2008 Moto Guzzi Norge 1200

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Motorcycling is all about passion.  And there are no motorcycles in the world that evoke as much passion as those from Italy.  For decades, Italian motorcycles have earned a reputation for high performance, lusty engines and stunning good looks, sometimes at the expense of functionality – a trade-off that aficionados willingly make.

After a sporadic presence in the Canadian market in the 1980s and 1990s, Moto Guzzi is back.  Now part of the Italian conglomerate Piaggio, Guzzi has the financial backing to produce modern motorcycles such as the 2008 Moto Guzzi Norge 1200 sport-tourer we tested.

The open class sport-tourer is the most demanding segment in motorcycling.  Riders demand the comfort, weather protection and luggage carrying capacity of a Gold Wing on the open highway, and the performance of superbike when the road gets twisty.  The Norge comes with all the standard equipment ‘must-haves’ expected of a sport-touring motorcycle:  a powerful V-twin engine; removable hard-sided luggage; a fairing with an electrically-adjustable windscreen; shaft-drive; pre-load adjustable front suspension; anti-locking brakes; and heated handgrips.  But does the Norge 1200 have what it takes to duke it out with its similarly-equipped class competitors?  Namely, the BMW R1200RT, Honda ST1300A, Kawasaki Concours 14, and Yamaha FJR1300, arguably the finest all-round motorcycles on the market today.

Fire up the Norge and the big 90-degree across-the-frame V-twin shudders slightly at idle.  Our demo unit was plagued by an erratic idle that would occasionally wander between 1500 and 2000 rpm, then slow to 1300 rpm.  (We are told that a software program is now available for the ECU that cures this glitch.)  In stop-and-go city riding, the Guzzi protests like a thoroughbred horse yoked to a hay wagon.  An overly tall first gear (that is SO Italian), a dry-clutch that is sometimes ‘grabby’, and a clutch that engages near the end of the lever’s travel conspire to frustrate even the staunchest Italophile.  Smooth city riding requires lots of revs and clutch-slipping.

Free the big Guzzi of urban commuting duties, unleashing it on the open road and the Norge undergoes an eye-opening transformation.  The once recalcitrant Italian motorcycle becomes a highly capable sport-tourer.  The engine smooths, emitting a low frequency rumble, letting you know it’s working away happily below.  On the highway, the Norge feels much more relaxed than its unfaired Breva V1100 sibling (despite having the same 6-speed transmission and identical gearing) showing 4100 rpm at 120 km/h.  Every motorcycle has its ‘sweet spot’ and for the Norge 1200 it’s at a not-so-legal 130-140 km/h; great for Europe, perhaps a tad fast for Canada.

The Norge’s riding position is definitely on the sporting side, but comfortable enough for 8-to-10 hour stints.  The handlebars cant the rider’s torso noticeably forward and the footpegs are moderately rear-set.  The broad, flat, firm saddle (another carryover from the Breva) is one of the most comfortable in motorcycling.

Adding to the Guzzi’s sport-touring capabilities is its small but highly-effective fairing with electrically-adjustable windscreen.  We conducted our road test on a cold, 6 C day and the Norge’s air management is remarkable.  The small fairing/windscreen is positioned closer to the rider than any of its competitors, and provides smooth airflow.  With the cylinder heads deflecting air around the rider’s knees, the rider enjoys a cocoon of relatively still air.

Most motorcyclists think of big V-twin engines as low rpm torque monsters, but the Guzzi’s 1151 c.c. air-cooled powerplant loves to rev.  At low rpm, the engine is unremarkable, but twist the light-action throttle at 4,000 rpm and the sleeping giant awakes, emitting a satisfying basso profundo growl that sounds every bit like a small-block Ford V8.

The main instruments (speedo and tach) are analog and easy to read.  The tach has an rpm-adjustable redline warning light and a digital thermometer display is thoughtfully provided.  Guzzi designers also equipped the Norge with the latest electronic instrumentation – dual trip meters, stop watch function to measure elapsed time and fuel consumption to name a few functions.  Sadly, the LCD screen – with black digits on a beige background – is difficult to read.

The Moto Guzzi Norge 1200 is a conundrum.  On paper, all the right pieces are there to make it a superb sport-tourer, but choosing it over the competition is very, very tough, mainly because of the price point.

With an MSRP of  $18,995, the Norge 1200 is priced the same as the BMW R1200RT ($19,000) and very close to the Honda ST1300A ($19,699), Kawasaki Concours 14 ($19,099) and Yamaha  FJR1300, $19,099 (less $1500 rebate on 2008 models.)  Hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool Italian motorcycle enthusiasts will cross-shop the German BMW.  The RT is clearly more technologically advanced, has more power, and is more fuel-efficient than the Norge.  To the Guzzi’s credit, it’s strength lies in the bike’s inherent simplicity.  Both BMW R1200RT and Honda ST1300A have superior warranties (3 years, unlimited kilometers), while Moto Guzzi’s warranty is for 2 years (albeit with roadside assistance.)  A quick check of Moto Guzzi U.S.A.’s website shows the American operation has wisely chosen to price the U.S. Norge 1200 some seven percent less than the competing R1200RT.  In Canada, Moto Guzzi is banking on selling the Norge as a premium brand, but sadly, the Italian brand no longer has the recognition value it did twenty years ago.  Moto Guzzi needs to re-think its Canadian pricing strategy, knock down the price, move some units and build up the brand to position it once enjoyed.

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