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The Italian job

Meraj Shah     July 9, 2009

Stunning good looks, unadulterated power and oodles of charm make the Ducati 848 the most desirable sports bike to have hit Indian roads yet.

Here I am, after two decades of riding motorcycles, barely stifling a yawn at the thought of putting yet another bike through its paces, when this Italian grabs me by the collar and wrecks my mature, well settled, notions bred on refined engines and polite machines. On an early morning Mumbai street, I gingerly wheel a Ducati 848, the latest addition to the legendary Italian stable out of a hotel parking lot. The bike has been standing, covered and camouflaged in a basement and with good reason— pearl white, glinting in the sun, with the classic Ducati 916 pair of horizontal headlamps, twin exhausts emerging from under the pillion seat and a bare rear wheel, the 848 makes a grandstand entrance. To call it a looker is an understatement. The 848 doesn’t solicit attention, it commands it. And if you are in the saddle, then it better be undivided. At first sight it evokes the feeling of being smitten with a woman you know is going to get you into trouble—la belle dame sans merci. You know she will have a price, that you ought not to succumb, but you yield anyway.

Turn the key and the 849 cc L-twins (90 degree twin cylinders) roar to life. The throaty, uneven firing is unmistakably Ducati—the patent stainless steel mufflers (identical to ones on the bigger 1098) mean that this bike can be heard around the block, and usually before it gets there. It’s a hot sultry day in Mumbai, the traffic is moderate and the bike is an instant head turner. On the way to Versova, a red Porsche races past and then comes right back to check out the bike. The 848 has serious cool quotient. It may seem like I’m harping on the cosmetics but the 848’s sheer presence dwarfs other machines on the road. It can haul the mail, too—the powerplant has tremendous range and torque, which make it easy to ride.

The twin engine does need more gear shifting and attention to the tachometer as compared to other bikes but once you get comfortable with that, it’s relatively easy to keep within the powerband. Handling and stability are top class even when you throw the bike into corners. The bike has superb ground clearance and the throttle itself is easy to modulate without a single protest from the fuel injection enabling safe adjustments mid-corner. The 848 is singularly a rider’s bike and with its looks it makes him an instant celebrity. 

It’s not as if there are no tradeoffs. The 848 is a racing machine, which means performance takes precedence over comfort. After blitzing through 150 kilometres in less than half a day, my hands feel a bit sore and the committed riding position means that my back has seen better days. The suspension is quite good both in responsiveness and adjustability but the seat is minimally padded and tends to get hot. The low front fairing means that there is not too much wind protection either. It does help, though, in reducing the pressure on our hands at high speeds. Also, if you grip the handlebar too close to the fairing, you can crush your fingers when making acute turns.

Make no mistake, the Ducati 848 is not a utilitarian bike. If these things are important to you, then this bike wasn’t in the running anyway. This bike’s allure goes beyond any pragmatic criteria and embodies its makers’ racing heritage. And at over Rs 17 lakh, the 848 is priced substantially more than its Japanese rivals (even a bigger bike like the Suzuki Hayabusa will cost Rs 3-4 lakh less). And, with no malice towards Asian motorcycles, the 848 leaves them in its wake, looking like nothing more than unsettled pretenders to class. Despite the Gucci pricing, the 848 will remain an attractive proposition for enthusiasts looking for something different.

Robert Pirsig puts it well in Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance —“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.” There is no dichotomy with the 848—simple and layered, sensuous and powerful, hard-nosed and nimble, street-legal and racetrack material. Obviously I am gushing a bit, but trying to be objective about the 848 is as hard as trying to resist opening its throttle on an open highway. The bike takes you back to the heart of motorcycling, where roads and machines have not shrunk for the allowance of freedom. That free range, which every biker knows is the way to the centre of things.

•Ducati 848 Testastretta evoluzione
•Engine: L-Twin cylinder, 4 valve per cylinder Desmodromic, liquid cooled, 849.4 cc
•Compression ratio: 12:1
•Power: 134hp at 10,000 rpm
•Gearbox: 6-speed
•Dry weight: 168 kg
•Instrument cluster: MotoGP derived unit with displays for speedometer, rev counter, lap times, time, air temp, coolant temp, battery voltage, A & B trips, fuel reserve trip, scheduled maintenance.  Precision Motor distributes Ducati in India, for more information mail

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