Everyone loved the 900SS, but no one looked forward to a stack of angry letters demanding they renounce their admiration for a motorcycle that only pumps out a claimed 80 horsepower. But the representatives of the broader-based publications sat back and smiled. We know that MO's readers are more well-rounded, refined, intelligent, discriminating and better able to appreciate a bike that is more about carving a corner than how fast it gets there.
On the Track On a cold Thursday morning at Laguna Seca Raceway just before the US round of World Superbike Championship racing, journalists mounted the 1999 Supersport 900s and were led around the 2.2 mile road course by a guy in a goofy open-face helmet on a ratty-looking CBR600F2. Looking back, it was a good idea because we would have opened up the throttle and might have wadded on the cold, moist track. The next four laps were supposed to be lead by a representative from Ducati North America, but after he ran off the track in Turn Six, it was open-throttle season at Laguna Seca.
Down through the corkscrew, the reworked suspension worked flawlessly, the front providing good feedback. Turns Nine and 10 are fast sweepers, and despite its quick-steering geometry, the 900SS remained rock stable. Hammering the throttle up the front straightaway, the rev-limiter kicks in all too soon. This is not the old 900 that would poop out before it ever got near the redline, this motorcycle pulls right to the top.
The most obvious improvement of the '99 900SS is visual. Gone is the ugly, square headlight and a design style thoroughly ensconced in the eighties. The 900SS has been redone by Pierre Terblanche, creator of the Supermono, and it shares many of the same swooping lines and playful design touches that do not necessarily have a purpose other than to look good, which, for many Italians, is reason enough. One odd element is the integrated rubber tank bra. Personally, the rubber bump made an uncomfortable bike (due to the aggressive ergonomics) comfortable by providing a nice place to rest during long rides.
The meat and potatoes portion of the redesign presentation began with a lesson in geometry. Due in part to modern tire technology, the Supersport gained a more aggressive stance than its predecessor. The wheelbase has been reduced from 1410mm to 1395mm, the rake has been decreased one degree to 24, and the trail has been decreased by a mere three millimeters to 100. Ducati says that the small decrease in rake allows the bike to flick faster without sacrificing straight-line or cornering stability.
Ducati looked to the 916 for way to improve the 900SS suspension and brakes. For example, the brakes seem to be in the same league as the 916. Inverted front forks have been increased from 41mm to 43mm. Out back there is a linkless Showa shock connecting directly from the swingarm to the frame. Wheel travel has been increased from 125mm to 136mm, but all in the negative stroke, so the rear wheel stays on the ground under hard braking. Between the solid front end and new geometry, front-end feel was amazing, always keeping you informed on available traction developments.
Then there is the motor. What can you say about a two-valve twin pumping out a claimed 80 horsepower in a world where four-valve fours produce 120 hp at the rear wheel? Well, between shorter intake tracts, fuel injection, and redesigned heads, the motor not only pulls harder across a wider range, it also puts out an additional seven ponies over the previous model. Ducati defends the benefits of their engine by saying that the two-valve desmo is narrow, simple, light and has a low center of gravity. Additionally, their fuel injection is one of the smoothest we've experienced.
Other changes included lighter wheels with a larger-diameter front axle, a modern charging system integrated with a new engine management program, an easy-to-bleed fitting for the front master cylinder and air ducts to cool the rear cylinder as much as 30 degrees.
A Loop of the Monterey Peninsula
After the technical briefing and our short fantasy ride around Laguna Seca, it was off for the red-meat ride of the day -- a trip to Big Sur and back. We started with a run down River Road, a fast, bumpy ride through the farmland in the eastern foothills of the Coast Range. While not as compliant as a sport tourer, the Supersport 900 acquitted itself well over the rough, pitted asphalt. It was here that we found that low horsepower does not necessarily mean "slow." Towards the end of our run down to some nameless military base that offered a good buffet, we found a gentle, curving stretch of road with good visibility and opened up the twins to an indicated 125 mph.
Getting into an aggressive posture comes naturally on the SS, and wind management is good, lifting the upper body slightly so long as you aren't fighting a head wind. The seat is moderately comfortable as long as you don't scoot up to the rubber bump pad and settle where the seat is at its narrowest. You won't feel it until you get off, but you probably will end up walking bow-legged.At high revs the Supersport 900 tends to gulp fuel. On the first leg of our journey the fuel light came on at 88 miles. The estimated average mileage was only about 25 mpg. Later mileage readings, after revving less, were as high as 35 mpg.
After lunch we took Nacimiento-Fergusen Road over some mountains to Big Sur, then we headed up Route 1 to Monterey for a round trip of about 200 miles. "Naci-Fergi," as a local calls it, is a skinny, twisty and occasionally dirty road that gets skinnier, twistier and dirtier as you approach the Coast. The rest of the ride down to the coast was taken at a more leisurely pace. Even so, a completely blind hairpin jumped out of nowhere and the bike answered tutti bene (it's all good). This may not be the fastest bike on the planet, but it will beat most bikes down a twisty road such as this.
The remainder of the ride back to Monterey was an exercise in patience. Cal Trans was working on Route 1 (again) and we sat in traffic all the way back to Monterey. About 30 minutes of this and everybody was screaming for mercy as the heavy clutch wore down their left hand and engine heat warmed up their ankles. Ducati promises a lighter clutch spring as an accessory for urban bikers.
Back in Monterey, we tested the limits of the post-fuel-light reserve and got at least 25 miles on it riding conservatively.
Only 80 Horsepower?We rode the new 900SS in every imaginable setting and it's just fun. Sure, 80 horsepower isn't much anymore. But this still is an excellent sportbike for the beginning and mid-level enthusiast, and one you may never out grow. If you live where twists and turns happen on more than just freeway on- and off-ramps, you might take special pleasure that down a canyon road your "slow" sportbike may dust your local squid-boy on his new superbike. In any case it will probably look better.
We're not sure what the entire staff will think of this bike, so we've made a request to keep a 900SS for a month or so for a more in-depth test. We'll put it on the dyno, let some of our horsepower-junkies put in their two cents, and maybe we'll do a little sport touring and see how it holds up. As an added bonus our Antonio Regidor Rao from our Spanish Desk got his hands on one of the European production models and is currently tooling around on the streets of Barcelona. In any event, stay tuned, which, for you desmo owners, means every 6000 miles or so.
Manufacturer: Ducati Model: Supersport 900 Price: $10,995 Engine: SOHC 2-valve Desmo Twin Bore and Stroke: 92 x 68mm Displacement: 904 cc Carburetion: Weber-Marelli EFI Transmission: Close ratio 6-speed Wheelbase: 55.6 in (1395 mm) Seat Height: 32.3 in (820 mm) Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gal (16 l) including 1 gal (4 l) reserve Claimed Dry Weight: 414 lbs (188 kg)