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Famed Italian Bikemaker Goes Affordable 'Lifestyle'... Authentically?

Just past the ping-pong table and the pop-up barbershop, a live graffiti artist splashes color across a makeshift wall while Bruce Brown's On Any Sunday plays on a bigscreen. If it weren't for the odd motorcycles and accessories scattered within this carefully curated array of culture ephemera, you'd be hard pressed to know this was the global press launch for the 2015 Ducati Scrambler.

While car manufacturers are accustomed to spending beaucoup bucks to fabricate a sense of casual pageantry for product intros, the motorcycle world usually gets by on considerably skimpier resources. You can see why the die-hard two-wheeled fringe might eye these efforts with a hint of distrust: the Ducati event was less a conventional bike intro than it was a textbook example of Brand Immersion 101 – all staged at an oh-so-cool Palm Springs hotel, of course.

The extra effort is comprehensible. Not only is this Ducati's return to the scrambler genre after a nearly half-century absence, the bike represents far more than just a new, purportedly dirt-friendly model. As CEO Claudio Domenicale happily explained at a private event associated with the 2014 EICMA show, the Scrambler represents a sub-brand for the Audi-owned manufacturer, reflecting a new direction that diverges from Ducati's familiar sport bike/street bike formula. As such, the Scrambler inhabits its own 'colorway' (bright yellow, versus Ducati's signature red) and demographic (which, if you believe their brand video, consists of young urban flannel-wearing urban adventure-seekers with a sense of fun and a healthy appreciation for the great outdoors).

What lies beyond these artisanally crafted, small batch doses of gluten-free, ginger-infused marketing? Let's lift the curtain and inspect the goods.

Underpinnings: Monster And Hypermotard, Scrambled

The Scrambler's look is entirely new and eminently changeable, thanks to interchangeable aluminum panels that enable quick-switch finishes and colors. Its mechanicals, on the other hand, ring a more familiar bell. Held intact by a tubular trellis steel frame, the Scrambler's air-cooled 803cc engine was sourced from the now-defunct Monster and Hypermotard 796, dispatching 75 horsepower and 50 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheel via chain drive. That doesn't sound like much oomph, but coupled with a 410 pound wet weight, the bike's power-to-weight ratio is almost identical to that of a Ferrari 458 Speciale – not bad for basic two-wheeled transportation that starts at $8,495, about as much as the ceramic brake option on a new Porsche 911.

The suspension by Kayaba consists of a non-adjustable, 41-millimeter inverted fork up front and a preload-adjustable rear shock, both of which offer 5.9 inches of travel. Ducati says dual front brake discs wouldn't be in keeping with the scrambler format (and the bike's light weight don't necessitate it), so they kept it simple with a single 330-millimeter disc, four-piston Brembo setup at the 18-inch front wheel, and a single-piston, 245-millimeter disc at the rear 17-inch hoop. ABS is standard on all models.

The Scrambler is available in four flavors, starting with the entry-level Icon model ($8,495). Step up to the $9,995 price point, and the Classic (spoked wheels, quilted saddle), Urban Enduro (high mudguard, offroad bars, headlight grille), and Full Throttle (snug saddle, alloy wheels, Termignoni mufflers) are available. Ducati calls the styling cues "post heritage," whatever that means, but there's still a sense of dueling priorities at play here. Sure, the bike wears obvious old school-inspired details. But unlike archetypal scramblers, this Ducati has a low exhaust system, just like its midcentury-era ancestors did. Regardless, Slovenian pipe maker Akrapovic is designing traditional high pipes, which will become available in the already well-stocked Ducati aftermarket catalog. Conversely, splashes of modernity also abound like include LED taillamps, an underseat USB plug for phone charging and an all-in-one LCD instrument cluster.

Mount Up, Ride Out

Ducati made conscious efforts to keep the Scrambler's seat height manageable, and at 31.1 inches (or 30.3 inches with the available low setup), it should be easy for most riders to feel at ease in the saddle. The cockpit perspective reveals instruments offset to the right, perhaps suggesting that the experience ought to be more about taking in the view and the ride, rather than data monitoring or gadget fiddling. As it stands, the small black-on-gray multifunction LCD display isn't particularly clear, and the bar graph-style tachometer doesn't seem to be a big visual priority here. Incidentally, anti-lock braking can be switched off by scrolling through submenus on the instrument cluster, lending a certain element of functionality to the display.

The L-twin fires up with a hearty growl, and though the clutch pull is a tad heavy with a vague engagement point, the reward is a nice, strong tug of torque from low rpms and healthy grunt throughout the powerband, accompanied by the Desmodromic mill's evocative tonal accompaniment. There's a bit of snap to the throttle response, especially when rolling on the power at low rpms, but after initial tip-in, the engine feels alive and responsive. Interestingly, a Ducati project manager says the throttle was calibrated to feel milder than in the Monster application, so perhaps there's some fine-tuning to be done before the bikes reach our shores in March.

Throughout the day of riding, gearshifts revealed some false neutrals (not an uncommon phenomenon for the Bolognese brand), but the motor's lusty character tied into the relatively short gear ratios did make some amends for the missed shifts. My five-foot, eleven-inch frame felt a tad big for the bike, and the Icon model's saddle dip is positioned a bit forward for my body; on more than one occasion, I stretched out my rump and rested it on the passenger pad, a funny-looking feat that at least avoided dreaded end-of-the-ride soreness.

Our group's test ride spanned Highway 74, a winding ascension of switchbacks that connects the Palm Desert floor with the mile-high city of Idyllwild, nestled amidst the San Jacinto Mountains. The road revealed plenty of power from the L-twin combined with a relatively soft suspension setup, though the cold weather conditions (which stiffens suspension oils) added a bit of firmness over concrete pavement joints. Nonetheless, Scrambler's handling offered enough responsiveness to encourage confidence in high-speed corners.

A brief foray off the paved road onto moist dirt wasn't extensive enough for a serious off-road evaluation, though the bike's 410-pound weight felt a bit chubby for athletic maneuvering under low-grip conditions. Further proof this isn't a motocross bike in street clothing, the Pirelli rubber seemed less surefooted than you might hope for on the loose bits. Though the cushy suspension and generous travel encourage extra-civilization ventures, we'd need further seat time to test those capabilities. Dear Ducati...

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