Julian Challis travels to Corsica for the international launch of the Moto Morini X-Cape Adventure Bike
It used to be so much simpler. If you bought a British bike, it was designed and manufactured in Britain by a British-owned company based here in Blighty. If you fancied a German bike, you could be entirely sure that the company, the factory, and the very people that assembled your machine were as German as a Bratwurst and a stein of weiss beer.
And if you were brave enough to choose Italian, even if the bike had terrible electrics, inconsistent build quality, and was guaranteed to let you down with metronomic regularity, you could at least be confident that the machine had been lovingly assembled by Italian hands in a factory run by a proud family dynasty, that had been making bikes since the middle of the last century.
Fast forward to 2021 and the playing field is entirely different. Globalisation has changed the motorcycle industry beyond recognition, with many of the big players relocating their manufacturing base to South Asia, and many of the brands also being either fully or part-owned by vast companies from the same part of the world.
Add in the sourcing of components, technology, and indeed staff from all over the planet, and you soon realise that the motorcycle sat in your garage is a truly international effort.
As if to illustrate this very point, the launch of the all-new and thoroughly gorgeous Moto Morini X-Cape could not have been better. The historic Italian brand was formed back in 1937, making its first motorcycle in 1946. But as of 2018, it is wholly owned by the enormous Zhongneng Vehicle Group based in the Zhejiang province of China, with the design effort maintained within Italy, from just outside Milan.
The team running the launch are from a company based in central France, on behalf of Dutch importer Moto Mondo. And, to complete the international cast, the location for the event is the island of Corsica, a bright jewel of land located in the azure water of the Mediterranean between Italy and France.
We’d arrived on the island after a slightly stressful flight thanks to an unexpectedly tight transfer in Paris and a lot of jogging between terminals with luggage. But walking out of the Corsican airport, it’s all worthwhile as we are greeted with cloudless cerulean skies and a decidedly pleasant 25C of autumnal warmth.
Once we reach the small town of Zicavo, we’re greeted with the new Moto Morini that we’ve come to ride. It’s every bit as impressive in real life as it was on the advance pictures and press releases. Resplendent in the classically Italian and suitably named Red Passion colourway, the X-Cape is truly stunning in the soft evening sunlight.
Managing to both evoke the best of the market leaders and yet still look unexpectedly original at the same time, the Moto Morini designers have managed to produce a bike that is wonderfully sharp and sleek.
I don’t want to overstate this, but it’s a strange irony that at their first attempt at an adventure bike, Moto Morini and its Chinese owners have come up with a bike that is arguably far better looking than many of the existing players in the marketplace. From the aggressive slit headlights to the narrow mid-section tapering into the high rear section, the X-Cape ticks all the boxes.
Bright and early the next day, we’re kitted up and ready to ride, and I grab myself one of the four X-Capes available to ride. It’s a tiny number of bikes for a launch. But Moto Morini, like almost every other manufacturer, has been plagued by supply chain issues that have made completing the new bike far more challenging than expected.
The delays have not left the bike unaffected, and of these four pre-production bikes, only two are fully equipped as the actual motorcycle will be when it goes on sale in the spring. Two have no ABS and one has no display, so I’m quick to bag the more finished of the four, complete with its optional accessory GW panniers and supporting frames.
Slinging my leg over the saddle, the Moto Morini is a comfortable height at 845mm tall, with an optional low seat at 820mm if you prefer. For my 5’11” frame it’s just right, the wide unbraced steel bars having a shallow bend set on high risers that put them at a sensible reach and position.
A swift twist of the key brings the large but not excessive 7” TFT screen to life with the obligatory opening sequence, before settling into a simple and uncluttered central display flanked by the usual warning lights in the periphery of the screen.
The X-Cape is fairly low on adjustable options, so although you can change the display from black to white or automatic, link up your phone, change the displayed ride parameters, and toggle from road to off-road modes, you are not going to spend hours exploring the dashboard.
What is a refreshingly good bit of design is the fact that the screen is integral to the cockpit rather than sitting separately behind the screen. With TFT theft an issue with some brands, Moto Morini’s design looks a clever, if perhaps unintended deterrent.
The seating position behind the slim tank is pretty spot on too. The 18l tank rises high in front of the rider rather than going wide and splaying your legs, although the angle of the textured seat does tip you into the tank a bit more than I’d prefer.
According to the information we’ve been given, the screen is adjustable with one hand. And, although you can indeed turn the adjuster with one hand, moving the screen up or down requires two hands and a hefty push or pull.
With the tall, dark tinted touring screen secured in the low position and my kit stored in the side cases, it’s time to get riding. With a prod of the button, the 649cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin springs to life, a soft burble emitting from the narrow and sleek, Ducati-style end can.
Keen-eyed readers may have spotted that Moto Morini has saved the expense of developing an entirely new lump, and instead turned to the tried and tested performance and reliability of Kawasaki’s ER6 engine.
OK, so it’s not actually a Kawasaki motor, but it’s made under licence at the Zhongneng factory. And it’s a cracking choice for a mid-sized bike, and one already being used in the CFMoto 650MT. In fact, you have to wonder why Kawasaki aren’t making their own adventure bike with the ER6 engine inside.
Pulling in the cable operated clutch and clicking into first, we exit the steep climb up the road above the auberge and set out into the beautiful little village of Zicavo, clinging to the side of the steep-sided wooded valley. Straightway, it’s evident that the team in Milan and the engineers in China have got the geometry and feel of their new adventure bike just right.
The parallel-twin motor delivers beautifully usable power as we carve through the dusty glow of the early morning sunshine that falls between olive trees lining the exquisite road. But it’s not just the motor I’m enjoying, it’s both the predictable handling and the brakes on the X-Cape and their ability to steer me round the alarmingly large population of semi-wild pigs that evidently roam the woods and forests of Corsica.
Thankfully, Moto Morini has reached out to fellow Italians Brembo to handle the braking department, equipping the front end with twin 298mm discs and a brace of twin-pot callipers, backed up with a single 255mm and single pot unit at the back, with Bosch handling the ABS systems.
The units are both capable and strong enough for the bike, with a predictable and progressive feel that copes with every hazard the pigs and roads can provide.
After an hour or so, we’ve reached Col de La Vaccia, some 1,195 m above sea level with stunning views over the mountainous landscape south of the island. The team are set up for photographs here, but more importantly, there’s a tantalising off-road section alongside the road that is impossible to resist.
Moto Morini has not really pitched the X-Cape as an all-out, off-road adventure bike, so the choice of the 19-inch front and 17-inch rear has a more tarmac-based focus. But, with a new set of Pirelli Scorpion Trails on tubeless wire wheels, and the welcome addition of switchable ABS, it seems rude not to try it out.
And as soon as I’m away from the blacktop, I’m rewarded with a bike that feels as at home on the dry mountain tracks as it does on the roads I have just left. That’s doubtless thanks to the chassis, which combines a steel trellis frame that wraps around the motor from the headstock down to the black painted aluminium swingarm.
For the suspension, Moto Morini has kept close to home once again, fitting chunky 50mm USD Marzocchi forks with adjustability for rebound damping in the right leg and compression damping in the left. At the rear, there’s a single Marzocchi shock adjustable for preload and rebound damping.
I’m confident if you go in for some serious off-road action, you’d quickly find the limits of the suspension. But for soft-roading, the set-up works well.
The seat is pleasingly narrow and allows you to easily grip the tank, the pegs and bars are well-positioned when standing, and the bike feels well balanced and lighter than the 213kg of weight it’s actually carrying. What is not so good is just how noisy the front fairing is when you are off-road, but hopefully the finished bike will have some damping on the back of the panels to reduce this.
Back on the tarmac, we drop down from the mountains into dense woodlands, carving through the olive and cork oak trees. The twisty and tight roads take us to our coffee stop at Aullène, where we sit sipping beautifully strong espressos watching the comedic scene of a local dog chasing a group of uncooperative feral pigs through the small streets of the village.
Having got used to the handling of the bike, it’s a good time to swap over to one of the other X-Capes without luggage or ABS.
Our route out of the village takes us back up into the mountains and up towards Col de la Tana, and somewhat curiously, this bike has a far more punchy power delivery and seemingly longer legs than the first one I’d ridden. Moto Morini quote a fairly modest 60bhp and 56Nm of torque and, although I’m aware they’ve somewhat confusingly fitted two bikes with a 46-tooth rear sprocket and the other two with a 48-tooth rear sprocket, the difference between the two is more than gearing can really explain.
OK, so I know these are pre-production bikes, but I wasn’t really expecting two seemingly identical bikes to have different power characteristics.
Either way, the second bike is an improvement, and for the next couple of hours, I’m loving piloting the X-Cape down from the wooded mountains and towards the west coast of the island. The Moto copes with the increased speeds of the more open roads without missing a beat. Quoted top speed is just under 110mph, but there’s precious little opportunity to test this on our route south.
Just above Vetricella, the clear blue waters of the bay come into view, the arc of golden sand sweeping round to the port of Propriano. We ride through the narrow streets of the town where most of the cafes and bars are now closed for the season, deprived of the many tourists that visit during the long Corsican summers.
It’s good to have a bit of urban riding on the bike, and the X-Cape proves that like most mid-range adventure bikes, it’s perfect for the job.
With a delicious lunch finished off, and another espresso on board, it’s time for the journey back to base, so I hop back on the fully functioning X-Cape with luggage just to check my impression on the different power characteristics wasn’t mistaken.
Sure enough, the difference is real, and although the bike is enjoyable to ride, I’m missing the additional zip of the previous machine.
We continue northeast, back into the mountains. The pigs have done their wandering for the day and are happily dozing in the heat of the late afternoon. So, our progress north, while not exactly fast, is at least less hazardous.
When we finally reach Zicavo at just after six, we’re all happy to park up the bikes and grab a cool Biere Blonde from the bar. Today has been a good day. With the cool light of the evening sun now slipping behind the mountains, I have a moment to collect my thoughts on the new Moto Morini X-Cape.
And I have to say I’m impressed. For the firm to have gone through such a recent buyout from a distant and culturally different leviathan such as Zhongneng, and for the two of them to have created the X-Cape in such a short period of time is an astounding achievement.
For the bike to be quite as good as it is, as a first stab into a competitive market, is even more impressive. From the handling to the design, the components to the stance, the bike punches above its weight. It’s a little beauty.
Of course, the model of Chinese ownership of a much loved Italian brand is echoed in the fortunes of Benelli. But the Pesaro-based brand has been owned by their Chinese saviour since 2005 and has had more than 15 years to get used to the new way of working.
So perhaps within this context, the somewhat hasty organisation of the press launch with a small number of pre-production bikes and their unfortunate inconsistencies can be forgiven.
The new Moto Morini is a very capable and likeable motorcycle, and if Kawasaki had come up with this bike using their own ER6 engine as a first proper entry into the adventure market, then buyers would be queuing up at showrooms.
So, should you be persuaded to take a leap of faith with the all-new X-Cape? Well, we’ll have to reserve judgement until we can actually ride the final production machine in the first part of 2022, but on the basis of our trip to Corsica, the new Moto Morini is definitely worth a serious look.