In complete contrast to the open-class shootout on page 28, this time around we're focusing on the bikes that newbies looking to graduate to the big leagues should start on. We picked three bikes that are new for 2009-the Kawasaki ER-6n, Suzuki Gladius, and Yamaha FZ6R-and a fourth-the Ducati Monster 696-that was introduced last year but still deserves a spot on this list to break up the Japanese monotony. What makes these bikes ideal for beginners? For starters, they're (relatively) cheap, make manageable power that isn't intimidating, and have low seat heights. Of course style is an important factor for a new rider, but seeing as that's a personal preference we won't touch on that much. Some will say that we're forgetting perhaps the most influential bike of all for new riders-the Kawasaki Ninja 250. We didn't forget about it (we actually think quite highly of it) but these four motorcycles are scoots that will suit the new rider as they learn the ropes and have enough performance potential to grow with them as their skills improve. Now in a bit of an unconventional twist we're going to spoil the story up front: there are no "winners" or "losers" in this test. All four bikes will suit the new and/or inexperienced rider great, only each goes about doing so in slightly different ways. In the next few pages we'll profile each bike (in alphabetical order), highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and reveal who we think each bike is best suited for. Sound good? Then turn the page and let's begin.
Ducati Monster 696
Ducati Monster 696
As the most expensive bike in this quartet at $8995, the Ducati Monster 696 charges a high admission to the two-wheeled party. What you get in return is a motorcycle with unmistakable Ducati character with enough performance potential to please the rookie or veteran alike. As the name suggests, the little Monster is powered by a 696cc air-cooled V-Twin with two valves per cylinder, actuated by Ducati's trademark Desmodromic design. If none of that makes any sense to you then here's what you need to know: this engine makes some serious steam. Nothing crazy, but enough to keep you satisfied for a while. Torque is what V-twins are known for and the 696 produces plenty of it-launching out of corners (or squirming between cars and city traffic) is as simple as twisting the right wrist ever so slightly. We found that the engine is a little sluggish at really low rpm, but get it spinning past 3000 and the powerband lasts almost until redline.
Bringing all that action to a halt are the best brakes in the bunch (and for this price they better be). Dual 320mm rotors are mated to two radially-mounted calipers, each with four pistons. Each caliper is also fed fluid via steel-braided brake lines-standard. You won't even find that on the literbikes in this issue (except, well, the Ducati 1198). As such, the Monster has the most braking power, but lacks modulation. We also found it odd that neither the brake nor clutch levers are adjustable; a feature the other three bikes share.
Clearly the best performer...
Clearly the best performer in the bunch when the roads get tight, the little Monster benefits from inverted forks and a preload/rebound adjustable rear shock. Having a 40-pound weight advantage doesn't hurt, either.
Our testers were split on...
Our testers were split on the comfort and effectiveness of the wide handlebars with not much bend. Gauge cluster and mirrors are both hard to see at speed.
Seat height is a mere 30.3 inches off the ground, so unless you were cursed with abnormally short legs flat-footing shouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, once on the bike many testers felt like the seating position shoved the rider forward into the gas tank at an uncomfortable angle-something male readers in particular might want to be aware of. Thankfully the handlebars are at a higher angle than previous Monsters, relieving some strain from the wrists and lower back, though the crew was still split about the comfort and leverage provided by the wide, flat handlebars. Some felt it cumbersome while others didn't mind.
There's another reason the 696 costs more than the rest: suspension. The 43mm inverted Showa fork in front and Sachs rear shock out back are mated well to each other and damp road imperfections without the dreaded "po-go" effect usually associated with bikes in this price range. Negotiating the twisty stuff is where this Monster comes alive, but again, you'd expect as much from the one that costs almost $2000 more than the next closest machine. With that said, we were simply floored when a reflector on the fork leg, held on by what seemed to be double-sided tape, just fell off the bike. Ultimately it's up to you to decide whether the price of admission is worth it. In his notes, Mikolas said it best, "The 696 is like a high-end knife-style coupled with a very capable and focused destination...I just wish I had the cash."