On my recent foray into Europe I had the opportunity to get a Guzzi loaner for a couple of weeks to act as a mule for my trip. I did over 3,000 km of glorious Italian mountain roads, Mediterranean highway and French Alpine passes.
Did I take the sexy V7? Or the Griso? Norge? Surely the Stelvio? I love adventure bikes after all. Nope, in an uncharacteristic move to broaden my experience, I opted for Guzzi’s new California 1400 Tourer. Yes, it’s a cruiser. No, the sky is not falling in CMG land. It’s just slightly cracked.
The California name first appeared in 1971, based on their V7 (750) of the time but adapted with police gear at the request of the Los Angeles police department, and then mass produced for the public the following year in 850 form (though without the bullet proof windscreen).
In the 80’s, it grew into a 1000, then up to 1100 in the nineties, where it stayed until the latest 1400 incarnation this year, being reinvented seven times throughout its history. That makes it Moto Guzzi’s longest-running and most successful model ever with over 100,000 units produced over its 40-plus years in production.
The 1400 California is a completely new motorcycle, with a bored-out version of the V11’s across-the-frame V-twin motor (now 1380 cc), a six-speed gearbox and new shaft drive, along with a new cradle frame with elastic mounts (the motor is no longer a stressed member in order to try and control vibration), and electronic doo-dads such as traction control, ride-by-wire and cruise control.
It comes in two formats; the California Tourer and California Custom. The Tourer, as you would expect, is based on the Custom but comes with all the bits for a longer tour such as 35-litre hard bags, tall screen, wider and taller bars, accessory lights, crash bars, and a full passenger seat. The engines are the same and in the same state of tune (96 hp and 87 ft-lbs of torque), but the big differences are curb weight (the Custom is 19 Kg lighter) and MSRP (the Custom is $3,000 cheaper).
Having Aprilia as part of the Piaggio group is helping with tech development on Guzzis, with the California boasting such marvels as ride-by-wire and traction control; these being lifted from the Aprilia RSV4.
My first and foremost concern with the California would be whether it would accommodate my godly 6’ 4” frame in comfort. First impressions were good, with decent legroom (though my riding pant’s knee pads could just touch a cylinder) and a roomy riding zone, but the seat proved to be too tight. It was stepped in fine cruiser tradition, but the step was too far forward, which meant that my arse was always pushing somewhat against it.
Despite this, I could do surprisingly long stints in the saddle (one day ended up a 17-hour slog, thanks to a lack of operating gas stations in the Alps) with only the back of said arse lodging regular, but not ride-limiting, complaints. I would move back and sit on the passenger seat every now and then for some relief, though I think the sight of a lanky yellow-jacketed oaf stretched from rear to front may not have helped the coolness factor.
Unfortunately, although Guzzi offer a host of accessory seats, there’s no lanky sod option, but I must stress, this was the only comfort issue I had in 3000 kms and two weeks of testing.
It’s probably a good point to mention the screen. It’s a great wind blocker (no doubt helping the comfort factor) and although it was perfectly positioned for me as I could peep over the top, smaller riders (i.e. most everyone else) will likely have issues with it as it cannot be adjusted, forcing the rider to look through it.
I also found the bags were a little on the small side. They had decent capacity, but they had a small opening that meant everything had to be placed in or taken out individually in order to get it to fit.
But what about handling? I must admit I was somewhat concerned about how the bike would behave in all those European narrow, high-speed twisties. My experience with cruisers has usually meant the suspension bottoms out or is overly stiff and corners come with ill-handling, sparky touchdowns that fray the nerves and stymie the point of motorcycling.
Despite the old-school twin-shock setup in back, with non-adjustable telescopic forks, I had no complaints about the suspension. It was soft enough to keep me comfy, yet hard enough not to wobble like a drunken Scotsman mid-corner.
I slowly pushed the California more and more, each time until I was riding it to within 80% of a more suitable machine’s ability. Handling was simply astonishing for a machine of this style and weight, the only real limitation being the reduced ground clearance thanks to the large (but foldable) floorboards.
One incident en route to Tuscany saw me shoot past a car in a short straight and then lean more and more and more into a gentle corner that hid its true switchback nature. Honestly, I thought I was about to make a trip into the weeds but the California (albeit with much screeching and an entertaining spark show for the riders behind) kept its line all the way around.
As if to further state that they can make a cruiser that works, the California’s fitted with a big pair of 320 mm discs, along with Brembo four-piston radial calipers.
I’ve never understood why some cruiser makers seem to think a heavy bike doesn’t need good brakes. It may be because Guzzi isn’t defined by the cruiser, or perhaps their relation with sister company Aprilia, but it’s just what the doctor ordered.
You still need to give them a good squeeze to stop pronto, but I knew if I entered a corner just a tad too fast, I could give that good squeeze and the Cali would shed speed quickly and in a very controlled manner.
They’re also equipped with ABS which although you can get a moment of squeak as the wheel locked before the ABS kicked in, I found it to be subtle (no pulsing) and when in Veloche mode, I found it kicked in surprisingly often.
A big set of jugs
Enough chat about comfort; what about the motor; the very soul that defines Moto Guzzi? The California is not a light motorcycle and it needs some V-Twin grunt if it’s to satisfy the cruiser raison d’être, and boosting the motor from 1100 to 1400 has worked well.
Yes, it rattles and shakes around, but since it isn’t a stressed member of the chassis, few of those discomforts actually get back to the rider. The massive spread of torque enables the Cali to pull well off idle. It was as happy to be chugged around or revved out.
Open her up and you’re propelled forward with a strong push all the way up to the 7,000 rpm redline. The amount of push depends on the power mode selected. The bike comes with three options; Turismo (touring), Veloce (sport), Pioggia (rain).
I found I generally left it in Turismo mode unless I wanted to try and keep up with a bunch of Italians on sport tourers – then I’d use Veloce mode. This frees up all the power and makes for a surprisingly agile motor with a good turn of speed, whereas Turismo mode just takes the edge of it.
If you ever find yourself unloading a California from the back of a van onto a rather wet cobblestone street of downtown Milan, then you’ll want to set it to Pioggia mode. If you’re riding on wet cobbles, surrounded by crazy Italian drivers in a city with seemingly no legible road signs, having the option to castrate a very torquey motor is a blessing.
There’s also adjustable traction control, but since I wasn’t on a racetrack or trying to steer with the back wheel on gravel roads, I just left it on in standard setting, safe in the knowledge that if I did grab too much of a handful of throttle I would be most likely saved from trying to right the beast in front of a chorus of blaring Fiat horns and snickering supermodels.
Overall I found the motor to be an absolute pleasure, whether gingerly winding my way through a wet Milan or booking along the Autostrada through hill and over valley along the Mediterranean coast like a foreigner who couldn’t get a ticket. Often I found myself buzzing along in fourth (the Cali revs up to the 7,000 rpm redline without fuss), only to realize that there were two more gears to go, with sixth a very mellow low rpm pull at highway speeds.
Perhaps the only thing that I didn’t like was the gearbox, which felt like the only old school part left. It’s not terrible, but it did need a firm boot and changing down would give an audible “Ker-Klunk” in fine cruise tradition. The clutch was a tad on the heavy side too – not a problem on the highway, but noticeable if stuck in town.
The downer bit
The Tourer comes with an alarm system that needs to be deactivated by pushing a button on the key fob otherwise the bike won’t start. Sounds simple enough, no? Well, during a late-night gas stop, the alarm wouldn’t deactivate and the bike wouldn’t start.
I tried everything, until in a desperate attempt to save me having to grab a taxi and head to the uber-expensive town of Cannes to find a ‘cheap’ hotel, I decided to pull all the fuses one last time. The alarm squeaked and I quickly hit the start, which worked, to my gleeful schoolgirl-like high-pitched yelp and clapping of hands.
It had been a rather stressful two-hour process, and was not isolated to the one incident, occurring a couple more times (all in gas stations oddly), and only fixable by wobbling the fuse around until the alarm squeaked. I’m assuming that it was merely a defective fuse holder, but it was almost enough to ruin my France excursion.
The California’s tank has a capacity of 20.5 litres, though I’d find that the reserve warning would tend to come on with five litres or so still to go, which had the effect of making me a tad nervous of running out of gas.
However, in mixed riding conditions the fuel economy delivered was not bad, returning 14 km/l (7.15 l/100 km) or 33.2 mpg for our US readership (that’s close to 40 mpg for the guy in the UK that reads us). That gives a range of 287 km, plus or minus 20 km, depending on how hard you rode.
You may have gathered I’m not a cruiser type; I prefer function over form. Give me an ugly bike that rides well and it’s not so ugly anymore. Give me a pretty bike that doesn’t handle, stop or even offer any real comfort and it’s a crap bike, no matter how the pretty chrome sparkles.
The California is probably the first cruiser that I’ve ridden that I could actually see me owning at some point in the future. Sure, the seat doesn’t accommodate my stature, there’s floorboards and they do scrape (albeit without lifting the rear wheel) and it weighs an unfathomable 337 kg wet, but it works.
The motor shakes and rattles but it has real power and a sea of torque. The chassis and suspension hold it all together brilliantly, even in some pretty gnarly twisties and the brakes, brake (what a notion).
Guzzi have made a bike that should have the executives at the MoCo shaking in their boots, especially with a $18,490 price tag that puts it $1,500 below a comparable Road King. But with little dealer network and an MG on the tank instead of HD will sadly probably make the California a relatively rare sight on North American roads.
The Factory Tour
Since I had to drop the California off at the Moto Guzzi factory in Mandello Del Lario at the end of the test, I’d asked my Guzzi handler, Daniele Torresan, if I could get a quick tour of the factory that has been churning out the famous brand since 1921. Daniele, being the kind soul that he is, took a day off work to meet me there and show me around.
The factory is located on the shores of Lake Como. It’s an idyllic spot, nestled in the southern foothills of the Alps and a somewhat unusual a place to find a motorcycle factory (though rumour has it any previous attempts to move the factory to a more suitable location have been fiercely fought by Guzzi loyalists and factory workers).
Despite being owned by the Piaggio Group, the Mandello Del Lario factory is dedicated purely to their Moto Guzzi brand and consists of two production lines: one for the bigger bikes such as the California and 1100 lines, and one for the smaller V7 line (which BTW, is Guzzi’s best seller, making up about 40% of all sales), and employs a total of 110 locals.
The production lines make batches of bikes per each country’s demands on a quarterly basis based on the numbers that each country’s dealers/importers demand. So say Canada ordered 50 California’s, the line would finish the previous country and then start on the Canada order, building in the various Canada specific requirements, such as lighting and bilingual stickering.
Total capacity for the factory is 10,000 units a year, which the factory was at in 2006, just before the market got hit by the worldwide financial crisis. Nowadays it’s at a more modest 7,000 units.
The factory is also home to the official Guzzi museum, a quaint but complete record of Guzzi’s history – both production and racing. Trouble is, since it’s inside the factory wall it’s only open during the limited factory hours (and that doesn’t include weekends) although Daniele informed me that a new building on the outside is underway to accommodate tourists.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
|2013 Moto Guzzi California 1400 Touring
|Air/oil-cooled transverse V-twin
|96 HP at 6,500 rpm
|87 ft-lb (120 Nm) at 2,750 rpm
|200/60 R 16
|Dual 320 mm stainless steel floating discs, Brembo radial calipers, four horizontally opposed pistons
|282 mm stainless steel fixed disc, Brembo floating two-piston caliper
|740 mm (29.1 in); optional 720 mm (28.3 in)
|1685 mm (66.3 in)
|337 kg (743 lbs)
|Two years, On year roadside assistance