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Ducati’s base-model Scrambler Icon has received a raft of tech upgrades for 2023, but has it lost its old-school charm?

Back in 2015, the original 803cc Scrambler Icon arrived with an abnormally large bag of marketing hype. Its press launch in California seemed to feature as many skateboards as Ducati motorcycles, and more influencers than motorcycle journalists. The targeting of young urbanites was relentless and while many, me included, recoiled at the Scrambler’s forced hipster image, the fact remained that this fresh, charismatic and relatively affordable Italian V-twin was enormously fun to ride. Like many, I couldn’t help but fall for the thing. 

Sales success followed. At times the Scrambler, in its various guises, has been Ducati’s top-selling model and quickly became a discrete brand within a brand. There have been several tweaks along the way, including a significant update in 2019, but for 2023 some 80 percent of the Icon (and its 803cc Full Throttle and Nightshift stablemates) is new, with completely new electronics and significant improvements to key areas of the charismatic air-cooled twin.  

At first sight, it might appear the ‘next-gen’ Icon hasn’t changed much, as Ducati has understandably stayed with its iconic shape and striking urban-retro styling. Mechanically, the 803cc Desmo V-twin produces the same 53.6kW (73hp) as before, but the exhaust routing is new and, more significantly, to comply with Euro 5, it’s now controlled by a ride-by-wire throttle. 

The new throttle opens the door to switchable riding modes (two of them: Road and Sport) for the first time, plus lean-angle sensitive traction control and an optional two-way quickshifter. The air-cooled engine also comes in 2.5kg lighter due to a new clutch. 

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Like the engine, the chassis appears similar to that of the older model, but changes are significant. The distinctive side-mounted rear shock moves to a conventional central position, necessitating a new swingarm and frame, while the subframe now bolts on. A lighter battery, plus those chassis updates and a new clutch add up to a 4kg overall weight reduction, bringing the Icon in at a claimed 170kg (dry).

The dash is now a 4.3-inch TFT item and HQ to the Scrambler’s new electronic goodies, clearly displaying which riding mode is active and which of the four traction control levels is set. Wheels remain an alloy-rimmed 18-inch front, 17-inch rear combination but are redesigned. The traditional single 330mm disc on the front wheel also stays, along with the Bosch cornering ABS introduced on the 2019 model.

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AMCN spent almost two days with the new Scrambler Icon, posing around bustling Valencia on day one, followed by a longer ride into the hills on day two. And we found that Ducati has made some serious progress with the new $18,000 (ride away) Icon.

Throw a leg over its flatter new seat and you’re greeted by that traditional laid-back riding position, which now feels a little sportier with the ’bar positioned 5mm lower and 17mm further forward. The old-school clocks are gone, replaced by a neat colour display (with full connectivity) to bring the Scrambler into line with its competition.

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You feel relaxed but poised, and up for a tussle with city traffic. Much as you may try to resist its hipster image, it’s also very easy to find yourself glimpsing in shop windows and enjoying the cool reflection of the Icon. Everything it does in town is effortless, the new clutch and throttle are light and precise, while the fuelling has no jagged edges to disturb your flow.

It’s not perfect, of course. The lack of a quickshifter is frustrating and will cost an extra $479 if you want one fitted to your Icon (it’s standard on the Full Throttle). On test – Valencia temperature 30°C – there was noticeable heat reaching my legs from the air-cooled twin. But the way the Icon turns on a stamp pulls U-ies with nonchalant composure soaks up potholes and flattens speed humps more than compensates – especially as it’s accompanied by a satisfying gurgle from the new exhaust on the overrun. 

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On day two of the Icon’s test, I rode 200km into the hills. The pace was brisk – this is a Ducati after all – but also relatively laid-back, which perfectly suited the new Scrambler. 

There isn’t a massive difference between the two engine modes. Both Road and Sport deliver the same peak power and torque figures, but Sport feels a little livelier. Peak torque is now quoted as 65.2Nm compared to the older Icon’s 67Nm, and now arrives at 7000rpm compared to 5750rpm, hinting at a peakier delivery.

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Ducati engineers assure us, however, that the new Icon’s torque curve is very similar to the previous model’s, with strong torque lower down and only a fraction less torque produced at 5750rpm than the outgoing machine.  

It certainly feels as grunty. You don’t have to chase the revs to have fun. The Icon still pulls happily up mountain passes in third and fourth gear only. If you do hold on to the revs in a lower gear, however, the 2023 bike has a little more urgency, especially in Sport mode. And while 53.6kW (73hp) may not be a number you want tattooed next to that inked Scrambler logo, the performance of the V-twin manages to relax and excite its rider in equal measure. It’s never too much or too serious but can easily dispense with aggressive car drivers or loft its front wheel (once the traction control is deactivated). It has no ego, but it does have attitude. 

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Handling, too, has always been undemanding and, in this respect, the new Scrambler remains as intimidating as a kitten. Now there are lean-sensitive rider aids to keep you safe, which may sound like overkill on a machine of this ilk but will be a welcome addition for new riders. It’s even useful for more experienced hands: when I hit a dusty manhole cover, the traction control kicked in, saving me from an embarrassing moment. 

The test route took in all types of roads, from switchback hillside passes to fast-sweeping dual-carriageways and cobbled village streets – and the new Scrambler adapted to all of them with ease. At higher cruising speeds, the free-spinning engine still feels relaxed and the handling is stable and predictable. The OE dirt-look Pirelli MT60 rubber is consistently impressive and, despite its blocky tread pattern, can be pushed surprisingly hard.  

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The suspension delivers a soft but controlled ride that suits new riders. For sportier souls, ground clearance is fine so long as you ride with your toes on the ’pegs – and the 2023 Icon certainly encourages a brisker pace than the older machine. That’s because the older bike felt like it steered from the middle, a bit (and only a bit) like a Harley Sportster, and the newer, lighter machine sits the rider slightly forward, with more feel for the front tyre contact patch. It’s a marginal change but the steering is more direct and faster, a bit (and only a bit) like a supermoto. 

There is a limit to its new sportiness though. If you keep pushing or try to keep up with the sportsbike crew, that comfortable, pothole-absorbing suspension that’s so brilliant in town will start to complain. The 41mm KYB fork carries no adjustment and, if you try to attack corners on the brakes, you lack the necessary support, especially as the 330mm front disc and Brembo caliper – which are perfectly setup for round-town efficiency – feel slightly overwhelmed when pushed hard. Better to back off and let the V-twin’s natural flow and willing spirit pull you along for the ride.

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After a full day of riding in a variety of environments, it’s hard to find the Scrambler anything other than a delight. It’s a naked, of course, and vulnerable to headwinds and the vagaries of the weather like all non-faired machines – but it’s fun everywhere you go if you ride to its strengths. 

Taller and shorter riders can opt for the higher and lower seat options (810mm and 780mm; stock height is 795mm) and, with so many accessories, it’s easy to personalise. In fact, a key ingredient in the Scrambler story is the degree to which owners can personalise their machines with factory kit. After all, not many production bikes come with three base colour options and six choices of secondary colours.  

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The first Scrambler was a relatively cheap stepping-stone into the Ducati brand. Prices have obvioulsy increased since 2015 but the 2023 Icon is still well less than $20k in its standard configuration. It’s lighter, livelier and more comfortable than the outgoing Icon and the extra $2400 buys you, among other assorted updates, lean-sensitive traction control and riding modes for the first time.   

The 2023 Scrambler is easy to ride, fun for both experienced and inexperienced riders, and a stepping-stone into the world of Ducati, the manufacturer that also happens to rule WorldSBK and MotoGP. Personally, and despite trying not to, I have fallen for the marketing. The Scrambler has its own way of doing things, is easy to personalise and looks great in the city. However, it’s not the bargain-price entry-level Ducati it once was. But if you want a quality, desirable entry-level bike, you’ve found it.  

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Test Adam Child + Photography Alex Photo