Motorcycle Test: Moto Guzzi California Aluminum Special Sport

Recently rescued by Aprilia, Italian cruiser maker Moto Guzzi has improved its motorcycles and expanded its cruiser line.

Moto Guzzi
The Moto Guzzi California Aluminum Special Sport steers easily, is far more maneuverable than the average cruiser and maintains excellent straight-line stability.Jeff Hackett

This article was originally published in the August 2003 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Moto Guzzi has been through a rough couple of years. In fact, if not for an 11th hour bailout by Aprilia, it's quite likely Moto Guzzi would now reside in that big showroom in the sky. While the infusion of Aprilia's cash and engineering talent promises great things to come, the immediate problem is, or at least was, keeping the name alive and generating some cash flow. To that end Guzzi has upgraded some old standards, one of which, evolved from the California Special Sport series, is now offered as the California Aluminum Special Sport.

Styling wise, the Aluminum is something of a dichotomy. On one hand it's got the swoopy, flowing lines Italians do so well, and on the other, the dull paint and the size of some of the parts it's been applied to, such as the oversized handlebars and risers, conspire to give the bike a distinctly industrial look. The big cylinders poking out from under the tank don't help either -- the matte finish gives them the look of an air compressor. The rest of the ancillary pieces are done up quite nicely. The headlight brackets, for example, are carved from aluminum, the footpeg mounts from aluminum castings. For those who like glitter, a bit of chrome is sprinkled about to add some eye candy. On the chintzy side, there are more plastic-trim pieces than I'd like to see, but at least these are well made and fit properly.

Moto Guzzi
Styling wise, the Aluminum is something of a dichotomy. On one hand it's got Italian style and on the other it oozes a distinctly industrial look.Jeff Hackett

A Handling Fool or a Fool for Handling?

The first clue that the Aluminum is a bit more sporting than your average cruiser is the adjustable, hydraulic steering damper nestled under the left side of the triple clamp. Connected to the damper is a 45mm Marzocchi fork, complete with a bridge-style fork brace. No provisions for adjustment are offered, but none are really needed.

The frame geometry also reflects the Aluminum's sporting, or at least standard, heritage: The rake is 29.5 degrees, the trail 4.25 inches, and the wheelbase 61.4 inches. While these numbers are extremely conservative by current standards, they do lean more toward the sporting side of the road than most cruisers. The rear suspension is a conventional swingarm with dual shocks. Again, there are no damping adjustments, just a spring preload adjuster. The wire-spoked rims, a 2.50X18 front and 3.5X17 rear, require tube-type tires. Our test bike wears a 110/90X18 Metzeler ME33 front sneaker and a 140/80X17 Metzeler ME55A at the rear. Both tires stick like a nailed-on toupee.

Moto Guzzi
The efficient hydraulic steering damper is connected to a 45mm Marzocchi fork.Jeff Hackett

Overall, the suspension is compliant without ever becoming mushy. The bike steers easily, is far more maneuverable than the average cruiser and maintains excellent straight-line stability. Handling prowess is nothing without ground clearance, and the Aluminum has it in spades. Even during the most spirited back-road jousting the suspension never loses its composure and none of the hard parts ever hit the deck. The only fly in the handling ointment is the rear suspension, which feels just a tad on the stiff side at times. Whacking a sharp-edged bump usually telegraphs a jolt right to the base of my spine.

Moto Guzzi
The handlebar risers have a modern flair, helping to set off the trademark bulb tank.Jeff Hackett

Promoting Integration

Normally I'm not a big fan of integrated brakes, especially when they don't have an antilock braking system. In the past, I've found a lot to dislike about Moto Guzzis' linked brakes, particularly when the roads are slippery (and especially when the bike has floorboards). Having said that, I can honestly say the '03 version of the integral brakes are much improved.

Moto Guzzi
Nice Brembos with massive floating rotors up front are linked to a dual piston disc out back.Jeff Hackett

The hardware itself is decidedly un-cruiserlike. Up front, dual four-piston Brembo calipers squeeze 320mm floating rotors, with stainless-steel lines tying them together. In the rear, there's a dual-piston Brembo and a fixed 282mm disc. A generation ago brakes this good were cause for comment among the go-faster set, and for a cruiser they are absolutely top-shelf, more than capable of hauling down the 583-pound (dry weight) Aluminum from any speed it's capable of reaching. Both a proportioning and delay valve are incorporated into the brake system. Standing on the brake pedal turns on the rear and left front calipers just like it always has. However, the differential between the two brakes is no longer fixed. Initially, the proportioning valve split the braking force in a 70 percent rear to 30 percent front bias. However, the valve is now load sensitive and adjusts the braking bias to transfer more of the braking force onto the front wheel as required. If you need more whoa, squeezing the front brake lever activates the right front caliper. Rounding a sandy corner under braking,

I felt the front end slip once. Other than that little heart-stopper, the brakes have a solid, linear feel and provide far better feedback than previous versions.

Some New Tricks for an Old Dog

Guzzi's venerable air-cooled 90-degree V-twin has been around almost since the dawn of internal combustion. But that's not to say the old dog hasn't learned a few new tricks, the best of which are hydraulic valve-train lifters and no more routine adjustments or clattery valves.

The rest of the engine also receives some attention. New connecting rods claim to increase performance and reliability, as does a revised lubrication system with oil jets to help cool the pistons. To add a little pizzazz, compression is bumped from 9.5:1 to 9.8:1, a slight but significant increase. Displacing 1064cc and generating a claimed 74 horsepower and 70 foot-pounds of torque, the Aluminum has more than enough poke to keep things entertaining. The bike pulls hard from idle up to about 6500 rpm; after that the mill starts to run out of breath, though it'll twist itself right up to the 8000 redline if you want to thrash it.

Moto Guzzi
The Guzzi handles remarkably well and offers amazing ground clearance. Metzelers front and rear further enhance the bike's cornering prowess.Jeff Hackett

The Magneti Marelli sequential fuel injection performs flawlessly, with none of the low-speed, lean surging shenanigans that seem to plague other systems currently in use. Overall, the engine makes decent power, with a nice strong midrange, the kind you need when you're caught daydreaming while your buddy blasts past a car and you have to pin the thing in fifth gear at 3000 rpm to try and keep up.

The '03 engine also seems a bit smoother than its predecessors. This is apparently the result of a redesigned exhaust-system crossover that enhances low and midrange performance.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the transmission, which still has a distinctly agricultural feel to it. It also has a tendency to miss gears on occasion, most notably third in both directions. Overall, though, the five-speed box feels pretty robust, and when shifted slowly and deliberately works just fine. Perhaps with some more miles on the bike the shifting will improve. Clutch pull is a bit on the heavy side and gets tiring during stop-and-go riding, though the clutch action is sweet with a broad engagement point.

Moto Guzzi
The rear suspension is a conventional swingarm with dual shocks.Jeff Hackett

All the Rest

In the past, Guzzi's attention to detail was a little spotty, some bikes being very good, others less so. If our test bike is any indication, those days are over. Everything fits well and exudes an aura of quality.

The instrument panel is attractive and the gauges and idiot lights easy to read, with one crucial exception: The low-fuel indicator, positioned at the bottom of the light cluster, is amber and can be difficult to see in direct sunlight. More than once I missed the light's glimmer until it was almost time to start walking. Of course, since the tank holds five gallons with one in reserve, and I averaged about 35 miles to the gallon, the smart move would be to watch the tripmeter a little closer.

Moto Guzzi
The torpedo shaped mufflers set the tone for a conventional rear end.Jeff Hackett

Take Her Home?

At first glimpse I was concerned that the low seat height (29.5 inches), long reach to the drag-style handlebar and short footpeg height would fold me up like a carpenter's ruler. While it did take a few miles to get used to, the riding position turned out to be far more comfortable than I expected, especially during day-to-day use. Putting in an extended tour on this bike certainly wouldn't be out of the question. As delivered, I'd stick to the back roads, though. On the highway, the unprotected, upright riding position is tolerable until approximately 75 mph. After that I turn into a human spinnaker.

As long as you avoid the interstates, the Aluminum performs like a champ. Its light weight, low maintenance requirements and easy-to-live-with motor make it a fine go-to-work hack. After work those same attributes plus the sure, confident handling make it a great Sunday rider. And trust me, when it comes to semi-serious back-road charging, the Aluminum is at the top of the heap as far as cruisers go, and it's no slouch when compared to many standards. When wanderlust bites, throw on some bags and a windshield and you will have a great light tourer.

At a suggested retail of $10,790, the Aluminum isn't cheap, but neither is it exorbitant. For the dough you get a bike that's a handling fool, has decent power and won't be mistaken for anything else down at the local watering hole. Furthermore, when it comes to that nebulous "character," Guzzis have it by the bucket load. Its appearance is certainly subjective, but I grew to like it. Initially, I wasn't crazy about testing the Aluminum. Candidly, the last Guzzi I rode was a letdown. After living with this one for a few weeks my feelings have done a 180. I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Moto Guzzi
At a suggested retail of $10,790, the Aluminum ain't cheap, but neither is it exorbitant.Jeff Hackett

Specifications: 2003 Moto Guzzi California Aluminum Special Sport

Suggested base price: $10,790
Standard color: Aluminum
Standard warranty: 24 months, unlimited mileage
Engine & Drivetrain
Type: Air-cooled 90-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: OHV, two valves per cylinder, hydraulic lifters
Displacement, bore x Stroke: 1064cc, 92 x 80mm
Compression ratio: 9.8:1
Carburetion: EFI
Transmission: 5-speed, constant mesh
Final drive: Shaft
Dry weight: 583 lbs
GVWR: 1157 lbs.
Seat height: 29.5 inches
Wheelbase: 61.4 inches
Rake/trail: 29.6 degrees/ 4.25 inches
Front tire: 110/90VB18 tube-type
Rear tire: 140/80VB17 tube-type
Front brake: 2, 4-piston Brembo calipers, dual 320mm floating rotors
Rear brake: 2-piston Brembo caliper, 282mm fixed rotor
Front suspension: Marzocchi 45mm telescopic fork
Rear suspension: Dual dampers, adjustable for spring preload
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal., 1 gal. reserve
Instruments: Speedometer, odometer, tripmeter, tachometer
Fuel mileage: 35 mpg
Average range: 175 mi.
Rpm at 60 mph, top gear: 3000