This is not a comparison. A face-off might seem inevitable – the Ducati Multistrada and BMW R 1200 GS are two European 1200cc twins – but they’re as different as the countries they come from. Across the globe, the Multistrada is the newcomer and aims to challenge the R 1200 GS’s reign as supreme enduro, and does a pretty good job of it. The Beemer, by contrast, has been around for 30 years and has come to define the adventure-touring segment, and is the largest-selling bike in its class everywhere, including in Ducati’s home country, Italy. To me, a choice between either of these motorcycles will be similar to asking me to choose between either of my hands. I know one is more dexterous than the other, but do you think I’d give up the other one? Exactly, and I’m sure you feel the same too.
Speaking of sacrificing limbs, that’s exactly what the sight of these two parked together makes you want to do. You look at these gawky giants with a mix of trepidation (at the size) and elation (at the sheer spectacle!). The enduro proportions endow both machines with enough presence to fill a cinema hall on their own. But that’s where the similarity runs into a brick wall.
If ever there was a study of cultural characteristics infused onto two wheels, this is it – the Multistrada is a flashy Italian, the BMW is a sombre German. Oh, the absolute contrast of the whole thing is sheer poetry, and you can’t help but stare at them in silence. In every way you can think of, they’re as opposite as north and south – it’s the Ducati’s longitudinal twin against the Beemer’s lateral twin; one has spoked wheels, the other flaunts cast ones; both have single sided swingarms, but on opposite sides; ditto the 2-into-1 exhausts for both. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re so different that makes them look so good together, eh? Against a grey sky, the difference is all the more apparent. Looking at the Beemer gives you the feeling of imminent war, while the Ducati appears brighter and more cheerful than usual.
However, as different as they are, I still can’t decide which one scares me more. Standing as close to them as I dare, I see that they’d rather drop jaws with upper cuts than by gorgeous looks. Both feature curiously avian faces – the BMW is the legendary startled duck, while the Multistrada is an alien bird; just look at those nostrils and tell me you think otherwise. However, their purpose-driven designs do give them loads of appeal for serious motorcyclists. The aim is to inspire awe and make the rider seem like a warrior on his invincible chariot.
In that sense, I suppose the BMW does a better job – it looks like something Genghis Khan would ride. The tall, adjustable windscreen looks more like war-time headgear. The squinting-eye headlamp looks like a shiner, the result of a violent fight. And the GS is at peace with its battle-ready looks; it exudes a calm ‘what the hell you lookin’ at’ charm. Full of mechanical shapes and industrial edges, it seems entirely plausible that an axe or two will be standard accessories for the GS, along with metal panniers – good for keeping away nosy strangers on long rides.
While the GS is something you’d expect from BMW, the Ducati reminds me (for the life of me, I cannot figure out why) of Michael Jackson in Thriller – perhaps it’s the red/ black clothes and the nose (may God rest his soul). What’s more, the Ducati dances almost as well as the legend too, but more on that later. Where the GS looks like a steam locomotive on two wheels, the Multistrada comes across as a sportsbike wearing high heels. Since it’s an Italian, there’s no way detailing flair can be left out of the equation.
The curves and slashes on the bodywork look as sporty as any other Ducati, while the sportsbike-spec suspension, wheels and brakes add their bit to the sophisticated demeanour. I don’t particularly like the laser-gun exhausts, but I can’t deny that even those are superbly finished. If you want to stop at every nightclub as you ride to that other continent, the Multistrada will get you noticed and then some – the girls will flock to this one for sure. As far as the looks go, I think it’s safe to say that neither scores over the other – the Multistrada’s style stalemates the GS’s brooding demeanour. But beauty, as they say, is more than skin deep.
Come throttle time, and the two exchange personalities. No, really. You expect the Beemer to be the brute, while the Multistrada seems to be a goody-two-shoes. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the Multistrada that’s the hell-raising hooligan, while the GS is as calm as a wise old monk. The Multistrada really is a race bike on stilts – I should’ve seen it coming, actually. What else could you expect from a bike that shares it heart with the powerhouse 1198 and the insane Streetfighter? The numbers favour the Multistrada: the 1198.4cc motor pumps out 150 bhp@9250 rpm and 12.10 kgm@7500 rpm. That’s a whole 40 bhp more than the GS! And as you can tell, it simply runs away from the Beemer. But it’s the experience they offer that makes each one special.
The Multistrada, Ducati claims, is ‘four bikes in one’, referring to its four ignition maps – Sport, Touring, Urban and Enduro. It also comes with the excellent Ducati Traction Control (DTC) system, which keep the rear tyre grip from abandoning ship. Everything is adjustable on the go, while the higher-spec ‘Sport’ and ‘Touring’ models even get electronically adjustable suspension, something that’s present on our GS test bike. One point, though – if it is actually four bikes in one, why do they sell ‘Touring’ and ‘Sport’ versions? But I forgot to come up with a stupid question once I rode the Multistrada.
Around town, the Multi is as adept as any other motorcycle I can think of, not unwieldy as I’d wrongly expected it to be. Throttle response is... interesting around town. It doesn’t really like on-off throttle inputs, though at any constant speed there’s no snatch at all. It is content to burble around town, but it’s clear where its inclinations lie.
The Multistrada, like all Ducatis, makes more sense when you rev the hell out of it. Then, it sings and how! Every time I got frisky with the throttle, I thought I was back on the Streetfighter – a taller ‘Fighter with a screen in my face – as adrenaline tsunamis assaulted my brain. The Multistrada goes berserk after the 5000-6000 rpm band and keeps the tarmac begging for mercy as it hits 100 kph in 3.2 seconds, and the way it blows through the double-tonne mark is worthy of the Testastretta name. What’s more, sitting on the Multistrada feels just right, with a wide reach to the ‘bars and a comfortable position that will take you far. Shattering performance without the associated backache – almost too good to be true!
An enduro with a race-bike heart, and that’s a really unusual combination. You’d expect it to feel weird and wrong, but it doesn’t. That feeling continues when you encounter a corner too. I wouldn’t put it past the Multistrada to give a rider ample knee-down opportunities, something that I’d like to avoid on the GS. Ride quality with standard suspension settings isn’t all that great, though fine-tuning it would probably result in better compliance.
Also, the engine maps make a world of difference to the Multistrada’s response in various situations. While we were splashing around in field of muck, I found that Urban and Enduro modes cut down the power to manageable levels, allowing the Ducati to rumble over and through everything in its path. Although its ground clearance is not as great as the BMW’s, it did all that I asked of it and came through with shining...um, muddy colours. It’s an enduro, yes, but one that prefers tarmac to the trails.
The GS is the Range Rover of motorcycles – and that’s a compliment for the Rangie. The GS is so good, it’s hard to believe it’s man-made. The ever-popular boxer twin displaces 1170cc and develops 110 bhp@7750 rpm and 12.23 kgm@6000 rpm. Despite being 14 kg heavier than the Multistrada, it remains on the Ducati’s shapely tail, hitting 0-100 kph in 3.4 seconds, steamrolling its way to a top speed of 220 kph. However, just like the Ducati, numbers don’t do this one justice.
The moment you start rolling on the GS, you are immediately at peace. That motor is so smooth, especially after getting off the Ducati, it’s unbelievable. On the GS, you sit more ‘on’ the bike than the Ducati, but I found the GS more roomy than the Ducati and a bit more comfortable, but I’m just splitting hairs here. As you can tell, the Beemer makes its power pretty low down in the rev range and all that torque makes the GS a quick mothership off the blocks. Even popping wheelies is easier on the GS than on the Multistrada, at least on wet roads – the Ducati’s traction control cuts in rather violently as soon it senses even the slightest bit of wheel slip as I dump the clutch on a wet road. No such thing with the GS.
The GS too comes with its share of electronic wizardry, namely Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) and Automatic Stability Control (ASC). Now I’d be lying if I said I reached the limits of the stability systems on both motorcycles – I don’t have the guts to push these hulks on wet roads, especially since I don’t own them. But ABS worked fine on both, and the ESA worked brilliantly on the GS. The Hard, Soft and Normal options allow for a wide range of suspension settings for the Telelever front and Paralever rear. What I found most baffling was that even in Hard, I didn’t feel a thing on the worst of bumps, while Soft can be likened to riding a cloud with an angel for company. Serene.
And all that compliance doesn’t come at the cost of high-speed stability, though the Multistrada is miles ahead of the GS in this respect. But land speed records aren’t what the GS is made for. Even if I had no prior idea about this motorcycle, I’d know that it will go around the world without missing a beat, and that’s one hell of an achievement by BMW.
However, there is a catch, as there always is. In this case, it’s in our muscles – riding these towering trailies through every conceivable kind of terrain has battered our bodies. Ruman, in particular, valiantly held up the GS twice as it tried to lie down for a bit, and the result is that both his legs are permanently bent out of shape. The mere thought of it still gives me phantom aches. Another downside is the massive amount of heat generated by those powerplants. The Ducati’s inside cylinder finds itself rather unfortunately under the rider’s ...er, seating area, so crawling around town will result in rump roast. The BMW prefers another body part and taller people will find their shins cooked at low speeds. No problems on either when you’re above 40 kph, though.
Finally, what do I say about these two motorcycles, except that I want both? The Multistrada’s sold its soul to the rev-devil, while the GS worships momentum above all else. The Duc’s got the drama, the Beemer’s got the zen. The Multi is a true Ducati, the GS is a legend. The Italian’s won the Pikes Peak challenge last month, the German’s the king of
Dakar. A few years later, the Ducati will become the legend that the GS is today, but who’s to choose between desmo whine and torque sway? It’s not about better or worse here, just different ways of doing the same thing – having fun while you chase an endless, unreachable horizon. And thanks to these two, I’ve realised that a comparison is best when it isn’t one.