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- Written by Carole Nash Editor
- Created: 18 June 2008
A sports-tourer is often seen as a poor compromise for some bikers, whilst others reckon they offer the best blend of speed, handling and comfort money can buy. The Ducati ST4S is already regarded as one of the top class bikes in this sector - now it just got better...
With a grunty V-twin engine, lithe handling and outstanding Brembo brakes, the Duke is a bike that has much more sports than tourer in its genes.
That spells fun with a capital F, plus the ST4S is also one of the best looking motorcycles made in Italy.
After the first session riding Ducati’s new ST4S, I was more baffled than ever. Already I’d been puzzling at the nature of the Italian launch: rather than present us with a demanding farrago of road types - maybe a writhing mountain road followed by a blast of autostrada and ending up in some busy evening rush hour - as a way of presenting the latest sports-tourer in the sort of environment with which it might normally be faced, we were taken to a closed circuit proving ground where we were instructed to ride around a handling course pretty much like a small race track.
There was rationality of a sort in Ducati’s reasoning. The ST4S is identical to the ST2 and ST4 which have been around since 1997 and the end of 1998 respectively, aside from the new, more muscular power unit, the 996cc evolution of the 916cc eight-valve V-twin fitted first to the 916, then the ST4. Oh yes, and one other change which was overlooked by most of us when the bike was revealed for the first time in the autumn of last year was a suspension upgrade. Turns out we should have paid more attention...Whatever, the Italians reckoned we were already familiar with most of the bike’s abilities, such as its weather protection and comfort - I ran an ST2 for six months myself over one especially miserable winter when it proved enormously capable and comfortable - so on this presentation we’d be able to concentrate solely on the engine and suspension revisions. And we could so without the traditional Italian distractions of randomly driven Fiat 500s, young blades in rusting Alfas trying to race us down their favourite Tuscan back roads or 5-Series BMWs tailgating us at 150mph, six feet behind with headlights blazing. You think I’m exaggerating...
The circuit’s blend of corners and straights did indeed let us focus on exactly how the bike was behaving, which is where my second round of perplexity came in. The ST4S was handling considerably worse than the ST4 or ST2, both of which are fine tools for tackling twisty roads. Yet brake the ST4S while leaning over and the bike would stand up and try to go straight on, and an initial reluctance to turn in was followed by the front end tucking in too tightly.
The STs 2 and 4 don’t do that, so what was going on? Time to test the value of the suspension’s adjustability. At the front is a pair of high specification Japanese Showa forks with an expensive (and attractive) gold-coloured titanium nitride coating, used for its very low friction characteristics, while the back of the bike is supported by the most respected name in the business, Ohlins, whose single shock absorber on the ST4S includes the facility to alter the ride height as well as damping and spring preload.
Focusing on all this in a first ride might sound terribly esoteric, but it turned out to be very important, as twiddling the right knobs proved extraordinarily effective - the ST4S was transformed into a sharp and beautifully neutral handling machine.
I questioned Ducati’s chief development engineer Andrea Forni about this odd situation - if any bikes should be set up to perfection, surely it should these examples being presented to the European press in controlled conditions with a team of factory mechanics to look after them?
It turns out the engine is to blame, or more precisely, the huge performance with which it’s endowed the bike. As a sports tourer, Ducati has to allow for the fact the ST4S might find itself being caned down a German autobahn at 140mph, or maybe some remote Montana highway, loaded up with panniers and pillion while the rider decides to pick his nose just as the bike hits a particularly large and nasty pothole - the only trait that matters in these circumstances is stability, and (mostly for product liability reasons - remember, Americans own Ducati now...) the ST4S has to be set up for unflappability at speeds other sports tourers simply can’t manage, even at the expense of more regularly used regions of its handling portfolio.
To achieve this, the rear end had been lowered, altering the geometry at the front of the bike - our changes had raised the back again, improving ground clearance which had also become an issue on the circuit and reverting the front of the bike to its originally intended geometry.
Chances are, Ducati dealers will be obliged to set the bikes up according to the factory’s instructions, so before you even leave the showroom, set the rear ride height 14 turns of the remote hydraulic adjuster from the lowest setting and increase the spring preload by 5mm from its minimum. An increase in the front compression damping deals with over-eager front end dive under braking, and you now have yourself a machine which handles with sublime precision. Stability incidentally is still better than the ST2 or 4, thanks to the superior wheel control and reduction in unsprung mass (lighter five-spoke Brembo-Marchesini wheels are used) .
The fact that these adjustments have any effect at all is testament to the quality of the suspension, as on many machines it’s hard to detect any difference, and you’ll also discover this through the outstanding ride quality. The bike has great poise and control, and hunting out the few bumps on the course proved it deals with these dismissively.
All this talk of the fabulous suspension (once it was allowed to shine) is quite a surprise when the headline change to the machine is the bigger motor. It’s taken from the 996 supersports machine and had its exhaust camshafts lowered as on the ST4 to clear the frame rails. More importantly, revisions to the cam timing and fuel injection have increased both power and torque, the peak up 5bhp to 116bhp at 8750rpm with torque boosted to 72.3lb.ft at 7000rpm from the 996’s 68.7lb.ft.
There’s huge pull in the low and medium ranges where the other STs might be considered lacking, especially the ST4 whose torque curve is almost identical to the ST2’s up to around 5000rpm, where you’d hope it would be better. The ST4S corrects this convincingly, offering 60lb.ft at just 4000rpm, resulting in a serious punch in everyday riding with a claimed 161mph top speed in reserve, while the throttle response is crisp without being too sharp, a common fuel-injection blight.
The touring aspects we do indeed know well and approve of - as a long distance machine any ST Ducati is a fine companion, although the ST4S’s suspension makes it the most stable and comfortable of the three, while fuel economy, if slightly down on the ST4, can still stretch to 180 miles between refills.
Add to that the best sporting ability of any of the current sports-tourers and the exceptional durability of the finish I observed on my ST2 and you have here an even better version of a very fine sports tourer indeed.
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Engine V-twin, four stroke, liquid cooled
Claimed power (bhp) 117bhp
Compression ratio N/A
Chassis; Tubular trellis frame
Front forks; Showa USD 45mm, multi adjustable
Rear shock; Ohlins, multi adjustable
Brakes; Twin 320mm front discs, 4 piston Brembo calipers, single rear 245mm disc, 2 piston Brembo caliper
Wheels; 17 inch front and rear
Wheels; 17 inch front and rear
Top speed 150mph