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2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S first ride review: Heaven on two wheels

Ducati's Multistrada has long been the go-to bike for those looking for a high-performance, high-tech touring machine. Its latest iteration moves the bar further forward.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
7 min read

While cars must generally be a rational purchase, I'm a firm believer that motorcycles should inspire special feelings in your special places every time you ride them. Heck, just looking at my Triumph makes my juices flow, even if it's snowing outside. Bikes are inherently less practical -- not to mention far riskier -- so why not get one that's worth the compromises? Buy a car with your brain, I say, but let your heart choose the right bike.

When I spent the first few minutes contemplating the Ducati Multistrada 1260 S, well... let's just say that my heart wasn't exactly racing. This is not a bad-looking bike by any means, but aesthetically, it's far from evocative. Visually, the tall and somewhat ungainly Multi shares little more than a color and a logo with many of Ducati's sexier, sportier two-wheeled offerings. On that first meeting, I was left feeling a bit cold.

That quickly changed. After a few miles in the saddle, I was keenly aware that I was astride one of the greatest motorcycles I have ever ridden. 

2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S


2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S looks set to conquer all

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The package

Ducati has made a Multistrada of some shape or another for over 15 years now, starting with the original Multistrada 1000 back in the early 2000s. That bike helped bridge the gap between upright tourer and high-strung super-moto. Now, the 1260 S is the latest, and fastest, evolution of that theme: excessive speed and engagement in an upright, comfortable and effortlessly capable package.

The new bike is built around Ducati's 1,262cc Testastretta DVT engine, which is shared with the sporty Diavel cruiser. DVT stands for Desmodromic Variable Timing, which enables the bike to automatically and continuously adjust its valve overlap to provide both smoothness and power. "Testastretta" meanwhile means "narrow-head," a moniker attached to this latest flavor of the company's iconic L-twin configuration, which you can think of as a laid-back V-twin. Not laid-back in terms of performance, mind. A whopping 158 horsepower means this bike is far from relaxed. 

It wouldn't be a Multistrada if that engine weren't hanging from a trellis frame attached to one of the most advanced suspension setups available on a road bike. The Multi S offers what Ducati calls Skyhook Suspension Evolution, so named to represent the feeling of being attached to the sky, not riding along the road. Evocative titles aside, this is one of the most advanced active suspension setups on the road, relying on a series of accelerometers and gyros to detect bike position and suspension movement, dynamically adjusting both front fork and rear shock with latency times measured in milliseconds.

Layer on a lean-sensitive traction control, anti-lock braking system and a quick-shifter that can manage clutchless up- and downshifts, and you have one of the fanciest bikes on the planet -- as you might expect for its $20,995 starting price. 

2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S

Testastretta DVT: The latest flavor of desmodromic bliss. 

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The ride

You don't need to be tall to enjoy the latest revision of the Multistrada, but it helps. The 1260 S offers multiple seat heights, the lowest being 825 mm (32.5 inches), the one that my 31-inch inseam demanded. For those with longer legs, it raises to 845 mm (33.3 inches). Even lowered, swinging a leg over the pillion seat and generous grab-handles still required a bit of a stretch for me. But once situated on the bike's wide and surprisingly pliant seat, I had no problem getting both feet on the ground.

They wouldn't stay there for long. For my first 90 minutes astride the Multi, my feet didn't touch the ground once. That's partly because I'm lucky to live in a place with few stop signs and fewer streetlights, so I could just motor along freely. More importantly, despite my height, the Multi is so well-balanced that I could easily bring it right down to a complete stop where required by law, and then accelerate away again without a wobble and without putting a foot down. That's the kind of comfort that usually takes some time to develop on a new machine.

The riding position on the Multistrada does feel awkward at first. You sit upright, hands splayed out wide and high, feet pulled back in a sporty sort of way. But the broad position delivers incredible leverage on the wide bars. The lightest bit of pressure on one grip or the other sends the bike dipping toward the apex, showing the kind of responsiveness you might not expect from something so lanky. 

2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S

The wide, high bars are loaded with controls, but the layout is mostly intuitive.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Cornering, then, is borderline telepathic, as is braking. Just a quick squeeze with one or two fingers on the lever brings the Multistrada cleanly to a stop, and with ABS you needn't be so worried about a bit of gravel or oil in the way. And then, there's throttle.

Though fancy and new and outfitted with the latest variable-valve magic, the L-twin lump here is still a big twin. At very low revs, it can still be a bit grumpy, shaking and rumbling and fussing. But let that motor have its head a bit, which you really should anyway, and the rush of speed is compelling. The Multistrada surges forward with the kind of manic aggression that'll make you think you're astride a snarling sportbike. But, with a comprehensive traction and stability control system, you needn't worry about unsavory wheelspin or wheelies spoiling your fun. Just point and squirt. 

2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S

The flurry of configuration screens here will make control freaks weep with delight.   

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

And when it's time to grab another gear, a quick flick of the ankle will do. The quick-shifter here is smooth and capable at any rev and any throttle opening. It makes it blissfully easy to grab the next gear, or indeed the previous one, without worrying about the clutch. And that brings us to the next part of the Multistrada's repertoire: touring.

Though the 1260 S is plenty fun in short blasts, this is really a bike made for much longer rides, and it's here that it really, really shines. Those high, wide grips hide behind generous brush guards that'll keep the worst of the weather away from your gloves. When it gets really chilly, heated grips are just a button-press away. The tall windscreen, too, creates a heck of a cocoon, and if you need more protection it raises or lowers with a quick, simple, manual mechanism.

The suspension does a remarkable job of delivering positive feel and response, yet it also soaks up massive road imperfections without complaint. And, should the ride be too hard, a few flicks with your left thumb can pick a softer setting. Fresh pavement ahead? Go ahead and dive back up to Sport mode and live it up.

So the perfect tourer, then? It would be for me, but perhaps not for everybody. If there's a complaint here, it's that the Multi always feels "on." Even when dialed back to a gentler mode, it's never short of playful and lively. For endless runs down amazing mountain passes, that's not a problem. But if your notion of "touring" has more to do with relaxed droning down the highway, this bike may be a little too on its toes for you. 

2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S

Proof that the suspension is indeed not attached to the sky, but you'd never know it.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The tech

Switchable drive modes are just the beginning of the wonderment buried in the Multistrada's multifunction LCD display. It's here that you can customize each of the bike's ride modes (Sport, Touring, Urban and Enduro to start) to an amazing level of detail. You can adjust the firmness of the suspension from hardest to softest with five degrees in between, and set independent values for front and rear. You can also adjust (or disable) the traction control and ABS, plus change the throttle mapping and a dozen other things. 

The level of customization is amazing, and that you can quickly do it via thumb controls is similarly impressive -- though I'm a bit dumbfounded why Ducati didn't include a simple "back" button. Instead, you're left scrolling to the top or bottom of some (occasionally lengthy) lists to step back a level.

Controls on the bike are otherwise generally intuitive, my only real gripe being the headlight controls. The high-beam switch is in the traditional place, a sort of trigger on the top of the grip, but the lip on it left me constantly hitting it accidentally with my index finger. This meant I was flashing others a little more often than strictly necessary for passing purposes.

But, alone on a country road in the middle of the night, prepare to be amazed. The headlights on the Multistrada are better than many cars I've driven, covering the entire road ahead, even popping on additional lights that shine left or right when you dip into a turn.

2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S

Perhaps not the most immediately endearing face, but it'll grow on you.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Pricing and configuration

The 2018 Ducati Multistrada 1260 starts at $18,695, but the 1260 S I've tested here starts at $20,995, which is enough money to get yourself into a very well-equipped Honda Civic. But, great though that car may be, it won't excite like this. For that outlay, you'll get yourself an incredible motorcycle with all the adaptive suspension features and rider aids, plus niceties like keyless ignition that I didn't even know I wanted on a motorcycle. 

Options, then, are mostly cosmetics and comfort, with numerous bits like carbon fiber mudgards, a center stand and, of course, panniers. This being a Ducati, you can also spec it with a carbon-wrapped Termignoni exhaust, which will fill your ears while lightening your wallet by $1,072.08. Curiously, heated grips are not standard. You'll need to drop another $350 for those.

Otherwise, that $20,995 gets you everything you need. Yes, that could be seen as an outrageous sum of money for something that sits on two wheels, but in terms of overall capability and poise, few machines can trump the Ducati Multistrada 1260 S. When it came time to return the keys a week later, I confess I still didn't care much for the look of the thing, but I did look back with longing as it was taken away. 

What a machine.