result in some severe breakage. Still, they're roomy and integrated into the bike such that they don't dramatically increase the Multi's width, which is a massive bonus for lane splitting. I was able to fit my XXL Arai Signet X helmet into the left-side (non-exhaust side) case, which is saying something. It was a tight fit, but I didn't have issues closing or latching the case. Ducati offers a top box, too, but our tester didn't come with it.
So, now we know that the Multistrada 950 S is technically brilliant, but how is it to ride?
Well, it's awesome.
The middleweight ADV category is one of my favorite segments for around-town use, and the Ducati is a standout in that class. It's tall enough to offer excellent visibility but has a manageable seat height (33 inches) so that you don't have to be a giant to ride it comfortably. It's narrow enough to comfortably split lanes, but the bags are big enough to hold groceries or gear without trouble.
The Multi's performance is unsurprisingly good, especially from stoplight to stoplight. The bike makes loads of torque at low-ish RPM levels, which means you're never struggling to get it off the line. In the canyons, the electronic suspension, sporty engine and great brakes couple with ample foot clearance to allow borderline-shocking amounts of lean in the corners. It's a hell of a lot more competent than it needs to be.
I also love the fact that the Multistrada 950 S offers a big ol' 5.3-gallon fuel tank. Even when riding in a spirited manner, it's not hard to eke out 150-200 miles between fill-ups. This has been a bit of a relief after spending time with bikes like the Hypermotard and the Indian FTR 1200, which, while also hilarious to ride, make gassing up a frequent chore.
My test bike also looked brilliant with its almost primer-like gray paint and red steel trellis frame, though the bike is also available with red paint (because duh, it's Italian) though it's fair to say that the Multistrada isn't a classically attractive bike. It's still got a chonky front end, and its beaky nose is definitely not for everyone. That said, it's not any worse looking than its bigger brother or offerings from the likes of BMW or KTM -- but that's obviously subjective.
Now we come to the elephant in the room: price. At the beginning of this review, I lauded the Multistrada 950 S for being a more affordable and usable alternative to the slightly ridiculous (but very good) Multi 1260, but price is relative. The 950 S isn't a cheap bike, starting at a not-inconsiderable $17,395 and going up when you add our tester's spoked wheels ($17,595) and luggage (an additional $1,141). That puts it squarely above the competition like BMW's F850 GS and Triumph's Tiger 900 Rally, which go for $13,345 and $15,000, respectively.
Is the Ducati Multistrada 950 S worth the extra cash? If you want something loud, technically brilliant, exciting and good at just about everything it tries, then yes, absolutely.