Ducati’s new scrambler is a cool and practical revival

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MAYBE you’ve seen that movie On Any Sunday.

It’s a 1971 flick that chronicles the burgeoning motorcycle culture in the United States, notable not simply because it features a lanky/fit/weathered/casual/rugged/cool Steve McQueen riding his dirt bike with his buddies Malcolm and Mert — though that point does add considerably.

It’s basically Endless Summer for motorcycles rather than surfboards.

If you haven’t seen it, you should. Or just ride the new Scrambler from Ducati. Either way you’ll feel about the same.

A new Ducati family

I rode the 2015 Ducati Scrambler Icon last month in the hills outside Palm Springs, California. Conditions were less than sunny: the riders from Ducati and I faced rain and sleet on roads alternatively steeped in fog and buffeted by wind. I suppose we should have expected this on a December test drive, but the words “Palm Springs” tend to elicit visions of swaying palms and glistening pools regardless of the month; say those magic words once and you kind of stop hearing anything else.

Lesson learned. It was probably just as well — the inclement weather put the Scrambler to good use.

It’ll take some work indeed to get this new family from Ducati elevated to the same level as the iconic and best-selling Monster, but I predict this motorcycle will sell well. It’s a happy bike. Look for it to become a staple of the company.

Ducati has made the Scrambler a completely separate brand from its other motorcycles — it even has a Web site separate from the Ducati main page. The distinction exists for multiple reasons, one of which is that it separates the Italian-made lines from the Scrambler, which is assembled in Thailand. (Purists tend to turn up their noses at Italian motorcycles made outside Italy.)

But Ducati has also put in real effort toward making the Scrambler decidedly less serious in looks and performance than its aggressive cousins: It was created by a special task force of Ducati designers working in an office filled with surfboards and astro turf; at 375 pounds, 75 horsepower (hp) and with a base price of US$8,495 (RM30,412), it is the lightest, least powerful and least expensive Ducati on the market today.

American buyers

In fact, Ducati is using this Scrambler to attract American buyers with something less intimidating — lighter, slower, lower, more practical — and more affordable than other models. That attitude matches the idea behind the initial Scrambler that sold from 1962 to 1975, which was made for the US and touted as a bike for the young and extroverted.

Thus, the modern Scrambler lifestyle brand includes clothing, accessories (helmets, goggles) and four different versions of the same motorcycle: the Icon, Urban Enduro, Full Throttle and Classic. They each offer something different. The slip-on silencer, flat-track seat and sport tail on the Full Throttle, for instance, will attract riders obsessed with track racing, while the high front mudguard, headlight grill and front stem protectors allow the Urban Enduro to glide between city streets and backwoods trails.

You could compare these to the five-speed Triumph Scrambler (59hp), which starts at US$9,099, and the six-speed Honda CB1100 (83hp), which starts at US$10,399. You could also compare them to Royal Enfield’s Continental GT (29hp), which starts at US$5,999. But the Scrambler is more stylish and more powerful — in the end, a better value — than all of those.

Affordable practicality

The Icon that I rode has an oil-cooled L-Twin two-valve 803cc engine taken directly from the Monster 796 engine. (Oil is a natural corrosion deterrent and a natural lubricant, so that means Ducati didn’t need to add extra coolant tanks, pumps or radiators onto the bike.) When you start it, the engine has a pleasingly calculated grumble, not a roar.

Ducati makes a smart pairing with this bike, giving it the good looks of vintage racers (I’ll get to those later) and the precision of modern Ducati engineering.

The Scrambler has a six-speed gearbox with a cable clutch (unusual for Ducati because most of its clutches are hydraulic) and a torque-linked anti-hopping system that cuts down on wheel noise as you downshift. The pistons and crankshaft are the same as those on the Monster 796 and Hypermotard 796, but the camshafts, 2-in-1 exhausts and an aluminum heat plate made to protect exposed ankles from that hot pipe are all new as well. Optimal cruising speed is anything between 10mph (16kph) and 60mph.

It retains the original aluminum swing arm, engine covers and 3.6 gallon steel teardrop tank from its 50-years-gone predecessor, but adds next-gen components like light-emitting diode, or usually referred to as LED, lights and a well-designed liquid crystal display (LCD) dial at front that looks as cool as an iPhone. That single round display stands offset from the single round headlight and shows engine revs, trip odometers, a speedometer, a temperature gauge, a maintenance reminder, a clock, the fuel reserve,  anti-lock brake system (ABS) warning lights, and a high-beam indicator. When you turn it on, it whirrs and scrolls through a rainbow of LCD colours.

Modern ride

It all looks kind of futuristic, an interesting contrast to the Scrambler’s otherwise vintage feel. This is not a bike for grease monkeys, even despite that cable clutch that — unlike hydraulic technology — would hypothetically allow pretty much anyone to adjust it.

I liked riding the Scrambler and I think you will, too. The clutch is nice and spongy, and while it’s neither as precise nor as aggressive as other Ducatis, it starts reliably, runs relatively smoothly, has healthy turning capabilities and can handle enough varied terrain to make it interesting. (The light weight and easy handling were a boon for me as I rolled into tiny rock-filled turnouts and waited for others along the hilly route in California — and later pulled into a desert diner with a gravel lot at its front door. I could manoeuvre this machine in tight, unstable conditions just fine.) And the 31-inch seat height is also manageable for shorter riders, although a 30-inch seat is optional.

This isn’t a beginner motorcycle, like a Honda 250, but it can be mastered and enjoyed by both new and long-time riders.

Timeless good looks

Ducati is calling this bike “post-heritage”. I don’t quite think that moniker will catch on the way “vintage” or “legacy” does, but it’s a fair description of how it looks. The whole thing feels like how the 1962 Scrambler would be today had Ducati not discontinued it in 1975.

Each variation on the Scrambler looks a little different — some have higher mufflers, some have licence plates placed low on the wheel — but they each have the same élan McQueen made famous.

The company left intact that unmistakable single bulb headlight and trellis frame; it also left the naturally long seat, arched rear and chunky Pirelli tires that evoke the same feel as the ‘70s-era bikes. I love the thick shock-absorbing coil installed right under the middle of the seat. Wide handlebars, a low muffler and a skeletal frame complete the throwback look.

I’m not a fan of the traditional yellow Ducati insists on putting to all its press bikes, but a Scrambler in matte black or chrome or even olive will undoubtedly attract admirers. Carbon fibre, camouflage and even a red Woolrich flannel print side panel are also available.

I’d steer clear of that scarlet flannel, though. Pretty sure McQueen wouldn’t have approved. — Bloomberg

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 8, 2015.