2008 Moto Guzzi Stelvio Review
Italian for GS
I never got around meeting in person my mysterious Moto Guzzi Quota-riding neighbor. Every morning I hear the rumble of his V-Twin as he pulls out from the underground garage, but I have no idea when he pulls back in. A shame, really, as there can’t be too many Guzzi riders who rain or shine, religiously take out their big shafties and ride to work, while such loyal Quota riders must be even thinner on the ground, so I guess he’s quite an interesting type. There must be something about that bike, too, if my evasive steppenwolf is so devoted, no?
So while Guzzisti all over the world might be very excited these days about the Stelvio, Guzzi’s new big adventure-tourer, most forget that the Mandello del Lario-based firm was a player in the big dual-purpose market for quite some time. It was way back in ’89 when Guzzi released its own first interpretation to the BMW R100/80GS theme, the Quota 1000, which was uprated to 1100cc in the late ’90s. The model was produced even as late as 2000 but was never a big sales hit. Even in the 1990s, when Paris-Dakar replicas were all the rage and the thing to be seen on, the Quota hardly left an impression on the market.
So, has anything changed since? Quite a bit, quite a bit. Tall big Twins, the inspiration source for those desert racer replicas, have stopped competing in the P-D many years ago (the race itself might not happen ever again) and the breed itself has slowly turned away from the off-road roots to become mostly a super-comfy road tool. While the big trailies have lost their exotic African appeal, thousands of riders around the world have discovered that these are the most effective mountain tourers, especially when heavily laden with two riders and full hard cases.
More to the point, BMW’s 1200GS has been an hysterical sales hit in Europe for the last few years – you have to witness their oppressing presence in the Alpine passes in the summer to understand just how many GSs have been sold. They simply outnumber anything else out there. Even in sportbike-crazed Italy, the mighty GS has taken the honor of becoming the biggest seller (GS and GS Adventure sales combined), pushing aside even scooters, supersports or what have you, and that, with a $14.6K tool. Quite amazing, methinks, and, no, Ewan McGregor’s well-publicized around the world tour on a GS can’t fully explain that.
Japan’s answer? The Suzuki V-Strom and Honda’s Varadero are just too plasticky for real he-men. Yamaha has stopped producing the 750 Super Tenere a long time ago while Kawasaki has never been really interested in the (multi-cylinder) genre. KTM’s V-Twins? Too revvy and professional.
One company, though, seemingly had all the right cards to play the GS game again. A big air-cooled Twin with an imposing technical presence? Guzzi’s got it. A shaft that doesn’t require maintenance on those long trips and doesn’t get clogged with mud (when you hit a muddy trail once a year…)? Guzzi’s got it. An industrial-agricultural poise? Guzzi’s got it. Sounds like Guzzi really had no choice but to make this thing.
Well, the Stelvio is here at last, and it’s not hard to see that all the ingredients needed to create an Italian GS are there. The sheer size, the right attitude, the classic big trailie treats. With Guzzi being Guzzi, the styling is classic, too, to a certain extent. The Stelvio designers consciously avoided the asymmetric aggressiveness of the GS articulate front end and went for a much smoother look. If the GS’s disjointed body panels composition is too much for you, then the Stelvio can offer instead a much more quiet and restrained appearance. Those big, bug twin headlights might be hard to swallow, but other than that the Stelvio is quite a gem while the fit and finish is really good, a cut above the current GS that shows some corner cutting in the finishing department.
Other than good, classy looks; there’s also plenty of tech-substance in the Stelvio. The new high-cam eight-valve motor displacing 1151cc was lifted straight out of the Griso and was only mildly detuned for the Stelvio. With a claimed 105 hp at 7500 rpm, the Stelvio matches the updated 2008 R1200GS in both output and rpm in the Adventure-Tourer category power wars. The closeness of the healthy (79.7 ft-lbs) torque peak at 6400 rpm to the power peak rpm hints at a worryingly revvy motor, but we’ll get to that later.
The upside-down front fork with its 50mm tubes looks mighty, and on the back, the progressively linked CARC swingarm with its torque-canceling design is just as reassuring. The radial-mounted front calipers seem a bit of overkill in this context, while the heavy-duty rider’s seat (at 32.9 inches) looks perfect for long hours on the saddle. The windshield (as well as the seat) can be adjusted for height, and on the back end, a hefty rear luggage carrier and hard bags attachment points are standard equipment. The Stelvio is quite similar in specs to the basic 1200GS version; things get less rosy when you factor in the ESA and ABS options. The Stelvio will have an ABS option only in a few months time, though it’s doubtful there’ll ever be an on-the-flight suspension adjustment system. Heated grips and GPS gear appear in the accessories catalog.
A serious touring tool as the Stelvio needs quite some time to get acquainted with and, thankfully, I received it for an extended period. My first days with it weren’t all that fun as constant rain restricted use only for home-work-home loops, but at least it was a good occasion to develop a proper relationship with the thing.
Those rain-soaked rides through heavy traffic were quite an ordeal and the big Guzzi didn’t make things easy for me. The heavy effort at the clutch lever was tiring, the engine felt just too explosive for the wet tarmac, and lane-splitting (allowed here) with a mile-wide handlebar did not endear the Italian elephant to me but it did forge our connection. If there was an uplifting side to the wet experience, then it was the “King of the road” feel that these big scoots grant you – quite uplifting when you still have 40 minutes of filtering between rain-panicked drivers. After a few rides I did lift the seat to its higher position and that feel of authority was further amplified. The comfort on the saddle is close to perfection, my arms got more used to the not-so-natural bend of the handlebars, and it all made me want to go to out for a real, long and dry ride.
My wish comes true during the weekend. It’s blindingly sunny, the roads are dry and my girlfriend is game for a big loop. Now, with proper weather, it’s time to re-learn the Stelvio. One impression stands proud above everything else, right from the start. Some motor! After days of constraining my right hand to smooth roll-ons just as Keith Code teaches, it’s time to roll it all the way to the stop and the “otto valvole” engine barks and spits the Stelvio into serious speeds in a very un-dual-purpose manner. Air cooling, air schmooling. The bottom end might be 40 years old, too, but it doesn’t really matter.
The Stelvio’s engine is a big grins producer and lets me settle on an effortless 100 mph cruising speed on the Milan-Genoa autostrada. The adjustable windshield does an okay job of keeping the worst part of the blast out of the way even if I had a hard time deciding which position was best. In its lower position there was less protection but the air was less turbulent. I felt better protected with it in its high position but didn’t like the extra wind noise and buffeting. Things improved when I found out that the large seat is large indeed and that I had plenty of room to actually move back. Sitting a bit farther away from the shield helped comfort as well as ergos.
Suddenly the strange bend of the handlebars started to make sense and I entered a state of real, sit-bolt-upright 100-mph nirvana of sorts. Seat of the pants feel is that the 1200GS would be more frantic at those speeds. Paradoxically, the Stelvio’s engine felt rougher at lower speeds, say 70-80 mph in top gear. Sixth seems to be a bit of an overdrive and at lower speeds the power pulses were more annoying. Solution? Shifting down to fifth gear restored smoothness. Who said the new Guzzis weren’t quirky?
First sweepers appear and the Stelvio pulls out a real ace. Exceptional stability is courtesy of superbly controlled suspension and double-cradle steel-tube frame that keeps the plot well on its track. How can an anti-aerodynamic and tall thing feel so sure-footed at speed, two up? Or does it mean that in the twisties the thing will move with all the grace of an oil tanker?
The answer comes soon enough as we leave the Autostrada and head into the Apennines. The Stelvio feels as if it simply shed a few dozen (of its 472 claimed dry) pounds and responds to steering inputs with proper corner carving. The wide handlebar can only partially explain the great manners of the Stelvio in the canyons. It’s surely not 600 supersport quick but it does love being thrown into low angles and stays there put with aplomb. I know that the GS’s Telelever system has its advocates, but when something works as well as this on a similar bike you really ask yourself: why bother?
Remember the close-pitched power and torque peaks? It’s usually the tell-tale sign of a peaky mill, but in reality, the Stelvio’s motor is just plain fun. You can lug the motor down at 1500-2000 revs in fifth or six and it will pick itself up, albeit slowly – this is no Ducati or Buell. At the other end of range, the motor is almost explosive (by air-cooled standards). Pass 5000 rpm and the thing simply gets on the pipe. So the midrange feels a bit mild but it’s mainly because of the kick that comes after 5K. Some might like the possibility to humble sportbike riders while sitting bolt upright, some might want the motor to be a little less sporty. When touring two-up, for instance, I might not want to test my girlfriend’s arms ability to fight against wild acceleration all the time.
The well-controlled suspension that did a fine job on the sweepers works well in the twisties too. I felt very little need to tamper with the adjusters because the stock settings felt really fine. Nevertheless, the last harsh winter left some of my beloved roads in a so-so shape, and when the going gets rougher, the suspension is less happy to cope with the big bumps. Technically speaking, there seems to be too much high-speed compression damping at both ends, and over really bad stuff the suspenders transmit too much shock force.
The high-spec braking hardware was mildly disappointing. Those radial calipers and huge discs might look the works, but the actual bite was nothing to write home about. Getting real anchoring power required some effort. Original pad material with more bite could be an easy improvement.
We stop for coffee at the top of one of the mountain passes. There are plenty of parked bikes, a good occasion to gauge the public’s reactions even if our bodies don’t really require us to stop. This Stelvio is comfy with a capital C. Deliberately, I park the Stelvio next to two 1200GSs and soon enough there are plenty of riders gathering around the Guzzi. Most say it looks good, real good, and even the Beemer riders join the chorus. From my perspective, standing next to the Beemers, the Stelvio looks a tad less macho. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is another issue.
We hit the road again and as the hours pass by, me and the Stelvio get closer, my right hand more used to the motor’s needs, my boot tips start skimming on almost every turn – we’ve clicked. Lorella, my girlfriend, already defines the Stelvio as “a rolling armchair.” (She’s never been on a Gold Wing though…) After eight hours and 400 miles, most of them on mountain roads, you often feel like enough. With this thing, on the other hand, I am already thinking about tomorrow’s destination.
At home, Lorella’s criticism regards only the closeness of her left ankle to the silencer. Indeed her left shoe has some chafed areas. My complaint list is shorter than I expected. Slightly wooden brakes, suspension a bit harsh over bad stuff, and heavy clutch lever. For serious tourers the smallish 18-liter gas tank would be a bit of an issue, but you surely learn to appreciate its narrowness compared to the GS’s.
When I continue riding the Stelvio on the next day, it’s already clear in my mind. This thing has substance, real substance.
Who knows, it might be Guzzi’s best chance for a real comeback. One thing I know, I’m surely going to miss this engine’s bark and the aplomb with which its platform lets you attack the twists and turns. As I ride the Stelvio back to Mandello, one thought does come through my mind: My loyal Guzzi Quota neighbor would happily trade his old steed for this one.