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1999 Ducati Supersport 900MSE Ratings

1999 Ducati Supersport 900Ducati\'s \'99 version of their 900SS -- the little brother to their all-conquering 916 -- sounds at first like it\'s going to be nothing more than a minor improvement of the previous 900SS.

AddedDate Added: 20th September 1998
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Editor Contributor's Review

Its spec numbers are all just barely different, here and there, creating the impression that the bike is nothing more than a slightly tweaked, re-skinned update. But riding the 900SS proves once again that any kind of prejudice is a foolish assumption. Riding the 900SS reveals that this bike is totally different from the last generation supersport and that numbers on paper don\'t begin to tell the story.

The new 900SS is not really an updated machine at all but is a mostly new evolution of the supersport series. Not only does it carry a new skin, but the frame hidden beneath it is also much different than the old 900SS, and the improvements to the engine, though minor, offer real improved drivability.

Ducati\'s supersport tradition goes all the way back to their 1972, 750SS that Paul Smart took to the top of the podium at Imola, with his teammate, Bruno Spaggiari, finishing right behind him in second. With that original 750SS, Ducati became one of the first manufacturers to build cafe racers for the street. Prior to that, sportbikes didn\'t exist and if you wanted a cafe racer you had to build it yourself.

The new 900SS was designed by Ducati\'s Design Director, Pierre Terblanche. Terblanche\'s concept was to create a machine that looked radically different from the previous 900SS but would extend the trends of Ducati\'s styling cues. To that end, the new 900SS hinted at the styling of Ducati\'s radical Supermono, and maintains Ducati\'s distinct image. The fairing lower is the most striking part of the 900SS\'s appearance with the big black tank pad an easy second. But that pad offers much appreciated comfort, and for my money it adds to the sporting look of the machine.

The engine of the 900SS is where the fewest changes occurred, but the differences amount to a much friendlier powerplant. Internally, the changes are in the valve timing. Both exhaust and intake valves now have longer durations, adding to the bike\'s horsepower. But the real news is in how the engine is fed. Gone are the old CV carburetors and in their place is a Weber electronic fuel injection system that Ducati refers to as ECU. The ECU is an engine management system that is much smaller than the units used by Ducati in the past and it includes a diagnostic system for servicing. The ECU system\'s benefits are many, giving the 900SS spot-on carbureting, lower emissions, and improved fuel economy.

Also altered on the new 900SS engine are the alternator and cooling system. The new alternator puts out more power at low rpms ensuring a happy battery for the 900SS that are destined to live most of their days in the city. The cooling system now includes air scoops that direct air to the cylinders when the bike is in motion. It seems simple enough and Ducati insists that it\'s effective, too.

The biggest news about the 900SS is the bike\'s redesigned chassis. Out front, the steering geometry has been changed from 25 degrees of rake to 24, and the trail has been shortened 3mm, to a new measurement of 100mm. That\'s about an eighth of an inch to us Yanks. What this means is that the bike is now less heavy in its steering but nowhere near the point of making the bike any less stable. The 900SS comes without a steering damper and it is a good bet that no one will ever bother installing one. Well, except maybe for the coolness factor.

The upside down Showa fork diameter has been increased by 2mm to 43, making for less flex under braking and when clobbering sharp bumps. The beefier tubes also allow for a shorter wheel base due to the fact that less clearance is now needed between the forks and the front of the engine. Yes, forks do bend back under braking and at least one bike from another manufacturer had a problem with one of their bike\'s front tire wearing a hole in its radiator when ridden in race conditions.

The rear suspension has been altered to give the 900SS a longer negative stroke to help maintain rear tire contact with the ground under severe braking. Both ends of the bike are fully adjustable for compression and rebound damping, and for spring preload. Also at each end are lighter wheels that offer improved suspension response and lighter steering because of their lessened amount of unsprung weight.

The brakes on the 900SS have been updated to the type of system found on the 916 and ST bikes. They feature a different channeling of the hydraulic plumbing and improved lever ratio for a better feel together with stiffer mounts for less flexing of the system.

So, there you have what appears to be just a few minor improvements for the 900SS over its predecessor. It doesn\'t seem like much worth writing home about, does it? But it is. I was absolutely unprepared for how much better the new 900SS proved to be once I jumped on it for a ride. It\'s amazing how attention to a few details can completely alter the behavior of a motorcycle.

Around town, the new 900SS is much friendlier than the old one because the bike\'s lightened steering makes it much easier to pilot it through the slow, 90-degree corners of intersections. Additionally, the efi. . . oh yeah, I mean the ECU, is so dead-on in its management of the ignition and injection system that there is absolutely no stumbling at low rpms. The 900SS is the only twin I\'ve ever ridden that can motor away from idle without a chug, a clunk, or a lash of the drive line. Off the line at a stop, the 900SS has the expected lowdown torque of a big twin but it also has the smoothness that\'s usually found only on an inline four. At 1,300 rpms this bike just goes with nary a complaint. Did I just use the word nary?

The 900SS is also a very comfortable machine for a full-out sportbike. The rider fits down into it sort of like on the latest versions of the Suzuki GSX-R, and the really neat padding on the back of the tank offers great insulation from a hard part that I guess most of us had taken for granted as something we\'d just have to live with. And like all Ducatis, the 900SS is real narrow at the rear of the tank allowing the rider to hold his legs in tight, as if on a bicycle. I\'ve always liked that.

I rode the 900SS on the track at Pocono and found it to be just as stable as Ducati had promised. And that\'s without a steering damper. Although the track has been repaved, the blacktoppers were careful to follow the contour of the old bumps so as not to lose any of their shape. The result is that the track is pretty much the same as it\'s always been -- just newer. But the 900SS handled the transitions on and off the tri-oval with great confidence, allowing me to keep the throttle twisted on as I accelerated in full lean onto the front straight. Ground clearance with the 900SS was not a problem either. Most of the rest of the bumps on the track only work the slow speed of the damping because those bumps are primarily just mild undulations. The 900SS handled those simply as a matter of course.

In the real tight hairpin in the second infield section of the Pocono track, the 900SS felt a little longer and heavier steering than the ZX-6R I also rode that day, but it was still much lighter than any other Ducati, save the Monster. And too, the 900SS allowed for enough cornering speed in that tight turn to remove any fears of toppling over for lack of motion. Slow turns can be more difficult than fast ones because at a low speed and a deep lean angle you often don\'t have time to save a bike from falling over if things go wrong.

The 900SS\'s brakes were spot-on and its chassis took care of the bumps and braking loads without a complaint or hint of instability. In fact, I doubt you could ever get the 900SS to scare you with a shake or a shimmy. Like most Ducatis, I\'m guessing that the distance between the steering head and the swingarm mount on the 900SS is longer than on any of the sportbikes from Japan. We\'ll look into this and start reporting measurements like that soon.

The last time I rode an old version of the 900SS was at a Metzeler tire intro in Italy last winter. That bike requited itself well but it also seemed to have lost a bit of its spunk and character over the years. This new 900SS has got it all back. It is a Ducati from its sexy looks, to its Desmo engine, to its lattice frame. The new 900SS is a testament to the art of refining detail in order to redefine a bike\'s capabilities. I\'m absolutely astounded by what a nice bike the new 900SS really is. And that\'s without excuse or qualification. Well, except I like it in yellow best.

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