(Image Credits: Ducati)

Saddling up on a machine called “Monster” from a company known for building ferociously fast motorcycles might seem intimidating, but the 2018 Ducati Monster 821 is really pretty placid. It might not be a track day choice, but the usability of its power make it a damn fine daily rider.

Ducati launched five new models in 2017—including the wildly-anticipated four-cylinder Panigale V4 superbike—and the face-lifted middle-weight Monster running the same engine it already might make it seem a lot less exciting by comparison. But as cool as banzai superbikes are, Monsters and Scramblers outsell the Panigale by miles. If you are one of the many in the market for a practical commuter bike with a bit of style and enough oats to keep you entertained, this might be the moto for you.

(Full Disclosure: Ducati was so keen on having me ogle this motorcycle that the company had me flown to Italy, fed, and housed in a 5-star hotel on the Adriatic coast.)

What is it?

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The Monster 821 is true to what the Ducati Monster’s always been, for the most part: a sweet-looking naked semi-upright sport bike.

The latest iteration of the Monster isn’t a massive departure from the outgoing machine, with the most noticeable changes being the adoption of the 2017 Monster 1200’s crisp-looking retro gas tank and svelte tail section, both of which are directly inspired by the original Monster.

The engine is the same 821 cc 90-degree twin that’s been in the 821 since its launch in 2014. New engine management software smooths the power delivery at low revs, but the 109 horsepower peak and the 63 lb-ft of torque remain unchanged. The die-cast wheels, Kayaba forks, and Sachs shock are all the same, too.

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The new fuel tank is more muscular (and down one-quarter gallon to 4.3 gallons), the now-upswept tail is stubbier and looks lighter, and the turn signals no longer hang clumsily off the sides of the round headlight. The incommodious passenger foot pegs of the old bike have been redesigned. The new bike also gets a full-color TFT display with a fuel gauge and gear-indicator, all three of which the outgoing model lacked. Also new is an optional quickshifter that allows clutchless upshifts and downshifts, though the test bikes we rode weren’t equipped with them.

Ducati thinks the 821 could be the first big bike for a new rider trading up from a 250 or 300, or the choice for an experienced rider who doesn’t want something completely over the top for regular riding. The 821’s 109 HP will utterly thrill anyone who is upgrading from a smaller bike. Veteran motorcyclists will find the output modest, or as a marketing guru might say instead, “manageable.”

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Why The Monster Matters

In 1992 designer Miguel Galluzzi hung the already legendary 900 cc Pantah engine off the trellis frame of the revered 888 Superbike. But instead of saddling the thing with the rad slab-sided fairings that were so popular in the ’90s, this Frankenstein bike—appropriately called Monster—would be naked. The only red bit was a sensuous gas tank fab’d up specifically for the concept bike.

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After sticking on a Laverda headlight and a handlebar, Ducati had a machine that blew motorcyclists’ minds when it showed up at the ’92 Cologne Motorcycle Show. Famously, even people who’d never otherwise noticed a motorcycle fell in love with its airy lines. In the late ’90s, the Monster would become the top-selling motorcycle in Italy. To date, Ducati has sold more than 320,000 examples of this iconic bike.

Over the last twenty years, the Monster has been reimagined by Ducati several times—eventually gaining a water-cooled motor and a reasonably advanced electronics package. Recent Monsters may have been faster, safer, and less-polluting than the ’90s versions, but lost a bit of the original bike’s intoxicating desirability as the machines have strayed from their taught, freakish minimalism.

The spirit of the original Monster is certainly still alive here. It’s just a lot more mature and risk-averse.

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The Ride

Our ride started with an early morning crawl through Rimini, and the 821’s clutch had a light, smooth action with no grabbiness. It’s amazing how Ducati has managed to make its rambunctious twins so smooth—apparently, the engine management software has been updated to make it more tractable down low.

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The engine has plenty of torque, but it’s happy to spin all the way to redline. Though you can feel the classic Ducati V-twin pulse, it’s not a high-strung race motor; I’d be happy to ride this bike every day.

Escaping town, we headed into the high country blasting from corner to corner all morning and afternoon. The roads mountain roads were riddled with ripples, bumps, and craggy longitudinal tears. A dozen times, I came over a crest or through a bend only to find that the surface had completely degenerated.

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The 821’s forks are not adjustable but they never bottomed out, even with big hits, and never felt overwhelmed. Some other test pilots complained that the powerful brakes were too grabby; others thought that there wasn’t enough initial bite. My hands were freezing the whole morning, to the point of having limited dexterity, but the time they were warmed up, I was used to the brakes. Of note is the adjustability of the front brake lever: even an NBA player could find a comfortable setting on this.

Adjustable Seat: Great... In Theory

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The seat height can be adjusted too, from 31.9 inches to 30.9 inches. In order to toggle the height, you pop the seat off using the key, remove (or add) four plastic spacers, and move a white peg near the front of the tank up or down. The whole operation takes less than a minute and in theory, this functionality should add a lot of rider-flexibility to this bike.

But while the seat adjustment system is a welcome addition, I am rather less enamored with the curve of the seat itself. Though the Ducati folks swore it offered multiple positions, I only found two. The obvious normal riding position would roll me somewhat uncomfortably into the tank; the only other option was a full tuck, with my butt perched on the vertical rear portion of the seat and my torso hugging the tank. Neither seemed optimal for longer rides.

Character Doesn’t Match Design

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Though the first Monster looked like nothing else in Ducati’s lineup, it had the same sumptuous finishes as the 916, rattled and thrummed like the Pantah, and had the same abysmal turning radius and aggressive geometry as the 888. This new bike’s wet clutch, Euro 4-compliant exhaust and sensible riding position means it is both less aurally exciting and less emotive to ride than the older bikes.

The Monster 821’s electronic safety systems are always ready to protect you. Always. It was impossible to disable the anti-lock braking system, even on the rear wheel. I think it had to do with European safety regulations. While your parents/lover/future self might be happy that you can’t disable the ABS—even on the back wheel—permanent ABS seems less “Monster” and more “nanny state.” You can disable the traction control, not that most riders would really need it at this bike’s power level anyway.

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To keep nitpicking, the molded Ducati logo in the headlight is a bit naff. There’s a little shield that protects a sensor on the underside of the exhaust just under the rear brake lever. It’s the first thing to scrape in aggressive right-hand corners, and it’s unnerving that something touches before the foot peg.

As a package, it’s quick and accessible, but it doesn’t feel quite as virile as some of its competitors.

Verdict

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Ducatis are sophisticated in a way that only BMWs and Triumphs can hope to match. Even among Ducati’s models, the Monster’s style is unassailable, and the latest revisions mean it’s among the best-looking, uh, “sport retro naked” bikes, right up there with the Thruxton and R nineT.

The new 821 is the old 821 in new colors and with several trickle-down upgrades from its bigger brother the 1200. It’s clean looking and fun, but won’t leave many riders shaking and stammering, stuck somewhere between heart-stopping fear and breathless excitement.

If you want a wild ride, get a Yamaha MT-09 or a KTM 790 Duke. If you’re a hipster, consider a Triumph Thruxton. If you want to blend in with the stylish crowd and have a quick bike that’s a big step up from your Honda 250 or SV650, this is a fine choice.