Review: Ducati gets back to basics with the charming Scrambler retro bike
Ducati's Scrambler has been a runaway success since its launch late last year. Its huge sales figures have more or less single-handedly boosted Ducati's 2015 revenue by more than 20 percent over last year's figures. It's a wonderful result for the Bolognese company, though sadly it also vindicates one of the most exuberantly onanistic hipster marketing campaigns we've ever seen in the motorcycle world.
It's mixed feelings for us. On the one hand, hooray for a great company we've long been fond of finding success with a radically different direction. On the other, dear sweet baby Jesus, please don't let everyone else get the idea that this is how you run a marketing campaign. I swear I'll lose it.
But even if the press releases were insufferable, the bike was always a charmer. A retro celebration of simplicity, style and fun, a throwback to the 70s getabouts that did everything from commuting to touring to runs down the shops and the odd hare scramble on any Sunday. It's a totally new direction – well maybe not totally new, but at least a fearlessly American direction for the Italian company, and I was very keen to ride it.
We can gloss over the looks here. You'll have your own opinion on those for each of the four Scrambler options. We rode the Icon. The only thing that struck me was the weird digital dash, which sticks out like a dog's proverbials like a touch of the crappy Casiotone 80s sullying your 60s/70s experience, and I don't understand the decision to run the tacho backwards and upside down. Eh, it's a Ducati anyway, you're supposed to "shift by feel," right?
While I knew it was a small bike, I wasn't quite prepared for just how tiny it feels to sit on. It's not just low, it's crazy skinny, with a wee little 13.5 liter (3.5 US gal) fuel tank that doesn't give you a lot to hang onto with your legs. It gives the bike a range around 200 km (124 mi) – if you're prepared to do 30 or 40 km (20 or 25 mi) with the fuel light on) at a decent fuel efficiency figure around 6 liters per 100 km (39.2 mpg).
It's also the softest thing I've sat on in a while. Get your mind out of the gutter, I'm talking about the lightly damped, long-travel suspension here, which squishes pleasantly back and forth as you shift your weight, and contributes greatly to giving this thing a dual-sport feel. Mind you, it's really no more of a dual sport than the wonderful Multistrada is. The belly of the beast is low, and the pretty curved pipes look too expensive to be belting on rocks. It's light off-road action for this "Scrambler" if any at all.
On the road, though, it's a hoot. The feeling of softness that pervades the Scrambler is the antithesis of the modern sportsbike, and not in a bad way. It's just incredibly easy and accessible to ride – with one notable exception, which we'll get to in a minute. The clutch is feather-light and eager, and the single-disc twin-piston Brembo brakes on our tester take a fair bit of forearm muscle to get any decent stopping out of, which makes them fairly accurate to the period this bike's emulating. But the fact that the lever comes right into the bar is a bit worrying if you're gonna go ride it hard.
Handling is an absolute joy. The bike's weight sits so low to the ground that low-speed turns are effortless and the feeling of grip and traction is fantastic. I can't remember another bike I've ridden that was more fun in a really tight hairpin (maybe Yamaha's MT-09 would give it a run for the money). I'd go so far as to say that the Scrambler would be a sensational learner bike in markets without power restrictions like the USA, not that it won't tickle the fancy of more experienced riders.
The engine, taken from the Monster 796 and detuned for low end and midrange emphasis, suits the bike really well. Seventy-five horsepower is plenty for a bike so light, and acceleration is still effortless in top gear at freeway speeds, but – and here's the biggest issue I have with the bike – Ducati has made a big mistake with the fueling and throttle response. It comes on so strong and aggressively in first and second gears that I nearly slid off the back of the seat a couple of times. That throttle is going to scare some riders off that would absolutely love this bike otherwise. Not that we don't want the performance – we want it all – we just don't want it to smash our faces in unless we ask for it. I think that's a reasonable request.
A revised throttle cam with a more progressive uptake would solve this instantly, and I wouldn't mind betting some aftermarket jigger will be available as a simple switch-out option before too long. It wouldn't affect the bike's fun factor as it'd still lift the front wheel with a hoik on the bars over a crest in second, but it'd save you a few surprises around town.
Ground clearance becomes a limiting factor fairly quickly. With the standard exhaust and its giant catalyser fitted, we were scraping the ground on u-turns and roundabouts, let alone fun bits of road. Replacing that, which presumably most riders will do with a Termignoni pipe before it turns a wheel, will give you a few extra degrees, but the footpegs are down not long after. We're talking a bit more than a sporty cruiser, but not much!
And while the suspension is ideal for slower-speed cornering, it does start getting overwhelmed if you try to ride it like a sportsbike. Bumps and dips in fast corners cause things to start feeling very out of shape, and the brakes really don't feel up to the job of scrubbing off high speeds with confidence.
Of course it doesn't matter, you either ride the bike more like it was designed to be ridden, or you enjoy the hairy feeling of taking it outside its envelope, writhing and wrangling and wrestling it through a sweeper as the suspension ties itself in knots and the exhaust grinds off every bump. This bike will either sing to you or it won't. And it's doing a lot of singing, if sales figures are anything to go by.
Does it suit me? Nope. I found it a bit too small. The spot where I wanted to sit put the gently ridged back of the rider's seat right in the middle of my bum. No problem in town or in the twisties, but on the highway it got uncomfortable in about 45 minutes. It eventually somehow gave me an annoying case of pins and needles in the wedding tackle, and that's a quick way to lose brownie points. Taller and more rotund riders might find themselves having similar issues, and woe betide the poor passenger on the back of this one, it'll constantly feel like you're going to fall off, especially given that sharp throttle response.
Still, shorties, skinny people and lady riders are gonna find this a very appealing machine with a simple, back-to-basics aesthetic that makes things more about the ride than the bike. At the end of the day, that should be what it's all about. There's no denying the Scrambler stands a mile clear of anything else in the Ducati showroom, but this new direction is bringing a flood of riders into the fold, and giving them a great experience. To me, Ducati's mad if it doesn't do another one around the 600cc size, a Scrambler Junior that's even lighter and more welcoming to new riders.
Enjoy our photo gallery, as well as the video review below!