When Ducati’s original Diavel was revealed at the end of 2010, pretty much everyone thought the Italian firm had utterly lost the plot. It looked a bit like a cruiser, but packed a 160bhp 1200cc engine borrowed from the 1198 sportsbike and could accelerate, brake and go around corners in a way that completely surprised and bewildered everyone who rode it. For 2016, it seems Ducati is determined to court those cruiser riders who ignored them the first time around by going feet-forward and employing the firm’s first-ever belt-drive. So, does it work?
There’s one thing that we can all agree on right away; this is not a practical motorcycle. There’s no way to mount a top box, panniers or even a tailpack on this thing, so if you have any luggage you need to bring with you, a backpack is your only option. Service intervals are a relatively impressive 9,000 miles, and weirdly the Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tyres that are specially made for that massive 240-section rear wheel aren’t actually any more expensive than a normal-width tyre. It is your only choice, however, and I know from personal experience that they simply do not work outside of a hot, dry summer’s day.
You can cancel your gym subscription as well, because holding on to those ultra-wide handlebars above 50mph is a full-body workout. Ducati has gone whole-hog and fitted cruiser-style forward controls, forcing you to sit in the full ‘flying V’ position, your torso acting like a sail in the wind. Riding an X-Diavel at speed is certainly exciting, in the same way that jumping off the Milau bridge is exciting, but you wouldn’t want to do it for long. Fitting a windshield might help to keep pressure off your chest, but it wouldn’t stop all the air hitting you from everywhere else; this bike is as naked as it gets.
The riding position might be comfortable for someone with arms and legs a couple inches longer, but at 5’10” I had to stretch just to change gear, and the bars are definitely designed for maximum leverage and style rather than comfort. And leverage you definitely need, because a 240-section rear tyre rolls rather than tips into corners. With practice you learn to set up early and swing through bends, as the bike seems to rotate along it’s axis rather than lean when tipped over. It certainly takes some getting used to.
But before you get to any bends you’ll have to contend with that engine. And contend is definitely the right word. Swollen to almost 1.3 litres in this application, the specifications actually make it seem like both torque and power have dropped compared to it’s older sibling. Instead, Ducati have boosted the entire mid-range obscenely using variable-valve-timing technology inherited from their automotive owners, Volkswagen. It’s still a little lumpy below 3,000 RPM, as you’d expect from such a huge, high compression engine, but the results are undeniable.
Let the revs climb above 5k and the clattering, shuddering pistons suddenly seem to stop fighting with each other and settle their differences, smoothing out and surging the bike forward on a wave of thick, meaty torque. Push the digital tacho above 7k and the thunderous engine changes again, launching the 247kg motorcycle forward with a ferocity that will take your breath away. Then you can change gear and do it all over again.
The long wheelbase and low centre of gravity mean that you can launch very hard before the front starts to get light. I never tried out the built-in launch control, a feature apparently designed to get you into trouble if used on public roads. And once you glance down at the multi-mode LCD panel masquerading as a dashboard and see what speed you’ve achieved, the monoblock Brembo brake calipers will bring the bike’s bulk to a stop so quickly and with so much feedback from the lever that it makes my Street Triple’s Nissins seem squishy and ineffective by comparison. Nothing that large, low and heavy should be able to stop so quickly.
But then it shouldn’t be able to accelerate that quickly either, nor stick to the road so well during high-speed high-lean corners. Below 30mph the suspension is a little firm, but press on and it absorbs every bump whilst simultaneously keeping you fully informed of every little detail of the road below. I’m sure the weight helps, but this is one seriously buttoned-down motorcycle. The only achilles heel is that large enough bumps do exhaust the rear shock’s limited travel quite quickly, resulting in my being launched straight up out of the saddle more than once.
The new belt drive is smooth and snatch-free, but throttle is a little hesitant low down regardless which of the three drive-modes you have selected. The gearing is so long that the engine chugs even in 6th gear at anything below 70mph. Shorter gears would just caused constant wheelies; perhaps Ducati should have gone smaller, not larger, with this new engine.
And yet, in the same way that Harley-Davidson simply can’t resist adding chrome to everything, it seems that Ducati is incapable of building anything but high-performance sportsbikes, even when their styling department dictates a feet-forward riding position, belt drive and rear rubber wider than most cars tyres. But while the engineers have apparently succeeded despite all their handicaps, the stylists and designers are slowly losing the battle.
All across the bike industry, the theoretical simplicity and visual appeal of a motorcycle’s engine is being eroded by ever more wires, pipes, canisters, sensors, black boxes and increasingly large and boxy exhaust systems. All these aesthetically-challenging items are becoming increasingly difficult to hide, and with a completely fairing-free bike like the Diavel, Ducati have given up and followed the car world by resorting to hiding everything under fake plastic engine covers.
From some angles the bike manages to look fantastic, but from others it suffers badly, and closer inspection finds exposed wires and connectors everywhere. On the X-Diavel this is a real problem; cruisers like this exist to be rolling art. Having already made a huge number of practical concessions in the name of style, this is one area that simply must be executed flawlessly. Other types of motorcycle make concessions in the name of practicality, comfort or performance, but Ducati has made the mistake of trying to have it all, and something had to give.
Harley-Davidson’s bikes look great because they’ve held nothing back, sacrificing everything in the name of achieving their chosen look. Sportsbikes like Ducati’s own Panigales are some of the least practical, least comfortable motorcycles ever made, but they will be truly devastating on a racetrack. Every motorcycle should have a stated purpose, a design brief that everyone on the production team should be aligned with, but Ducati’s internal struggle to resist their own nature is clear to see with the X-Diavel.
It’s possible that somewhere out there is a motorcyclist who’s been dreaming of an over-powered cruiser with incredible brakes and handling, who never travels with anything bigger than their wallet and doesn’t intend to ride over 55mph, and who thinks that exposed hoses, wires and cable ties bulging out from behind fake engine covers looks good. I have never met this person, and I’ll be interested to know how many of these bikers come forward with the £16,000 required to get in the saddle.
Riding the X-Diavel is ridiculous, entertaining, and a lot of fun, and maybe that’s all you need in your bikes. Maybe you don’t care that you can’t travel with it, commute on it, track it or even just display it as a show bike. And maybe you can afford to spend £16,000 on a bike that doesn’t seem to have a particular purpose, or excel in any particular area. But at that price Ducati is rapidly approaching the likes of built-to-order specials like the Ariel Ace, or Harley’s fully fleshed-out and beautifully-made CVO series. And if what you really want is a gorgeous-looking Italian muscle-cruiser, Ducati will sell you the standard Diavel for a lot less money.
I’m aware that not everyone understands my obsession with making low-powered motorcycles go fast, or my insistence that every bike be capable of touring Europe. Motorcycling’s variety is one of its strengths, one of the things that makes it so much more interesting than the car world. Walk through the halls at Intermot, EICMA or Motorcycle Live and you can rejoice at the sheer number of truly crazy things that other people think are totally awesome. I love the diversity. And I applaud Ducati for going completely berserk on this one, but am sorry to say that there are simply better or cheaper ways to get your recommended daily dose of adrenaline.