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Which Scrambler Motorcycles Can Actually Go Off-Road?

Going off-road doesn’t mean you always need a specialized machine, especially when it comes to motorcycles. In addition to dirt and dual sport bikes, people have taken Indian cruisers and Vespa scooters off the beaten path. This type of off-road modification was started decades ago with the first scrambler motorcycles. And today, as with other formerly custom bike styles, you can get a scrambler direct from the factory. But can these bikes actually go off-road, or are they just for looking cool?

What is a scrambler?

As RideApart explains, scrambler motorcycles were originally street bikes that owners modified for light off-road use. They fitted some underbody protection, braced handlebars, off-road tires, and raised the exhaust so it wouldn’t catch on rocks. Even bikes that weren’t intended for off-roading could be converted into scramblers.

2020 Yamaha WR250R
2020 Yamaha WR250R | Yamaha

Being derived from street-focused bikes, scramblers are different than dirt bikes, dual sports, and enduros. Those were designed for off-road use from the start, and are usually lighter, with more off-road protection and suspension travel. In addition, some of the more extreme dirt bikes and enduros aren’t road-legal.

2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin
2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin | Honda

Scramblers are also not adventure bikes. Although ADV bikes are better-suited to on-road use than dirt bikes and enduros, they’re also a bit more off-road-capable. In addition, scramblers are typically closer to standard motorcycles, while ADV bikes are more like touring bikes.

Off-road criteria

There are a number of motorcycle manufacturers offering scramblers or similarly-styled bikes. BMW, Yamaha, Husqvarna, even Indiana-based Janus Motorcycles. Indian has also recently released its FTR 1200, which is inspired by flat-track racers.

However, just because a bike apes the scrambler style, doesn’t inherently make it a scrambler. In the same way as the Jeep Gladiator and Wrangler’s ability to rock-crawl doesn’t necessarily make them the best overlanders or daily-drivers.

1972 Honda CL350 Scrambler
1972 Honda CL350 Scrambler | Bring a Trailer

Even the earliest scramblers, like Honda’s CL350, weren’t exactly gnarly off-roaders. Instead, they were meant to be able to smoothly transition from pavement to dirt or gravel. And that is the criteria used to generate this list.

The Indian FTR 1200, and Yamaha SCR950 are all stylish bikes, but Revzilla reports they’re best suited for paved roads. Ditto for the Husqvarna Svartpilen 401, according to Gear Patrol. The same goes for the BMW RnineT Scrambler, Revzilla and Cycle World report. In fact, if you want a compact BMW retro-styled bike that can venture off-road, the ADV-styled RnineT Urban G/S is the better choice.

That being said, there are some factory scramblers that can comfortably tackle off-road trails and the urban jungle.

Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled

Although the Ducati Scrambler was a welcome entry-level bike for the brand, it focused more on styling than off-road substance. Ducati rectified that with the Scrambler Desert Sled.

2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled | Ducati

To start, the Desert Sled has more ground clearance and suspension travel than the standard Scrambler, Jalopnik reports, thanks to adjustable KYB suspension. The Scrambler has about 5” of travel, while the Desert Sled has just under 8”. Ducati also strengthened the bike’s swingarm and frame, according to Revzilla, and gave the Desert Sled a reinforced handlebar, mudguards, and skid plate. In addition, the Desert Sled also gets some proper off-road tires.

2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled off-road
2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled off-road | Ducati

In terms of performance, the Desert Sled gets the standard Ducati Scrambler engine, an 803cc V-twin (or L-twin, in Ducati terms) making 75 hp and 50 lb-ft. The Desert Sled’s mods do make it heavier than the standard version: the former weighs 456 lbs, the latter 417. However, the modifications do indeed make the Desert Sled an honest scrambler.

Although Jalopnik reports the bike is most comfortable in the sand or on dirt roads, rather than over rocks, Revzilla found the Desert Sled able to tackle muddy forest trails, too. That being said, if you do intend to take it off-road, Revzilla recommends fitting a few Ducati accessories, like fold-away mirrors and shift lever, as well as aluminum footpegs.

Triumph Scrambler

2020 Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE and XC
2020 Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE and XC | Triumph

Cycle World reports that Triumph “arguably has the deepest roots” in the scrambler style. And, as its latest Scramblers show, the British company has a firm understanding of what made the style appealing.

Both the Triumph Scrambler 1200 XC and XE use a 1.2-liter twin-cylinder, making 89 hp and 81 lb-ft, Cycle World reports. Both also feature off-road tires and long-travel Ohlins rear suspension. They also both have multiple adjustable riding modes: Sport, Rain, Road, Off-Road, and Rider (custom).

Of the two, the XE is the more off-road-focused model, with an additional Off-Road Pro mode and 9.8” of suspension travel, according to Motorcyclist. Triumph was so confident in its design, that it raced one in the NORRA Mexico 1000 essentially stock. That’s despite the bike weighing in at 456 lbs without any fluids.

But if the XE and XC sound like a bit too much bike, Triumph also offers the Street Scrambler. It’s smaller, lighter and less powerful, with a 900cc twin-cylinder making 65 hp and 59 lb-ft. It doesn’t have all the XE’s riding modes, but it does get Rain, Road, and Off-Road. And with off-road tires, Motorcyclist was still able to take it through Mexico’s El Camino Diabolo without incident.

Which is the better buy?

Both the Ducati Scrambler and Triumph Scrambler are genuine heirs to the name. Motorcyclist took them through the Rockies, and Gear Patrol on Alaska’s Denali Highway. That being said, they have their respective strengths and weaknesses.

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The Triumph Street Scrambler is slightly cheaper than the Desert Sled. The former starts at $11k, while the latter just under $12k. The Triumph Scrambler 1200s, though, are more expensive: the XC starts at $14k, and the XC at $15,400.

Cycle World found the Ducati to be the better on-road machine, with a sportier ride and lighter weight. However, the Triumph is the one to get if you genuinely split your time equally between paved and unpaved roads.

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