2004 Open Class Shootout
Aprilia RSV R; Ducati 999; RC51; CBR 1000RR; ZX 10R; GSXR 1000; 955i Daytona; YZF R1
5th Place - Aprilia RSV R
Sean -- What do you get when you cross a Ducati with a Honda? You guessed it, you get an Aprilia RSV. Aside from a suspension that is too soft for me and a sidestand that touches-down a bit too early in left-hand corners, the RSV R is a model citizen on the racetrack.
It neatly blends Italian passion and styling flair with Japanese levels of reliability and user friendliness.
The RSV is an easy bike to go fast on, as witnessed by the average laptimes it turned-in at the track (Will T skews the average a bit by being an Aprilia specialist, but it is still quite rapid and easy to live with on a racetrack.)
"The RSV R is no doubt an absolute gas to ride on the track."
On the street, the Aprilia has the usual V-twin temperament, which makes it ideal for tight, low-traction situations like those commonly found on canyon roads. Once out of the canyons though, the Aprilia struggles with a few heat management issues that can lead to rider discomfort. Though it has a trick hydraulic clutch, the RSV's heavy lever pull and odd lever pulsing when the throttle is blipped are something that really should have been engineered-out, during last year's complete re-design. The Aprilia ties the Triumph Triple for best intake honk at full throttle and with a set of "offroad use only" pipes it can give you goose bumps. Overall, it's a stellar bike but it is outshined by the new CBR and revised RC-51.
Martin -- With a luscious, rev-happy 60-degree V-twin producing oodles of power and torque everywhere between 4k and the 11K rev limiter (with some serious oomph between 7 and 9k), what's not to like? Wonderful bass notes emanate from dual exhausts tucked in beneath the rear sub-frame accompanied by a breathy engine soundtrack that whispers "Ride me hard, big boy." I'll be interested to see if MO's dyno verifies the 120+ bhp I've heard about, but that feels about right from the seat. The ram-air intake (similar to the RC-51's) has fancy internal gizmos that control airflow depending on the engine's ECU computer.
However it works, huge sucking sounds accompany an open throttle. Wide clip-on's provide excellent leverage though they are mounted a bit low and place a lot of weight on your wrists. The handling is razor sharp with suspension aimed at the racetrack connecting you to the road. The pegs are medium high and place your boots just fore of a set of plates mounted to the lead in pipes on the exhausts designed to keep your heels from melting. The RSV R is no doubt an absolute gas to ride on the track, but its racy ergos and the heat that billows out from under the seat and tank areas, mean it's somewhat less of a joy on the street. The frame spars on the RSV actually got quite hot to the touch, even though we were riding it on relatively cool days. In summertime traffic, this would be a problem.
"The instruments have some very cool digital functions built in"
For normal street riding, the suspension on the RSV R feels seriously taut and weirdly damped. On our blitz up and down the 405, the Aprilia had two modes of suspension response to concrete freeway slabs depending upon speed: hobbyhorse or jackhammer (I haven't had my ass spanked as hard since the time I turned a black snake loose in the girl's bathroom in the 6th grade). Some of the controls were a bit counterintuitive and it took me a long time learning not to honk the horn, when I actually wanted to cancel a turn signal. The tachometer is a large needle and dial unit, which is accompanied by a well-placed and easy to read LCD speedometer. The instruments have some very cool digital functions built in, all of the gauges are very bright at night and the headlights are great, so no problems there. I couldn't figure out the purpose of the weird R2D2 reflector stalk in the rear, but I'm probably just too much of a hillbilly to appreciate upscale Italian styling. While I'm playing art critic, the RSV looks like the Millennium Falcon going away from the rear. Unlike the Ducati, the RSV has mirrors that while oddly shaped, actually work quite well. Clutch-pull is stiff, but compared to the 999 its almost low-effort. The brake levers are trick and provide a good power and feel. The triple clamp has a cool cutout that is a nice, distinctive touch. Overall, I give the cockpit two thumbs-up.
"The bike looks up-to-the-minute fresh, and fit and finish was easily on par with the Japanese bikes."
Reservations about the heat and taunt suspension aside, the RSV R is a sleek V-twin rocket with enough accelerative and handling thrills to please most anyone. It's a hoot to ride and it simply inhales canyon roads. It's not a great commuter bike, but I'm betting that's not the audience Aprilia was aiming for anyway. The RSV R handled tight turns better than just about any other bike in this shootout. It turns on a dime and its tight turn, low-speed comportment is aided by a crisp but smooth throttle response, low drive lash, low vibration, and excellent brakes. The four-pot Brembos are actually an exceptional feature of this bike: easy to modulate with powerful one finger operation and a crisp initial bite. Furthermore, the RSV R has almost no tendency to stand-up, even under hard braking. This is one of the bikes I felt most comfortable on, while trail-braking deep into corners.
The combination of tremendous brakes and a slipper clutch work well to control speed and wheel hop during downshifts. When all is said and done, the RSV R looks cool, sounds cool, stops when you want it to and goes like a bat out of hell. I think this Aprilia is a couple rolls of heat tape and some suspension tweaking away from sportbike nirvana.
Mike E. -- For me, the Aprilia almost nipped out the Kawasaki in track manners, as it was so darned easy to ride. The injection was silky smooth with no lash on low speed corners. I felt very comfortable on this bike, and felt very composed in the canyons. What held it back at the track, was a little sloppy wallowing and if I had more time, I'm sure I could of dialed-out that softness and improved the RSV's track ranking. The bike looks up-to-the-minute fresh, and fit and finish was easily on par with the Japanese bikes. The biggest downer on this ride was the amount of heat generated from the motor. My forearms and thighs were quickly toasted and during the photo shoots, I had to dismount in the downtime for thermal relief. It's a shame that I didn't get to back-to-back this against the Ducati, I would have like a definitive comparison on race track mannerisms between the two. I could easily see this bike in my garage, it's got that Italian style without the quirkiness, and has the same qualities of the Japanese bikes, i.e. gas and oil it, then ride the pee out of it and repeat.
Ducati 999 ~ 7th Place
Sean -- Few bikes inspire passion and controversy like a Ducati (or Harley). Rendered in magnesium, plastic, aluminum and steel, the Ducati 999 is a roaring testament to this fact. Love it or hate it, there is no denying the 999s stellar lineage or the overwhelmingly positive manner in which the public at-large reacts to this bike. There is a lot to like here. The big Duck makes cool noises, is quite fast in a straight line and aside from the CBR 1000RR, it inspires a higher level of confidence in the twisties than the other bikes in this test.
It is planted like the GSXR, but its wasp-waisted design helps it feel significantly more nimble. Sure, funky Italian quirkiness abounds, like the useless mirrors, He Man clutch pull and the seat/tail cooling ducts that are completely masked by anyone wider than Marge Simpson. However, a chassis refined by 15+ years of World Superbike Championships, top-notch suspension components, and a lusty motor coupled with girl-grabbing styling, go a long way towards convincing a 999's well-heeled owner to forgive these quirks.
Had it made it to the racetrack, Buttonwillow's twin-friendly layout coupled with the prevailing track conditions, lap traffic and my injured hand might well have allowed it to be the fastest bike of the day. Hopefully we'll get a chance to do a "Best of the Best" Open Class racetrack comparo, where we can pit the winner from this test, against a healthy GSXR 1K and 999. Oh yeah, contrary to what Martin says, I found the side-stand to be both beautiful AND perfectly functional.
Martin -- No motorcycle, outside of a Harley, generates as much of a look from spectators as a 130 horsepower Chernobyl Yellow Ducati weaving through traffic at a brisk clip. Beyond the wow factor, however, all similarities end. The Ducati is Hog antimatter -- a sporting motorcycle in its primal essence stripped of all pretense and all things vestigial. Anything that doesn't make the Duc go down the road faster or handle better didn't get hung on the frame. That includes a comfortable seat, functional mirrors (what laughingly passes for mirrors are good for nothing other than an unchanging view of your leather jacket in the vicinity of your elbows) and little beyond a rudimentary nod to comfortable ergos.
Once you get over the uncompromising nature of this bike, which actually makes sense from the function over form point of view, you start getting into things that are a bit tougher to figure. Like a clutch mechanism so stiff, that it takes two men and a boy to actuate. Like heat emanating from the rear cylinder head and under-seat exhaust, that roasts your grollies. Like a sidestand designed by engineers who evidently spent years thinking about how it ought to look and about 5 minutes thinking about how it ought to work. Like a notchy transmission exacerbated by a shifter that's tough to get a toe under. Yet, I am assured that all of these things are much better than previous iterations of the flagship Ducati.
"Fit and finish are excellent."
Get past all of this, and you are rewarded with the coolest soundtrack in all of bikedom. Are you listening out there? The coolest! There is absolutely nothing like the sumptuous Desmodromic aural feast that occurs when you thumb the big 90-degree Testastretta twin to life. This sound is to motorcycles, what Elliot Randall's opening lick in Reeling in the Years was to Telecaster guitars. Electric, unmistakable and unforgettable. As for the controversial styling, whether you like it or not you'll forget all about it once you get going down the road. Ohhhhh baby! does this thing ever get down the road. Liquid smooth power delivery from a rev-happy mill that just keeps on coming. About the only way to get a twin to motivate any harder, would be to jam a couple of JATO bottles in its exhaust. Handling is sharp too -- though, to my palette, not as refined as the best of the Japanese bikes.
However, it's stable as all get out in the corners. You sit lower in the bike on the 999 than on the 916/996 and it 's an improvement. The bike feels very small and light and has a low tank height that makes it easy to get everything tucked in behind the screen. There is a lot of adjustability in the frame and suspension (the seat/tank position and the steering rake are adjustable) and I am assured that the quirks I felt in steering response could undoubtedly be addressed by fiddling with the geometry of the bike a little bit. The tachometer and speedometer are easy to read under a variety of lighting conditions and aside from the heavy clutch-pull, the controls all make sense. Fit and finish are excellent.