First ride on Ducati’s latest addition to its entry-level Scrambler family, this time evoking the world of café racing in Britain in the 1950s
Ducati’s Scrambler sub-brand has enjoyed outstanding commercial success since its market debut in December 2014, with upwards of 34,000 products of the Land of Joy finding customers around the world in the two-and-a-bit years since then. This has in turn swelled Ducati’s overall sales numbers to record levels, with 55,451 bikes sold in 2016, around 30% of them Scramblers.
That made Ducati’s decision all the more irresistible to extend the previous five-strong Scrambler lineup (Icon, Full Throttle, Classic, Sixty2 and the recently launched Desert Sled, replacing the no longer available Urban Enduro) with the addition of a sixth model – even if the new Scrambler Café Racer appears by its very name to be a contradiction in terms. I mean, the guys at London’s Ace Café who invented café racing in the 1950s looked down their noses at the dirt donks who rode scrambles – aka motocross to younger readers. Tarmac ruled back then, and the idea of a café racer derived from a Scrambler was an oxymoron.
Ducati claims its new Café Racer is an extension of the Scrambler Classic, although with its Termignoni exhaust and neo-sporty character it seems more of an uprated version of the Full Throttle. But either way it ties with the Desert Sled as the most costly version so far in the Scrambler range, retailing at a pricey Euro 10,950 in Italy (so, including 22% tax) against the entry-level Icon at Euro 8,650, and the Euro 10,150 Full Throttle. It’s worth noting that the new Ducati (as opposed to Scrambler) Monster 797 with the exact same engine can be yours for just Euro 8,950. Only available in a so-called Black Coffee tint, the Scrambler Café Racer’s black-and-gold livery is a clear throwback to the similarly painted bevel-drive 900SS V-twin café racer that Ducati produced for three short years in 1979-81, with gold-painted Campagnolo cast aluminium wheels replacing the Borrani alloy-rimmed wires used to date, in a largely successful attempt to lend modern looks to an aging design that would shortly be replaced by the cheaper-to-make belt-drive Pantah range.
That being the case, the mounting of race plates bearing no. 54 on every single new Scrambler Café Racer is a further example of confused marketing. Ducati claims this is to reference the 350 desmo singles carrying that number with which works rider Bruno Spaggiari went racing in the 1966-69 era, during which the first 350 Scrambler single appeared in 1967. But that was a valve-spring design, whereas Spaggiari’s bikes – one of which I was honoured to own and race for a decade – was a desmo, so there was no real connection, and anyway, this new Scrambler Café Racer is a V-twin, not a single. Hey, guys – quit the Marketing 101 course, and stop trying so hard with the retro references. Just give us a nice bike to ride!
Which, fortunately, is what Ducati has indeed done in conceiving the Café Racer, which carries the same 88 x 66 mm 803cc 90º V-twin air/oil-cooled desmodue engine producing 75 bhp at 8,250 rpm and 68 Nm/50 lb-ft of torque at 7,750 rpm as the other models in the Scrambler family – and that new Monster 797. This carries a single 50mm throttle-body for a more fluid power delivery, as well as camshafts designed to ensure a linear power curve thanks to the adoption of an 11° angle on the valve overlap. Moreover, some intelligent development by Ducati’s engineers has produced a completely unchanged output compared to its previous Euro 3 guise, even though it now achieves the more restrictive Euro 4 compliance. In doing so, they’ve also attended to the jerky pickup from a closed throttle in the bottom two gears on all Euro 3 Scramblers built to date, which turned out not to be a mapping issue, but a mechanical one, according to Ducati’s Head of Vehicle Project Management, Federico Sabbioni. Since all Scramblers still use a cable rather than RBW/ride-by-wire digital throttle, Ducati has addressed this by installing a linkage featuring two differential-radius wheels to operate the single throttle-body butterfly, so as to have the throttle opening slower to begin with, then faster, with separate post-butterfly injectors for each cylinder. Call it a desmo throttle!
As before, the 803cc engine’s entire intake package is contained within the airbox, which is itself wrapped within the specially-designed tubular steel trellis frame – the Scrambler Café Racer is very well laid out, resulting in an exceptionally slim motorcycle that feels pretty small and nimble-steering to ride. Except for revised steering geometry, the tubular steel frame is carried over from other Scrambler models, but whereas they all have a mixture of 18/19-inch front wheels to denote their putative offroad ancestry, the Café Racer has tarmac-friendly 17-inchers at both ends in keeping with its sporty character, and shod with grippy Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tyres, a 120/70ZR17 at the front, and 180/55ZR17 at the rear. The smaller wheels make for a slightly shorter and sharper package than other Scramblers, so using the Icon base model as a paradigm the wheelbase on the Café Racer is reduced to 1436mm from 1455mm. However, it’s on the steering geometry that the difference is truly radical, with the non-adjustable 41mm Kayaba upside-down fork set at a mere 21.8º rake with just 93.9mm of trail, compared to a rangier, more commonplace 24º head angle and 112mm trail on the Icon. Those are pretty sporty numbers, worthy of a GP racer – or a Buell sportbike!
Besides fitting the fork with slightly longer black-anodised female outer tubes, to enhance rigidity under the greater cornering forces generated by the stickier front tyre, Ducati has also stiffened up the suspension springs in keeping with the new model’s sporting pretensions. The rear cantilever monoshock inboard of your left foot is also by Kayaba, and is adjustable only for preload, but there’s a hefty 150mm of wheel travel at both ends. The Café Racer weighs in at 172kg dry (188kg with a full tank), two kilos more than the Icon, while at 805mm the dual seat with passenger seat cover as standard, is 15mm higher than before.
This means the riding position has also been changed somewhat, from the Icon’s more upright everyday posture to a more low-slung, sporting stance on the Café Racer. That’s been achieved not only due to the slightly taller seat, but mainly via the pair of aluminium clipons, which in spite of their 60mm risers that compensate for mounting them below the forged upper tripleclamp, drop the grips a huge 175mm closer to the front wheel axle versus the Icon, and they’re also a massive 155mm further forward, for a stretched-out stance that’s less Oxford Street, more North Circular Road (home of London’s Ace Café!). However, it’s not as uncomfortable to ride the Café Racer as I thought it would be after reading those stats before doing so – it’s much more rational than Ducati’s last desmodue café racers, the now-iconic but decidedly unwelcoming Sport Classics. Nevertheless, after 200km/125 miles of carving corners through the foothills of the Appennines southeast of Bologna on the way to the legendary Futa pass, using roads that Ducati test riders have practically worn grooves in while refining the handling of the company’s latest and greatest over past decades, my shoulders were sore enough for me to conclude that Ducati needs to offer an optional set of taller clipons 30mm higher. and more pulled back. Either that, or the aftermarket will do it for them.
However, the steering geometry wasn’t nearly as tricky as I expected after seeing those radical numbers on the spec sheet before setting out. Instead, the setup does its job by making it pretty intuitive to flick the Café Racer from side to side through a series of sweeping turns, yet with no sense of instability as you crank it hard over to keep up turn speed. Then, when you come to a series of tighter turns climbing or descending a junior mountain, that’s when the geometry really comes into its own, with effortless turn-in that makes it easy to pick your chosen line very precisely, and with zero propensity to fold the front wheel when entering a corner hard on the brakes. The same Panigale-derived single 330mm semi-floating front disc as on other Scrambler models has to work a little harder on the sportier Café Racer version, though, with the same radially mounted Brembo Monoblock M4-32B four-piston caliper now actuated via a new radial master cylinder with adjustable lever, and switchable dual-channel Bosch 9.1 MP ABS as standard – same as on the single-piston floating caliper gripping the 245mm rear disc.
Stopping hard downhill into a tight hairpin from high speed had me wondering at first if the Café Racer was underbraked with that single disc, albeit an oversize one, but then I realised that there’s quite a lot of engine braking left in by the settings of the APTC semi-slipper clutch. So it’s just a question of choosing your braking distances and sticking to them, safe in the knowledge that there’s enough stopping power to do the job, without it being so fierce you risk getting the rear wheel in the air ready to begin street sweeping. Front brake lever response was very constant, with a soft initial bite before coming on strong – exactly what you need for beginners and experts alike. Thanks to that, you can modulate the lever very easily, just to cram off a little excess speed in a turn without the bike sitting up on you and heading places you didn’t want to be.
In fact, this is just the kind of predictably sufficient and not overly snatchy braking that less experienced riders who are likely to be the Scrambler Café Racer’s main customers need to be given, and it’s the same with the V-twin desmo engine’s power delivery, which is friendly and pleasing – although without the RBW throttle, there’s no choice of riding modes, nor any electronic riding aids like TC or suchlike. Pickup is now smoother from a closed throttle, although there’s a slight but noticeable lag between turning the throttle and the engine picking up revs – before it was too abrupt, now it’s a little too laid back, though not enough to be a problem. Acceleration is still relatively relaxed, and performance the sporty side of adequate, with no real need to rev it out to the 8,000 rpm mark where the red shifter light on the dash will start flashing to tell you to change gear. It’s quite punchy, but not excessively so – just nice to ride, with the 4,000-6,000rpm rev band the Café Racer’s favoured operating zone, though you can hold a gear that turns out to be fifth for miles on end along a winding road, just riding the broad waves of torque. The engine is forgiving enough that it pulls wide open in sixth gear from as low as 2,000 rpm with zero transmission snatch – again, this is a good bike for the less experienced, while giving them the sense and satisfaction of riding something sporty. 6,000 rpm equals 80mph/130kmh in sixth, and that’s the Café Racer’s comfortable cruising speed, with no undue vibration – it’s smooth but invigorating, as well as pretty quiet mechanically. The gearshift is super smooth and precise, definitely now Japanese quality.
Moreover, there’s a nice little burble – albeit a muted one – from the black-painted Termignoni exhaust with stacked twin tailpipes shared with the Scrambler Full Throttle. Other carryovers from the rest of the Scrambler family embodying a blend of retro mixed with modern include the round headlight that’s been lowered slightly, while retaining its clever LED rim that can act as a running light in countries where the headlamp needn’t be permanently lit. The teardrop-shaped 13.5-litre steel fuel tank’s aesthetics can be personalised or even changed each day according to your mood, by bolting on a different pair of interchangeable aluminium side panels – there are dozens to choose from in the extensive Scrambler aftermarket catalogue. The single fork-mounted round ‘clock’ offset to the right comes with a full LCD digital display prominently showing your speed, with the hard-to-read tacho running around the bottom of the rim, and the time at the top. But there’s no gear selection indicator, and this just as much of a mistake as it was two years ago at launch on a bike that will be ridden by less experienced riders who’ll often become confused which gear they’re in, especially with such a flexible, accessible motor. At the point that KTM includes this even on its 125 Duke, Ducati needs to get real and fit this on its entire Scrambler range. Plus there’s no fuel gauge, just a warning light, probably on grounds of cost, although many will feel that’s taking minimalism a step too far. There is however a USB port under the seat, and neat new styling touches include the bar-end mirrors which work well, the low license plate holder mounted on a single strut attached to the swingarm, the abbreviated front mudguard, and the surprisingly effective if pretty minuscule deflector screen topping the headlight. The taillight is LED, by the way, and so are the tiny direction signals.
In spite of its sporty character the Café Racer is good to ride in town, with its light clutch action and the big-hearted engine forgiving enough that you always find yourself in the right gear. The light steering makes short work of tight turns, yet it’s well-balanced enough to be confidence-inspiring for less experienced riders at slower speeds – it’s very neutral-steering, yet responsive without being nervous. Ride quality was excellent from the Kayaba rear shock in spite of no linkage – though I expect the variable rate spring is a factor in this – and with 150mm of wheel travel at both ends, it handles bumps well and also dips in the road taken at speed, where I never felt it bottom out. The non-adjustable fork wasn’t quite as effective – while softly-sprung it wasn’t always totally compliant, but not to the point of chattering in turns, and it gave enough feedback to make you feel safe. Probably it’s built to a price, but the rear shock was better than I expected, and there’s plenty of ground clearance, too.
This latest iteration of the Scrambler family is an affordable factory-fresh old-school café racer, a plausibly authentic reinterpretation of the Way It Was. It’s not really as sporty as its name suggests, but if you want real performance, look elsewhere in Ducati’s lineup, probably at the Supersport S – but the Café Racer is an easy to ride everyday bike with a sporting flair and cool looks, ideal for beginners and experts alike. Its most obvious rival is Triumph’s Street Cup priced almost the same at Euro 10,800 in Italy, but the Harley-Davidson Street Rod at just Euro 8,700 is an awful lot of bike with comparable performance stats, for much less money – the same as the Scrambler Icon, in fact. You can’t help get the feeling that Ducati underpriced the Scrambler family two years ago to gain a foothold in the entry-level market sector with its new sub-brand, and now with the steeper priced Dirt Sled and new Café Racer, it’s now seeking to make amends by attempting to raise its prices to a level it feels comfortable with in terms of profit margin. The question is, will customers buy that strategy? Is there a limit to how much people are prepared to pay for entry to the Land of Joy?
Café Racer sales will very likely provide the answer – and quite soon, at that.
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Photo credit: Milagro