HIS SHOULD be Ducati's ZXR400 — a lighter, sillier, more whizzy version
of its big-cube stablemates and bike of the year. It isn't and won't be because
it's the same size and virtually the same weight as the 60bhp 750SS. Actually,
it is a 750SS, minus 18bhp.
Which implies problems, slow ones, but don't let them worry you, not if SS
handling and heart-breaking looks for five grand are all you desire. The 400SS
Junior is insurance friendly and makes all the right Pantah noises too. But
don't go near one unless you can live with the performance of the average
Junior's confusion - so brilliant yet so so-so — stems from Ducati taking the
low-risk sleeve-down option, to shift more bikes from the minimum of investment.
The 400SS chassis is, with one important difference, pure 750SS and already in
stock, so to speak. Ditto this incarnation of the fabled Desmo V-twin. It
displaces 398ccs sure enough but, crankshaft, bumped-up compression ratio and an
extra gear apart, is ostensibly 750SS too.
Even that bike is basically a sleeved-down 900SS, thus the needlessly
over-engineered 400 burdens a soporific power-to-weight ratio (the 750 is itself
hardly the stuff of 888 legend) and the subseqent aura of afterthought rather
than of knee-wobbling new concept.
Ergonomically speaking, it's a corker. Peg-to-pedal and bar-to-lever angles
and distances are spot-on. The rearset pegs tip you foward onto the huggable
tank, down onto clip-ons which rise from below the yoke to sit flat and a
bent-arm from the seat. The shorter you arc, the more flexible the position
becomes: sit foward and upright (compact NC30) or back and down with bum
butted-up against the deeply curved seat (stretched-out FZR400). Slot in, crank
it up (first stab of the button) and enjoy until the too soft seat sets rock
hard within a 130 mile tankful.
That's the time to get off, brake out the flask, and enjoy the unique Ducati
experience of walking round and round while wondering if there's anything more
horny anywhere. The elegant trellis frame weaves a web of triangles around its
engine, tying it in tight and stressed so the extruded swing-arm can pivot from
the back of the gearbox. It's so pleasing and incredibly rigid. A 25 degree head
angle and 90mm of trail plant it firmly in 400 super-sports territory though the
1410mm wheel-base is on the lazy side for the class (60mm longer than the stubby
VFR). Wide 17-inch wheels wear ultra-low profile Michelin A/ M59X radials and
Goldlinc Brembo brakes ...top kit all round. But then a problem.
Ducati obviously felt obliged to sell the 400SS below the 750SS, so had to
cut a corner somewhere. The accountant's axe fell on the rear suspension
why am I getting deja vu? — and the 750's Showa shock was junked for an
overdamped Marzocchi. The 400 suffers from ZXRitus, I'm afraid.
The non-adjustable upside-down Showas are unchanged from the 750 and
stoically resist the shock's bumping and barging. But stability is compromised
as the back wheel kicks off bumps the 750's Showa unit flattens. Over a given
stretch the ride is nowhere near as choppy as the ZXR400's yet at certain speeds
is worse (and the 10-click rebound damping adjuster has no discernable effect).
A single disc and four-piston Brembo, a smidgen feeble on the 125mph 750,
carries its spongey back-to-the-bar action over to the much slower 400 and takes
a while towinyour confidence. The first third of the lever-travel does nothing,
it's as light as the clutch. The next few over-progressive mm stand the bike on
its nose, or not if you used only two fingers and trapped the others against the
bar. Once you work it out there's power and feel for speed-scrubbing sweeps of
the disc as well as for outrageous brick-walling. There's also perfect lever
placement, a tank which takes the strain, and a very useable rear pedaljust
where it should be.
As you come off the brakes, the forks — soft springs, wrist-saving
compression and controlled rebound - find a sweet compromise between road and
track manners. Steering is a front wheel experience; you put effort through the
bars, a nudge through the scat, zilch through the pegs. Then it's down. No
middle bit, either up or not up.
It sounds dramatic for a road bike but isn't. That wheelbase brings the
steering back from the twitchier 400 competition to unflappable big Duke
territory. The Michelins give immense feedback, you feel the front drop onto its
edge, the rear roll around its more gentle profile and they inspire. The chassis
is responsive without being nervous, its footprint so secure and exact that you
hang out later and wider, pick your line and, hurrah, for once hit that elusive
No matter how and where you abuse the throttle the steering remains eminently
safe and tweakable. Even when the rear shock bumps you out wide or skids off a
camber change you can compensate and re-aim through the bars, which is the
upside of a 42bhp engine in an 60bhp chassis. The downside is bulk. If Ducati
had built the 400 from the ground up it would be lighter and less knackcring to
shuttle through nadgery. But I'm not complaining, not about the chassis.
Not so the engine. The XV535, Yamaha's sporty-chop-commuter V-twin, chugs to
the shops on a claimed 46. Both bikes weigh around 170kg, cover a
standing-quarter in the late 14s and both make the same speed: 108, 109....call
it 1 lOmph on a still day. The 65bhp, 159kg, 12.7 seconds, 140mph ZXR400 murders
the on-paper performance of the 60bhp 750SS, so what chance has the 400SS?
Those 42bhp aren't helped by awkward and incongruously un-Ducati power
characteristics. They aren't accessible midrange bhp, they're peaky ones hidden
above 7500rpm worth of lethargy and dodgy carburation. At 9000, 1500rpm before
peak power and 5()0rpm before the redline, it finally comes together but even
then it's hardly a rush, more a last-gasp flourish.
Something in that deceptively rich exhaust note - just the fact that I was on
a throbbing Desmo blah de blah - discouraged ZXR/ FZR400 thrashing, inducing
reflex shortshifts instead. And shortshifts are an absolute non-starter, meat
and drink for the carburation gremlins that lie in wait.
The twin 38mm Mikunis, as fitted to the 750 and 900, are oversized for the
400. Throttle response is pretty languid anyway but if you're caught with the
grip against the stop at 7000rpm the carbs will flush hard-earned speed right
down the pan. Gears one, two and three canter through unmolested but in the
upper three ratios it's like running into quicksand. Further down at 5000 (57mph
in top) it's the same story.
The way to get the thing shifting is to rev the bleeding nuts off it, which I
reluctantly did but only with fingers crossed and an eye on the flickering oil
warning light. The first four ratios are close and helpful - 90mph comes easily
and very melodically - but still you'd need 12 speeds if the wafer thin, 2000rpm
power band were to be exploited fully.
There's nothing more disheartening than getting an entry just so, pulling
yards on the bike behind in a demonstration of SS handling finesse, only for the
engine to squander it on the exit. If, as is probable, you're at an already
fraught 10,000 in the more widely spaced fifth and sixth gears, there's nothing
you can do as the corner scrubs off speed and revs. You can't change up (see you
in the quicksand), you can't go down (see you in the spares department). You can
do nothing except clumsily kick down two, all momentum lost, and out brake the
smarmy git into the next one.
Like I said, it's all very un-Ducati and nowhere compared to the crisp
Japanese screamers. I got used to it — picking momentum lines, howling into
turns, snicking down one final gear just as we tipped in, then re-emerging with
hopefully no fewer than 9000 on the tacho. But this 400 wasn't my bike.
Away from the quicksands is a smooth plodder of an engine attached to a
stiffish gearbox that improves with revs. It eases off tickover cleanly, saving
the wet but still snatchy clutch. It drives from 3000 and, as long as the
Mikuni's slides are surreptitiously piloted through the five thou' flatspot and
the terrain is favourable at seven thou', it will pull through in all gears bar
top. It throbs through the frame without intruding and lends lots of droning
charm and all that malarkey. But my overall impression is of a badly carburated
900SS running on one cylinder.
Still, it did enough to send me all funny, I think. No matter how slow - or
rather, how infuriatingly difficult to make fast -1 ritually found myself
outside having another stroke of its uncluttered flanks. Those gold-anodised
Allen screws; all that daylight behind the gearbox; Hailwood, Roche, Fogarty
even; the black, the white...the red. Sometimes I couldn't get near it for
admirers - sometimes I was thankful, usually I swelled with pride. You'd like to
hear that thundering two-into-one pipe? No problem, Vicar.
Engine aside it's pretty easy to live with. Great finish (only the Japanese
forks looked tired), good toolkit, major services at 6000 mile intervals and
clear, arms-in-take-a-peek mirrors. The steering lock is useless although the
lock-stops are adjustable. Sunshine (Ducati days) wipes out the block of idiot
lights but the neutral light makes only rare guest appearances anyway while
there's at least 125 miles before the petrol light flickers (no reserve tap).
Things I'd do: try some braided steel brake hose and fit an anti-crud grill
across the V in the fairing.
The Japs are snaffling them up and the home market has a fast-moving 350SS,
so Ducati must be happy. For the UK? The insurance factor can't be ignored but
it's so much a bike of two-halves, of sublime, under-stressed chassis and iffy
motor, that I think you'd really need to own a Ducati. Certainly,
there's enough SS in the 400 for some rollicking good rides. Enough, too, to
infect trainee Ducatisti with the virulent