Many motorcycle manufacturers are larger than Moto Guzzi, but few have as rich a heritage. Founded in 1921, the legendary Italian marquee has been continuously producing motorcycles longer than any other European maker.

Moto Guzzi has a number of major motorcycle engineering innovations to its credit, including the first single-sided rear swing-arm suspension, the first cartridge fork, the first linked brake system and the first production automatic motorcycle. It also racked up an impressive Grand Prix racing record — even developing a V8 powered GP machine that reportedly reached a record 300 kph — before withdrawing from competition in 1957.

Although Moto Guzzi manufactured horizontal single-cylinder engines for its first 45 years, its name is now synonymous with the transverse-mounted, air-cooled 90 V-twin engines that it began producing in 1967. With their twin cylinders jutting out sideways like a BMW boxer on Viagra, Guzzis have a unique look and sound that sets them apart from every other motorcycle on the road.

The 2008 Griso 8V, a new model named after a muscular, dark character in Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th-century novel “The Betrothed,” features the latest and most powerful incarnation of this iconic engine. The eight-valve (hence the name 8V), 1,151cc V-twin pumps out 110 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 11 kg-m torque at 6,400 rpm, which, while not pavement-ripping power, is very respectable for an air-cooled twin, on par with BMW’s latest boxers, and beats Harley-Davidson’s new sport-oriented offering, the 100-hp XR1200.

Punch the starter switch and the fuel-injected motor instantly springs to life, shaking the mirrors and emitting a delectable V8-like rumble through the figure-8 shaped stainless-steel muffler. Snick the slick-shifting six-speed gearbox into first, give it a bit of gas and the Griso instantly catapults forward, just as you’d expect from a big twin.

The surprise doesn’t come until later, when the tachometer needle spins past the 6,000-rpm mark. Instead of the power tapering off at that point, as with most air-cooled V-twins, the Griso’s afterburners light courtesy of the engine’s single-overhead-cam four-valve-per-cylinder architecture and the bike rockets forward with a ferocity that doesn’t relent till you’ve exceeded the 8,000 rpm redline.

With its potent power plant, wide 180-mm rear tire and brawny lines, the Griso can happily play the part of a muscle cruiser, letting you get your kicks surfing fat waves of torque and smoking up the back wheel at will. But unlike most members of that genre, it doesn’t reveal itself to be an ill-handling tank when the road turns twisty.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Griso is far from a featherweight at 222 kg dry, but its beefy tubular steel frame mated with top-drawer suspension, brakes and 17-inch wheels allow it to carve corners with scalpel-like precision. The titanium-nitride-coated, upside-down 43-mm forks and rear monoshock are fully adjustable for preload, rebound and compression, allowing you to dial them in to suit your weight, riding style and road conditions.

The wide handlebars provide heaps of leverage, making it a cinch to toss the Griso around curves, and the fairly high foot pegs allow generous lean angles. The state-of-the-art Brembo radial brake calipers and 320-mm floating wave discs up front teamed with a twin-piston caliper, 282-mm disc combination in the back offer strong, progressive stopping power.

Like all modern Moto Guzzis, the Griso 8V is shaft-driven, eliminating the messy work of maintaining a chain. Housed inside a sexy single-sided aluminum swing-arm, the drive shaft causes the bike to gently rock when you rev the throttle at a standstill. Once the Griso is on the move, however, Moto Guzzi’s patented Compact Reactive Shaft Drive system does a decent job of keeping this phenomenon, which affects all shaft-driven motorcycles to some degree, at a fairly innocuous level.

Straight out of the box, the Griso 8V is a great canyon carver/town cruiser, but the absence of wind protection and luggage space make it less practical for long-distance rides. Fortunately, Moto Guzzi offers a number of accessories, including windshields, tank bags, tail bags, panniers and a rear rack, which can quickly transform the Griso into a competent sport-tourer.And the powerful 550-watt alternator allows the use of heated clothing, extra lights, GPS and other accouterments that are part and parcel of modern touring, without worrying about overloading the charging system and flattening the battery.

The Griso 8V is not without its downsides, though. The fuel tank only holds 16.7 liters — which is on the small side for a thirsty 1,200cc engine. And for some inexplicable reason, its sophisticated onboard computer lacks a fuel gauge or even a distance-to-empty readout. Instead, it keeps you abreast of your average fuel consumption per 100 km, which is utterly useless for calculating how much gasoline you actually have left unless you’re an MIT mathematics genius. So you’re left guessing until the fuel warning light comes on, giving you little time to find a gas station.

Also absent is a center stand, something that performance junkies won’t mind but that the rest of us will sorely miss when it comes time to clean the bike or fix a flat rear tire. And while the fit and finish in general is respectable, the chrome and some bolts on my fairly new demo bike were already showing signs of corrosion.

Its biggest drawback, however, is its price. Despite being a fairly Spartan motorcycle, the Griso still costs about ¥2.1 million out the door. The glaring omission of antilock brakes, which are becoming commonplace on most high-end motorcycles and are offered on several other Moto Guzzi models, may sway some potential customers in the direction of BMW’s R1200R, which offers similar features and performance, as well as ABS brakes, and is considerably cheaper.

Still, Moto Guzzi motorcycles have such a unique character that no other make can come close to offering the same experience. As tens of thousands of dedicated Guzzisti around the world can attest, once bitten by the Guzzi bug, nothing else will do.

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