’99 Ducati 900 SSreview31_d

Review by Gary Charpentier

Get on the road!

I was ready to hate this motorcycle. Having sold my own 900 SS out of financial necessity last year, I have remembered her fondly ever since. The old style, slab-sided look was, for me anyway, the epitome of classic Italian styling. All of the stock machine’s failings had been painstakingly sorted out over the length of time that I owned her. She had been dialed in on the racetrack to the point where she was a very potent backroads weapon, and I have never loved a motorcycle more. To say that this fly-yellow test bike had some enormous shoes to fill would be a gross understatement.

Having said that, however, I must point out that Ducati has made some definite improvements in the new Super Sport. Gone is the mushy front end, stumbly carburetion at low revs, and even the braking feel has improved with a new front master cylinder. Most of the flaws that I had to fix on my own with the old bike were addressed by the factory on the new design.review31_a

Mechanically this is a logical and welcome evolution. But then they had to go all “Alien” with the bodywork! Yeah I know, aerodynamics and styling trends dictated this update of the old design. But why did they have to depart so radically? An intermediate step would have been nice, and it may have sold more motorcycles too. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that Ducati dealers sold every single 900 SS/FE, or Final Edition of the old style, that they could get their hands on, yet hundreds of the new bikes are languishing in showrooms across the country! I mean, those who wanted cutting-edge were already heading straight for the 748 and 996 Super Bikes. The kind of rider who looks towards the 900 SS is somebody who remembers simpler times, and simpler bikes. Air-cooled, with two desmodromically actuated valves per cylinder and a respectable 70 some horsepower made for a very entertaining, but not too intimidating motorcycle. But when you clothe it in swoopy lines and pointy edges what you end up with is a bike whose motor fails to deliver on the promise of the speedy packaging, and for a company with the racing heritage of Ducati, that’s a damned shame.

I decided to evaluate this bike on it’s own merits within the context of my test ride, which took place over the course of a weekend on the back roads to Brainerd. The first thing that becomes apparent is that this design will never be very wonderful in the city. The riding position is too severe, placing much of the rider’s weight on the wrists and cramping the knees with a high and rear-set peg placement. The venerable air-cooled desmo still doesn’t like creeping along in traffic. You end up squirting ahead in little machine-gun bursts of V-Twin torque, rather than trickling along as you would with a more civilized machine. The dry clutch rattle has been muted somewhat by sound insulation in the new clutch cover. The stock exhaust soaks up all of the thrilling music we expect from Bologna’s best, leaving you with the sputter of a lawn tractor on steroids. This is one very unhappy motorbike in the urban jungle. Then you get out of town.review31_c

On the freeway, the wind takes that weight off your wrists. The motor is allowed to spin up into it’s powerband and even the restrictive stock exhausts emit a more pleasing growl. The handling is maybe a touch quicker, due to the fact that they steepened up the geometry a bit, but that legendary stability is still there. The seat was supportive yet cushy enough that my only complaint after two hours in the saddle was a slight bit of cramp in the legs, and that could have been due to my own beat-up knees. I wouldn’t label the new SS as a sport-tourer, but for medium length road trips it eats the miles with style.

However, it wasn’t until I encountered VFR-mounted Mark Junkersfeld on a sweeping section of Highway 25 that I was able to really test this Duke in it’s element! Mark came past me as I was cruising at a sedate 80 or so, and I latched onto his slipstream as we pushed rapidly into the triple-digits. I stayed on his back wheel for several miles of easy curves taken well over the ton, and the Ducati loved it. I was able to stay with him on the straights only because that superior torque kept me glued to his tail light coming out of the turns.

Fully tucked in, throttle to the stop, THIS is where the Ducati LIVES! The riding position, the lumpy motor, the stiff frame and suspension all make perfect sense when you are WFO on a challenging piece of road.

My friend Reed Herman bought one of these bikes almost as soon as they were introduced. He has made a couple of modifications to his, including a switch to the half-fairing which he says improves the esthetics of the bike enormously. I asked him what other mods he would suggest, and he pointed out that the stock bike is really just fine for 90% of riders on the road.

The new seat is kinder to both the rider and passenger. The mirrors actually give a view of the road behind instead of a close-up of the rider’s elbows. The new front end is the same as that found on the 996, and a definite improvement over the lower-spec unit used on the old design. Fuel injection has cured much of the low-rpm stumble of the older version, but now there is a bit of lean running between 3,500 and 4,200 rpm, no doubt a consequence of tightened EPA requirements. But Reed always improves his bikes. In the case of his new 900 SS, the fixed disk brake rotors on the front were replaced by full floaters, the air filter is a K&N unit, the anemic stock exhaust cans were replaced with a set of slip-ons for that customary Ducati rumble, and he intends to replace the rear shock and fuel injection modules when these parts become available.review31_b

Currently, Ducati Performance offers a computer module which corrects the lean condition, but it can only be had when purchased as part of the $1,000-plus competition exhaust system. Hopefully some enterprising aftermarket vendor will step up with a lower cost replacement soon. For extreme street riding and racetrack duty, Reed says the stock rear shock is just not up to the job, so a new Ohlins unit might be in the cards soon.

So, is the new Super Sport a worthy successor to the old? Well, I’m not sure about that. The new, and not yet released Mike Hailwood Replica hits closer to the mark if you ask me. There are other V-Twin sportbikes out there that cost less and outperform the SS in many key categories. But Ducati has never been about cold numbers and commodity motorcycles. The Ducati appeal is more emotional than that. If you are looking for an urban assault motorcycle or long-distance sport tourer, go elsewhere. But if you ride mostly on backroads and sweeping country lanes, if you wake up on Sunday mornings and immediately head for the hills, then this new Ducati 900 SS is definitely worth a look.

M.M.M.

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