2009 Ducati Monster 696

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Bologna's famous pork sausage, Mortadella, is blended with ingredients intended to make it distinctive and spicy, as well as appetizingly hot. You could say the same about the bikes from the Bologna suburb of Borgo Panigale.

And while you won't find black pepper, myrtle berries, nutmeg, coriander, and pistachios in the new Ducati Monster 696, it's certainly a tasty package. I'm visiting the Ducati factory, and International Press Manager Massimo Davoli has arranged for me to spend a day riding the new baby Monster. I've laid out a route into the Apennine foothills, just west of Bologna, with the roads mapped out on my Garmin Zumo GPS. I plan to hook it up to the Monster's battery. More on that later…

Monster Package

The Monster 696 is an important motorcycle for Ducati as well as an icon of urban street credibility. It's also a best seller in the huge European market for naked streetbikes. Add to that its need to appeal to both men and women, and the design challenge becomes even more critical.

Replacing the previous entry-level Monster 695, il nuovo Mostro looks on paper to be more of the same - only better in just about every department. Engine displacement and dimensions are identical to the 695, but a new cylinder head (which eliminates camshaft bearings in favor of plain bushings) raises compression ratio slightly while improving gas flow. The result is a power increase of nine percent to 80hp and torque increased by 11 percent to 50.5lb-ft. But the new frame, bigger brakes and more aggressive styling are probably the most significant changes.

Three items are immediately noticeable about the 696: the new trellis frame that has much larger diameter tubes; the twin "megaphone"-style mufflers that fire upwards from seat level; and the skull-shaped headlight, which has a fashionably jaunty slant. The styling is emphatically Monster, though, in that it takes the essential elements - the trellis, the naked engine, the short wheelbase - and sticks them in your face, though in the nicest possible way, of course. It seems appropriate somehow, as motorcycle styling in general has become more outlandish, that Ducati needed to re-emphasize the distinctiveness of the Monster, and in that they've definitely succeeded.

Sitting on the 696, I notice how compact it is, no doubt designed to make smaller riders feel comfortable. The riding position, though, is quite sporty: footpegs are set rearward, and reaching the bars requires some forward body lean. The seat is also angled forward toward the "gas tank" - really a shroud covering the fuel cell, battery, airbox, ignition coils and ECU, and held in place with hidden fasteners. This last feature explains why I never managed to find a way to connect power to my GPS, after spending a fruitless 20 minutes trying to locate the battery. Press bikes never seem to have instruction booklets or toolkits or any other removable items with them - which probably says a lot about motorcycle journalists!

Control layout is refreshingly simple and straightforward, and the Digitek instrument panel (digital speedometer with analog-style digital tach) shows the expected trip/odometer, ambient and engine temperature readout (unusual for an air-cooled motor), plus warning lights for fuel, engine, full beam and turn signals. The 696 also has data logging: under the seat is a USB outlet that allows you to download trip or track-day data for analysis on your laptop or (no doubt) mobile device. Cool!

Though the 696 is fuel injected, there's a lever on the bars for cold starting. The engine fires equally easily in the steamy city and later in the chill mountain air. Most controls are light (though the gearshift has some new-bike stiffness) and pulling into Bologna's steady traffic stream is a breeze. I quickly get to appreciate the nimbleness, quick handling, and responsive brakes in the city traffic, though the riding position puts a little too much weight on my wrists for commuting comfort; however, I'm soon out of the city and heading for the mountains where the ergonomics make much more sense.

I'm 5'10" tall but with a 32" inseam, and I do find the 696 a little cramped. Ideally I'd like the seat higher so my knees are less bent, and the bars a couple of inches higher too. I also found myself sliding forward on the seat into the gas tank - something that we guys find, err, uncomfortable, though likely won't bother female riders as much. The footpegs also feel too low and I end up dragging my boots on relatively benign bends. Perhaps the 696 is a little too compact.

Monster Mash

But it flies! Only metaphorically, of course - though catching some air seems quite possible, given the extremely willing engine and feathery weight of the 696. I've ridden all kinds of Monsters over the years, from the original 900i.e. through the S2R 800 and 1000, the S4Rs and now the 696. Though the bigger-engined bikes would easily win a drag race, I've found the smaller Monsters to be more fun: they rev more easily; their power delivery is smoother; and their wet clutch means the annoying (to me, anyway) dry clutch rattle doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the engine's throbbing beat.

The 696 engine builds power steadily from 4,000 rpm, but it's at 6k that the gloves come off, and the tachometer "needle" rips across the digital display toward 10,000 rpm, at which point the limiter cuts in. The accompaniment from the mufflers is joyous, replicating the baritone boom of the company's flagship racing superbikes. This is a real Ducati! Equally sporty is the handling, helped by generously wide handlebars, sharp steering geometry and the forward leaning rider stance. With brakes that are at least adequately powerful, well balanced front to rear, and smoothly progressive, the baby Monster can be ridden very aggressively, yet always feels steady and solid on the road. The brakes ought to be good, too. They're the latest Brembo radial caliper design (20mm larger than the 695) with 320mm front discs.

Not surprisingly, the S2R 800 has disappeared from the Ducati Monster range, because the 696 seems to perform at least as well, easily fulfilling the roles of both the 800 and the 695. Some slight niggles, though: the aforementioned gonad-squeezing seat angle; awkward-to-adjust mirrors; and something that might be less welcome to shorter riders, a long reach to the non-adjustable brake and clutch levers - no problem for my Neanderthal paws, but perhaps a challenge for those of smaller stature.

Quite likely the 696 will appeal to newer riders as well: and one of its face-saving attributes is the slipper clutch that protects the engine (and the rider) from over-enthusiastic downshifting. That said, I was never aware of its operation - though neither was I particularly trying to invoke it.
On straighter roads, the Monster's tall gearing allows for comfortable cruising: 80k/h (50 mph) requires just 3,000 of the 696's available 10,000 rpm. The lack of any kind of windshield also means a fair windblast, which makes faster cruising tiring after a while. Fuel consumption on a mix of stop/start city riding, enthusiastic mountain roads, and brief highway stints worked out at around 49 mpg.

Monster Fun

The 696's best trick of all, though, is in offering that tantalizing intangible: fun. I can vividly remember the first ride I took on a "real" motorcycle, plodding around a ploughed field on an ancient 350cc AJS. Somehow the 696 taps into that nascent excitement: a sense of being (mostly) in control of a beast with a willful nature, but one that responds to firm hands with poise, agility, and a strong spirit.

Almost unmatched is the sheer exhilaration of throwing the 696 into a bend much faster than would be wise, and riding it through the turn with a complete lack of drama. Magic! That is, until I hit a hairpin layered with that fine, silty dust that drifts onto Italian mountain tarmac from the surrounding fields. Fortunately, the 696's steadiness and nimbleness (and the excellent Bridgestone BT56 tires) save the day by hooking up as soon as I power off.

Some motorcycles, in spite of equally impressive specifications, just aren't fun. Too edgy or too staid, perhaps, or with controls that are a chore to work rather than a pleasure; throttle control that mars power transitions, for example, or brakes that outperform the chassis. Sometimes it's something I can't identify, so I'd have to write it off as subjective. Whatever. The Monster 696 is just plain fun to ride!