Have you ever lain in bed, arithmetic running riot in your head? I have. It has happened to me regularly. You see, in automotive journalism, there is a catch. You can't own it. Almost always the vehicles you want are not within your reach, and because you drive and ride vehicles far beyond your reach, you can never emotionally accept settling for a vehicle that is actually well within your means. This means you are left calculating what your income is, what you can spare off it, what EMI that becomes and how you will fuel and service the motorcycle. It is probably the same with cars, but I've never thought like this about a car. I just knew I would never be able to buy a Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet from the moment I cast eyes upon her, er, it.
In the recent past, the bikes that have reduced me to maddening mental midnight mathematics have, thankfully, been quite a few. The ones that really shone are in these pages. The least expensive Harley-Davidson 883 SuperLow, a motorcycle priced cruelly so that you cannot see it, grasp the price and not get a far away look in your eyes. Then there is the Suzuki Bandit 1250S, the least attractive looking machine here, the most powerful machine here, the most versatile machine here but not something that appeals directly to your heart. Its appeal is to my head. I know this is the one I will be able to ride daily without a care. Its bland styling means fewer people will want to clamber onboard to take pictures of themselves. Which means I can use it without being umbilically attached to it. Which is the case for both of the other motorcycles. The third bike is obviously the Ducati Monster 796, a motorcycle that remains one of the most intensely emotional experiences of them all. The only motorcycle that I sat on and just knew that I would have to own one day, beg, borrow or steal. Er... Borrow? Been there, done that.
To me personally, I like honesty in motorcycles. I like it when they are designed to be upfront about their abilities and intentions. These three are all exemplary.
The Monster, as we wrote in our test, is just outstanding. I love it in red, and this white is quite attractive as well. There is a sense of proportion to the tank, the way it interacts with the chunky forks and the red trellis frame and the sharp, short, weightless tail end that makes the Ducati such a wonderful motorcycle to look at. I still believe the older headlamp looked better than the new split beam job, but call me old-fashioned if you like. Up close, the Monster is neatly made, with some very highly detailed aggregates that give it that sense of being special, of being Italian, of being made by a race of emotionally extroverted Europeans. You can, in your head, see the Monster return from a great ride and talk voluminously about it afterwards, waving its arms and making gestures with its hands if you anthropomorphise gratuitously.
The Bandit is more reserved and in that sense quintessentially Japanese. Its styling is quite straight-forward, intently function oriented and in that sense, it lacks a little flair and a certain sense of occasion that I think Indian enthusiasts who are beginning to fulfil their big bike dreams are looking for. The fairing is a typical example of this. Its function is extremely well-appreciated - this is the only motorcycle in this company that will allow you to cruise, hypothetically of course, at 150kmph the whole day. You would be in physical pain from the wind blast on both of the other motorcycles. But just look at the fairing of something like the Kawasaki Z1000 or the Aprilia Dorsoduro or the KTM SuperDuke and you will see that Suzuki needn't have played the styling so safe. That about sums the Bandit for me. It doesn't look like much, but it gets the job done like few other motorcycles in India can.
Getting a specific job done, on the other hand, was never a Harley fixation in the first place. The SuperLow, still, gets the job done. Its job is to take the Sportster line, the entry-level Harley-Davidson line and give it a dash of spice. This it does amazingly. When I first saw it, I couldn't believe how low and small it looked. And trust me, no matter what the pics say, the SuperLow is lower than that. But its air-cooled 883cc Sportster V-twin is now settled into a package that looks less like the stubby Sportster, and more like a Dyna. There is a large, glossy tank, the air cleaner on the right messes with your knee a little, the pegs are below your knees almost directly and the bike just ends a couple of inches behind your butt. It feels absolutely lovely to sit on and I absolutely salivated at the prospect of punting the tiny Harley through traffic, using the combination of its small size and excellent torque to great advantage.
That desire was partly fulfilled extremely rapidly, since that was the first bike I rode during the test. Abhay had warned me that the clearance was lower than the price, and he was spot on. Despite every attempt, the SuperLow determinedly ground out the frame rails on every speed breaker we encountered on the test save for two. But that is the sole blip on the radar. The engine makes a lovely swell of torque that begins early and feels so effortless that when redline arrives, it is always a surprise. But if you are redlining the motorcycle, you are doing it wrong. Listen to the lovely, loud Screamin' Eagle exhaust at mid-revs and you understand that hurrying is not in the nature of the engine. That you can hustle a SuperLow but you probably won't have all that much fun doing it. This is a bike that loves slow lollops and a 100-110kmph lope more than than flat-out road bashing.
Of the three, this is also the motorcycle most constrained by the condition of the road, and only partly because of the ground clearance issue. Ride quality is firm and supple on good roads but the format and the riding position cause bad roads to be felt sharply. Further, cornering the Harley is another experience. I knew stuff would grind down early and was being careful and then discovered that the bike was weird in the way the exhausts ground down long before the peg feelers has a shot at it. It feels like that the frame and the format can hack a lot more lean angle but the bike doesn't. Clearly, once again, if cornering is your personal absinthe, the Harley isn't for you. What it does is simple. It looks expensive. It looks great. It sounds like the true-blue Harley it is. It goes well while sounding properly awesome. It doesn't hurt your bank balance significantly.
You could say the Monster does all of those things save for that last bit. But that would be a narrow perspective. There is an intangible, emotional directness to the Monster which is a huge turn-on for me personally. But leaving that aside, you still have a cornering demon of renown on your hands, a stable, planted, precise motorcycle that knows how to hunt down apexes without mercy. The 88PS 803cc air-cooled engine is perky and sounds great once revs are up, although like all Ducatis, it sounds less sweet at idle, especially on the stock exhausts. With the Akrapovic cans our test bike was wearing, the engine sounded deeper in note and more impressive right through the revs. Ride quality may be a bit stiff and service and sales infrastructure a bit thin on the ground, but these are substantially the only questions the Monster has no answers to.
The torquey engine barps through traffic easily while venting some heat on your legs, absolutely sings down the highway and while you might think that in the age of 200PS litre-bikes, 90PS is paltry, but you would be wrong. Between the precise, instant throttle response and the fact that you sit almost as it if the headstock is under your chest, the Ducati feels quick, alert and until you grow used to the throttle, slightly hairy. And when you climb off, it makes all the other bikes look somnolent in every department when it comes to responding to inputs.
And the Bandit is quite happy to let you dwell under the illusion. Initially, the Bandit feels possessed of an exceptionally heavy front-end, a slow-revving feeling engine (next to the ?Ducati) and a slightly heavy-footed, ponderous feel. Then you come to grips with it. And realise that the softness brings impressive smoothness and flexibility. In traffic, this is the motorcycle where you stop thinking about the gearbox and just open the throttle and expect traffic to drop behind you. It is nearly silent as stock and that bugs people, I gather, but I will tell you that the Bandit does highways in incredible comfort both for the passenger and the 99PS 1255cc engine and that again, makes this the most realistic ride here for someone who intends to all but live on the motorcycle in India. This bike also has the best accommodations for the pillion here, although we have noted that the co-rider on the Bandit gets a fairly large dose of hot air around their legs. Which the rider somehow doesn't - the Bandit is the sole inline four we have tested in India that didn't get cripplingly hot standing at traffic lights.
Given that the Kawasaki Ninja 650R is also within this price bracket I was desperate to include it in the test, but Bajaj were unable to source one for us in time. Since I have ridden that motorcycle over a fair distance and over fairly varied terrain, allow me to give you quick snapshot of how it would fit it. In nature, the 650R is practically a mini-Bandit. It has sharper styling, especially in the upper fairing which makes it look modern. The engine is refined and flexible and feels powerful without every losing its grip on refinement. There is capability in spades around corners and extremely well-tuned if basic suspension means ride quality is well damped and cornering is pretty neutral. Given that it's roughly two lakhs cheaper than the Bandit but loses only 30PS to the big Suzuki, it is another persuasive motorcycle in the same league.
So, what would I put my money on. In the years of testing bikes, what I have come to understand is that motorcycles that provoke emotions are the best ones to own for people like me, people who have the privilege of riding a succession of machines as a matter of course. Which is why to me, the Bandit and to a lesser extent, the Ninja 650R are less appealing than the Harley and the Ducati. I would be happy to borrow the Harley from a friend as often as I could, but the clearance issue, especially in corners - which I love - is a big concern for me. And if I wanted a sporty Harley and went the XR1200 route, I'd find myself thinking why I wouldn't pick up the Monster 1100 instead, a far more capable machine overall instead.
Which brings me to my personal pick, the Ducati Monster 796. It looks just the way I think naked bikes should, rouses all the right emotions for me and is not unreasonable to maintain or buy, though I hear resale values are weaker than all of this lot on the Monster.
But this test isn't about me and it has three very distinct motorcycles here, all of which will enrich your motorcycling life. The Bandit I would recommend to a more mature rider, and not necessarily in age terms. If you want a real world motorcycle that will work with you unobtrusively, effortlessly and in all situations, the versatile Bandit is the way to go.
The Ninja 650R is similar in nature but sharper in feel, which is why I would peg that one as a bike for someone who is upgrading from an Indian machine and will move to a litre-bike within a couple of years. The 650 will be a great place to get your speed skills and big bike handling abilities sorted. And then you should be able to sell the bike for good money and move on.
The Harley is more than a motorcycle, it's a lifestyle and an experience. It may not have the performance or the cornering ability of the other two here, but it doesn't matter. The Harley is easy in town and really comes in to its own on the highway in a steady cruise. If cruisers are your thing, I cannot imagine a sweeter introduction into the family than the SuperLow. Hell, I cannot imagine why I would ask anyone to pick up any of the 'regular' Sportsters at all anymore.
The Ducati? Do I really need to say anything more about it? It won't do bad roads all that well and will probably feel a bit slow in your hands a couple of years down the road. But they will be years you will always remember. Rides that will stay with you forever. And that promise of memories is what makes the Monster so special. It's the one bike here that will not lose its appeal or sheen no matter what else comes into the garage.