In the 2010 TwoWheels calendar the photo for May shows editor Jeremy Bowdler punting a Ducati naked through a corner. His head is protruding forwards, about in line with the leading edge of the front wheel. Now Jeremy is, I believe, a fairly tall bloke, but he appears in quite a few other photos throughout the calendar, and in none of the others is his head positioned ahead of the bike as it is in this one. It looks unnatural, and a little scary. And it highlights one of my main complaints with a lot of Ducatis. It’s not the lean-forward riding-position as such, it’s the way this riding-position puts the front of the bike almost underneath you, rather than in front of you. In the test of the Monster 1100S I said that it felt like “lying on the roof of your house with your head hanging over the side”; it’s not a feeling that inspires confidence! And it was one reason I didn’t particularly like the Monster 696. I’ve been following the littlest Monster of the Ducati range for a few years now; having previously ridden the 620i and then the 695. The 620i I found to be not particularly quick, but comfortable enough, and pleasant to ride. The 695 felt cramped and not as comfortable. It was a bit uninspiring at low revs but went well when you got it going. That characteristic, combined with relatively high gearing, meant that it was happier out on the highways than it was around town. But it was pleasant and easy to ride; a pretty good bike. Then came the 696. As a replacement for the 695 it was much more than just a nominal addition of one extra cc to the engine; it was extensively re-engineered and claimed to be pretty much an all-new bike. The motorcycle journos generally seem to love it; although it does come in for some criticisms when compared to other mid-size bikes. I mentioned some of these criticisms in my comparison of Mid Size Bikes. When I wrote that article I hadn’t ridden one, but I recently got the chance to have a decent ride when a local dealer put on a test-day.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
Just like its predecessors, it feels small. But, curing one of my complains about the 695, the foot-pegs are lower. That makes it feel more roomy in the vertical plane, but it feels cramped in the horizontal plane; part of the reason for the head-poking-forward thing I mentioned above. The bars are quite wide, which gives good control and goes some way to reducing the lack of confidence brought on by having your head sticking out over the front. It shows the similarities to the earlier versions by again having a comfortable seat, and controls that are light and easy to operate. In other areas it picks up inspiration from more modern sources. The instrument-panel is dominated by a full-width bar-graph style tacho, just like the MotoGP bikes. Underneath that is a digital speedo, and the whole plot is surrounded by the usual collection of warning-lights. (Actually I think there are more than just the usual lights, but I didn’t get to check them properly). The littlest Duke has been criticised for its lack of equipment. For example, the levers aren’t span-adjustable, there are no luggage-hooks, no pillion grab-rail, and not even a helmet-lock! A bit poor, don’t you think? When it comes to appearance, well, it looks like a Ducati. And Ducatis are pretty special! They have character! They combine sporty looks with Italian flair and exotica. Kind of makes you feel special when you’re riding one!
OUT ON THE ROAD
The engine is the 2-valve version of Ducati’s famous L-twin. Air-cooled. It’s a bit vibey when you start it up, and stays that way. At highway speed on a constant throttle it smoothes out, but in all other situations it feels a bit harsh. It does make a lovely sound though; especially on the over-run and when coming on and off the throttle. It goes well, but somehow always seems to be struggling against itself; struggling against the harshness and vibration. But it does go well, when you get it revving. Other testers have commented about the lack of mid-range power, and I can see what they mean. It pulls okay from low revs, but it’s not happy to be there. And the mid-range isn’t strong; it needs to be up around 5,000rpm before it really gets into its stride. At 6,000rpm it’s better. Now, there is a problem with this. Yep, you guessed it, it’s gearing! The little Duke is quite high-geared. Well, it’s kind of high-geared, but feels higher than it is because of the engine’s characteristics. Top runs at about 24kph / 1,000rpm, and so it needs to be up 110kph before it even begins to feel happy. You want it to feel smooth? Dial it up to 120kph! The gear-change doesn’t help the situation either; it’s a bit clunky. If the engine and gearing worked against it around town, the handling kind of did too. Well, to me it did. I just couldn’t get confident with it. (That leaning-over-the-front wheel thing again!). I found that by sitting up straighter, taking some weight off the bars and operating them with straight arms, a bit like remote-control, it worked better. The test-route was a good one; involving some suburban running, then up a mountain pass and along some undulating highway with sweeping bends, then down the mountain and through a bit of suburban traffic back to the dealer. Once we’d topped the mountain and turned onto the highway it all began to work much better. The engine smoothed out more, and the handling was easier. Here it was settling into its comfort zone. Most reports I’ve read praised the bike’s handling. Praised it a lot, in fact! And again, I know where they’re talking about. The bike was always perfectly stable; and held its line beautifully through the highway sweepers. And the steering, which seemed a bit quick around town, was better too. But despite all that, I still didn’t feel totally confident with it. There was one point where I was cruising along at around 110kph or so, through a long sweeping corner, and I suddenly felt the awareness of traveling at reasonably high speed (well you’d call it high if you hit the road at that speed!) on a bike that I didn’t feel confident with. Okay, put that down to a nervous old grandad rather than any particular short-comings of the bike; but that’s how I felt. And if you’re a nervy old bloke, you’d probably feel the same; especially if you’re tall. It’s that leaning over the front thing again – I mean, if I’m run into something, I’d prefer the bike to hit it well before my head does! On this I felt a bit like a boxer stepping into the ring with his head sticking forwards and his hands by his sides. The roads were all pretty good where we went, so I didn’t get to really test the ride. But it did feel firm. On the occasional bumps we did encounter I felt the thump through the bike, although it was cushioned a bit by the comfy seat. What else? Well, the brakes felt good. I didn’t really hammer them to a stop, but they felt strong and efficient – as you’d expect! And there wasn’t a lot of wind at speed. I suppose that’s one benefit of that sportier riding-position. (I’m sure that little fly-screen thing didn’t do anything to keep the wind away!). By the time we got back to the dealer I was kind of glad to get off. So, no, it’s not for me. But it could be good for you! As I said in the Mid-Size Comparison, if you like Italian bikes you’ll love the look, the style, and the sound of the 696. You’ll love it’s handling, and you’ll love riding it just because it is a Ducati. I have to wonder though, what Ducati intends with the 696. The way it works so much better on the open road than it does around town might suggest it’s intended to prowl the highways and by-ways; but the lack of equipment and the small fuel-tank suggests that perhaps they don’t really expect you to go interstate touring. Maybe they see it as a “sports-commuter”, which I suppose is the natural role of the naked. Except I reckon this one isn’t so good at commuting. SNAPSHOT Italian flair and style in a mid-range Monster. It’s not happy around town, and you might not be happy if you’re tall. As on other current Monsters, your head seems to almost be in front of the bike, which I found a bit disconcerting. Outside the city it has handling and performance to please the confident and enthusiastic rider. But lanky old blokes who aren’t as gung-ho might be better off with something else.
Engine: 2 cylinder, 696cc. Power: 59kW at 9,000rpm. Torque: 69Nm at 7,750rpm.
Fuel capacity: 15litres.
Weight: 161kg (dry).
Seat height: 770mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 120 X 17, Rear: 160 X 17
Brakes: Front: Twin 320mm disc. Rear: Single 245mm disc.
Price: $12,995 (+ORC).
No real changes here, although BMW quote slightly different figures for power and weight. Power is stated to be 81kW and torque 119Nm. Weight (dry) is given as 203kg. I’m not sure if this indicates there have been any changes or if I just got different figures when I wrote the original report. The instruments have changed though, and now comprise two circular analogue dials, one beside the other, with the digital panel between them, rather than the odd stacked layout of the test bike. A couple of other minor paint details that have changed and that’s about it. The price looks to have come down a bit, but this depends on what is available. These tend to arrive in showrooms with some “options” fitted as standard.
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