Showroom Showdown: Four Scramblers

Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, if you wanted a bike that could handle street and off-road duty, it was called a scrambler. These bikes were usually pretty similar to the standard street motorcycles of the day, with a few basic changes: high-mounted exhaust pipes, maybe an alloy fuel tank to reduce weight, and knobby tires.

By the 1980s, the dual-purpose bikes resembled off-roaders much more closely than they did street bikes (Honda XL350, Yamaha XT600, Suzuki DR200, for example), and the term “scrambler” fell by the wayside, until Triumph revived it in 2006. The new Triumph Scrambler looked a lot like the dual purpose bikes of old: a machine with classic street lines, but also a high-mounted exhaust and knobby tires.

Now, several manufacturers are marketing motorcycles under the scrambler name: there’s the BMW R NineT Scrambler (CMG has one for the summer), the updated Triumph Scrambler, the Yamaha SCR950, and Ducati now has a whole sub-brand labeled as scramblers, some of which aren’t intended for off-road usage.

For this spec sheet comparo, we’ve chosen Ducati’s Scrambler Desert Sled, its most off-road oriented bike in this class, to go up against the Yamaha, Triumph, and BMW. For more details, you can also visit the CMG Buyer’s Guide, with the Yamaha’s specs here, the BMW’s specs here, the Ducati’s specs here, and the Triumph’s specs here.

scrambler comparo
The R NineT Scrambler has the biggest engine, and makes the most horsepower and torque.

Power

The BMW R NineT Scrambler is the most powerful bike here, putting out over 100 hp (101-109 hp, depending who you ask). It has the biggest engine, so it’s no surprise. However, the next-biggest engine, the Yamaha SCR950, has the wimpiest horsepower rating of the bunch—around 54 hp, or slightly less, again depending who you ask. The Triumph Street Scrambler makes a couple ponies more. The Ducati Desert Sled, the smallest engine of the bunch, makes 74 hp from its L-twin motor.

The Beemer makes a lot more torque than the other bikes, putting out 85.6 ft-lbs at 6,000 rpm. The Yamaha and Triumph are again pretty evenly matched, making 59ish ft-lb of torque at 3,000 rpm and 2,850 rpm respectively. The Ducati makes 50.2 ft-lbs of torque at 5,750 rpm.

Of course, horsepower and torque ratings are not the be-all, end-all, as all these machines are capable of touring at extra-legal speeds.

It’s a stylish looker, but the Yamaha SCR950 is a very heavy bike, due to its cruiser roots.

Weight/Ergos

With a 248 kg curb weight, the Yamaha is by far the porkiest of this bunch. The BMW weighs 220 kg at the curb, and the Ducati is rated at 207 kg. Triumph does not list an official curb weight for the Street Scrambler; it’s rated at a 206 kg dry weight.

The Ducati Desert Sled is the clear winner on weight. However, its seat height (860 mm, with 840 mm option) is higher than than the Street Scrambler (790 mm), the R NineT Scrambler (820 mm) and the SCR950 (830 mm).

Depending on your viewpoint, this can be good or bad. Many scrambler buyers are looking for a bike that’s easy to throw a leg over and cruise around town. However, Ducati does have other models in the Scrambler lineup that are more accessible to these buyers, and the Desert Sled is aimed at a crowd that’s more focused on off-road performance. A high seat height is preferable to many riders in an off-road scenario.

The Ducati Desert Sled has the most suspension travel of any of these bikes, and there’s lots of adjustability as well. The other bikes in the Ducati Scrambler lineup have more rudimentary suspension.

Suspension/Wheels

There’s no greater indication of a motorcycles’s off-road capability than its suspension and wheels. In this case, all four of these bikes have 19-inch front wheels and 17-inch rear wheels; those rim sizes are the standard of modern scramblers, allowing for moderate off-road utility while still retaining decent street handling. A 21-inch front hoop would handle the dirt better, but would slow down steering on asphalt.

The suspension differs greatly on all these bikes, though. The BMW R NineT Scrambler has old-school telescopic forks up front with 125 mm of travel and no adjustability. Its rear shock has 140 mm of travel, and is rebound- and preload-adjustable.

The Yamaha SCR950 has standard telescopic forks up front as well, with 120 mm of travel, and dual preload-adjustable rear shocks with only 70 mm of travel. That’s a recipe for a sore backside, or worse (maybe a blown shock or battered subframe) down a bumpy dirt road.

The Triumph Street Scrambler has KYB cartridge forks, with 120 mm of travel; rear suspension also comes from KYB, with preload adjustability and 120 mm of travel.

The Ducati Desert Sled has 200 mm of travel front and rear, with fully-adjustable USD front forks and a rear shock adjustable for preload and rebound. This is the most appealing suspension of all these models. Other Ducati Scrambler models have suspension with far less capability; this bike was upgraded specifically for off-road usage, and is part of the reason the price tag is as high as it is.

The Street Scrambler offers a lot for your money, although the value of any deal depends on what the buyer is looking for.

Pricing

There’s a wide range in pricing here; the Yamaha SCR950 is the lowest-priced, at $10,199, and the BMW is the most expensive, at $14,250. The Ducati is $12,995, and the Triumph is $11,600.

If all you want is an around-town poser, the SCR950 is certainly going to get the job done for less money. The BMW seems a bit dear for what it is, without any new technology here, but you’re going to pay for the brand name. The Desert Sled uses a recycled engine as well, but it’s significantly cheaper than the Beemer. But the all-around winner on pricing is probably the Street Scrambler; the Triumph has a well-rounded package with modern touches like traction control and switchable ABS, as well as a new motor, and the bike is lighter than the outgoing model it replaces.

Conclusion

Given the differences between these motorcycles, you can’t say one bike is better than the others. But, it’s possible to make a few predictions about sales and suitability in the real world.

The BMW R NineT Scrambler is likely to sell well to style-conscious urban poseurs, but it’s hard to see a Beemerphile who’s a serious adventure rider or touring enthusiast going with this machine over other BMWs that offer more performance for similar money. This is a bike that BMW had to build, but it’s got stiff competition even within its own lineup, from the Urban G/S. But, there are plenty of people buying sharp-looking retro motorcycles now, and the power and all-round suitability could turn this bike into a sales success not only for retro enthusiasts, but also for riders looking for a solid all-rounder with decent build quality and looks that didn’t come from a Transformers cartoon.

The Yamaha SCR950 is really just a restyled cruiser, and the spec sheet shows that. Having said that, it’s very affordable when compared to the other models, and still has enough power for lots of fun on the asphalt. Its main limitation is suspension, just like the Bolt, the bike it was based on. It’s likely to be a modest sales success, despite its unsuitability for usage off-pavement.

The Ducati Desert Sled is at the top of the pack when it comes to off-road usability. Launch stories have crowed about the bike’s capability in the dirt. But, given Ducati’s spotty reliability record, will riders be able to trust the Desert Sled off the beaten track? We’d guess the Ducati faithful will flock to this bike, while those who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid may be a bit more skeptical until the machine proves it can be trusted. True off-road enthusiasts are far more likely to be interested in a legit off-roader from the Big Four or KTM, and wannabe buyers concerned about style have plenty of other options. The Desert Sled does compare well against the Beemer on price, though, and is certainly more exciting than most of the scrambleresque offerings on the market today.

The Triumph Street Scrambler continues to offer a well-rounded blend of conservative styling and modest power, weight, and suspension specs. However, the new bike, with its standard electronics package, is arguably the model with the most heritage, and it comes in at an attractive price. The question for Triumph will be, will anyone get excited about the updated scrambler, or will they be lured away by the flashier offerings elsewhere?

3 thoughts on “Showroom Showdown: Four Scramblers”

  1. The term “scrambler” didn’t fall by the wayside for no reason. When scramblers were popular, it was because “scrambles” was the dominant form of off-road racing in North America. Of course, manufacturers were marketing off that. When European motocross came in during the 70’s, with its different rules and bikes, manufacturers duly tried to capitalize on that trend and scramblers went the way of scrambles.

  2. Out of this bunch the Ducati is the only one that appears to me at all. But really I have no interest in taking any bike as large as these off road, so I’d probably go for the regular Scrambler. The Yamaha has way too little suspension travel even for the road, the Triumph is way too retro for my liking (styling belongs to bikes made before I was born, and I’m fifty years old!), and the BMW is just a styling exercise on an otherwise solid touring bike. But there is a Triumph Street Twin model that I like (the most basic one, with cast wheels), and there are definitely other BMW models I would consider – just not this one.

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