First test of Ducati’s ST4S

Published: 15 April 2001

Ducati’s choice of venue for the launch of its new ST4S sports tourer seemed rather odd at first. Rather than present us with maps and a demanding long distance road route, we were instead taken to a vehicle proving ground just south of Milan where we spent the day at a high-speed circuit.

Ducati staff had explained their reasoning beforehand, that in most respects the ST4S is no different to the 916cc eight-valve ST4 or 944cc four-valve ST2 – and we’d all had plenty of experience riding those in the last few years.

But it now has the 996cc eight-valve twin engine and the suspension has been substantially uprated, so we’d be able to concentrate on the handling improvements and superbike level of performance.

It didn’t sound too convincing, but turned out to be a very canny move as it gave us a chance to not only test the suspension with its standard settings, but also to make alterations in controlled and safe conditions. And how the bike was transformed when we did.

The first session on the bike was frankly disappointing. The ST4S was tucking into corners when you wanted it to remain neutral. It also had a habit of picking up the front end disconcertingly when the brakes were applied while banked over. And generally speaking, it didn’t have the natural, confidence-inspiring feel which usually comes with every Ducati badge.

Still, chief development engineer Andrea Forni had emphasised the distinctive, high quality, titanium nitride-coated forks – which are matched by a top-spec Ohlins shock at the back – and explained how it was adjustable over a huge range. So we adjusted it, and what a difference.

An increase of the front end’s compression damping, from eight clicks off minimum to 12 clicks, did away with the excessive dive under heavy braking, while attention to the ride height and spring pre-load at the back altered the bike’s attitude – in both senses.

Both had been set on their minimum levels, so the ride height was increased by 10mm and spring pre-load, easily altered by a remote hydraulic adjuster, was upped by just over 5mm, tipping the bike forward.

With the steering sharpened and the trail reduced, the bike began to display its true Bologna heritage with no more standing up in turns.

Instead, there was an eagerness to dive into corners and the ability to hold tight lines or change them at will.

So why did Ducati set up the ST4S so oddly in the first place? It’s to do with the engine. Aside from minor changes to the inlet cam – a little less valve opening duration, but with slightly more lift to boost mid-range power – and a lower exhaust camshaft position like the ST4 for the engine to fit in the frame, the motor is identical to that fitted to the 996.

And that means a claimed top speed a fraction shy of 160mph – which, for a bike likely to be loaded up in all sorts of ways, is a lot.

As Forni pointed out, Ducati had to take into account the fact that an ST4S might find itself fitted with panniers (a £350 option) and barrelling down a blustery, windswept motorway, overloaded with kit and a passenger – with the rider holding the bars with one hand so he can wipe his visor – just as it hits a nasty pothole.

In those circumstances, it needs to be as stable as possible, and that’s exactly how it was set up, for maximum stability, even though this setting does compromise other aspects of the handling.

With less power there’s no need to play this safe in this way, but with a full-on 117bhp, 996 motor, most riders would prefer to play. So tweak those settings, hike up the back of the bike – no need to touch the rear damping – and enjoy.

What you have here, in what was already one of the most underrated bikes on the market, is now a proper 996 motor, except that in place of the supersports bike’s wrist-wrenching riding position, you get comfort good enough to take you to the south of France in one hit and a ride which is better than any sports tourer on the market – and that’s in an increasingly crowded high-quality market.

That gold finish on the forks is not there for looks, but to minimise the internal friction, increasing suppleness so that even the tiniest imperfections in the road surface are soaked up rather than bumped over.

The new five-spoke Brembo-Marchesini wheels help by reducing unsprung weight compared with the ST4 by 1kg at each end, enhancing suspension performance even more, and the result is a gorgeous, gliding sensation with supreme wheel control.

It does lead to another difficulty, though. Now that the ST4S has become such a seriously efficient cornering machine, its ground clearance can get in the way – if you venture onto a race track, at least. With the suspension set on low, the sidestand was decking out far too easily, but even with it raised, you do have a nagging doubt in the back of your mind as to whether – or how hard – it’s going to scrape the road if you dive into a turn a little too hot. Still, another day playing with the suspension might well have reduced the problem even further, and the majority of road riders will have no problem with this.

Meanwhile, corner slowly by braking a little harder instead. There’s no traditional Ducati sponginess from the Brembo stoppers. Instead, there’s just plenty of power, with a genuinely progressive action thanks to the slightly thicker discs – a move made to cope with the extra heat that more enthusiastic ST4S riders will surely generate. There no sign of fade, either.

It was a real surprise that there was so much talk of the fabulous suspension when the obvious distinction between ST4S and the ST4 is that extra 80cc in the engine. This gives the bike much needed extra torque at low and medium rpm, correcting a weakness of the ST4, which would often feel a little breathless below 5000rpm.

On a 916 it’s not a problem because it’s a substantially lighter machine and the engine is more likely to be revved anyway. But in the sports tourer it meant more gear-changing than ideal, especially loaded up and negotiating a twisty mountain incline.

The ST4S offers 15 per cent more torque all the way up to around 7000rpm, and it’s also perfectly capable of being trickled down to 1500rpm in top, with none of the nasty snatching through the transmission which used to typify Ducatis in this rev range.

Open the throttle here and the ST4S shudders dramatically, the mirrors flapping and even the clocks shaking. But it pulls away usefully, then gets stronger and stronger. By 5000rpm the Duke is becoming seriously quick, then at 7000rpm it’s hammering along.

That gentle inlet cam revision might boost the mid-range, but it does cause the power to fall away rapidly after the power peak at 8750rpm. So spinning the engine to the 10,000rpm limit isn’t quite as rewarding as it might be. Still, this is a blisteringly quick motorcycle.

As a pure sports machine, the ST4S is a highly capable bike. The suspension is soft compared with race replicas, but it’s beautifully controlled. And although it weighs a lot more than a big sports bike, it’ll still give them a run for their money.

Yet it’s also supposed to be a touring bike, and long distance comfort is exceptionally good, being only slightly spoilt by above average wind noise off the top of the screen and a little buffeting to annoy. Fuel range is slightly less on the ST4S than the ST4, but the 21-litre (4.6 gallon) tank is still good for close to 180 miles with reasonably hard riding. The restrained but classy gunmetal grey finish available on the ST4S should look good for years.

Ducati’s highly sophisticated immobiliser system is fitted as standard to the bike. A copper aerial surrounding the ignition switch interrogates a chip in the ignition key as you put it in, then sends a code to the on-board computer allowing the bike to the started – or not. And with eight billion ever-changing codes, you can forget about anyone scanning it.

ST2s and ST4s have never sold especially well in the UK, but the ST4S deserves to change all that as it’s an outstanding bike. It manages to be the sportiest of all the sports tourers, offering a real taste of the 996 experience, and at the same time has managed to build on the strong points we already know of the ST.

But if you fancy one, get moving as Ducati will only be building 1500 this year, and the orders are building.

And that’s good news for residual values too.