Picture a 500-pound Swiss-army knife with two wheels, dual-sport styling, a
torquey twin-cylinder engine, a weather-beating fairing, off-road-capable tires
and a hefty dose of ground clearance. If the recipe sounds similar to BMW's
R100GS Paris-Dakar machine, surely Ducati intended it that way when it cooked up
the new E-900.
Run across trackless African wasteland, the Paris-Dakar rally has spawned
more motorcycles than any other event, save perhaps Daytona. BMW appropriated
the name first for its mammoth GS desert sled, but Honda's 750cc Africa Twin,
Yamaha's 750 Super Tenere and Cagiva's Elefant (renamed the Ducati E-900 for the
States) are all production-spec copies of works Paris-Dakar rally bikes. In the
U.S., those bikes attempted to bridge the gap between dirt and street; in
Europe, street riders love them and never get them dirty.
The E-900's bodywork looks like a Honda NX250 on steroids, but inside beats
the familiar heart of the Ducati 900SS. The beast is fed by a matched pair of
38mm Mikunis. An open-loop catalytic converter, the first on any Ducati, lives
inside the cavernous upswept muffler. The 493-pound brute wears a 19-inch wheel
and carries twin Brembo discs on its brand-new inverted Showa fork. An
enormous-looking plastic tank (appearances can be deceptive; the Duck holds only
5.3 gallons of fuel) envelops the rear cylinder of the 90-degree V-twin engine,
and a mammoth aluminum bash plate covers most of the bottom end, leaving only
the front cylinder poking out into the airstream. The E-900 rider is lifted high
above traffic and protected from the elements by the twin-headlamp fairing.
The seat rests a tall 34 inches above terra firma. Climbing on almost
requires a footstool, but once aboard, the massive bulk of the bike diminishes
and even smaller riders feel in command, although riders less than 5 feet 8
inches might not find the ground too easily since the rear suspension sags less
than an inch with a 150-pound rider on board. The starting ritual is complicated
by the petcock position at the very bottom pf the huge tank, which demands a
long reach and some fiddling to open, and an on-off choke lever behind the right
thigh. Starting is immediate, hot or cold, and the choke can be quickly
Opening the throttle is rewarded with steamship-size torque and enough
seamless power to make the E bike an E-ticket ride on city streets. Send the
full-speed-ahead signal, and the rustling cacophony down below immediately
assumes a purposeful tone, followed by a strong kick in the pants. The primeval
grunt of the Duck starts at around 3000 rpm, and the power builds up to a peak
around 7000. In first gear, the E-900 feels capable of leaping houses in a
The six gear ratios—overkill for a motorcycle with this broad a spread of
torque—are well suited to the open road, though interstate cruising speeds
coincide with a band of vibration at around 4500 rpm in top gear, or an
indicated 70 mph.
The longest inverted fork in the world—exactly three feet long—keeps the
E-900's 19-inch wheel well clear of the front cylinder and helps its on-road
manners. The firmly damped fork gives the front a more stable feel than previous
Elefants and allows fast going on all types of road with a suppleness lacking
from any previous Ducati. The price of this comfort is a slight vagueness at
high speed that turns into a gentle wallow in fast corners, though at lower
speeds the E bike steers precisely. The strong fork and long wheelbase guarantee
stability through turns at the expense of quick transitions. However, large
bumps in the middle of a curve upset the front wheel enough to send it heading
for the hills.
Dual fixed Brembo discs replace the old Elefant's single floating stopper.
This change coupled with the increased rigidity of the Showa fork turn the front
brakes into superb stoppers, though some testers commented on the mushy feel of
the front lever and wished for a more clearly defined engagement point. The rear
brake's master cylinder is mounted on the frame's front downtube, and the brake
lever works backWard. We just wish it worked better. The single caliper isn't
well matched to the compound or the disc, and the rear brake is insensitive and
wooden, a fault on any motorcycle with off-road pretensions.
Leap Tall Buildings
Ground clearance is prodigious enough for even the most spirited street
riding. Back roads and city streets are the E-900's forte.
There can't be many riders unreasonable enough to expect such a heavy bike to
excel off road in the rough stuff, and sure enough, it doesn't. Whoops or a
succession of rough surfaces get the E bike totally out of shape. Stamped out of
lightweight Vie-inch aluminum plate, the bash plate bends at the mere sight of a
rock. One blunder over a small boulder on a stream crossing was enough to bend
the bash plate dangerously close to the sump, dinging the exhaust pipe in the
process. Riding the Elefant off road instills a great respect for Paris-Dakar
The plastic of thelank and fairing tend to amplify noise, and the worst
rattle comes from the clutch in neutral. It concerned us enough to call a dealer
about it. It turns out that the newest clutch parts are designed to eliminate
the grinding crunch that has plagued Ducatis during clutch slip for years. Sure
enough the clutch didn't grab or grind at all during testing, a first for a
Ducati. Gear changing was complicated by a neutral light that flashed unreliably
and refused to stay lit when the gearbox actually was in neutral.
At freeway-cruising speeds, vibration soon becomes a pain in the der-riere.
The 900 motor has 10mm-big-ger pistons than the original (and quite smooth)
650cc Elefant of seven years ago. Those bigger pistons are harder to balance,
and the lack of a front engine mount magnifies the vi-bra-massage. Although the
front cylinder head is drilled and tapped for a motor-mount bolt, the new E-900
lacks the bracketry; instead, the engine is hung from two through-bolts at the
rear and two tire-lever-like brackets descending between the cylinders. The
antivibration weights and soft rubber grips help to dampen handlebar shake, but
vibration is apparent through the footpegs and seat, and the bar-mounted mirrors
blur above 55 mph. No rider could ride the E-900 as far as a BMW Paris-Dakar;
the E doesn't approach the BMW's fuel range or comfort zone. Apart from the
butt-numbing vibration, the most glaring deficiency is in luggage space. BMW
offers enough storage in its excellent panniers for a transcontinental tour,
while the E-900's luggage space is limited to a token luggage carrier and a
tiny, lock-able nonweatherproof fairing pocket in the left side panel. It's just
big enough to hold a sandwich. The front fender also disgraces itself by
directing a stream of debris in the general direction of the engine when the
going gets sloppy.
Bold No More
The last Elefant we rode—the 900 I.E. European version—was painted in the
bold colors of the Lucky Strike Desert Explorer team. This year, the E-900's
sedate graphics don't match the desert-racer image of Danny La Porte bouncing
through the Sahara's trackless wastes, and the gold pinstripes that were already
peeling aren't impressive on a $9000 machine. However, our bike was- a
preproduction version with European light switches and kilometer-marked
speedometer; production versions should have more stable graphics.
Even painted in primer, the E-900 would still stand out, and it attracts
crowds everywhere. Everyone asks, "What is it?" It's easier to say what the
E-900 isn't. Though this monster looks like the biggest landcruiser around, it
sure ain't a dirt bike. Consider it a two-wheeled Italian version of those shiny
sport-utility four-wheelers clogging up the parking lot down at the mall. Let me
put it this way: If you'd like a Jeep Cherokee, you'd love this Ducati.