2023 Ducati DesertX Review – First Ride

2023 Ducati DesertX Review

When the DesertX prototype hit the scene at EICMA in 2019, it was portrayed as a Dakar-inspired Scrambler variant – that was the initial idea anyway. As you’re likely already aware, the production DesertX is anything but. Powered by the proven 937cc Testastretta 11° Desmo engine, the 2023 Ducati Desert X has been designed from the ground up as a purpose-built adventure machine.

Sure, the idea of keeping the Desert X within the Scrambler brand has its allure. Ducati could keep things simple, yet modern with either the air-cooled 803cc or 1079cc Desmo engine while keeping electronics to a minimum, giving the Desert X Scrambler an old school feel to match its ’90s Dakar-inspired styling. It seems, however, Ducati couldn’t help but ask itself, “But what if we didn’t?”

Discuss this story more at our Ducati DesertX Forum

ducati desert X scrambler

Scrambler concept at EICMA 20 19

The DesertX is Ducati’s first modern adventure bike designed from the ground up with real off-road intentions – something the 21/18-inch wheel combo hints at. From the tubular steel frame to the KYB suspension, every component of the DesertX has been designed to be a Ducati adventure motorcycle. As a Ducati, it carries with it a level of fit, finish, and technological refinement that we have come to expect from the Bologna-based manufacturer in this age. And, as a new Ducati adventure bike, it has a few new tricks up its sleeves as well, when it comes to handling the dirt – more on that in a bit.

ducati desertx

Thankfully, the production version doesn’t fall far from Jeremy Faraud’s initial Desert X Scrambler concept in terms of looks. The 2023 DesertX is nearly as stunning in person as the concept I was fortunate enough to lay eyes upon in the halls of the Fiera Milano nearly three years ago. Obvious nods to Ducati-powered bikes of the 1990s can be found in the styling, but with a neo-retro tinge to the entire thing.

Testastretta 11°

It’s a good ’un. But that’s not entirely unexpected since we’ve seen this motor used in the Monster, Supersport, Hypermotard, and Multistrada V2. Ducati claims the liquid-cooled 937cc Desmo engine puts out 68 lb-ft of torque and 110 horsepower. Last August, the Monster we dyno’d with the same engine spat out 95 horses at 9,500 rpm and 60.3 lb-ft at 6,500 rpm. At 4,000 rpm or so, the engine has already reached within five or six lb-ft of its max output which means, to no surprise really, the torquey motor works great in an adventure bike. Even lugging the bike down toward 2,000 rpm, it still provides plenty of forward momentum with its lumpy Testastretta lope. Once you’ve hit peak torque at 6,500 rpm, the party is hardly over as the engine reminds you of Ducati’s sporting heritage while the revs and speedo climb quickly toward the 10,200 rpm redline.

ducati Testastretta 11° engine

Thankfully, Ducati have managed in recent years to make service intervals – once an Achilles heel of the brand – much more palatable. Desmo service is due every 18,000 miles with oil changes recommended every 9,000 miles.

The DesertX also uses the same eight-disc clutch that was said to reduce 3.7 lbs when first introduced to this latest Testastretta engine. Ducati’s quickshifter is also included, which uses all sorts of IMU-based parameters to ensure the best possible shifts, though I found the DesertX’s to be a bit more clunky than I remember the unit on our Monster being. In particular, upshifts seemed to require a fair bit more force than downshifts.

ducati desertx

ducati desertx

Although Ducati did tailor the package to the DesertX, it didn’t have to do much. Mainly, gearing has been shortened in first through fifth gears, with the first two particularly shorter in respect to the Multi V2’s gearing, in order to better facilitate low speed maneuvering. This did seem to work quite well during our test ride whether lugging the motor into tight rocky hairpins, or tip toeing over larger obstacles at low speed. I didn’t feel much adverse effect on the road either as there is still plenty of room to run out gears, and sixth is always there for when it’s time to hit the cruise control to bang out some miles.

Il Telaio

Ducati built the new frame for the DesertX with off-road performance in mind. This allowed the company to engineer enough stiffness to keep the machine performing predictably while maintaining stability over harsh conditions. Combined with the fully adjustable 46mm KYB fork (9.9 inches of travel) and equally adjustable KYB monoshock (8.5 inches of travel), Ducati has managed to do just that.

I found myself almost immediately wishing the shifter was higher. Unfortunately, I was told it was already in the highest position.

Ducati puts the DesertX at about 495 pounds wet, and it kind of feels that way. Some machines in this category hide their weight well with low-slung fuel tanks, optimized engine positioning, etc. Not the DesertX. The thing is though, despite feeling like a 500-pound motorcycle, it manages to keep itself surprisingly composed no matter what you throw at it. Jumps, drifts, slower-speed maneuvers, it tackles them all with confidence. Even the trickier rocky climbs with ledges, the DesertX motors right up with assurance – and that transfers to the rider. The DesertX is a machine that instills confidence. The story is the same on the asphalt. You can ride the bike quite aggressively despite its wheel sizes, Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires, and long travel suspension.

ducati desertx

The DesertX uses tubeless cross-spoked 21/18-inch wheels.

Ducati had the bikes set up for our weight beforehand to ensure our preload settings were in the right ballpark. Despite the setup, I still managed to bottom the suspension on some botched landings while jumping water bars during the morning of our ride. After that, we cranked an extra turn of preload into the fork and two into the linkage-type shock. I didn’t have any issues with bottoming after that, but the ride was a bit more harsh. Perhaps some time adjusting the compression and rebound could’ve got this sorted, but time was not something we had during this first ride.

ducati desertx ryan adams

If I were to own the DesertX, I might try lopping off weight wherever I could, and spend a bit more time seeing if I could get the suspension dialed.

The radially-mounted Brembo M50s are as good as they’ve always been, as they grab the two 320mm front rotors. Both the hydraulic clutch lever and brake lever are adjustable. In the rear, a twin-piston Brembo caliper squeezes a 265mm disc. The rear brake pedal can also be adjusted slightly for height by pulling out and rotating the pedal’s tip – which itself is a good size to easily modulate with moto boots on. The footpegs are also nice and wide for comfort when standing for long stretches.

ducati desertx ryan adams

The 34.4-inch seat height doesn’t feel too bad thanks to a slim standover point at the seat/tank junction. If you find you’d like to bring yourself closer to the terra, a low seat is an accessory option as well as lowered suspension.

Ergonomically, the DesertX fit me spot on. At 5’8”, the handlebar/footpeg/seat triangle worked excellent while standing or seated. I adjusted the levers down slightly for preference, and that was it. I did notice my right boot was hitting the passenger footpeg hanger, but at least they can be removed with two bolts if you have no friends. A lower and taller seat is available from the parts catalog as well as a rally-style one piece seat for ease of moving back on the machine if you’re planning to race one in the desert like our ride leader Jordan Graham is.

Putting the D in Tech

Naturally, each abbreviation should start with D, for Ducati. We’ve got:

  • 6 Riding modes (all customizable)
  • 4 power modes
  • Cornering ABS (3 levels + OFF)
  • DTC – Traction control (8 levels)
  • DWC – Wheelie control (4 levels)
  • Engine Brake Control (3 levels)
  • DQS – Quick Shift up/down
  • Cruise control

What do those six ride modes do, you ask?

After sampling each ride mode, I spent most of our ride switching between Rally and Sport as we hopped on and off of the pavement. I bumped the engine braking up to 1 (1 being the most, 3 being the least engine braking) in Rally and left TC at 2 for a while, and eventually sampled it between 1 and off. With Ducati’s setup, the settings will be saved when you turn the bike off, whether with the key or kill switch. The only exception is fully disabling ABS – more on that in a moment.

ducati desertx ryan adams

Despite getting the bikes pretty warm during our off-road sessions, and even on-road, heat management was never an issue. When I pressed my legs against the tank, I could feel the warmth (it was also in the 80s during much of our ride), but I never really felt it otherwise. Even when the fan kicked on, it wasn’t blowing heat up at the rider in any way.

I started our ride in Enduro. The tamped power really tames things down. It was a bit much for me during most of our ride, but during a long silty loose climb with lots of rocks, I switched from Rally to Enduro halfway through, which really helped smooth things out over the loose rocky surface. Using Rally mode was totally manageable, but Enduro made things effortless with much less tire spin. Enduro would be a great mode for those newer to ADVing and will likely help less experienced riders go further with more confidence – or possibly keep folks who are on a long real-life adventure tour from getting themselves into trouble. Enduro mode is also the only mode to use ABS 2 as a default setting, which dials back front ABS intervention and allows for rear wheel sliding, but modulates the release or intervention smoothly to keep from abrupt locked to unlocked wheel transitions. It was something that would take some getting used to for me, as it was an odd feeling, but I can see it being helpful to riders who aren’t used to having the rear fully disabled. It really does split the difference between the other two modes.

ducati desertx dash

The steering damper seen just under the handlebar bag is held on with four bolts, which means it could be easy to remove, not sure why you’d want to though unless you were swapping something else in.

During a steep downhill with softball-sized rocks gathered in the middle, I was happy to be able to disable ABS entirely with a dedicated button on the left switchgear (this can be done while moving, but has to be held for a few seconds). This is the only setting that won’t be saved when turning off the bike. It will however, remain for five minutes, which should be good for quick chats or any other brief stops trailside.

ducati desertx

ducati desertx

While you can only change the default settings within each mode while you’re stopped, they are saved once you’ve done so. So, rather than being able to adjust traction control on the fly, which I find very useful, you could set up the modes any way you want which you can change on the fly. For example, I might set up Enduro mode with the same power and ABS settings as Rally, and then back some things off in Rally mode; that way I could switch between traction control settings with the modes. I would still rather be able to adjust it on the fly, but there is a work around here.

The vertically oriented TFT display provides a lot of information and can be switched between two configurations. There is a standard setting which provides pretty straightforward information, and a Rally setting which actually features a tripmaster function like you would see on an actual rally motorcycle, that is operated with the left switchgear. Alternatively, you can also pop for the accessory bluetooth module that allows smartphone connectivity. With the Ducati app, you will then be able to display turn by turn nav where the tripmaster is located mid screen. Also, the graphics that Ducati has developed do an excellent job of explaining what you’re doing as you change the parameters within the modes.

Accessorized as we rode them.

Of course Ducati has plenty of accessories for you to choose from – some of which we got to sample on our press ride. Crash bars and radiator guards usually seem like a good idea, and the beefier skid plate was actually surprisingly stout. Our bikes were also outfitted with stronger handguards that use a metal outer guard, though it’s still only plastic around the front where it connects to the handlebar. The handlebar bag was also convenient for storing a GoPro between shots. Other bits added to our bikes included heated grips (which went unused), and the Termi homologated silencer. Ducati has also partnered with Dainese to make a matching kit for your DesertX so you can look full factory.

Does it stack up?

Ripping around the hills of Aspen on Ducatis and having lunch at Woody Creek Tavern had me contemplating how Hunter would feel about the town that Aspen and the surrounding areas have become, but maybe more so what he’d think of this new Ducati. Whatever he’d have to say, I’m sure it would be entertaining. Still, one thing remains, there is plenty of good riding around them parts. Ducati’s test route for us took place in the dirt for probably 75% of the time. That said, the paved 25% was an excellent, albeit brief, showcase of how much fun the DesertX is to rip through a set of curves. I think I’ll have to check, “exceeds expectations” for the DesertX’s report card.

ducati desertx

ducati desertx

Is this new Ducati adventure bike a worthy gladiator to enter the ring against the legion of machines that have come before it? I certainly think so. Maybe it’s not as off-road focused as some but it’s game to tackle the rough stuff. The DesertX certainly isn’t the lightest, nor the cheapest, but it will definitely hang on the street and has a fantastic electronics package. There’s really only one way to find out. With a few new players in the game, it may be time to get the gang back together. I’m going to need help convincing Evans that we need to do another middleweight ADV shootout.

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