Italian sports-tourer full of tricks

FuULLY-EQUIPPED: Ducati Multistrada S Touring customers get panniers, a centrestand, and heated grips as part of the package.
FuULLY-EQUIPPED: Ducati Multistrada S Touring customers get panniers, a centrestand, and heated grips as part of the package.

It was Maserati that first introduced me to the wonders of "Skyhook" semi-active suspension when it launched the 4200 GT way back in 2001.

Engine: 1198cc liquid-cooled dohc 8v fuel-injected 90-degree L-twin; 112kW (150bhp) at 9250rpm and 124Nm of torque at 7500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Steel-tube trellis frame with alloy single-sided rear swingarm; 48mm Sachs inverted front forks with active Skyhook adjustment for compression and rebound damping; Sachs rear monoshock with active Skyhook adjustment of compression and rebound damping.
Price: $36,490 (base model: $29,490)
Hot: Second-gen Testa-twin extends fuel range, torque output, and valve clearance service intervals; active suspension worth the price, increased long-distance comfort.
Not: Obsolete Pirelli Scorpion radials a little slippy for a bike with such performance and it's notable that the top GranTurismo model wears Pirelli's new Angel GT tyres.
The term for the technology isn't intended to invoke memories of the 1970s Melbourne glam-rock band of the same name; it refers to the way suspension sensors measure their relationship with each other from an imaginary fixed point above the moving vehicle and adjust damping rates accordingly.

It's taken 12 years for the Sachs-developed system to trickle down from performance cars to motorcycles, but the dynamic improvement it adds to the 2013 Ducati Multistrada S Touring shows that the wait has been worth it.

For the Ducati can take virtually anything that any road can chuck at it in its stride and maintain both its contact with the planet and its composure. It doesn't matter whether the surface imperfections the Touring encounters result in huge accelerations in wheel travel or small movements, the result is always the same - ride quality that is close to perfection.

There are four sensors that provide data for the suspension electronic control unit, two for each end of the bike, and they measure the relationship of unsprung mass to sprung mass and their location to the "Skyhook". The ECU then adjusts damping rates in milliseconds according to the data it receives. For example, when the rider is braking for a corner, the system will add more compression damping to the front forks and relax the rebound damping of the rear monoshock to help the bike maintain a level attitude. It all happens in less time than it takes to blink an eye, so that when the rider eases front braking pressure and turns the bike into the corner, the damping of the forks instantly stops concentrating on reducing dive and goes back to bump-absorption duty.

This represents another evolutionary step in the Ducati's progress towards becoming Italy's finest sports-tourer.

Upmarket versions of the 2012 Multi already had a form of adaptive suspension from Ohlins that used stepper motors to tailor spring and damping rates according to the selection of four modes and whether the bike was ridden solo, two-up, or with luggage.

The Sach-supplied Skyhook system takes this convenient adaptability a step further by offering instant real-time adjustments to the riding conditions. You still get to tailor those adjustments according to the same set of parameters as the Ohlins suspension, but damping is now constantly variable and longer locked into a single setting as determined by the selected mode.

Best of all, as Ohlins has more brand cachet than Sachs, the new system adds nothing to the price of a top-flight Multistrada despite its dynamic advantages.

The Skyhook system is fitted as standard equipment to the two S-branded versions of the Multistrada, both of which cost $36,490. Of the two, the Touring seems better value to me than the Sport, as you get panniers, a centrestand, and heated grips chucked into the package instead of a couple of carbon-fibre mudguards and a few cosmetic enhancements.

Prospective purchasers also need to consider the base Multistrada 1200 ABS model at $29,490, as it offers all the other improvements made to the 2013 models bar the trick active suspension. These include the second-generation of Ducati's impressive 11-degree Testastretta engine, new frontal styling complete with LED low-beam headlights, a roomier riding position, and improved weather protection.

If you can put up with the absolutely passive damping rates of the base model's Marzoochi front forks and regular Sachs monoshock, you've arguably bought the Multistrada that offers the greatest value, because the new engine is a peach. New twin-spark heads and repositioned fuel injectors both improve and smooth the torque delivery and reduce fuel use (by about 10 per cent according to Ducati).

Improved emission compliance hasn't wearied the thundering Testastretta in the slightest, as it's both stronger and more refined than before. So much so, it deserves some lofty accolade like the finest twin-cylinder bike engine currently in existence.

The Multistrada has always been intended to be a more narrowly focused tall-rounder than the ubiquitous BMW R1200GS, and the 2013 version drives its dynamic improvements like a stake straight through the heart of the shaft-driven Beemer. The chain-drive Duke is around 30kg lighter, develops 30 more horses, and flicks into the turns with less handlebar input. Although the "enduro" mode of the Ducati won't allow it to venture as far as the GS into the wilderness, the dynamic superiority of the Multistrada on-road is still apparent, despite all the progress that the latest liquid-cooled GS displays in this arena.

Meanwhile the improved ergonomics, taller screen, and other detail changes make the Multi-S Touring arguably the finest sports-tourer on the market for NZ applications. I've yet to ride a better do-anything motorcycle.