A Family of Italian Twins That Took a Different Approach
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ASK a well-informed rider to name the venerable motorcycle maker whose gutsy air-cooled V-twins are a longstanding source of national pride and you might get this surprising, but correct, answer: Moto Guzzi.
The pride is felt in Italy, of course, not America, and the company, which sold its first bikes in 1921, does not date back nearly as far as Harley-Davidson (1903). But like Harley, it has a rich history, and its current array of models seems to promise a competitive future for this niche brand.
A winner on the racetrack from its earliest days, with a string of world championships and memorable machines, including outrageously complex V-8 grand prix bikes in the 1950s, Moto Guzzi has, like Ducati, MV Agusta and other Italian brands, a devoted following. More than 20,000 fans arrived in the brand's hometown, Mandello del Lario, for its 90th anniversary celebration last month.
And like other Italian makes, it has changed hands a number of times, rarely a precursor of product integrity. Moto Guzzi's fortunes in the United States have had highs and lows, the company struggling at times as its bikes were overshadowed by the features and technology of Japan's makers. Worldwide, the company is projected to sell fewer than 6,000 motorcycles in 2011.
But nine decades after its founding, Moto Guzzi is part of Piaggio, the conglomerate that also makes Vespa scooters and Aprilia motorcycles. Though Guzzi is small, the Piaggio parentage has given it the ability to develop a diverse line of bikes in the touring, naked and custom cruiser categories -- and even a lithe sports entry.
What ties the models together is a common architecture of 90-degree V-twin engines with a literal twist: the cylinders jut left and right, with the crankshaft in line with the bike's frame rather than across it. This makes it logical and simple to engineer a shaft-drive system, a brand hallmark that Guzzi's current models use.
This engine layout solves other problems, too, making cooling somewhat simpler (a Harley-type V-twin, with cylinders placed fore and aft, typically runs hotter on the rear cylinder). But it also brings challenges, including a characteristic torque reaction, felt when the engine is revved, that wants to rotate the bike to the right. A rider soon acclimates, but a new owner would find it disconcerting.
The latest of Moto Guzzi's big twins use a four-valve-per-cylinder design that the company has been spreading to a wider selection of models. For instance, the Norge GT 8V, a large-scale touring machine with a deep sporting streak, now carries the Quattrovalvole engine in 102-horsepower form.
The Norge feels lighter than its 567 pounds, agile in traffic and easy to manage in stop-and-go situations. The thrill of riding it is in shooting through the gears with the engine pegged around 5,000 r.p.m. (At a stoplight, though, figuring out which gear the transmission is in can be tricky; finding neutral is easy, but the indicator light doesn't always come on.)
The seat is very comfortable, meaning you could easily cruise for hours. It feels quite capable, though it doesn't have the set-it-and-forget-it feel of stately ocean liners like the Honda Gold Wing or BMW's touring flagships.
The gauges and user interface are, like the air-cooled engine, a bit of a throwback. There's no temperature gauge and no gear indicator, which seems odd for a $16,470 machine. The adjustable windscreen is nice, but the need to use two buttons to control it (one moves the screen up, the other moves it back down) is annoying.
Guzzi's line also includes the naked Breva 1100, the adventure-class Stelvio and laid-back motorcycles aptly carrying the California name. But perhaps its boldest statement comes in the form of the Griso SE, a fascinating mix of retro styling touches, cruiser proportions and sporting capabilities.
Powered by essentially the same 1,151 cc engine that's in the Norge (though tuned to 110 horsepower), the $14,970 Griso is a handsome brute, the satin green finish of its tank, side panels and fenders offset by a complementary brown seat. Wire-spoke wheels reinforce its retro demeanor (though mercifully, they carry tubeless tires).
There are touches of the modern, too, in the single-shock rear suspension and inverted-fork front end. Radial-mount Brembo brake calipers and wave rotors deliver first-class stopping power.
At slow speeds, the steering requires only the lightest touch of the wide handlebars, but the bike proves stable on the highway. A mellow rumble spills out of the slightly too modern over-and-under exhaust pipes.
The Griso's handsome presentation has its flaws. The upper frame tube outdoes Ducati for being an exposed, in-your-face structural member. Tucked below the right side cylinder is an oil cooler so out of place that onlookers might well mistake it for a lunchbox. And the kickstand is so far forward that it's easy to accidentally brush the shift lever into gear.
The model in Moto Guzzi's current offerings that sport-minded riders ought to find most appealing is the $10,230 V7 Racer. This retro-styled bike, along with its siblings, the V7 Classic and the V7 Café, uses a 49-horsepower 744 cc engine with two valves per cylinder.
The V7 Racer is a jewel, bristling with beautiful craftsmanship in its details. Like earlier Guzzi sportbikes -- the LeMans and Daytona, notably -- it is drenched with Italian style, continuing a worthy tradition even if it doesn't much advance it.
Rich black paint is offset by a candy-finish red frame and anodized bits; the bike seems to have been art-directed as much as it was designed.
The theme is cafe racer, and it is no halfhearted effort. There is a small headlight fairing and a classic one-up seat with racing-style number plates (easily removed in minutes).
There are dual shocks at the rear, fully adjustable, so this seemingly dated layout doesn't really limit handling, and the conventional front fork has gaiters that seem right out of the '60s. The tapered tip of the mufflers (the exhaust system incorporates catalytic converters without any compromise to the appearance) is a perfect finishing touch.
The V7's smaller engine is in perfect scale to the frame, and its decreased displacement also results in smoother running and a shortage of reserve power at highway speeds. It is sweet at 4,500-5,000 r.p.m., though a serious buzz sets in as the revs approach the 6,800 r.p.m. power peak.
A hard look for shortcomings will reveal turn signals that are cheap-looking for a bike in this price class. But there's little else to detract from the enjoyment of this thoroughly delightful back-road companion.
First Published October 30, 2011 12:01 am