Ducati’s Scrambler sub-brand has enjoyed outstanding commercial success since its market debut in December 2014. More than 34,000 have been sold since then and of the 55,451 bikes Ducati sold in 2016, around 30% of them Scramblers. So the addition of a sixth version was inevitable even if the new Scrambler Cafe Racer appears to be a contradiction in terms.
I mean, the guys at London’s Ace Cafe who invented the cafe racer in the 1950s looked down their noses at the dirt donks who rode scrambles. Tarmac ruled back then, and the idea of a cafe racer derived from a Scrambler was an oxymoron.
Ducati claims its new Cafe Racer is an extension of the Scrambler Classic, although with its Termignoni exhaust and neo-sporty character it seems more of an uprated version of the Full Throttle version. Either way it ties with the Desert Sled as the most costly entry in the Scrambler range, retailing at a pricey Euro 10,950 in Italy. The entry-level Icon is just Euro 8,650 and the Full Throttle version is Euro 10,150. It’s worth noting that the new Ducati Monster 797 with the same engine can be yours for just Euro 8,950.
Only available in a so-called Black Coffee tint, the Scrambler Café Racer’s black-and-gold livery is a clear throwback to the similarly painted bevel-drive 900SS V-twin café racer that Ducati produced for three short years in 1979-81. That being the case, the mounting of race plates bearing no. 54 on every single new Scrambler Cafe Racer is a further example of confused marketing. Ducati claims this is to reference the 350 desmo singles carrying that number with which works rider Bruno Spaggiari went racing in the 1966-69 era, during which the first 350 Scrambler single appeared in 1967. But that was a valve-spring design, whereas Spaggiari’s bikes – one of which I was honoured to own and race for a decade – was a desmo. So there was no real connection, and anyway this new Scrambler Café Racer is a V-twin, not a single. Hey guys, quit the Marketing 101 course and stop trying so hard with the retro references. Just give us a good bike!
Fortunately, that’s what Ducati has done in the Café Racer. The familiar 803cc 90º V-twin air/oil-cooled desmodue engine makes 75 bhp at 8,250 rpm and 50 lb-ft of torque at 7,750 rpm, just like the other Scramblers and that new Monster 797. It carries a single 50mm throttle-body for a more fluid power delivery, as well as camshafts designed to ensure a linear power curve. Some intelligent development by Ducati’s engineers means the output is the same as in the engine’s previous Euro 3 guise, even though it now achieves the more restrictive Euro 4 compliance. In doing so, they’ve also attended to the jerky pickup from a closed throttle in the bottom two gears on all Euro 3 Scramblers, which turned out not to be a mapping issue, but a mechanical one. Since all Scramblers still use a cable rather than RBW/ride-by-wire digital throttle, Ducati has addressed this by installing a linkage featuring two differential-radius wheels to operate the single throttle-body butterfly, so as to have the throttle opening slower to begin with, then faster, with separate post-butterfly injectors for each cylinder.
The 803cc engine’s entire intake package is contained within the airbox, which is itself wrapped within the specially-designed tubular steel trellis frame. The Scrambler Café Racer is very well laid out, resulting in an exceptionally slim motorcycle that feels pretty small and nimble-steering to ride. Except for revised steering geometry, the tubular steel frame is carried over from other Scrambler models. Whereas they all have a mixture of 18/19-inch front wheels as a gesture towards their off-road style, the Cafe Racer has tarmac-friendly 17-inchers at both ends in keeping with its sporty character. They’re shod with grippy Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tyres, a 120/70ZR17 at the front, and 180/55ZR17 at the rear. The smaller wheels make for a slightly shorter and sharper package than other Scramblers. However, it’s on the steering geometry that the difference is truly radical, with the non-adjustable 41mm Kayaba upside-down fork set at a mere 21.8º rake with just 93.9mm of trail, down from 24º and 112mm on the Icon.
Ducati has also stiffened up the suspension in keeping with the new model’s sporting pretensions. The Panigale-derived single 330mm semi-floating front dis has to work a little harder on the sportier Cafe Racer version, gripped by a radially mounted four-piston Brembo M4.32 Monoblock caliper, with switchable dual-channel Bosch 9.1 MP ABS. The rear monoshock is also by Kayaba, and is adjustable only for preload, but there’s a hefty 150mm of wheel travel at both ends. The Cafe Racer weighs in at 172kg dry (188kg with a full tank), two kilos more than the Icon, while at 805mm the dual seat is 15mm higher than before.
This means the riding position has also been changed somewhat, from the Icon’s more upright everyday posture to a more low-slung, sporting stance on the Café Racer. That’s not only due to the slightly taller seat, but via the pair of aluminium clip-ons, which in spite of their 60mm risers drop the grips a huge 175mm closer to the front wheel axle versus the Icon. They’re also a massive 155mm further forward, for a stretched-out stance that’s less Oxford Street, more North Circular Road (home of London’s Ace Café!). However, it’s not as uncomfortable to ride the Café Racer as I thought it would be after reading those stats. It’s much more rational than Ducati’s last desmodue café racers, the now-iconic but decidedly unwelcoming Sport Classics. Nevertheless, after 200km/125 miles of carving corners through the foothills of the Appennines southeast of Bologna on the way to the legendary Futa pass my shoulders were sore enough for me to conclude that Ducati needs to offer an optional set of taller clip-ons.
The steering geometry wasn’t nearly as tricky as I expected after seeing those radical numbers on the spec sheet. The setup does its job by making it pretty intuitive to flick the Café Racer from side to side through a series of sweeping turns. There’s no sense of instability as you crank it hard over to keep up turn speed. When you come to a series of tighter turns that’s when the geometry really comes into its own, with effortless turn-in that makes it easy to pick your chosen line very precisely. There’s zero propensity to fold the front wheel when entering a corner hard on the brakes, either.
Stopping hard downhill into a tight hairpin from high speed had me wondering if the Cafe Racer was underbraked with that single disc, but I realised that there’s quite a lot of engine braking left in by the settings of the APTC semi-slipper clutch. So it’s just a question of choosing your braking distances and sticking to them, safe in the knowledge that there’s enough stopping power to do the job. Front brake lever response was very constant, with a soft initial bite before coming on strong – exactly what you need for beginners and experts alike. Thanks to that, you can modulate the lever very easily, just to cram off a little excess speed in a turn without the bike sitting up on you and heading places you didn’t want to be.
In fact, this is just the kind of predictably sufficient and not overly snatchy braking that less experienced riders who are likely to be the Scrambler Café Racer’s main customers need to be given. It’s the same with the power delivery, which is friendly and pleasing – although without the RBW throttle, there’s no choice of riding modes, nor any electronic riding aids like TC. Pickup is now smoother from a closed throttle, although there’s a slight but noticeable lag between turning the throttle and the engine picking up revs. Before it was too abrupt, now it’s a little too laid back, though not enough to be a problem. Acceleration is relatively relaxed, and performance the sporty side of adequate, with no real need to rev it out to the 8,000 rpm mark where the red shifter light on the dash will start flashing to tell you to change gear. It’s quite punchy, but not excessively so – just nice to ride, with the 4,000-6,000rpm rev band the Café Racer’s favoured operating zone. You can hold fifth gear for miles on end along a winding road, just riding the broad waves of torque. The engine is forgiving enough that it pulls wide open in sixth gear from as low as 2,000 rpm with zero transmission snatch. 6,000 rpm equals 80mph/130kmh in sixth, and that’s the Cafe Racer’s comfortable cruising speed, with no undue vibration – it’s smooth but invigorating, as well as pretty quiet mechanically. The gearshift is super smooth and precise, definitely now Japanese quality.
There’s a nice little burble – albeit a muted one – from the black-painted Termignoni exhaust that’s shared with the Scrambler Full Throttle. Other carryovers from the rest of the Scrambler family include the round headlight that’s been lowered slightly. The teardrop-shaped 13.5-litre steel fuel tank’s aesthetics can be personalised by bolting on a different pair of interchangeable aluminium side panels. There are dozens to choose from in the extensive Scrambler aftermarket catalogue. The single fork-mounted round ‘clock’ comes with a full LCD digital display prominently showing your speed. There’s a hard-to-read tacho running around the bottom of the rim, and the time at the top. But there’s no gear selection indicator, and this just as much of a mistake as it was two years ago at launch. At the point that KTM includes this even on its 125 Duke, Ducati needs to get real and fit this on its entire Scrambler range. Plus there’s no fuel gauge, just a warning light, probably on grounds of cost, although many will feel that’s taking minimalism a step too far. There is a USB port under the seat, and neat new styling touches include the bar-end mirrors which work well, as does the surprisingly effective deflector screen topping the headlight. The taillight is LED, by the way, and so are the tiny direction signals.
In spite of its sporty character the Cafe Racer is good to ride in town, with its light clutch action and the big-hearted engine forgiving enough that you always find yourself in the right gear. The light steering makes short work of tight turns, yet it’s well-balanced enough to be confidence-inspiring for less experienced riders at slower speeds. It’s very neutral-steering, yet responsive without being nervous. Ride quality was excellent from the Kayaba rear shock in spite of no linkage. It handles bumps well and also dips in the road taken at speed, where I never felt it bottom out. The non-adjustable fork wasn’t quite as effective. While softly-sprung it wasn’t always totally compliant, but it gave enough feedback to make you feel safe.
This latest iteration of the Scrambler family is an affordable factory-fresh old-school café racer, a plausibly authentic reinterpretation of the Way It Was. It’s not really as sporty as its name suggests; if you want real performance, look elsewhere in Ducati’s lineup. The Cafe Racer is an easy to ride everyday bike with a sporting flair and cool looks, ideal for beginners and experts alike. Its most obvious rival is Triumph’s Street Cup, priced almost the same at Euro 10,800 in Italy, but the Harley-Davidson Street Rod at just Euro 8,700 is an awful lot of bike with comparable performance stats, for much less money. You can’t help get the feeling that Ducati under-priced the Scrambler family two years ago to gain a foothold in the market sector. Now with the steeper-priced Dirt Sled and Cafe Racer, it’s now seeking to make amends by attempting to raise its prices to a level it feels comfortable with in terms of profit margin. The question is, will customers buy that strategy? Is there a limit to how much people are prepared to pay for entry to the Land of Joy?