When Moto Guzzi launched its updated cruiser, the California 1400, a month ago most of the U.S. motorcycle community agreed the Italians were firmly back on track. Even our own Wes Siler, after riding the California, felt it offered a "primal motorcycle experience in an incredible emotive way."
But were they all just enamored by a legendary historic name and alluring Italian design and ignoring some fundamentals that must make an average motorcycle a good motorcycle?
As the Italians would say, is the new Moto Guzzi California just a case of tutto fumo e niente arrosto? Or in other words all smoke and no fire?
RideApart reviewed the Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom in April but we felt it was worth revisiting the bike and taking a look at the more expensive Touring version.
Major differences include 10mm less travel on the Touring than the Custom’s suspension but both bikes use 46mm telescopic forks and dual shocks with adjustable preload damping on the rear.
The Touring gains some extra weight with elegantly styled hard bags that each have 1.2 cu.ft of storage, a non-detachable windshield, chrome driving lights, an engine guard, a more comfortable passenger seat and revised, higher handlebars that brings everything closer to the rider.
Throw in a chrome passenger rear grab rail, which would look more at home on the deck of an Italian Riva speedboat than on a motorcycle, and voila you have a Moto Guzzi California 1400 Touring.
Aside from all the added accessories, the touring is technically the same motorcycle as the Custom we tested. It’s just heavier with all the added kit.
After years in the doldrums Moto Guzzi is hoping the California 1400 will spearhead the company’s resurgence back into the heavy cruiser market and reignite the name of one of motorcycling’s oldest brands.
It’s all part of a much bigger plan too by the Piaggio Group, which bought the company and its Mandello del Lario factory, in Como, Italy in 2004 and since then has injected more than $54 million to bring the Moto Guzzi brand and its motorcycles back to the global market and not be just confined to Europe and the California is just the beginning of a series of new bikes we can expect to see.
When news came of the Moto Guzzi California the motorcycle world held its breath hoping that dubious build quality, idiosyncratic engineering (you couldn’t quite get your toe quite under the gear lever of the previous California) and a mismatch of parts had all been consigned to Moto Guzzi’s past.
Maybe it was worth the wait as from the outset when the California 1400 was shown last year at the Milan Motorcycle Show it was clear this was a different from anything we had seen before from the Italians.
The only nod to the past is the ‘California’ name that’s adorned various Moto Guzzi bikes for the last 42 years. The current California models are available only in either white or black with reverse accents on the tanks, which the company says is reminiscent of the 1968 V7 and 1970s 850 models that the California Highway Patrol once rode.
The white is a bit too sparkly for our taste, so if you’re considering a California 1400 Touring go for the more discreet black version. Otherwise, in white, with a screen and hard bags people will forever think you’re a cop.
Moto Guzzi claims the California is an all-new bike. Sure there’s a new frame but its venerable transverse engine is still there, mounted in the distinctive Moto Guzzi style so that the cylinders look like they are jutting out of the fuel tank. The brushed aluminum finned heads may help with cooling the 1380cc engine but in reality they are more for looks as the real cylinder heads lie directly beneath them.
The engine is based on Moto Guzzi’s 1151cc air/oil-cooled v-twin that has served its time in a number of the Italian marque’s motorcycles, but there are now larger pistons, making this motor the biggest that the company has ever produced. Yet there’s only a modest shift in torque from the original engine up from 80 to 88lb/ft and a claimed 95 hp at 6500rpm.
In the past the motor on a Moto Guzzi was always the stressed member in the frame. That idea has been dropped for the California 1400 so the frame has become heavier as a result and the motor is now rubber-mounted to help isolate the inevitable vibrations that come with the increased capacity.
The really good news is that, whilst the California may have all that Italian style, it also has a proper brain. Drawing upon the resources within the Piaggio Group (that includes Piaggio and Vespa scooters and Gilera and Aprilia motorcycles) the engineers have used the electronics from the SBK Championship winning Aprilia RSV4 to create in the California a cruiser with genuine sporting over tone.
Consequently there’s ride-by-wire throttle and switchable riding modes – Turismo, Veloce and Pioggia (touring, sports and rain). Pioggia effectively reduces the engines power by 25% in inclement weather, a three-mode traction control system and ABS all as standard.
But the California 1400 is no lightweight even in Custom form it comes in at 701lbs, but in Touring guise, with all of the added kit, there’s another 42lbs to lug around.
So on the face of it with the California 1400 Touring you have a big heavyweight Cruiser with a massive engine, some distinctive styling and a famous name. But is all of that sufficient to attract the attention of Harley Davidson or Triumph Thunderbird owners?
The California 1400 Touring gets different bars from the Custom’s. They move everything closer to the rider but turn down at the ends. Not the best set up for this rider and we thought the accelerator grip circumference was over large and not that user-friendly. But the overall riding position with the added screen is comfortable and straight forward and as you would expect to find on any good cruiser/tourer.
We were told by Moto Guzzi to give the California some time to warm up before the gearbox would start to work well. And it’s true. At first it’s clunky and at idle the motor makes the whole bike shake and vibrate. But as soon as you get going it all smoothes out and the six-speed gearbox and shaft drives becomes one of the nicest set ups we have found on any cruiser. The big v-twin engine pulls well below 1500rpm in the higher gears and the very tall, overdrive sixth is best left for relaxed cruising on the freeway.
On a midweek morning we took it for a blast through the canyons here in Orange County. Normally at the weekends you’re fighting for road space with other motorcycle riders but on this day we lucked out and had it all to ourselves and the California came into its own and it soon started to make sense why it has attracted some favorable reviews.
Despite its bulk it responds well with far more agility that you would expect it to and you can flick the California through the curves with real confidence as the steering is almost completely neutral and the bike resists running wide.
We also think it could out handle any other cruiser on sale at the moment, with the exception of the Diavel. It hustles happily through sweeping corners but you have to watch out as the California is eager to lean over, perhaps a little too much, and the floorboards don’t give much feedback when they start to drag.
Yet despite this you feel constantly in control on the California and always wondering how a bike of this weight and size achieves such a great, composed balance in the curves.
It’s pretty quick too, even though the power falls away as you start to edge closer to the red line. The engine’s flat torque band encourages hard reving but it tapers off at 7,000rpm. It sounds great under full charge with a gruff raspy note from those chrome-clad stainless steel 2-in2 exhausts.
However, it does take a bit of time to get adjusted to the two 90-degree cylinder heads that poke out just forward of your knees. They may well be a Moto Guzzi trademark but after a while, when they really start to warm up, you are constantly aware of them. In part this is because of the massive heat they generate and the fact your knees (particularly of this rider) occasionally knock against them in the corners.
There’s nothing new about an air-cooled motorcycle generating heat, but on a hot summer’s day we wonder if the heat coming off those big cylinder heads could become excessive during a long road trip.
All of the electronics on the California actually serves a purpose both from a safety aspect and from enhancing the riding experience. The three engine settings allow you to flick between them on the move at the touch of a switch; Veloce (sport) gives a sharper response and higher engine revs than Tourismo (touring), which is the more comfortable, smoother option. We didn’t get to test the Pioggia (rain) setting mode as it was dry throughout the test but it’s supposed to reduce power to the back wheel by 25% when the roads are damp and greasy.
You can’t alter traction control on the move. But there are three options depending on your riding style that increase the electronic intervention depending on how much help you want. If you really don’t like being told what to do you can opt for switching the whole thing off and make your own decisions. But we settled for the full on traction control as it’s good know you have a helping hand if and when you do something a bit stupid.
The California 1400 has terrific brakes with twin 320mm, 4-piston Brembo discs up front and 282mm 2-piston on the rear that can bring 742lbs of heavy motorcycle surprisingly fast to a quick stop. There is good feedback too and the ABS works progressively and smoothly with no chattering through the lever even under heavy braking.
There is though a question mark for us over the California’s gas consumption.
Moto Guzzi claim somewhere in the low 40 mpgs but even under moderate, not super aggressive riding we’d guess we were seeing an average of 35mpg just riding around town.
That means you could be making frequent stops to the gas station to fill up even though this big Moto Guzzi comes with only a 4.5-gallon tank.
The name. One of motorcycling’s most hallowed brands and the California 1400 makes it feel like you’re riding something truly special every single time you get on it. Its cruiser looks hide a very good motorcycle underneath that is well sorted and engineered and handles far better than you would ever expect. It has a ton of character and is the modern epitome of what a Moto Guzzi should be. And finally for a Moto Guzzi, thanks to its new owners Piaggio, it has the type of build quality that’s right up there with the competition.
The name. Here in the U.S. most people have never heard of Moto Guzzi or even know where their nearest dealer is. Moto Guzzi has a lot to do to create a proper retail network. Currently there are around 75 for the entire U.S. market compared to Harley-Davidson, which has something like 800.
It’s hard to justify the $3,000 cost difference between the California Custom and the California Touring. With all of the extra equipment you get a slightly heavier motorcycle that still has the inherent qualities of its naked sibling. The nicely styled hard bags can’t accommodate a helmet and you need a separate key from the ignition key to open them.
Heat from the air-cooled engine is to be expected but on a summer’s day it’s excessive and overall fuel economy is not that good. We’d also liked to see metal fenders on the California but due to cost and weight–saving they’re fabricated from plastic.
Italian style and engineering doesn’t come cheap. For the California 1400 Custom you have to shell out $14,990 and if you want all the extra hardware the Touring offers that comes in at $17,990. You can get a Triumph Thunderbird for a lot less at $13,499 or maybe you could consider something from the Harley Davidson Dyna line-up. But none of these would be as individual or as fun as the Moto Guzzi.
There was a time — and it was not that long ago — when you bought a Moto Guzzi motorcycle simply for the name and the history associated with it. You’d sit back and stare at the bike sitting in your garage and watch as bits fell off it and its value plummeted like a stone.
However, everything has changed. RideApart still stands by what it said when it first tested the California 1400 back in April. In both Custom and Touring form the California truly rides like a 21st century motorcycle. It handles and stops well and will reward the rider with big v-twin performance that belies it weight and size.
But save yourself $3,000 and go for the Custom. Although the screen, bags, engine guard and bigger seat are nice to have on the Touring you don’t need them to experience what a thoroughly modern Moto Guzzi is all about.
RideApart Rating: 7/10
Helmet: HJC RHPA MAX ($459)
Jacket: Alpinestars Viper Air ($200)
Gloves: Alpinestars Scheme Kevlar ($60)
Photos: Anne Watson