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Ducati Monster 821 road test

First test in Italy of Ducati’s most important single new model, the midsized Monster

On October 24th, 1992 the first-ever Ducati Monster was launched in public at the IFMA Show in Germany – the first of 323,000 such bikes built so far up to the end of August 2017 in all their different capacities and configurations. Argentinian designer Miguel Angel Galluzzi’s then-innovative concept of stripping a Supersport bike of its bodywork to create a user-friendly yet invigorating minimalist streetbike combining sporting appeal and everyday practicality was an instant hit, with thousands subscribing to his declaration that “All you need in a motorcycle is a saddle, fuel tank, engine, two wheels and a handlebar. Everything else is superfluous." 

That’s a philosophy which invented a major new segment of the motorcycle market that keeps on expanding year on year, as other manufacturers have continued to copy the Monster mantra. But for Ducati especially it’s been a never ending story, as well as a gift from Galluzzi that keeps on giving, even after his 2006 move to Ducati’s rival Aprilia, to eventually become VP of Design for its parent company Piaggio.

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For that’s demonstrated by the huge number of monsteristi who have bought successive generations of this model ever since, up to and including the modern counterpart of the first-ever Monster M900 powered by an air-cooled desmodue engine. That’s the Monster 821 introduced in 2014 with its liquid-cooled Testastretta 11º motor, which for 2018 to mark the model’s 25th birthday has now been updated to be Euro 4 compliant, while also refreshed aesthetically in the tyre tracks of its bigger Monster 1200 sister, by adopting all the styling modifications that were incorporated in that when it was released in its current revamped form one year ago.

The importance of the Monster family of models to Ducati’s balance sheet can’t be overstated. Indeed, the only reason the Italian sportbike manufacturer stayed in business long enough to eventually be acquired by the VW/Audi Group in 2012 was because of the profits generated by all those hundreds of thousands of Monsters built and sold over the past quarter-century. For this motorcycle has not only established itself as a style icon, it’s also provided the financial platform to carry Ducati to 14 World Superbike Riders titles and 17 Manufacturers crowns, let alone Casey Stoner’s upset 800cc MotoGP World Championship. It’s represented a huge slice of the company’s total production for the past 25 years, as the equivalent to Ducati of Honda’s stepthru Super Cub, because without building 100 million of those in various formats since its 1956 debut, Big H could never have afforded to go Grand Prix racing down the years with such devastating success and such exotically engineered machinery. Same with Ducati – no Monster, no money to go racing, and no sportbikes supreme like the equally iconic 916 and its successors, up to and including the new Panigale V4.

So when Ducati launches even an updated new Monster as opposed to a brand new platform, its arrival has ramifications way beyond the obvious. The debut of the revamped Monster 821 represents a roll of the dice for the Italian company’s management, who are counting on it remaining the best-selling model of any across their entire six-platform lineup (Panigale, Diavel, Hypermotard, Supersport, Multistrada and Monster, in case you wondered – Scrambler is supposedly a separate brand). But furthermore, you need to think of it as the Monster family’s equivalent of the Multistrada 950 versus its 1200 (soon to be 1260) big brother - Scrappy-Doo to Scooby-Doo! - complete with the same cost-cutting twin-sided swingarm versus its sibling’s single-sided design statement, but otherwise near-identical chassis layout, just with less high spec hardware hung on it and a smaller-size engine which is, nevertheless, capable of giving just the same all-round riding pleasure in real world conditions, at lower cost.

However, there’s been a penalty in adapting the smaller version of the Testastretta 11º engine to Euro 4 compliance for 2018, with Ducati now claiming an output of 109 bhp/80 kW at 9,250 rpm, 3 bhp/2,4 kW less than before at the same revs, and torque is reduced, too, with 86 Nm/8.8 kgm/63 lb-ft now produced at 7,750 rpm – down 3.4 Nm/0.5 kgm/2.9 ft-lb from Euro 3 guise. But thanks to clever work by Ducati’s R&D engineers led by Giuseppe Caprara in remapping the engine and adapting the new exhaust system to the existing motor, this reduction in performance numbers doesn’t impact on riding enjoyment for the new Monster 821, which actually seems torquier and more willing than its predecessor, with an even broader spread of both power and torque than before, especially the latter. 

So the 2018 Monster 821 pulls wide open in sixth gear from as low as 2,500 rpm with zero transmission snatch, running all the way to the 10,500 rpm limiter without faltering. Fuelling is superb in all three riding modes, especially in Touring where the pickup from a closed throttle is flawlessly smooth, though in the more aggressive Sport mode it can be a little brusque, but still controllable. This engine’s sweet spot is from 3,000-7,000 rpm, and although it’s happy to rev out all the way to the limiter when you’re really going for it, there’s not a lot of point in doing so because midrange grunt is so strong.

Reduced numbers notwithstanding, this is an extremely satisfying engine to ride, and I must say there is indeed a touch of 950 Multistrada syndrome here, because in real world everyday riding, this is arguably a more satisfying bike to ride than the 1200 Monster. Why? Because you have to really work hard at making this midi-Monster run as hard as its butch big brother, where all you need to do to obtain the same performance or greater is simply twist the wrist. On the 821 this results in greater satisfaction when you ride it hard, and in real world situations it’s more rational and easier to live with. 

However, performance numbers aside, there’s another penalty to the new bike, this time self-inflicted via Ducati’s stiff pricing policy, rather than as a result of regulatory imposition by EU authorities. At Euro 11,190 on the road in Italy for the trademark Ducati Red version, including 22% local tax (against Euro 8,950 for the air-cooled desmodue Monster 797), or Euro 200 more if you want black or yellow paint thrown at it), the entry level price point for the revamped Euro 4 Monster 821 is now a massive Euro 1,200 more expensive than the outgoing Euro 3 model it replaces. It’ll be interesting to see what customer reaction is to this steep hike in price on the Monster’s 25th birthday, for it may well be a potential party-pooper for some potential purchasers. However, that’s a meaty Euro 3,040 less than the basic Monster 1200 (the uprated S version is a massive Euro 7,790 more expensive) with its 110bhp/126Nm big-bore version of the same Testastretta 11º motor. And only on the new midi-Monster is the yellow paint scheme that adorned Galluzzi’s original M900 prototype available, having been revived as part of the 25th birthday tributes to the Monster family.

In recognition of that, the entire fleet of bikes that Ducati supplied for the press launch based on the Adriatic coast at Rimini (Bimota’s former home till the company finally went under last year) were all yellow perils, on which we attacked a 110-mile/170km inland route up into the hills of the Marche region, along roads I know like the back of my hand from all the countless times I’ve ridden new Bimota streetbikes along them. But I was shocked at the condition of what were once billiard-table smooth, scenic but testing racer roads that would ordinarily have been ideal for exploring the revamped Monster’s sporting pretensions. Instead, they’ve become downright decrepit thanks to lack of maintenance caused by Italy’s impoverished economy, coupled with the effects of some harsh winters and damp summers, and the result was more than forty miles of bad road, whose lumps and bumps and broken surfaces imposed a stern test of the Monster’s suspension package.

But the non-adjustable 43mm Kayaba fork and Sachs shock adjustable only for spring preload and rebound damping sailed through the test, delivering impressively good ride quality and a sense of build quality that goes some way towards justifying the steep price for this bike, which is expected to continue as the best-selling Monster variant. “For 2018, we wanted to create the most balanced Monster yet, because today the Monster family is quite wide—it ranges from the base 797 bike up to a racetrack model in the 1200R,” says Monster family Project Leader, Stefano Tarabusi. “The 821 Monster is right in the middle, and is a bike that is very easy and enjoyable to experience.” True - but at the stage that Benelli’s Leoncino 500 twin at literally half the Monster 821’s price tag includes a remote adjuster for the rear shock’s spring preload, I reckon that Ducati needs to do the same rather than ask customers to grapple with an old-school C-spanner to alter suspension settings.

The adoption of the 1200 Monster’s slimline (albeit smaller) fuel tank - complete with the same ski-clasp fixing clamp of 25 years ago - helps make the revamped 821’s riding position seem more spacious, as well as lighter-steering, even though the geometry is unchanged. Designer Gianandrea Fabbro surely hit the bullseye with the current bike’s looks, with Galluzzi’s original butch minimalism that made the original Monster so appealing recaptured today in both its 1200 and now 821 successors. The higher 810mm level of the two stock seat heights was just fine for me, whether cutting corners through Bologna rush hour traffic – and there is almost certainly no better traffic tool than this midi-Monster – or carving canyons up in the junior Apennine mountains, where its intuitive handling really showed up well thanks to the chassis packaging that makes it feel much lighter than it really is. At 181.5kg dry (206kg fully fuelled, ready to ride, carried via a pronounced 47.5/52.5% rearwards weight bias) this watercooled bike is a good bit heavier than the 175kg air-cooled desmodue Monster 797, but it seems almost the reverse thanks to the way it changes direction so effortlessly, and is so inviting to flick from side to side through a series of mountain bends.

However, what this did was to underline the effectiveness of the aptly-named Ducati Safety Pack/DSP fitted as standard to the bike, incorporating three-level ABS and eight-stage traction control that are both switchable as well as capable of personalisation. That’s if you prefer not to go with the default settings in any of the three separate RBW Riding Modes delivered by the Magneti Marelli ECU, which you can readily switch between while on the move just by closing the throttle before making your selection. Urban Mode is really Rain, with an enfeebled throttle response in dry conditions like those we rode in which it’s no fun using – it’s far better to use Touring in town for added zest away from lights, while still remaining smooth and controllable in pickup, whereas Sport is strictly for – well, what it says on the label. Really, the new midi-Monster has a much broader well-proven package of electronic rider aids than other bikes it’s competing against, and Ducati has been working with Marelli for so long to evolve the class-leading package that it’s well-nigh flawless for a real world road bike like this one.

Thumbing the starter button on the Monster 821 was also the signal for a concert performance from the 2-1-2 exhaust of the kind I thought was gone forever on a Euro 4 compliant streetlegal motorcycle, because like its predecessor this has to be one of the best-sounding production V-twins in the marketplace today. It’s not excessively loud, just sufficiently so to be soulful and sensuous, with an old-school rumble at low rpm that transforms into a trademark twin-cylinder bark as revs mount. Magic. And that engine is also quick to gain revs, thanks to its muscular grunt from down low which is rather more than you expect from a middleweight motorcycle, but is one thing that makes the new Monster so ideal for use in town – in Touring mode, though! Another is the light action of the oil-bath slipper clutch which is a delight to use, far removed from the ultra-stiff Ducati dry clutches of yore, which left your hand frozen in pain after a sixty-minute rush hour workout.

Not this time, for the Monster 821 is a superb traffic tool, with just three qualifications. Neutral was sometimes hard to find at rest (though that could be because the bike I was riding was so new, with less than 500km on the clock when I started the day), plus it’s all too easy to blow the horn when using the direction signals. I was far from the only one to do this - even our Ducati factory lead rider did so! But more concerning was the third point – the amount of heat radiating off the watercooled V-twin engine at rest, especially on the right side, if you sit stationary waiting for the lights to change for more than a few seconds. This was noticeable even riding in two-piece leathers, and it’s sufficiently intense to make riding it in jeans or a business suit for any length of time, as I’ve seen countless commuters doing on Monsters from Sydney to San Francisco, Milan to Madrid, potentially uncomfortable. The outgoing Euro 3-compliant 821 Testastretta motor was just the same, so it’s a pity this wasn’t fixed on the new bike. Oh – and it’s also a shame that Ducati didn’t fit its DQS Quick Shift system offering clutchless gearchanges in either direction. That’s included as standard on several other current Ducati models, but this is the bike which arguably would most benefit from it, in spite of which it’s only available as a Euro 220 option. Ducati management might well have sacrificed some of the extra profit they’re making on this 2018 model, and included that as stock.

The Monster 821’s brakes are excellent, every bit as good as you’d expect the Brembo Monobloc one-piece radial calipers to be, complete with a good sense of modulation. But although it stops the Ducati well and hard, there isn’t quite the same initial bite you get when the self-same package is fitted to a sportbike, which tells me Brembo has kept on working at adapting the mighty stopping power such brakes are well capable of delivering on Supersport or Superbike models both to real world riding on a variety of surfaces, and their use by less experienced riders. Combined with the faultless Bosch ABS, this is as good a brake setup as you’ll find on any comparable motorcycle.

The all-new TFT dash is a great piece, easy to see, easy to work (in terms of swapping modes or TC and ABS settings) and super legible, too. For the first time on the Monster 821 there’s a gear selected reading prominently displayed to the right of the digital speed reading where it’s easy to pick out at a very quick glance. This dash is light years ahead of what Ducati used before on the 821, and very welcome.

The new Monster 821 is job done for Ducati’s engineers, who were surely under heaps of pressure from the company’s management and their VW/Audi bosses not to drop the ball on this one, the most important single model in the company’s entire range. They didn’t – and Ducati dealers will continue to sell this bike in droves, thus ensuring the necessary profits to continue underwriting the company’s participation in World Superbike and MotoGP. How’s that for a happy ending?!

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