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The last of the best?

Review by Simon Bradley, Photos by Steve Gregory

There’s something about a Ducati. Especially one that looks like this. The 916/996/998 family has moved on from being a mere motorcycle to being a design icon. An object of desire, even among those who will never look at bikes as anything other than nasty, noisy, dangerous things. I had forgotten the effect this has, both on the rider and other road users, until I rode the latest Ducati 998 down from Coventry on a cold and grey December morning. For the first few miles it was horrible. The road was slippery, I was cold. Traffic conditions conspired with the ludicrously tall first gear to force me to ride the heavy clutch which made my hands ache quicker than usual. Plus I couldn’t see a thing in the mirrors, never a good thing in the speed limit obsessed West Midlands.

Then the roads started to open up and restrictions of 30mph limits fell behind.

And I remembered.

Now let me be brutally honest here. There are better motorcycles than a Ducati 998. There are cheaper ones. There are faster ones. There are some which, in your eyes at least, are better looking. Any or all of these may be easier to live with. But, and it’s a massive but, there is nothing else that makes you feel, or look, this good. Because the shape is so distinctive and recognised as Something Special by the rest of the world as well. The effect this has on your riding experience is profound.

In this 90 mile journey not a single car pulled out in front of me or blocked my progress in any way. Old blokes in Volvos who would have been tutting under their Trilbies if I’d come barrelling up on something more common moved over to let me past. And smiled benignly as the watched the most famous back end of a bike ever disappear around the next bend. Even White Van Man joined in, tucking in to the verge and waving me past. It happened everywhere – back roads, motorway, towns, the lot. And I tell you what, it made me smile wider and wider until my cheeks hurt.

Of course all the recognition and kudos in the word would be no good at all if the bike itself were an ill handling underpowered heap. Fortunately it isn’t. The 998 may be the old model, with the radically different 999 now taking over the role of flagship, but that doesn’t mean it’s been left on the shelf. For 2003, the classic design has been blessed with a pair of very tasty grey Marchesini wheels and the mirrors are, for the first time, colour coded. You may also notice a discreet “Testastretta” logo under the 998 badge on the fairing, indicating that although the design is old, the engine is anything but. That 998cc engine delivers a claimed 123bhp, which in itself is respectable if nothing to write home about. But the power delivery makes for a seriously quick bike. The drive out of corners is simply phenomenal, even in less than ideal conditions, thanks to the legendary vee-twin torque. Straight line performance is enough to see off most things on a track day and to utterly destroy pretty much anything you will ever need to overtake on the road. Especially, of course, as they’ll be moving over for you anyway.

To put this into perspective, a couple of years ago I tested the direct predecessor of this bike – same chassis, same brakes but a little less power – for one glorious week in the summer. While out testing, I encountered a guy on the (at the time) accepted king of the hill sportsbike. No need to name names, but it’s a large capacity Japanese multi. And a very capable one at that. This guy was quite good and, to use a popular euphemism, making good progress along one of my favourite roads. He obviously liked it too, judging from the committed way he was carving through the corners and nailing it down the straights. It says everything about the Ducati that, despite a good 30bhp deficit, we simply tucked in behind, waited for a convenient moment and overtook him. No fuss, no drama, just open the taps and bye-bye Mr Nameless Japanese Superbike. To be fair, the ease with which we got past a well ridden fast bike has everything to do with the way that the big Ducati puts its power down and rather less to do with the ultimate skill of the rider. The Ducati 998 will flatter you with its ability, although of course you still get to take the glory for yourself.

Ducatis have always had a reputation for fine handling. That reputation is in safe hands with the 998. Although not the fastest steering bike around, the feedback and stability are amazing, boosting rider confidence and adding to the whole experience. We weren't able to do a track test this time, the weather put paid to that, so I can’t give you any tales of knee down derring-do and heroic outbraking manoeuvres. Which is probably no bad thing. What I can say is that on the road I felt comfortably able to brake later and deeper into corners, to corner harder, to overtake more safely and to generally get around more quickly with a wider safety margin than on almost any other bike. Certainly I can’t think of another bike I can just get on and ride like this – anything else needs an adjustment period while the 998 just works.

Ducatis also have reputations for other things. Dubious build quality, unreliability and crippling discomfort spring most readily to mind. Well forget the first two – quality control seems far better than on earlier bikes and the reliability gremlins appear to have taken an extended holiday. Discomfort is a subjective thing. I fit the bike well and have ridden several hundred miles in a day on one in the past, getting away with no more than a sore bum. It’s no Grand Tourer, of course, and if you plan on taking a passenger then you’d best belong to the credit card, toothbrush and spare pants school of touring because you’re not going to be able to carry much else. But it is quite usable everywhere except, perhaps, around town where the tall first gear and heavy clutch will make your life a misery.


As you may have gathered, I rather like this bike. We will be testing the new 999 too. Despite it not being as pretty as the 998, it’s supposed to be a quantum improvement. Personally, right now I don’t see how that can be possible. The New Bike Guide has this to say about the 998. “If you only ride one more bike in your life, make it one of these.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Tech Specs

  • List price £10 450
  • Liquid cooled 998cc vee twin 8 valve four-stroke.
  • Tubular steel trellis frame.
  • Tyres 120/70 x 17 front, 180/60 x 17 rear on Marchesini alloys
  • Kerb weight 198kg
  • Colours – Red (of course)
  • Performance 123bhp Torque 97Nm @ 8000rpm

Our Rating (out of 5)

  • Engine 5
  • Handling 5
  • Braking 4
  • Comfort 4
  • Fun factor 5

MotorBikes Today overall rating - 5

Can I insure it?


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