Monday was a busy day – back from tour (keep an eye on the blog for that story) and getting my Kawasaki Z1000SX serviced – and finally having the tank replaced, after it was damaged in Tasmania (read about that here). While it was in, Seastar Superbikes leant me their Ducati V4S demo bike for a test ride.
Before I share my thoughts on it, just a quick word about test rides... I've been test riding bikes for a long time. I did it for a living for more than 16 years when I was on Bike and RiDE... and I'm always amazed (a) at how many people buy bikes without taking them for a test ride and (b) how many people don't test them systematically. So many folk seem to be interested in one thing, especially with performance bikes: how fast is it. Frankly, that's the least important thing to find out on a test ride (you can work that out once you've bought it). A test ride's about working out if you can live with the bike. But even on a quick spin, you can learn a lot about a machine.
The Multistrada V4S has a keyless ignition so, fob in pocket, I hold the button and the dash illuminates, then I thumb the starter and get going. There are multiple riding modes (urban, touring, sport, enduro) affecting traction control, throttle response and power settings. The bike is already in Touring mode, which offers its full power – a claimed 170bhp with 92lb.ft of torque – with a smooth throttle response (while Sport promises a more urgent response). Touring seems like a good place to start getting to know a bike like this.
Pick-up is quick and it's an accurate throttle. Trickling through speed limits, it's easy to be precise, rolling on 2-3mph to keep to the speed limit. There's also adaptive cruise control (ACC) which I was dubious about in cars until I tried it and, though I was dubious about it in bikes, now I've tried it here I like it. Coming into a 40 zone, I set the speed and, as the cars ahead back up, it smoothly adjusts the Multistrada's velocity to match. Does a smoother job of it than my VW, actually.
But this isn't a bike that's built to be ridden in traffic. Getting off the main road, onto the quieter back roads, I start to find out what it's really about – though I've seen plenty of that in the Alps, where I saw a heap of these the week before. Leaving a speed limit with an empty road before me, the throttle is simply magnificent: it picks the bike up and wafts it down the road. Though when I say "waft", imagine being fired from a canon, but with no drama.
Then I switch to Sport mode and there's plenty of drama as well. It's still civilised, but now it's clear that the Multistrada was only being polite in Touring mode. Sport is the 400lb gorilla that lurks inside Touring's tuxedo...
The V4s has a two-way quickshifter, so it's easy to throw another cog at it as the revs rise. Pin the throttle and that happens quite quickly – but it's so muscular, things could get very silly, very quickly like that. Beside, as I said, top speed isn't so important on test ride. I'm interested in roll-on speed, leaping out of corners or snapping out overtakes as necessary.
It's a fantastically useable, addictive engine. It's flexible enough to rattle around, devouring traffic, in pretty much any gear, though I don't reach top on twisty roads – fourth is plenty and a lot of the time I'm in third. Hopping back onto A-roads, mingling with other traffic, I short-shift to fifth and sixth and the Multi rolls smoothly along, going with the flow like a shark swimming with porpoises: nothing to see here... until it bites, as I drop into fourth to snarl out an overtake or two.
One thing I particularly like is the ergonomics of the switchgear. I'm not accidentally hitting the joystick for the modes when going for the indicators, or suggesting I'm turning left when I want to go back to Touring mode. Lights are entirely on the "flasher" type switch on the front of the left-hand bar, while all the other controls are easy to use.
The V4S has semi-active, electronically controlled suspension. It adapts slightly with each riding mode, especially if you leave it in the "auto" setting or you can poke a button and mess about with the settings. On a longer ride, perhaps I'd do this, or if there was an issue... but it's a magic carpet ride as it is, smoothing out the worst of the bumps but giving plenty of feedback so I don't feel the need to play with it.
Getting back onto the twistier roads really highlights how agile the chassis is. Light pressure on the bars, on the pegs, twisting the hips to put pressure on the tank... just turn your head and it'll dive for an apex like an Italian striker trying to earn a penalty. In longer turns, cranked over, it feels alive with the bars and pegs pulsing with feedback from the tyres. It's a supremely involving riding experience.
Then the rain hits. A proper downpour. I switch to Urban mode, cutting peak power to 115bhp, smoothing out throttle response even more than Touring, putting the traction control system into a state of high alert and generally setting the bike up for a non-performance oriented way of riding. It certainly changes it: for me, the throttle response feels a bit anaemic, but it's still precise and on a slippery wet road, it feels about right.
I don't try the enduro mode – I'm not taking a dealer demo down a green lane – but there's no doubt that the V4S is a very flexible bike, ready to adapt to different conditions.
On some levels it's a practical bike, too. The riding position is very comfortable – I have the saddle in the 840mm position because I don't realise there's an 860mm setting until I get back to the dealership. There's a cubbyhole with a USB point to charge your phone (though can you power the phone from there if it's on a bar mount to work as a sat nav? I don't know). I've seen the luggage that goes with the bike and it's good.
But then there's the curse of keyless ignition. You still have to get the key from your pocket to open the filler cap (BMW keyless doesn't work this way, so it is possible to have fillers open on proximity). And you'll be doing that quite often as it's a thirsty brute: my 90min ride took £20 of fuel... Ouch. The rising fuel prices really don't flatter the V4S motor.
And that's the catch. A Multistrada V4S starts at £19,500; with the ACC (known as the Radar option) it's £20,495; the fully loaded bike with Radar, spoked wheels, panniers and topbox is £24,395. This is not a casual purchase. And while Ducati has developed the motor to have a reassuringly long service interval, the regularity with which you'll be refilling that 22L tank doesn't exactly suggest it'll be the cheapest bike to live with.
But if you can afford it, it would certainly be a great bike to live with. After doing the launch of the first 1200 Multistrada, I lived with one for a year as long-term test bike on RiDE. I loved it... and I can see that I'd love living with the V4S as well. It's comfortable, quick, with a practical side as well as a hooligan streak that's more or less hidden behind its civilised electronics. It's a very good thing.
• Thanks to Seastar Superbikes for the loan of the bike. Check out their website – here.