First Ride: Ducati’s First True Adventure Bike, the DesertX, Brings Dakar to Any Back Road

·4 min read

Looking at the 2023 Ducati DesertX against the stunning backdrop of Aspen’s ski mountains, I can’t help but notice how strong Ducati’s DNA runs in the latest addition to its lineage. Most evident are the genes of the Lucky Strike Cagiva Elefant (sic), the famed bike from then-Ducati-owned Lucky Strike and one of the halo motorcycles from the Paris-Dakar rally’s golden era of the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

The red, grey and black stripe down the side of the pearl white bodywork of the DesertX is a nod to that immortal machine, but underneath the retro-colored skin, this is a thoroughly new adventure motorcycle that has bikes from class leaders Yamaha, KTM, BMW and Triumph well in its sights. And that’s no small feat considering that the $17,095 DesertX is the Italian manufacturer’s first true off-road-purposed motorcycle.

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The 2023 Ducati DesertX - Credit: Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.
The 2023 Ducati DesertX - Credit: Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Unlike the more street-focused Multistrada V4 we tested last year, the DesertX was designed with the dirt first and foremost in mind. The model’s wheel setup (a 21-inch wheel in front and one measuring 18 inches at the rear), wrapped in Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR rubber, attests to that claim, as does the massive amount of wheel travel (nine inches of front and 8.6 inches of rear) from the fully adjustable KYB suspension.

With an altered version of the Ducati Monster’s 937 cc Testastretta L-twin providing 110 hp and 68 ft lbs of torque, the DesertX shoots straight to the top of the sub-1000 cc category, besting closest rival KTM and its 890 Adventure R to the tune of seven hp and five ft lbs of torque. But these differences mean next to nothing in this category—it’s about how the propulsion is applied that matters. In this regard, Ducati has gone harder than anyone else when it comes to the electronics for the DesertX.

With an altered version of the Ducati Monster’s 937 cc Testastretta L-twin, the DesertX delivers 110 hp and 68 ft lbs of torque. - Credit: Scott Rounds, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.
With an altered version of the Ducati Monster’s 937 cc Testastretta L-twin, the DesertX delivers 110 hp and 68 ft lbs of torque. - Credit: Scott Rounds, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Scott Rounds, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

In contrast to the analog Yamaha Tenere 700, the DesertX has almost every electronic aid and convenience you could want in a modern motorcycle. The revised motor pairs with six riding modes, including an Enduro and Rally mode, as well as four power modes comprising Full, High, Medium and Low. There’s also a three-stage Engine Brake Control (EBC), an eight-stage Ducati Traction Control (DTC), Ducati Wheelie Control (DWC), Ducati Quick Shift (DQS), cruise control and a three-stage Cornering ABS. All of the latter is fettled by the Bosch six-axis IMU and accessed by a funky five-inch display that looks suspiciously like my iPhone.

A closer look at the 21-inch front wheel, wrapped in Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR rubber. - Credit: Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.
A closer look at the 21-inch front wheel, wrapped in Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR rubber. - Credit: Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Mechanically, the gearbox houses shorter gear ratios—especially for first and second—and, combined with the variable engine-braking setting, allows the rider to crawl down rocky embankments with supreme confidence. This is indeed a large motorcycle with a 34.4-inch seat height, but the DesertX has exceptional level of balance and poise that belies its size while on the trail. The suspension is set such that the bike offers a very soft ride—too soft, in my opinion, for sporty adventure riding, but the adjustability enables the rider to customize the setting to attain the desired performance and ride experience. For me, that means a few turns of preload, and some extra front and rear compression. This helps hold the chassis up and allows the suspension to better soak up the bumps and not transfer them to the rider. Once this is achieved, the DesertX and I become firm friends as we tour up and, eventually, over the ski-resort mountain in Snowmass, Colo.

Allowing for plenty of room and range in ride position, the DesertX will be a perfect long-distance companion, especially when you fit the auxiliary gas tank that provides an extra 2.1 gallons, bringing the total capacity to 7.6 gallons. Ducati has thought of everything with the DesertX, and offers it with a massive array of aftermarket extras via its accessory catalog. Available are the likes of luggage, crash protection and various seat units, among the numerous other add-ons.

The electronics suite is accessed by a five-inch display that resembles an iPhone. - Credit: Scott Rounds, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.
The electronics suite is accessed by a five-inch display that resembles an iPhone. - Credit: Scott Rounds, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Scott Rounds, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

This is an excellent motorcycle from a company that has never made an adventure bike before, presenting impressive road and trail holding and more than enough power to do the job. One thing to note, however, is that unlike BMW, KTM and others in the category, Ducati gives the DesertX only one configuration. You don’t need to unlock various electronic paywalls to access higher levels of performance, which is something BMW in particular has been known to do. The price of the DesertX certainly reflects this, but it makes the buying experience far less confusing for the customer. Nice job, Ducati. The Cagiva Elefant has an exceptional successor.

Click here to see more photos from our test-ride of the 2023 Ducati DesertX.

The 2023 Ducati DesertX - Credit: Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.
The 2023 Ducati DesertX - Credit: Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

Gregor Halenda, courtesy of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A.

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