Torrance, California, May 1, 2001
It's our own little World Superbike stop, really, but without the whiny four-cylinders.
Mini could pass for Colin Edwards if he were shorter and much better-looking, Hackfu Calvin's almost indistinguishable from Haga if you're a round-eye like me (though his McRib/fries staple diet means he's also too tall), and with longer sideburns I could pass for Troy Bayliss in the dark--but I don't have to because we brought in a real Australian to serve as expert witness.
Aaron Clark is actually a New Zealander, but comes to us by way of Australia, where he raced GP bikes extensively. In 2000, he won the Aprilia Cup Challenge (on one of their cute little RS250s), and then campaigned an Aprilia Mille R last season--one which turned out to be woefully underfunded as so often happens in the wonderful world of motorcycle racing. His Aprilia affiliation, however, is a thing of the past. He's impartial (and racing Suzukis now - Minime).
Man From Metzeler
Once again, tires were provided by the lovely and talented Tom Jirkovsky of California Sportbike Racing, Huntington Beach, California. This time we chose Metzeler's M-1 Sportec rubber--tires designed for heavy-duty street abuse and occasional track days, because a) these twins should be a bit easier on tires than the fire-breathing four-cylinders featured in our last comparo and b) Willow Springs' Streets course is not so dang blazing fast anyway and c) the Sportecs are fine street rubber and will last at least until the manufacturers pry these three lovelies back out of our clutches. Speaking of tires, man I'm bushed....
Have a look at The Streets of Willow 1.8-mile road course. They keep adding new sections onto the track, so that now parts of it are high speed, and other sections remain a point-and-shoot affair--a good multi-angle test of a sportbike, really.
Some places you throw out the anchors and drop it down to second (or was that first?), others you clench your sphincter, roll 'er wide open and aim.
Mr.Clark didn't like the way the Ducati fit him, complaining of a strange handlebar angle and a lack of room to scoot rearward on the seat (he's a motocross guy).
Again, wish we would've asked to have the 998 delivered with the rake set at the steeper of its two angles--23.5 degrees. (My feeble attempt to do it at home resulted in abject failure, a slightly marred top triple clamp, and the acquisition of a new pair of snap-ring pliers.)
"Ducati is, pardon the cliche but here it fits: very confidence-inspiring."
As partial compensation, all you need to adjust the bike's rear ride height is one 17mm and one 19mm wrench--it's an easy adjustment. (You can adjust the Mille's shock length, too, but you have to disconnect its bottom mount first. The Honda has no ride-height adjuster.)
Even raised a bit in the back to a slight stink-bug attitude, Clark still thought the Ducati felt "a bit lazy everywhere." The Ducati wants to run wide at corner exits, and needs stronger inputs to initiate turns and change direction.
Throughout the day, we added spring preload to the rear of the bike, took a bit of preload out of the front in an effort to steepen rake, and experimented with different damping settings (more rebound in the fork keeps the nose down at corner exits, for one), eventually reaching a point where the Ducati felt much better than when the day began--but it remained a high-effort ride compared to the other two machines. The Aprilia's steering geometry is even less aggressive than the Ducati's though, and it steers lighter and quicker. Part of it then, is down to engine architecture: With the front cylinder of its 90-degree Vee lying down nearly horizontal, the Ducati does feel less "mass-centralized," and as a result, slower-reacting, than the other two bikes.
Go ahead and give it that extra effort, though, and the Ducati is, pardon the cliche but here it fits: very "confidence-inspiring." It never gives you the idea that you could steer the front wheel out from under yourself if you're not careful, and once you adjust to its "manual steering," pushing on the inside clip-on tightens your line just as surely as with the other bikes. The other Ducati controls complement its steering manners, too: the clutch is a little heavy, downshifting needs more pressure (and upshifting too, slightly). The rear brake is nearly impossible to lock, which is a good thing sometimes, but then too it gives very little retardation all the time. The front pair of Brembos don't have quite the feel of the tricky four-pad Brembos of the Aprilia, but braking power isn't a problem for any of these machines.
"The Honda is at the other end of the effort scale from the Ducati."
The bars are higher and closer, the front wheel is tucked up under tighter.
Both heavy cylinder heads, the side-mount twin radiators, and everything else, feels dense-packed right between your thighs and beneath your fundament, and so the bike requires very little effort to throw at apexes. Light clutch, light shifter action, strong deceleration as soon as the brake lever's squeezed--and the Honda has the revviest motor of the bunch, too: Even when expert Aaron Clark gets a better drive out of a corner than whoever's on the Honda, the RVT still manages to scoot away and fend him off--until it comes time to slow for the next corner, at least... As for the Honda, Aaron says: "It just feels very neutral. It's not really outstanding in any area, but it does nothing wrong, either." Overall, with its dense, short, quick-reacting feel, the Honda feels almost more like a 125-horsepower four than a twin.
"Honda aims to give the RC51 rider a bigger target to aim at when getting the suspension dialed for track use."
We did detect a bit of lurchy fuel delivery at lower rpm aboard the Honda, or maybe a bit of excess driveline snatch?--whatever the cause, in a couple of the Streets' slower, second-gear corners, it behooved the rider to be very smooth with the throttle--and even then, the bike's power would wander off and on unexpectedly. Calvin thinks maybe the flapper valve in the airbox can't make up its mind? Seems like you get used to it, and adjust after a few laps, and strangely, it's less noticeable on the street. Whatever, those big 62mm throttles do not come back onstream as seamlessly as the other bikes' systems. Hmmm... could it be because the Honda's just making more POWAH?
As with its 954RR, Honda aims to give the RC51 rider a bigger target to aim at when getting the suspension dialed for track use. There's no ride-height adjustment, like we mentioned, but the RC is the only bike here with a ramp-type rear preload adjuster, which means you can whip the spanner out of the tool kit and raise the rear a bit, toot-sweet. Honda's new fork preload adjuster, though (like the one on the 954), is a bit of a step backward in that you can't go by "lines showing" as usual. You need to measure sag with a ruler or tape measure, or count turns (if you happen to have the right socket which we never do at the track); it's just not as easy to tell at a glance where in the range of adjustment you are.
Page2Anyway, once that's accomplished it doesn't take much to get the RC in a happy place for everybody who hops aboard. Everybody's first impression seems to be how easy it is to hop on the RC and feel immediately at home and pretty quick. The Honda's Showa fork is really good. The rear of the bike, though, can feel overworked when accelerating hard over bumps--it sometimes chatters where the other two bikes' Ohlins shocks let them simply drive. And if you're thinking, well then, why not buy the Honda for $11,000, throw on a better shock and still be money ahead?.. well, I can't think of a reason not to.
Meanwhile, back in Aprilia land, the Mille R goes about its business. It doesn't feel as fast as the Honda (and with 112.5 horses to the Honda's 126.7, it isn't), nor as quick-handling. On the other hand, you don't wrestle it like the Ducati (which also feels faster). The Aprilia feels like a middle sibling, unassertive, unassuming, just there to help out. With the remake of the bike last year, the engine was raised a substantial amount in the frame, and even with the longest trail, it gets into corners almost as easily as the Honda. Once there, it has the stability of the Ducati--but is more willing to tighten up at the exit, if need be.
Matter of fact, those delicious Ohlins components and light wheels make it easy to steer the Aprilia wherever you decide to go, whether there be bumps or not, and the Aprilia has the best combination of solid, plantedness and quick handling. Whacking open the Aprilia's throttle (which you get to do early and often on all these bikes, and the reason why twins go so fast) results in very controllable drives that keep the other two more powerful bikes within striking distance, and the Aprilia's most-willing chassis and best brakes make diving inside the next victim drama-free (usually) and highly satisfying. (If you're Aaron Clark, you might want to go around the outside for added humiliation.)
Ya' got yer Pneumatic Power Clutch in there, too--which ducts engine vacuum on the overrun to a diaphragm deal that releases a bit of clutch spring pressure--to avoid locking up the rear wheel when banging downshifts. It's hard to tell that it helps much in the downshifting department (probably because we've gotten so accustomed to giving big throttle blips when downshifting the twins, all of which give big-time engine braking), but what it does do is act almost like a powershifter when going up the gearbox; rolling off the throttle for an instant lets the next gear slip in most tastily without touching the clutch lever at all. Very nice.
|Streets Of Willow Springs|
|__||Aprilia Mille R||Ducati 998||Honda RC51|
|Haga, I mean Calvin, was busy manning the timing computer more than the rest of us, and we failed to get a time for him on the Honda. The little prick went 1.5 seconds quicker than me on the Aprilia, though, while I eeked out a 0.18-second advantage over him on the Ducati. Right, that's it, when's the next Schwantz school?|
The Big Circuit
We also managed to wangle a few laps on the Big Track at Willow; its very fast layout and dearth of slow corners let the Ducati better showcase its talents. Our man Clark, pushing all three bikes to a not-uncomfortable, please-don't-fall-off-and-hurt-yourself level, recorded identical lap times, to the hundredth-second, aboard all three bikes. We like his consistency. We then threw Willow regular Frank Aragaki on all three because he was there and we like him. Frank thought the Honda felt fastest by far, but the stopwatch said otherwise. Just goes to show you.
|Willow Springs International|
|__||Aprilia Mille R||Ducati 998||Honda RC51|
Alrighty, then, let's make it slightly objective, just like the four-cylinders of last month, by assigning points, shall we? Three for a first at the Streets (since we had three riders), and the same at the Big Track but with only two riders, which is only just and fitting since the main course is so unlike anyplace else on earth. (Two points apiece for Aaron's three-way tie.)
At the end of the day, I score it, Aprilia 13, Honda 9, Ducati 8. Seems about right.
Then it was off to the dragstrip. Yes, just like using fine Scotch for paint thinner, but these bikes are surprisingly fun dragsters anyway. No snobbery. For one thing, they make the right, V-8 type noise--though all of them, with their 80-db federally approved mufflers--are just tooooo quiet. "Couldn't hear you at all after the eighth-mile marker," one spectator complained. And for another thing, the same kind of power that lets you get on the throttle early on a road course makes them pretty easy to get off the line: Drop the clutch at 6 or 7000 rpm, roll the throttle to the stop as quick as you can, and let 'er eat....
"If Ducatis have had weak clutches in the past, you wouldn't know it from our 998."
We put a bunch of runs on it, no problems with slippage or grabbiness, and no problems with any of the bikes in spite of them all having pretty tall first gears. All have hydraulically actuated clutches and consistent, easy-to-find engagement points. Maybe we weren't being abusive enough? Just like at Willow, the Aprilia's pneumatic clutch assist lets it bang in the next gear most coolly.
Mini cut the fastest time of the night--a 10.89 second run at 128.0 mph (corrected), aboard the Honda. Three points! Yours truly clocked a 10.98 on the Mille, at 128.4 mph (two points), and an 11.06-second, 126.8 mph run on the Ducati.
Running total: Aprilia 15, Honda 12, Ducati 9.
Back to the Street
Okay, right, I was overtired last week, and cruel to the twins. Forgive me? The Honda's not so bad at all really. It hurt me only because I failed to "de-stiffify" it for the long ride home after our day at the track. Now, with springs and damping set to softer than normal, and in a better frame of mind, it's actually a very pleasant, beautifully suspended traveler whose seat isn't quite as deep-dish as the Aprilia's. Be warned, though: Like all these long-legged lovelies, it likes to cruise at 90-ish. (Do I say that about every bike we test lately? Is it just me?)
"The Aprilia is still the king of the highway"
The Aprilia is smooth-running (so are the other two, of course, but the dual counterbalancers in the Mille's 60-degree Vee work to make it just as nice as them), nicely-shaped, thickish seat, reasonable ergonomics, superb suspenders, good mirrors. You could complain that the flat LCD instruments are sometimes tough to read in bright light. You could insist on an owner's manual with your Mille in order to have any hope of ever figuring out what those five buttons on the dashboard do. The "R" resets the tripmeter, we know, and the man with the lucky combination for the other buttons will be able to use the onboard lap timer and programmable shift light as well. What you won't be doing, on the R model, is taking anybody along for a ride--no passenger accommodations.
And the Ducati's not really a bad streetbike, either, thanks to its also-excellent suspension, as long as you don't get stuck in slow-moving traffic. It's low and swoopy and also likes to go fast and makes the best noise.
Ride Like a Maniac?
We prefer to think of it as "manic." On our sinewy street-test circuit, you could throw a blanket over all three of these things. They're easier to ride quickly than the typical four-cylinder, it feels like, because their less peaky power delivery lets you shift gears less and focus more attention elsewhere, such as, which way does the road go? Pretty much, though, our impressions and lap times from the Streets course at Willow are how it shakes out on the road as well: The Ducati is a fantastic machine, with great feel and feedback--but slower-reacting and heavier-steering than the other two.
Guess what? The street is a lot bumpier than the racetrack. After firming up suspensions at the track, the Honda and Aprilia were skittering all over on the road.
The beauty of their adjustable suspenders, though, is such that it's a matter of twiddling a few knobs (less compression damping, less rebound damping) to get them soaking up all manner of nastiness, whereupon they're happy again at the speeds with which we attack our favorite winding roads, ie., 50 or 60 mph for the most part.
On them, the Honda is a whippet-quick- steering, wattle-waggling bull moose that lacks maybe the final 20 percent of the Aprilia's suspension sophistication, which is actually pretty damn good considering the Aprilia costs 50 percent more. The Honda's the only bike in this group that doesn't have a high-dollar steering damper, and even with its steep rake and quickness, it never gives the slightest indication of needing one.
And once again, the Aprilia uses its half-inch wider apart clip-ons and superior wheel control to hang right with the more powerful Honda, no sweat; less sweat than the Honda rider, as a matter of fact. The Ducati rider, meanwhile, is drenched on tight roads. Fast, flowing ones are better.
"The Honda, being a Honda, is not only much less expensive to buy, it should prove much less expensive to keep with its 16,000-mile valve-adjustment intervals."
The Ducati will be in for an expensive service every 6000 miles. The Honda has pretty good under-hump storage, and comes with a passenger pad which will be fine if your passenger has a butt like a snake. The 'Priller has a clock, but nobody can set it (cause we got no manual) You'll not be flipping the Aprilia's shift thing over for race-pattern shifting, since the lever attaches directly to the shaft--not that you need to The Ducati's rear preload adjuster is hardest to access Honda has hellacious high beams It's fun to change the Ducati's rear wheel; the front axle, on the other hand, is a surprisingly not-at-all-natty steel thing...
The Final Analysis...
It's a sweep for Mrs. Mille, is what it is. Not only does it go fastest under most riders most of the time, we also find it easiest to live with day after day, unless of course your day-to-day involves having to scramble 'round the maze looking for next month's rent, in which case you and the Missus will be ever so happy with the Honda. In fact, Honda has to be losing money on this damn thing. How can it build a bike that makes 10 or 12 more horsepower than the competition, equip it with a chassis that's about 85-percent as good, and sell it for that much less? (This, friends, is what's wrong with the Japanese economy in a nutshell. Don't tell them.)
As for the Ducati, what can we say? If you want a Ducati, you should have one for any number of intangible reasons. Obviously, the potential is there to get just as much speed from it as from the other two, and again, our bad for not having Mike the Ducati man rake our fork in to 23.5 degrees prior to the test. No doubt that would speed up the bike's handling by a considerable margin, though I for one doubt it would be enough to sway the outcome. That's that.
None of these twins appeal to you? Never fear. Stay tuned as we attempt to corral the new Buell XB-9R and another air-cooled hottie or two....
Old Man Burns:
If the building caught fire and I only had time to get one out, it would be the Aprilia. If the building were only smoldering, though, I might take the Mille then run back in to rescue the Honda and make a phone call to the Penske shock guy. No, wait, that would be stupid. I'd take the Mille then the Ducati, 'cause it's worth nearly $18K, then the Honda. But seriously, if you have that kind of money for a motorcycle, the Mille R makes the Ducati feel its age.
If you can't foot the bill for one of the Italian twins, the Honda is a more than a reasonable facsimile thereof at an absolute bargain price. It's not a stunning beauty but it's one of my favorite bikes on the road. With a shock, maybe some aftermarket exhaust cans (press kit says "new integrated rear shock reservoir is repositioned for easy fitment of center-up high performance competition exhaust"), and a little Power Commander action, it might very well run rings around the others.
Going into this thing I was taking the safe route. Despite that sexy Ducati 998 and the love-of-my-life Aprilia Mille-R, I was picking the Honda to be my favorite at the end of it all. I knew it had the power, I knew it handled well, and it was way less expensive than the high-class Italians. It was going to be the Rich Bitches versus the Girl Next Door, and I was looking out my window.
We set off on a good, long street ride, and I was less secure of many decisions I'd made in the past. The Ducati, as it often does, wooed me with her damn sexual desire. Like that game show where a contestant is supposed to keep their heart-rate low while they face a serious of tough situations, the 998 had me all tumescent no matter how hard I tried to resist her thrills. And, speaking of hard, that pretty much described her ride on the street. It was stiff, firm, and getting it to turn was a chore, especially chasing various other peoples up tight canyons, hell-bent on keeping me in their mirrors. And when neatly through the corner, I was down on power at the exits. Like a hottie with no sex-drive, I was impressed but not willing to take her home with me.
The Aprilia, meanwhile, had all the bases covered. It makes good power, down just a few from the hell-for-strong Honda, it has good ergos, a comfortable seat, and it's handling is light yet safe-feeling and never threatening. In fact, of all these bike here, the Aprilia feels most planted on twisty backroads, thanks to not only is excellent suspension, but to a well-sorted chassis.
The neighborly Honda, meanwhile, feels nearly as well-planted and maybe easier to ride once its suspenders are nicely dialed out, softening the blows from the road. It's got fantastic brakes and it's easily got the healthiest lungs of the bunch. Second-gear exits are handled with the front wheel barely touching the tarmac, if at all. It ended up being my second-favorite bike of the buns, just a smidge aft of the Aprilia. And when I think about how much cool stuff I can add onto the Honda and still have a bunch of room left, hundreds and thousands dollars short of the cost of admission to Aprilia Land, it's a no brainer, really. And now I'm taking the Girl Next Door to meet mama.
Just right off the cuff, I love these three bikes. If money were no object, it'd be simple to just straight out pick the Mille R as the best of the lot. Granted we got jipped on the 998 (I was expecting an S, or at least a monoposto version of our standard 998. The seat does nothing for me. Ha!) and to add insult to injury, the front-end geometry wasn't optimized for the Streets track. Oh well.
Click, click, click. Beep! click, click. Beep! Do you know what that is? Its me trying to turn off the blinker on the Aprilia. I keep on hitting the horn button instead. You can either get the Mille R or Ducati 998 and be extremely happy, you won't have to do anything to either of them. Or you can get the Honda RC51 put a few bills into the suspension and have a machine just as potent and luxurious as the other two and still have enough greens left over for extra tires and a trailer to tow it to the local track of your choosing.
So anyway, thats it. I love the Ducati 998 (wish it were the S, though), and the Aprilia is in most aspects a superior machine. Then there's the Honda and its glitchy throttle. Ug. Either way, its the Honda for me. Its the only bike thats cheaper than my car.