Review: 2023 Ducati DesertX
Motorcyclists have always been drawn to do-it-all machines. Since the invention of the motorcycle in the late 1800s, riders have pushed their limits—traveling farther, going faster, and navigating through rougher terrain. There’s just something about two wheels, their freedom, and not being held back by the limitations of a vehicle.
In the beginning, taking motorcycles beyond their limits was a raw and unforgiving endeavor suited only for the most talented two-wheeled pilots. Motorsports propelled the drive to be the best in each discipline, adding fuel to the internal-combustion fire. As technology advanced, so did the machines and what they and their riders are capable of. Bikes became faster, more efficient, better handling, and ultimately safer—all things that eventually trickled down to production-level machines. We’ve now come full circle and are putting much of this technology to use by creating some of the best all-rounders the world has ever seen. Even companies that haven’t historically been known to produce dual-purpose bikes are jumping on the bandwagon. The competition is fierce.
Ducati knows a thing or two about competition. The company’s been competing at the highest levels of two-wheeled motorsports since the ‘50s, albeit primarily on paved racetracks. Its experience on the track helped develop unique technologies for motorsports.
Perhaps the most iconic Ducati advancement was the desmodromic valve design, which remains a charismatic feature of even the most recent Duc’s. The Italian brand pushes the limits of design every chance it gets. Just look at the tube trellis frame that became popular in the ‘70s or the all-carbon-fiber frame, subframe, swingarm, and wheels that were introduced as a production bike with the 1299 Superleggera. Ducati knows what it takes to create an irresistible high-performance machine. It’s proven this yet again with its most recent release, the 2023 Ducati DesertX.
The DesertX is a first-of-its-kind bike from Ducati and the only modern Ducati with a 21/18-inch wheel configuration under long-travel suspension. The fully adjustable suspension provides 10 whole inches of ground clearance. Ducati used a lithium-ion battery, added an adjustable rear brake lever, and perfected customizable ride modes. The Italians are off to a great start.
The DesertX weighs some 30 pounds more than the KTM 890, but it goes unnoticed. Even when picking the bike up after laying it over on a sandy hillside, it didn’t feel much different than the 890 R or Norden 901. It hides the extra weight well.
A tube trellis frame set the stage for a remarkable chassis on the DesertX. Not only does it feel smaller than it is when picking the bike up, but also when riding. It handles similarly off-road to a large dirt bike, and on the road it acts like an eager sport tourer. It’s as agile or planted as you need it to be, and always fast.
I could instantly tell the designers spent extra time on the ergonomic profile and handling characteristics. The bike is comfortable and controllable whether sitting or standing. The TFT display is mounted vertically so you can easily see it while standing up through rougher terrain. Even the inner leg curve is well thought out, keeping in mind how the legs rest around the seat and tank in all positions. It’s Ducati’s attention to detail that’s helped it create one of the most comfortable ADVs on the market right now.
Between the rider’s legs rest 5.5 gallons of fuel. If that’s not enough, an optional rally tank adds two gallons more to the area commonly referred to as the “number plate” behind the seat. The tanks work together electronically to sense fuel level and pump fuel from the rear to the front. How does 375 miles of range sound?
It’s Got to be A Ducati
Dirt riding is always fun on pretty much any machine, but to be a true Ducati, it has to be more than good on the pavement. The company elected to use the 937cc Testastretta V-twin engine, which has proven itself in both the Monster and the Multistrada V2. At 110 ponies, it’s got the most horsepower in its class and adjustable ride modes allow total customization for the rider and their skill level in various riding conditions. Pair that with an up/down auto-blipping quickshifter and you’ll feel like a MotoGP star every time you go for a Sunday cruise.
As is also the case with the Monster and Multistrada V2, fueling is spot on. Even putzing around in the low RPM range with a lazy clutch hand, the power was smooth and predictable. Speaking of great fueling, engine braking is also buttery smooth, lacking the pops, burbles, or surging commonly experienced while rolling off when fueling is too lean or rich. The brakes are good, too—really good. Even the off-road ABS settings worked surprisingly well. I see you, Ducati.
Six fully customizable ride modes allow you to set your preferences for Sport, Touring, Urban, Wet, Enduro, and Rally conditions. Power mode, max power output, throttle response, ABS, traction control, wheelie control, and engine brake control all have a range of adjustability that, once configured, will retain its settings even when the key is switched off. No more forgetting to turn your ABS off again after making a rest stop.
I found myself toggling back and forth between my version of Rally mode, which unleashes full power with little to no electronic intervention for hooning around off-road, and Sport mode which added a bit more ABS and DTC intervention for safety on the pavement. Swapping between ride modes is easy to do on the fly with a couple of button clicks and momentary closing of the throttle. This can all be done without looking at the dash once you get the hang of it. These customized settings not only greatly increase rider performance, but also safety. At the end of the day, I want to live to ride into my 90s, and using electronic aids on the road greatly increases my chances of doing just that.
Where Else than Aspen
Although Aspen is known for luxury real estate and ritzy ski resorts, in the summer the area turns into a dual sport motorcycle playground. There are endless backroads, both paved and unpaved, that link the ridgelines and traverse the valleys through these gorgeous Rocky Mountains. Colorado is the perfect place to test the new DesertX.
Rather than shouldering a Louis Vuitton and stepping into the gondola, I aimed my DesertX toward the top of Aspen Mountain and started to climb. The mountain was steep, and I hurriedly navigated the switchbacks. With the loose terrain, the rear of the bike begged to slide around every corner, to which I obliged. I zigged and zagged up the slopes, crossing under the ski lift so many times I lost count. Baby-head rocks littered the trail, covered in a deep powdery silt that erupted in a thick dust cloud as my wheels plowed through.
The DesertX didn’t skip a beat, and obeyed every command I gave. By the time I reached the top of the mountain, I had gained roughly 3,200 feet in elevation. At 11,200 feet, the view was spectacular. Sure beats a ride in the enclosed chair lift.
After stopping to catch my breath, I started the engine once more to continue on to the next off-road riding area. Except, my bike wouldn’t start. The starter turned, but the mighty Duc sputtered and failed to fire as if no fuel made it to the injectors. Thinking quickly, I popped open the fuel cap and a rush of vapor exited the tank. Just as I suspected—it had vapor locked. The bike promptly started back up and I continued to rip around on the trails atop Aspen Mountain until I was told the ride was over.
Bad and Boujee
Ducati is known for creating some of the most beautiful motorcycles ever produced. Don’t get me started on the voluptuous styling of the Desmosedici RR or the elegance of the Sport Classic, both of which will one day find a forever home in my garage. It’s no surprise that the DesertX is one of the best-looking ADV bikes to hit the market.
The styling is actually a throwback to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Ducati was owned by the fellow Italian motorcycle manufacturer Cagiva Group. Cagiva designed a desert racing bike for the Paris to Dakar Rally and utilized Ducati’s iconic desmodromic 90-degree V-twin engine. The Cagiva Elefant claimed two Dakar Rally victories in 1990 and 1994.
But it wasn’t enough for Ducati to design something that just looks like a vintage rally racer. It wanted to create a motorcycle that is capable of tackling the most demanding off-road landscapes and allow any rider to feel like a Dakar racer themselves. Rider aids, suspension and chassis design, and engine performance all work together to make you feel like a hero every time you jump a water break or slide around a corner.
Ducati is often referred to as the Ferrari of the motorcycle world, and the DesertX lives up to that moniker both in terms of performance and price. The starting price for this large, technologically advanced dirt bike is just over $17,000. After adding some of the accessories that I can’t go without, like the crash guards, skid plate, radiator guard, center stand, and the unique auxiliary fuel tank, the price quickly climbs north of $23,000. That’s R 1250 GS territory.
But at the end of the day, I gravitate toward motorcycles with a rowdy character, and that’s exactly what the DesertX has. The DesertX is fast, incredibly capable, and ready for whatever kind of riding one can throw at it. To top it all off, it has the heart and soul of an Italian race bike. Energetic, exciting, and oh-so charismatic.
2023 Ducati DesertX
+ nimble for its size, rowdy when you want it to be, great fuel range, characterful
– price is well above what most people want to spend on a dual sport
MSRP: From $17,095
Engine: Testastretta liquid-cooled, twin-cylinder, desmodromic valvetrain, 4-valve
Power: 110hp @9,250rpm; 68lb-ft @6,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed, slipper and self-servo wet clutch, chain drive
Weight (wet/dry): 492lbs wet/445lbs dry
Seat Height: 34.4in
Fuel Capacity: 5.54gal (optional 2gal rally tank)