Ducati takes a ride down memory lane with the introduction of its newest Scrambler family member, the Desert Sled. This bike harkens back to gritty days of bashing gusseted street bikes across deserts in Baja and the American Southwest… but we’ve heard that before, right?
We did, two years ago to be exact, when Ducati jumpstarted the trendy segment with a remake of its 2015 Scrambler Icon. It was a fun bike, but not exactly built for off-road thrashing. This Desert Sled, on the other hand, is.
So that’s what we did, in the Desierto de Tabernas no less.
Feast your eyes on White Mirage and it certainly looks the part. Its tall, stretched out and more masculine looking. Gold-painted spoked rims, a caged headlight and “CR High” style motocross bar (crossbar pad available as an Ducati accessory) afford a dirt bike-like stance that screams ‘play with me in the dirt’. There’s also a skid plate (guarding the delicate spin-on oil filter) and a chain guard—keeping the rear sprocket, and hopefully not your hand, out of harm’s way.
On the trail the Desert Sled feels very much like… well, a street bike. Long and a tad heavy, although shod with a dirt track-sized 19-inch front hoop, the three-inch wide footprint certainly lends itself more to pavement than sand.
Still, the Desert Sled lumbers over and around obstacles well, it’s KYB-sourced suspension is taut, but not overly so, and offers nearly eight-inches of travel allowing it to run over bumps and holes with little concern. Here the larger wheel diameter pays dividends rolling over potential hazards (other Ducati Scramblers run 18-inch front wheels).
On pavement, the heavier-duty suspension demonstrates a substantial improvement over the softly sprung modern Scrambler. The chassis is more poised and less resistant to pitch on the brakes or the throttle. This equals a motorcycle that you can ride as hard on road as you can off.
Furthermore damping characteristics can be fine-tuned as both the fork and shock offer adjustment. The OE fitted Pirelli Scorpion Rally semi-knobs further complement handling and it’s downright impressive how versatile these tires are. They don’t feel mushy on the road and offer sure-footed grip. Conversely, over loose terrain they perform admirably, however the 120-series front tire is too wide for serious off-road use—especially in sand.
Despite weighing 452-pounds with its metal fuel tank filled to the brim it carries its weight well. It’s surprisingly maneuverable and generally goes where desired. The ergonomics are aptly proportioned and taller riders will love how high the handlebar is positioned, allowing you to stand up at the controls casually without having to hunch your back. It would be nice if the mid-section of the bike were more substantial so you could better grip it with your knees— just like a real dirt bike. The seat is large enough to accommodate a passenger but we can’t comment on its comfort, as the majority of our ride was spent standing up, off road.
For our test ride, Ducati fitted its oversized billet footpegs, available as an accessory. Although bigger than the stockers, the accessory pegs are still too small, as our foot slipped off the peg more than once. Folks that plan to ride more off-road than on will want consider an aftermarket upgrade.
One of our favorite air-cooled engines propels the Desert Sled: Ducati’s four-valve 803cc L-Twin. Where the first Scrambler Icon had glitchy throttle response, the twist grip on this machine is calibrated perfectly. So much so, it feels like engineers added a bigger flywheel. The motor is that much smoother!
What they did modify is the fuel and ignition mapping. They also updated the throttle tube assembly. These tweaks equal a vastly improved powerband both on asphalt, and in the dirt. Power comes online slower helping the rear Pirelli hook up in the slippery stuff. It also allows the engine to be lugged at low rpm further boosting off-road prowess— especially when the going gets tough.
Conversely, rev ‘er up and the Desert Sled shows its got some beans. It’s enough ‘oomph to excite, wheeling in the lower gears, but not the type of excessive force that Ducati’s liquid-cooled engines are becoming known for. There’s no adjustable engine power modes, nor traction control settings, and aside from the well-sorted on-off adjustable Bosch ABS system, riding this bike is a fully analog experience… but you won’t hear us complaining. Ducati rates this L-Twin at 74 horsepower at 8250 rpm. Based on our experience, it’ll put just shy of 70 ponies to the back tire. Due to the stop-and-go nature of our ride, we didn’t have a chance to measure fuel mileage.
The engine and exhaust note is pleasing to the ear offering a throaty growl that remains true to the spirit of old twin-cylinder four-stroke Desert Sled’s. There is however a hint of undesirable “tinny” noise between 2000 and 4000 rpm from exhaust pipes or skid plate rattling. We wouldn’t term it a deal breaker though.
Smooth power also helps during gear shifts as the six-speed transmission moves between each gear more easily than we remember. On road, the gearing works great affording ample grunt at lower speeds without the engine revving too high at highway pace. At 60 mph, in top gear the engine only pulls around 4000 rpms with minimal engine vibration.
However on the trail, second gear is a tad tall. So if you envision riding more off-road than on, after you swap out the footpegs, next up will be a one or two-tooth larger back sprocket. Fortunately, these are simple and reasonably affordable upgrades. The clutch on the other hand performs flawlessly with easy lever pull and responsive action/engagement.
The Scrambler family’s round face digital instrumentation carries over and functions well. It’s easy to read while riding, looks cool at a standstill, and provides the info you need and none of the stuff you don’t. It also provides an interface to disable ABS if desired.
Speaking of brakes, the Desert Sled is outfitted with a potent pair of anchors. Oversized cross-drilled discs are used fore and aft. The front is pinched by a superbike-style Brembo radial-mount monobloc caliper, while the rear uses a simpler caliper with stainless-steel brake lines rounding out the package. Despite appearing overkill, the front brake set-up works well and isn’t too grabby in the slick stuff. Conversely, the rear brake has the bite necessary to make it useable when standing. It’s a potent set-up and one that further boosts riding appeal.
Where the Scrambler Icon’s identity didn’t exactly match its moniker, this Desert Sled’s does. Not only is it more capable when ridden beyond where the road ends, it’s a superior machine on highway too. True to its namesake, this Ducati is a motorcycle that you can ride anywhere re-tracing the roost of manly men like Steve McQueen while blazing your own legacy for years to come.