It's never easy to reinvent an iconic model in your product lineup, especially one that underpins the entire profitability of your company. Just ask Porsche about the 911. Or BMW about the Boxer. Or better still, ask Ducati, which has already been through this before with the introduction of its dynamically superior but controversially styled 999. Not easy, is it?
The 999 experience probably explains why Ducati has hesitated for so long to refresh the Monster, the most crucial member in its family of models. Unveiled at the Milan Show last November and now entering production, the nuova Monster 696 is inevitably the same as, only different from, its 695 predecessor. That's a paradox reinforced after a day spent riding the new model during the recent Barcelona press launch based right next door to the Montjuc circuit, where Ducati V-twins scored so many legendary victories in the 24 Hours race held there.
Ducati's in-house designer Bartholomeus Janssen Groesbeek had a tight wire to walk in penning the born-again Monster styling for the 696. "We told him you must be able to spot that it's a Monster from 200 meters away," declares project leader Giulio Malagoli. "We knew the concept needed to be refreshed, but our overriding objective was to retain the spirit, the core appeal of the old one, while improving the dynamic riding experience. So it's still a streetfighter, still an urban warrior, but now it's become housetrained and just a little bit sexy."
The 88 x 57.2mm dimensions of the 695.8cc engine are unchanged, as are the crankcases and crankshaft, but the pistons are revised to deliver a higher 10.7:1 compression ratio, and the cylinder heads are all-new, incorporating the same improvements embodied in the bigger 1100cc desmodue motor powering the Hypermotard and Multistrada. These include a revised combustion chamber and bigger valves set at a flatter included angle, operated by new higher-lift camshafts that now run directly in the heads-saving crucial weight by eliminating the bearings used on the previous motor. And thanks to a new aluminum-casting technique, there are additional cooling fins on each cylinder and head even with an unchanged stroke. All this delivers an extra seven horsepower with output up to 80 horsepower at 9000 rpm and torque up 11 percent to 50.9 ft-lb at 7750 rpm, while weighing 2.2 pounds less than the old engine.
This revised engine is mounted in a new trellis frame that employs much larger-diameter 34mm steel tubing, the same as on the 1098R frame. A nonadjustable 43mm Showa inverted fork replaces the previous Marzocchi unit set at the same 24-degree rake with 102mm of trail, but the wheelbase has been extended slightly to 57 inches via an all-new cast-aluminum swingarm. A Sachs shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping is offset to the left in a cantilevered arrangement to provide space for the new exhaust system and its Euro 3 catalyst. Brakes and wheels on the new Monster are upgraded as well, with radial-mount calipers and twin 320mm Brembo front discs upsized from the 695's 300mm rotors, riding on three-spoke cast-aluminum Marchesini wheels.
Slinging a leg over the new bike reveals a different riding position that's more comfortable than before. You're sitting farther forward in the wheelbase without such a reach to the older model's flat handlebar, and although the fuel tank seems quite a bit bigger than before, it still allows your knees to tuck in tight. The tank is actually no more than a shroud; beneath it is the larger four-gallon fuel tank and ahead of this a larger 10-liter airbox. Intake slots on either side of the cover permit cool air inside, and between the airbox and fuel tank are the battery, coils, Siemens ECU, and assorted wiring, all of it tucked out of sight.
You still have to use a manual choke to start the engine cold; the ECU surprisingly doesn't have a cold-start program. The engine is much quieter than before, with less mechanical noise, and also extremely smooth-there are no balancer weights in the handlebar ends. This means the smartly designed mirrors don't vibrate; they look nice and work well. The good-looking digital dash is essentially the same one as fitted to the 1098R; however, adapting this MotoGP-derived dash to a simple bike like the Monster means you also get a host of functions ranging from a 99-lap chronometer down to a battery-condition monitor-but no fuel gauge, which is a strange misplacement of priorities. The headlamp is the most distinctive element of the new bike's updated styling, with a strip riding light bisecting it in half, leaving the upper section for low beam and the lower for high beam.
The clean-shifting gearbox has the same ratios as the 695, meaning it has Ducati's traditional very tall top gear that you end up rarely using except on the freeway. Third gear is a faithful friend for the engine's broad spread of power and extra hit of midrange torque most of the time in the canyons. The engine pulls pretty well from 3500 rpm onwards, but pickup from a closed throttle is a little abrupt, though not as bad on some other bikes. There's some transmission snatch until 5000 rpm, when everything smooths out. The Monster 696's sweet spot is between 5000 and 9000 rpm, but even if you hold a gear and hit the 9500-rpm rev limiter accidentally, there's no warning you're about to do so.
The slightly peakier engine tuning caused me to use the clutch quite a bit riding through city traffic, and its light action-especially by Ducati standards-meant my hand didn't cramp up. However, it needs little more than a brush of the lever with your fingers to work it; all the actuation is concentrated in a small range at the end of the lever travel. But the desmodue engine is extremely clean in its pickup off the line and midrange roll-ons.
The Monster 696's handling is likewise a step up from before. You have more confidence in maintaining turn speed on the new bike, even if the old-generation Bridgestone BT-56 rubber puts a damper on that increased speed. Too bad, because the new high-rise exhaust delivers a considerable amount of extra ground clearance compared with the old one. The 696 easily lets you make corrections midturn, and the slim 160/60 rear tire surely helps in speeding up the steering of what is already a pretty light bike scaling in at a claimed 356 pounds dry-more than 15 pounds less than the 695. You feel it in the way it flicks so easily from side to side, and this would be another factor in the stellar braking performance, too.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is the ride quality and the suspension compliance of the new 696. Where the previous 695 would come undone over any pavement irregularities, the 696 works brilliantly, eating up bumps without breaking a sweat. The steep mounting angle of the Sachs shock helps in this regard by giving a more progressive action. The 696 suspension seems slightly stiffer at both ends than on the 695, delivering tauter handling but not at the expense of overall performance; the new Monster is ultraprecise on turn-in and holds a line well even if you brake midcorner. It's a very forgiving, friendly bike to ride. -Alan Cathcart
Ducati Monster 696
Type: Liquid-Cooled, 4-Stroke, Sohc, L-Twin
Bore x stroke: 8ens EFI, 45mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.
Front tire: 120/60ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-56
Rear tire: 160/60ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-56
Rake/trail: 24 deg./4.7 in. (120mm)
Wheelbase: 57.1 in. (1450mm)
Claimed dry weight: 355 lb. (161kg)
Seat height: 30.3 in. (770mm)
Fuel capacity: 3.8 gal. (15L)