In the tunnel a mid-90’s blue Cavalier pulls along side. Glancing to the right, through the glass, I see the driver mouthing the words, “Is that the new Monster?” I nod. He gives me a thumbs up, and with a roll on of the throttle the tunnel fills with the 2009 Monster 696’s twin under-seat exhaust barking their departure.
Think Ducati and what leaps to mind? The MotoGP and the Desmosedici, World SuperBike and the 1098R, or the “small company with a big racing habit” marketing shtick? We’re not privy to Ducati’s bookkeeping, but it’s easy to see that driving all that is one bike – the Monster.
Since the 1993 introduction of the Monster 900 over 200,000 Monsters have been sold worldwide, thanks to a definitive naked bike blend of urban style, passion, and performance. So the 2009 Monster 696 is a big deal.
This is a glimpse of Monster future, one that must carry urbanista grabbing Gucci style, Ducatista arresting performance, and enough improvements to besot consumers afresh. In short is has to be as groundbreaking as the original Monster, without the benefit of “carving” its own niche.
A hunk of gorgeous Italian swank folded into diminutive portions, the new Monster leaves the 695 looking Wal-Mart dowdy. No matter where we parked it moto-jealousy ignited amongst riders and non-riders alike, as the 696 runs the fine line between a ten year-old’s internalized rage and a designer’s dream Monster concept.
There’s no mistaking this new bike – it is a Monster. Best brace yourselves for another round of “Ducati Porn” magazine advertisements, featuring men and women lasciviously draped across their 696s.
Yes, the headlight is reminiscent of the MV Brutale and the exhaust recalls the Yamaha MT-01, but strangely those touches don’t seem derivative – because it’s still a bike and you can only stray so far. The 696 makes up for this by making its competition look as appealing as prison dentistry.
There are details everywhere. The “gas tank’s” lines flow into the seating suggesting a racing stripe, except it’s not really a tank. It’s cladding for the fuel cell and airbox, bejeweled with inset intake ports covered over with silver-hued mesh. Taking a page from the Book of MINI’s endless list of customization and delivering a deathblow to fashionista wallets, the cladding is easily changeable.
It’s not form over function though, all the proper bits are here. There’s an entirely new chassis. The trellis frame, sculpted from the same larger-diametered tubing as the 1098R’s, is artistically displayed, and flows into the cast-aluminum sub-frame. That’s tied to the double-swingarm via the engine, which remains a stressed member.
And what an engine it is. Freer revving, charging, soulful, friendly at the low end, and fierce at the top the new L-Twin only displaces 1cc more than its predecessor.
Improvement must have been forced into that 1cc with the density of a neutron star. There’s a 9% jump in horsepower and an 11% bump in torque, thanks largely to new cylinder heads similar to those found on the Hypermotard and Multistrada. Maximum 80hp comes in at high 9000RPM and 50.6lb-ft. peak torque at 7750RPM, compared to the 696’s forerunner whose peak figures occurred at 8500 and 6750 respectively.
By 3,000 RPM you’re into usable power, but the gearing feels tall off the line. To slip by Euro 3 emission regulations, the 696 comes with a 15 tooth gearbox sprocket. The first stop for any new Monster 696owner will be the local dealer for a 14 tooth cog to improve around town usability.
That will drop the top speed, but naked bikes are more about ripping up to speed than hitting a theoretical maximum. Downright snarfy with torque and fruit-fly light, the 696 subscribes to this philosophy with a wanton disrespect for the posted limits.
Stock, the Monster starts showing its claws by 4000RPM. So be ready to drop a gear for aggressive passing.
6000RPM arrives with a brassy intake honk that could rattle La Scala. The tach sweeps upwards smooth and swift to 8500 delivering acceleration that belies the spec sheets staid stats. The roll on is spinny, zingy, helmet chortling fun, thanks in part to a dry weight of 161Kg / 355lbs (excluding battery and fluids).
9000RPM slips you past the power, while three LEDs over the digital gauge flash briefly signaling the impending rev limiter a 1000RPM later. Executing a tidy clutchless up-shifts, the Monster kisses the far side of fast uphill before I roll off the throttle.
Equipped to take on the world, the 696 loudly announces uptake of the challenge. How the 696’s desmo-cacophony snuck through noise emissions I have no idea – it should come with a lifetime supply of earplugs.
Everywhere in the rev range there’s growl, pop, crack, and snarl. Every throttle action offers entertainment, right up there with illicit mile-high-club shenanigans – all accompanied by a shifting tonality of vibration through the bars. If you’re not playing with this throttle in traffic, then there is a cold dead space where your heart once was.
In town riders will be thankful for the feather-light clutch action at the lever; tall gearing and a late engagement require slipping the clutch to pull away smoothly. The seating position too speaks to urban exploits.
The Monster ergonomics have been subtly revamped; there’s a shorter reach to slightly lower bars and the footpegs have moved forwards, while the 770 mm/30.3 inch seat height remains unchanged. The reduced weight on your wrists and a slightly more upright seating position make for all day comfort and great traffic visibility. Longer rides aren’t out of the question either; hover around the 4000RPM for engine smoothness and at highway speeds the flyscreen’s clean airflow is pleasant.
Where the new 696 lives is in the corners though, taking to them with a youthful flitting enthusiasm that makes the outgoing mini-Monster looks like it was wearing soiled baggy depends.
What a delight the 696 would be on a small tight track, and what a laugh as the tiny 696 transitions light and quick through the twisties. At 6”2’ wrapped around this bike, I suddenly feel like the world’s fastest Shriner. No doubt you’ll be snickering at “faster” sportbikes when you glance their vibration-blurred headlights in the rearviews.
Up front the 696 there are Showa 43mm upside-down forks, while duties in the back are handled by the preload and rebound adjustable Sachs monoshock with progressive linkage – tied to the new chassis the results are phenomenal.
Power over a bump and there’s no hint of headshake and unlike the rest of the flying-D’s offerings you’re not left contemplating a Ducati-ectomy post pothole. It’s an exceptional balance of comfort and performance – right out of the box.
On a cold and periodically drizzly photoshoot morning the Monster 696 repeatedly kisses the limits of traction. The bars and chassis convey the subtlest hint of front-end slip, the rear conveying loads of information about the grip available, and then still have the composure to roll on the throttle out of the turns. The new Siemens electronic fuel injection metering the power with utterly smooth precision, it only betrays a slight stutter at consistently held lower RPMs, at pace that’s hardly a worry.
Fire into a corner too hot and the Monster displays friendliness completely at odds with its name. The wide bars, light weight and narrow Bridgestone BT-56Rs, make for lightning fast tip-in, the 696 darts wherever you point it. Once set the suspension and chassis follow the initial action up with utter stability.
A two fingered squeeze of the brake lever and twin 320mm rotors are clenched by a set of radial-mounted four-pot Brembo calipers, hugely improving stopping power over the dual-piston/300mm setup of the 695. Though a bit more feel through the lever would be nice.
Known as a slipper clutch to the rest of the world, Ducati’s APTC (Adler Power Torque Clutch) carries over from the Monster 695 in a move that embraces new and performance riders alike. Bang down through the gears with impunity and the unit seamlessly keeps the rear wheel from skipping. To invoke the slightest squirm requires seriously ham-fisted messing with the affirmative 6-speed gearbox.
Minor annoyances steal slightly from the 696 package. The levers aren’t adjustable, an oversight on a bike with a seat height that’s suitable for the Polly Pocket set. There’s a manual fast idle lever, which we haven’t seen since acid wash jeans were popular. Neutral can be elusive at times. At full lock the cheeky little Monster will pinch your thumb between the bar and the tank, a situation that might come up in parking lot maneuvers. And if your better half wants to come along for the ride they’d best be fire-retardant, because the under-seat exhaust heat-shields are miniscule. There’s the unexplained loss of the “auto” start off of a number of this years Ducati’s too, fueling the cost savings or oversight debate.
Those issues are easily forgiven though, because unlike previous Monsters the 696 has a sense of beautiful harmony. You don’t come away thinking that the suspension felt budget like the 695 or S2R 800, that the engine felt misplaced like the S4R Testastretta, or maybe the feedback from the front wasn’t enough deep in a turn. To quote Radiohead, “everything is in its right place”, shocking given the price point.
At an MSRP of $9,495 CDN/$8,775 USD the Monster 696 isn’t pay and display. Its nearest entry twin competition is Suzuki’s SV650 ABS, which weights in at $8,499 CDN. While you don’t get those three-magic letters with the 696, you do get braided brake lines, suspension that doesn’t beg for an upgrade, an overwhelming sense of quality and some serious brand name cachet… Oh, and quintessentially exotic style at H&M prices. The SV650 is suddenly looking aged and overpriced. So here’s a word we can add to the list when thinking of Ducati, “value”.
What’s more the 696 manages to address almost every whine we had with its predecessor, a rarity in a ground up replacement. With this quantum leap in refinement, there’s one question that remains, “Is the 696 still a Monster?”
Whacking open the throttle coming down an on ramp, the nose unexpectedly comes up. As I ease the front tire back down, the final component falls into place as the 696 gives its head a little shake. The 2009 Monster 696 may be a more refined creature, but it still has the attitude to back up the name. A tempting bike from all angles the reborn Monster 696 has the “instant classic” potential of the original Monster 900, maybe then when we think Ducati we should really be thinking Monsters Inc.
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