First Ride: Ducati DesertX
Words by Blake Draguesku, Photos by Drew Martin and Monti Smith
From a distance, the motorcycle presents itself as a vintage rarity. Twin circular headlights are topped with a low-cut vertical windscreen. Muscular bodywork finished in bright satin white wraps rearward to encapsulate a camel-esque gas tank with an offset filler cap. The form narrows through a slim black saddle before terminating in a unique, minimalist tail section that all but confirms your suspicion that this machine is of vintage origin. Black wheels laced with thick stainless spokes are accompanied in the front by a closely-formed low fender and in the rear by an exhaust that is, in traditional rally bike fashion, slung from low to high. All of these design elements come together to create a form that is undeniably 80’s. A form that for many, conjures up grainy images of the Saharan desert; a tumultuous sea of sand punctuated by motion-blurred figures of man aboard machine, both donning the iconic logos of some major cigarette brand, both suffering through their long range dash from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal. Walking nearer interrupts this nostalgic vignette as the modern details of the DesertX come into focus, prompting me to explore the motorcycle further as I ask myself, “What exactly am I looking at here?”
Whether you’d like to admit it or not, the vintage facade of the 2022 Ducati DesertX being, well, merely just a facade, is a good thing. Existing in an automotive and powersports era that is largely defined by the skyrocketing demand for (and resale prices of) “vintage” machinery, the X provides satiety to those with a hunger for 1980’s design paired with modern engineering, technology, and of course the excellent performance and reliability that comes with those things. The unprecedented Italian machine boasts hardware that Dakar racers of 30-something years ago could only have daydreamed of while crossing that cruel desert, with one component of the bike standing out in particular: its powerplant.
The Testastretta 11° engine is a beautiful thing: beautiful in the way that it sounds and in the way that it confidently propels the motorcycle forward over varying types of terrain, but mostly, in its virtually unlimited range of personality. I have yet to ride a Ducati that isn’t defined by the complex character of its high-performing heart, and the DesertX is no exception to this trend. Upon startup the 937cc desmodromic valve train twin emits a resonant idle that is reminiscent of a syncopated drum beat, a rhythm that is unique to only a handful of twin cylinder engines. It’s clear at this point that the optional Termignoni slip on isn’t quite as free-flowing as some would hope, as it sounds a bit more like you’re standing in the lobby of the Italian opera hall as opposed to sitting in the front row, but you can only expect so much from street legal, dealer-equipped exhaust options. Thankfully there is a solution to this issue of inadequate sound - more on that in a moment.
Understanding the Testastretta’s power/torque curve and overall character is fundamental to understanding how the DesertX feels as a whole. This engine is perceived much differently while riding off-road than it is while riding on-road, significantly more so than with other multi-cylinder adventure bikes that I have spent time on. In the dirt, the 937cc L-twin produces ample, tractable power from just above idle to right around 5,500RPM. In this rev range the engine is silky smooth, predictable, and actually quite polite. It does little more than whistle and purr while propelling you over whatever off-road terrain is at hand. A slightly more than reasonable amount of torque is available in the bottom half of the DesertX’s tachometer sweep, allowing the rider to break the rear tire free at will on most off-road surfaces, although I imagine a bit more bottom end bark might be desired if running an aggressive knobby in agreeable soil. This is nothing that the cat-less Termignoni race exhaust and tune won’t fix, in addition to any lingering concerns of inadequate sound. Above 6,000RPM, the DesertX simply shovels earth out the back in high volumes while pushing the bike forward at a rapidly increasing speed. Second and third gear cover the vast majority of off-road operations, with first being reserved for more careful technical work and fourth-onward being reserved for high speed cruising or flat out hoonery.
Surfaces that don’t provide high levels of traction muddy the water a bit when it comes to perceiving the highly nuanced character of the Testastretta 11°. On the road however, the Italian twin presents itself in a detailed and colorful manner. Passing through 5,500RPM, a swell of torque surges the motorcycle forward with authority. Accelerating under full throttle and tucking yourself behind the windscreen, an intoxicating sound is released from the induction side of the engine. The DesertX’s song is fifty-percent growl, fifty-percent howl, and one-hundred percent Ducati. It has, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable induction sounds of any big twin on the market today. Horsepower peaks at 9,250RPM, with a claimed 110 ponies on tap… I feel the true number might be a tad higher than that. The standard-equipped quickshifter makes banging up through the gears, as well as catching perfectly rev-matched downshifts, a breeze - just click up or down on the shift lever and let the X do the rest. Configuring the engine braking setting in its strongest option is a must, and throwing aggressive downshifts while braking into turns emits a nice series of crackles and pops from the Termignoni exhaust. There are a number of other engine-related parameters (power mode, traction control, wheelie control) that can be configured and saved within each ride mode. I’m sure there are many buyers out there who will take advantage of these features, but I always prefer having access to the full enchilada (or in this case, lasagna) with as little electronic intervention as possible.
The DesertX’s chassis, in a reflection of its engine, has a bit of a split personality. A steel trellis frame paired with Kayaba forks up front and Kayaba monoshock out back leading to 21” and 18” spoked wheels, respectively, sets up the perfect recipe for a focused off-road machine. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, the X feels just at home around town or on a twisting asphalt road as it does on a section of undulating, bermed-out desert trail. One of my first thoughts while acquainting myself with the bike in coastal Southern California was, “This would be a perfect commuter.” Directing the motorcycle around town it feels as intuitive and obedient as just about any other motorcycle out there, let alone those that approach 500lbs when fully wet. For context, I feel it is important to mention that this test was performed with Metzeler Karoo 4 tires. The Karoo 4 is essentially a “50/50” adventure bike tire, designed to provide an equal split of performance on both paved and unpaved surfaces. Although this was decidedly an off-road oriented test from the outset, I elected to take the X up and over the Ortega Highway, one of Southern California’s premiere motorcycle roads, just out of curiosity. To be honest, I was a bit shocked by the on-road performance of the DesertX. Send this motorcycle up a section of winding mountain road and it quickly becomes clear that Ducati’s deep and successful pedigree of breeding on-road weaponry is not lost on this “off-road” machine. Leave it to the experts to make a 21” front wheel tip in and change direction this well at high speeds. Additional on-road testing in the California desert only bolstered my conclusion that, even on a 50/50 tire, the X is a more than capable on-road toy. I can only imagine how well it would do on a proper pair of sticky road tires.
Now to address the main question at hand: How does the DesertX do off-road? My first dance in the dirt aboard the X was on a meandering section of narrow twin track in the Inyo National Forest. Recent rains brought in by the remnants of Hurricane Kay had improved the cohesiveness of the typically dusty soil there: a mixture of decomposed granite and sand sitting on a hard-pack base. The X feels narrow between the knees (for an adventure bike) and naturally promotes good riding form through its carefully formulated ergonomics. It is one of few adventure bikes that I wouldn’t feel the need to change the handlebar bend on, if it were my own. The long-travel Kayaba suspension (230mm out front and 220mm in the rear) is very plush and employs the full length of its travel frequently as it works to maintain positive tire contact with the ground while minimizing force transmitted to the rider. It took a bit of testing and tuning to get the preload, compression and rebound settings where they needed to be for my liking, but once I had it dialed in, the X felt confident and lively while soaking up blows from rocks, roots, and g-outs. In turns the bike responds well to weighting the inside foot peg; doing so initiates a stable, predictable rotation and increase in lean angle. Following this up with a handful of throttle is an easy way to step out the rear end and throw some roost on exit. At speed the lateral stability of the Desert X is high, which means you’re unlikely to initiate a slide or lean that you don’t intend to. At low speeds in loose and technical terrain, you’re reminded that this is, in fact, an adventure bike and not a 200-something pound enduro. Rock gardens are easily shifted by the heavy footstep of high-displacement off-road machines, and wrangling the X through such terrain is certainly a workout, but the motorcycle does quite well through sections that most owners would consider as existing somewhere near the upper limit of adventure riding.
At the end of the day there is simply no amount of clever engineering or technological trickery that can get around the way that the laws of physics affect a combined rider/motorcycle weight of, in my case, around 680lbs. That being said, it is commendable what Ducati has accomplished here with their first off-road offering, even when stacking the X up against its most formidable opponents in the adventure motorcycle segment.
Where the DesertX feels most at home is… big surprise here: in the desert. The flowing twin track trails that sprawl throughout the vast American west are an ideal setting for this motorcycle. Giving the X a bit of a long leash and allowing it to naturally follow the line of least resistance through this terrain results in the kind of low-effort, high-reward riding experience that is the main desire of most adventure riders. For the small minority of owners who plan on going all-out aboard their DesertX (sending it through deep sand, hitting whoops at high speed, catching more than a couple feet of air, things of that nature), equipping an aggressive set of knobby tires and swapping in some higher rate fork/shock springs will potentiate the off-road capability of this machine in a huge way, at the expense of some ride comfort and on-road performance.
In an effort to keep the discussion of the technology-related features found on this motorcycle to a reasonable length (there’s a lot of them), I’ll give you just the key takeaways… The major sensory organ of the Desert X’s big brain is a Bosch IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). This device continuously collects data detailing the motorcycle’s positioning and movement relative to several axes. This data is used in combination with rider-selected preferences having to do with things such as wheelie control, traction control, engine braking control, and cornering-sensitive ABS in order to tailor a riding experience that is as mild or wild as the rider prefers. These settings can be configured and saved within 6 different custom “ride modes”, which are selectable on-the-fly with a few presses on the left hand button cluster. The vertically-oriented 5” TFT display, a unique feature of this bike that I think most riders will be a fan of, confirms changes to your ride mode selection after you obey its prompt to release the throttle.
The ultimate value that I personally find in all of this is the ability to quickly switch between a customized “Sport Mode” for all on-road use and a customized “Rally Mode” for all off-road use. “Enduro Mode” will put the Testastretta 11° in an attenuated state that is designed to make the power profile better suited to tricky terrain, but as mentioned previously: full lasagna at all times, please and thank you.
I only encountered a handful of things about the DesertX that I wasn’t a fan of, mostly minor details. For example, those of you who spend a lot of time riding dirt bikes with the balls of your feet placed directly over the pegs (Ryan Hughes fans I’m looking at you), may find that the back of your right boot bumps/rubs the lower heat shield of the silencer. The remedy to this is only a minor adjustment in foot position, but it did distract me during my first few hours on the bike.
It’s worth noting that the front ABS, even in its most aggressive setting, is a bit overly-cautious when in loose terrain. The fix here is to deactivate the ABS entirely, but I imagine some owners might wish for a bit more authority out of the front brake while maintaining some level of ABS. The stock handguards will protect your knuckles from bushes and branches, and their outer aluminum section will likely prevent levers from breaking in the event of a tip-over, but more serious off-roaders may consider a more robust aftermarket application (the inner half of handguards are made entirely of plastic). I do wish that the X came with stiffer springs and more aggressive tires from the factory, but I concede that the stock configuration will satisfy a majority of owners. Lastly, the bike does emit a notable amount of heat when operating at low speeds for extended periods of time; this is especially noticeable when, say, riding to the beach in shorts during a Southern California heat wave.
Even after spending a considerable amount of time on the DesertX in a wide variety of terrain types and surroundings, it’s difficult to lock down a simple answer to the question that came to mind when I first approached the motorcycle, that question being: “What exactly am I looking at here?” And that’s probably because the DesertX is actually a number of things. It presents a form that is both undeniably vintage and strikingly modern. It is simultaneously an agreeable city commuter and a capable backcountry explorer. It can politely whistle, and powerfully howl. It is as much of a force on a pristine twisting asphalt road as it is on a rock-laden desert trail. With the DesertX, Ducati has somehow managed to combine rally-focused design and road racing heritage in a way that keeps both elements distinctly tangible, and for those who get to swing a leg over this bike, that is a marvelous thing.
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