Italian Soul, Now Supersize

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TESTED 2014 Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom

WHAT IS IT? A soulful, rumbling, V-twin bad boy.

IS IT EXPENSIVE? Yes and no. At $15,460, it competes with big-bore American and Japanese cruisers, but it undercuts the Ducati Diavel supercruiser by a cool $5,000.

WHAT MAKES IT GO? A 1,380 cc air-cooled V-twin with ride-by-wire throttle, cruise control, adjustable traction control and engine mapping. Some 96 horsepower and 87 pound-feet of torque twist through a 6-speed gearbox and shaft drive.

IS IT THIRSTY? Si, signore: 30 m.p.g. at a steady 75 m.p.h. and around 35 m.p.g. in urban cappuccino cruising.

Can a machine have a soul? Theologians may think not, but that doesn't keep motorcycle makers all over the world, from Milwaukee to Mandello del Lario, the Italian home of Moto Guzzi on Lake Como, from giving it the old design-school try.

If this soul thing did exist, what would it be made of? A long, sepia-toned heritage wouldn't hurt. And while it can't quite match Harley-Davidson's 110-year history, Moto Guzzi is very much on the ancestry map, having made motorcycles since 1921.

Where a Harley's 2 cylinders are positioned one behind the other, the Moto Guzzi's cylinder barrels form a hefty peace sign as they roar through the air, exposing their fins for cooling while keeping them a safe distance above the asphalt. The architecture revisits Moto Guzzi's first V-twin, designed in 1967.

Otherwise, the California 1400 Custom (and its windshield-and-luggage-equipped stablemate, the California 1400 Touring) is completely new, the first Moto Guzzi designed from scratch since Piaggio acquired the company in late 2004.

The naked Custom weighs 750 pounds full of fuel, oil and testosterone. Its expansive riding position feels larger than life: the handlebar has an eaglelike wingspan, its handgrips are as thick as salamis and its rubber-damped floorboards stretch nearly to Nevada.

It feels huge, but the low seat and streamlined rear fender make it easy to board, and there's enough slack in the ergonomics to handle both Tom Cruise and Tom Selleck.

The engine hangs in links and rubber dampers that let it rock side-to-side at idle. The vibrations disappear past 2,500 r.p.m., leaving the bars still, the mirrors clear and the floorboards rock steady. The longitudinal-crankshaft layout has given previous Guzzis and similar BMW boxers an odd torque effect, especially noticeable at a stoplight, when a quick blip of throttle rocks the bike to the right. The rubber mounting system of the California lets the engine twist without upsetting the chassis, taming this quirk once and for all.

In spite of its manly mass, the California is agreeably nimble, with just a slight tendency for the handlebar to flop into a turn at walking speed. Once on the road, all is forgiven.

Most cruisers are designed more for open spaces than alpine switchbacks. But Moto Guzzis come from one of the most curvaceous regions in cycledom, where a clumsy, frame-dragging motorcycle is just not done. The California steers with agility and responsiveness, and graduates to calm stability at autostrada speeds. The floorboards' road-feelers can scrape in determined cornering, but only the brave or demented will be tempted to push harder.

The new motor delivers satisfying grunt at lower speeds and a rush of thrust near its 7,000 r.p.m. redline. Cruising is cool and comfortable -- aided by electronic cruise control -- but above 70 m.p.h. I yearned for the Touring model's clear windshield.

Suspension compliance is fine at the front, once the rebound damping has been adjusted to its minimum setting. The low, short-travel rear end can hit hard over harsh bumps, partly because of the massive gearcase housing, but on smoother roads everything is sambuca and tiramisù.

The antilock brakes are first-rate, with powerful radial-mounted Brembo calipers at the front.

The California handles far better than it has any right to, for a machine so long, wide and heavy. It can preen and profile on Saturday night and leave sleepy Ducatis behind on Sunday morning.

The California 1400, in Custom and Touring forms, is a big step forward for Moto Guzzi, which has seemed stuck in the '80s since, well, the '80s. It combines the retro appeal of a classic, respected brand with the computer technology and avant-garde style one expects from 21st-century Italian design, even if its chief designer, Miguel Galluzzi, works from his studio in California.

The California 1400 has power, presence, unexpected performance and a notable past. Does that add up to soul? Only you -- or possibly your motorcycle-loving soul mate -- can decide.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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