In the case of the former, the RSV4 platform has been a major hit as it combines an extremely precise chassis with a unique V-Four engine that may not have been the most powerful in its class but definitely left the rider invigorated with its characteristic and exciting power delivery and sound. For the latter, the crossplane-crankshaft R1 is Yamaha’s answer to differentiate itself from the rest of the inline-Four playing field. Using its MotoGP technology to benefit production machines wasn’t just a marketing ploy, but a concerted effort to give Yamaha a leg up on the competition.
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The basic forms of the RSV4 R and YZF-R1 should be nothing new to loyal readers. We’ve covered the Aprilia before in our 2010 literbike shootout and yours truly was recently at Yamaha’s press introduction where the company unveiled its new upgrade to the R1. These machines illustrate how manufacturers are refocusing their attention from the machine shop to the laptop.
Aprilia’s electronic rider-aid system is dubbed APRC, for Aprilia Performance Ride Control, and it not only incorporates an eight-level traction control, but also wheelie control, launch control and an electronic speed shifter. Best of all, it’s not only available on the top-of-the-line RSV4 Factory model, but also the more affordable, $16,999 R model, tested here, which comes with all these features.
Yamaha’s YZF-R1 doesn’t have the same fancy nomenclature for its traction control, nor does it come with launch control, wheelie control or a speed shifter. What it does have is a six-stage traction control system, which is a first for the tuning fork company.
Now it has come to this: A comparison test between two sportbikes where we’re not so much focusing on power but instead on electronics. To give both traction control systems a proper test, we took both machines to the big track at Willow Springs International Raceway and rode with our friends at Moto Forza, a European motorcycle dealership in San Diego, CA, which invites customers to ride their bikes to their limits safely away from the rules of the road.
Our friends at Metzeler also provided each bike with the latest Racetec K3 rubber in stock sizes to keep both bikes planted. We were genuinely impresed with the warm-up times from the K3, especially considering we weren’t using tire warmers. Grip and feel from both ends was also superb the entire day. Following the track portion we rode each bike in the local canyons of southern California to get a feel for their road manners. By the end we came away knowing our usual metrics for judging sportbikes just gained one more criterion.
Aprilia RSV4 R APRC - Track
Starting with the Aprilia, its 65-degree V-Four engine is the centerpiece of an overall design that focuses on mass centralization and is placed as forward as possible within the lithe chassis. The fuel tank’s smallish exterior appearance is because the rest of it is hidden underneath the seat. This gives the rider a very close relationship with the bars, and the extremely tiny tail section further exemplifies this compact feel.
Ironically, the Aprilia has a slightly longer wheelbase than the Yamaha, coming in at 55.9 inches, 0.2-inch longer than the R1. Power was not the RSV4’s strong suit last year as our test bike made 149.5 hp to the wheel at 12,800 rpm and 70.2 ft.-lbs of torque at 10,100 rpm. Both numbers at or near the bottom of our 2010 literbike combatants. This dyno deficit was largely forgiven once in motion, as its supremely agile chassis allowed the rider to choose lines with complete precision, and the standard Brembo monobloc brakes and 320mm discs were rated highly.
For 2011, Aprilia made a few tweaks to the RSV4 R. Sachs suspension now adorns both ends of the bike, replacing the split Showa/Sachs combination from last year. Additionally, two extra teeth on the rear sprocket balance a taller primary drive ratio. Cylinder heads get improved lubrication and a new cam-chain tensioner, and now the exhaust valve in the muffler doesn’t open until certain speeds and rpm are reached — a change from last year when it would open solely based on gear selection. Lastly, mapping has been revised to provide better fuel economy.
None of these changes act to better horsepower ratings, but our 2011 test bike nevertheless clocked 155.0 hp at 12,500 rpm – an improvement of 5.5 horses over our 2010 model.
On the track, power delivery isn’t as telepathic on the RSV4 as it is on the crossplane-crankshaft R1, though it’s still very tractable thanks to the nature of the V-engine configuration. Its supremely agile and precise chassis allows it to create a gap between its Japanese counterpart in the more technical sections of the track. Where the Yamaha is a sword in the handling department, the Aprilia is a scalpel, capable of carving whatever arc the rider chooses.
“The Aprilia RSV4 APRC is a sharp weapon,” says Content Editor Tom Roderick. “The bike turns in faster than the Yamaha and you have to adjust to its quick handling.” Jumping on the RSV4 after spinning laps on the R1, we needed a few laps to reacquaint ourselves with the handling differences as, on more than one occasion, we had to adjust our lines from those we took on the Yamaha as the turn-in points were too early on the Aprilia.
“The RSV4 feels heavy when pushing it around, but its mass seems well centralized once in motion and feels agile,” says E-i-C Duke. Its curb weight of 464 lbs is 10 more than the R1, though six pounds lighter than our 2010 RSV4 R test bike without APRC. Credit there goes to the lighter wheels and exhaust. Still, its heft is odd considering its diminutive stature and compact ergos. Get it rolling, however, and you’re struggling to figure out where all that weight went.
At five-foot, eight inches, I didn’t have a problem with the Aprilia’s seating position. The Yamaha definitely offers more space, but the only time I wished for more on the RSV4 was in a full tuck, as I couldn’t scoot back as far as I’d like before hitting the tail section.
Aprilia’s arguably at the forefront of rider aids with APRC. Of all the acronyms the system includes, the most important is ATC (Aprilia Traction Control). On the surface it acts like any other TC system in preventing unwanted wheelspin, but the method Aprilia has chosen to achieve this is among the most sophisticated in the industry.
Along with the wheel-speed and gear-position sensors seen on the Yamaha, the ‘Priller’s system also employs a dual-axis gyroscope and accelerometers that measure both longitudinal (front to back) and lateral (side to side) movement rates. Further, the system also utilizes a yaw angle change rate that monitors the amount and the speed at which the rear steps out of line with the front — to date, Aprilia is the only manufacturer utilizing this technology.
All of this information is then sent to a Marelli ECU that computes this data and, like all other TC systems, references it to the set parameters within the system. If it needs to intervene, ATC, like the Yamaha’s TC, reacts by closing the throttle butterflies, then retarding the spark or fuel.
Unlike earlier forms of TC, however, the Aprilia’s system is much more subtle in its operation, at least in the lower settings. Power interruption is gentle, allowing the rider to leave long black lines on the ground if wanted. However, that’s not to say the ATC will prevent a highside; in the lower intervention settings, ham-fisted riders could still launch themselves to the moon if giving it full twist coming out of a slow-speed turn. Intervention in the higher settings is obviously more intrusive than the lower ones, but still quite gentle. Unintentional wheelspin is replaced by the ATC with just enough power to reach the ground without getting the rear end out of line.
Two more features unique to the Aprilia are wheelie control and launch control. On many other motorcycles, the R1 included, the upper levels of intervention also act to limit wheelies. On the Aprilia it’s a separate function. Adjustable to one of three settings (or turned off), the system calculates front and rear wheel speeds, and when a wheelie is detected that goes beyond the set parameters, torque is reduced to the rear wheel by retarding ignition advance. If wheelie control is disabled but ATC is still active, a wheelie can only be carried for 30 seconds before the ECU brings the front tire back to Earth.
Launch control is an entirely new function for production sportbikes and works by limiting revs to 10,000 rpm in the first two levels, or 9500 rpm in level three. All the rider has to do is keep the throttle wide open and worry about clutch engagement. On paper, the system is supposed to provide an optimal launch by limiting wheelspin and excessive wheelies.
In practice, we found that, while it’s still much easier than traditional race starts, the launch control is still jerky upon the first few moments of clutch engagement. If you’re a racer planning to utilize this system, you should probably seek out clutch sponsors. The system disengages when the rider shifts to second gear, reaches 93 mph or turns the ignition key off.
The last rider aid that we wish more bikes came standard with is the AQS (Aprilia Quickshift System). The only nag we have about it, however, is the relatively long kill time in the lower gears, especially the shift from first to second. Otherwise shifting is done quicker and more consistently than any human could achieve. Downshifts are straightforward and mostly drama free, though Duke did notice the slipper clutch “isn’t especially slippery.”
Aprilia’s Traction Control is one of the most fluid and seamless traction control systems we’ve experienced. The interruptions are hardly noticeable and the least bit offensive. For the vast majority of us, the safety net of traction control is one of the few times I’m glad systems are in place to protect us from ourselves. Though it’s important to note that traction control has never claimed to prevent accidents or even highsides. No system can claim that.
Aprilia RSV4 R APRC — Street
Start the Aprilia up in the morning and it settles in to a high idle around 1500 rpm. Further, according to Duke, the V4 engine “rattles around and emits an uneven vibration. From the street riding position the Aprilia’s bars are lower than the Yamaha’s, though none of that matters when trying to see anything from the Aprilia’s mirrors — they’re useless.
With a minimally padded seat, the Aprilia takes no prisoners and makes it known that it’d rather be at the racetrack. Another Aprilia trait, and one which we find rather annoying, is the lack of a turn indicator detent on the thumb switch. This causes confusion as accidental flicks of the switch can trip the indicators.
Both bikes don’t like running when cold, though the Aprilia was the rougher of the two until brought to temp. Tom and I also agreed that the RSV4 required a dedicated rider. As Tom says, “The Aprilia transmits everything that’s going on at both the front and rear of bike directly to the rider.” Simple suspension tweaks make the ride more compliant, but from the onset the Yamaha displayed more civilized road manners.
While the RSV4 didn’t roast our thighs like the R1, cruising through commuter traffic on the Aprilia emits a lot of heat on a rider’s legs. Engine temps go well into the 200-degree range even in mid-60s weather.
The day of our photo shoot in the Malibu hills in southern California followed a rainstorm in the area. Shaded portions of the road provided damp patches perfect for testing traction control on both bikes. And much like they did at the track, the systems prevented wheelspin in their highest intervention settings.
Many of the traits we noticed on the track transfer to the street as well. The Aprilia loves to carve a corner and prefers tight switchbacks over long sweepers. Thankfully front-end stability is great once you find the right suspension settings.
Despite the damp patches on the road, riding in Rain mode wasn’t necessary, as it would take the fun out of the mostly dry pavement. Sport and Track modes only differ in power delivery in the first few degrees of throttle application, but unlike the Yamaha, the most-powerful Track mode isn’t too aggressive for street use.
So far we’ve concluded that the Aprilia is a sharp and focused motorcycle that thrives on cutting up apexes and isn’t for the tall or faint of heart. Its electronic rider aids are incredibly impressive and could set the benchmark for the current crop of liter-class sportbikes.
Yamaha YZF-R1 - Track
The Yamaha is the same basic machine we’ve seen since 2009. Its inline-Four architecture forces the motorcycle’s width to be more than that of the Aprilia, and as such the rest of the motorcycle feels larger, but also more spacious than the RSV4.
Now Yamaha has added wheel speed sensors, along with engine, throttle position and gear position sensors to monitor what each wheel is doing. Otherwise, the rest of the R1 is standard fare — fully adjustable suspension on both ends, 310mm rotors mated to six-piston calipers, and an otherwise capable chassis that isn’t quite as nimble as its Italian rival.
In racing applications, traction control isn’t as simple as just preventing the rear wheel from spinning. When setting lap records and trying to go as fast as possible, slippage is a necessity and the rear wheel is often spinning at a faster rate than the front. This allows the rider to square off a corner, thereby exiting while still on the intended line, now with a higher exit speed. In street applications though, traction control’s purpose is often as simple as preventing the rear wheel from spinning faster than the front – a desirable feature when riding in slippery conditions.
On street-oriented sportbikes, however, traction control systems are suddenly tasked with both duties. To accommodate both newer riders and track junkies, the upper limits of traction control (the higher numbers) on both machines severely restrict wheelspin, whereas the lower numbers allow progressively more slippage. Of course, both systems can be turned off.
Jumping on the Yamaha for the first session of the morning, the R1 feels instantly familiar. The footpegs, in the lower of two settings, feels comfortable (for a sportbike) on the joints and the forward reach isn’t too extreme. If needed, the rearsets could be moved up and back 15mm and 3mm, respectively, customizing fit for riders of different sizes.
On the track the R1 delivers its power in the typically predictable manner we’re used to from the crossplane crankshaft engine. Change the drive mode from Standard mode to A mode and throttle response picks up aggressively, to the point where it takes a highly-skilled rider to make the most of it. The B mode is intended for slippery conditions and on this dry day on the big track at Willow, the setting completely neutered the R1.
In standard mode our R1 test bike managed a best of 144.6 hp compared to the 155.0 hp of the Aprilia in Track mode. Despite this deficit in power, on the track this somehow proved to be less of an issue than we imagined it would be. That’s because both machines are relatively equal to each other under 11,000 rpm, but the RSV4’s shorter gearing allows it to pull a gap in the tight portions of the track.
In contrast to the Aprilia’s agility, the lighter weight Yamaha feels relatively lethargic when transitioning from side to side. A definite stalemate is front-end stability. Both motorcycles are rock solid when leaned over. Each machine communicates effectively to the rider what the front tire is doing, and considering we rode on a relatively cool day without tire warmers, that feedback was much appreciated.
Upon detection of slippage, the R1’s ECU performs a number of tasks, including closing the throttle butterflies via YCC-T (Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle). If that doesn’t reduce unwanted tire spin, then limiting fuel or spark are also alternatives. The point is to make the system as seamless as possible to the rider and to promote forward propulsion,
As reported in our first ride story, the system works as advertised, providing far less intervention in the higher settings than that of earlier TC systems we’ve tried while still propelling the rider forward as best it can. Many times the only indication the rider knows it’s working is the flashing of the indicator light in the dash. Bump the intervention level down a few notches and we built the courage to open the throttle more than ever through Willow’s infamous Turn 8, a sweeping right turn taken as fast as the rider dares. With a quick peek at the speedo, I saw speeds in excess of 150 mph upon entry. Even still, I only saw the indicator light flash for an instant, meaning my bravery ran out way before I reached the limit of the tires or the electronics.
Tom acclimated to the R1’s TC very quickly and appreciated the safety net it provided as he tried to remember the track and the bike again. “Yamaha’s new traction control takes sportbike technology to another level,” he said. “Knowing the R1’s horsepower is kept in check with traction control makes for an incredibly enjoyable trackday experience by allowing a rider to enjoy everything the R1 has to offer when accelerating out of a corner.”
Yamaha YZF-R1 — Street
The differences between the two machines are equally prevalent on the street as they are on the track. Where the Italian machine idles quite high at 1500 rpm, the Yamaha settles about 500 - 700 revs lower, and the Yamaha’s mirrors are actually useable.
Like at the racetrack, the Yamaha feels familiar, and quick canyon carving doesn’t take much adjustment. To be fair, the Aprilia also doesn’t take much getting used to if not having ridden anything else lately. It’s when jumping back and forth between the two that the difference is apparent. The R1’s chassis and suspension absorb road imperfections well, providing a more forgiving ride compared to the ‘Priller.
The lack of feel from the brake lever is an interesting phenomenon we’ve noticed in previous Yamaha sportbikes. There’s plenty of braking power coming from the six-pot calipers and 310mm discs, but deciding how much to modulate the lever can at times prove tricky. Also tricky is managing the R1 in the A riding mode. The abrupt power delivery requires an incredibly smooth and precise wrist. Even hitting bumps in the road is enough to jolt the wrist and cause the R1 to surge forward unintentionally. For most riding conditions, we prefer the Standard mode.
While dicing around Malibu’s many canyons, the R1’s traction control hardly activated, even when set to the highest setting. The conditions, while sketchy, weren’t bad enough to overcome the mechanical grip of the tires, at least according to the ECU. The tight turns of the canyons favored the Aprilia’s chassis, while the Yamaha was able to stretch its legs more and settle in to longer, flowing corners.
By now you may have noticed these two motorcycles perform rather differently despite what their outward appearance might suggest. This makes choosing a winner between them more difficult than we imagined.
Conclusion - Apple or PC?
Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy? When it comes to choosing a winner between these two highly capable machines, the answer is seemingly like choosing between one of the aforementioned products. Both the Aprilia and Yamaha are extremely capable in their intended environment: the racetrack. The rider aids on both machines are more than just hype and represent the beginning of a paradigm shift in the sportbike wars.
From a practical side, the Yamaha clearly is better suited to the street rider with its spacious ergos, comfy seat and cheaper price tag of $13,990 (as tested). Its downfall is the extreme heat emanating from the underseat exhausts. “The heat radiating off the exhaust of the R1 is unforgivable,” claims Tom. “Especially considering the under-seat routing is passé in terms of sportbike styling.”
During the R1’s introduction earlier this year, held in near triple digit weather, the immense heat radiating onto my thighs was downright painful, nevermind uncomfortable. This has been a common complaint since the previous generation R1, though many were able to look past it as the underseat exhaust along with the rest of the stylistic components combined for a sexy motorcycle for its day. Today, the R1 is the last of the literbikes to retain that trend.
On the track the Aprilia is a dangerous weapon, eager to please a worthy rider in a heartbeat, but also able to coddle the less experienced should they need it. While it may suffer a power disadvantage to a couple of other bikes in this segment, the smiles per mile factor when ridden in its environment are hard to beat. Traction, wheelie and launch control are all innovative ideas sure to be copied in some aspect in the future. But by no means is the Aprilia an angel either.
On the street the only place to take advantage of the Aprilia’s nimble chassis is in the twisties. Its compact dimensions and stiff seat don’t make it much of a grocery getter or sport-tourer when compared to the Yamaha. If that wasn’t enough, the RSV4’s appalling gas mileage figure of 26.4 mpg (compared to the Yamaha’s 31.2 mpg) surely makes it the last choice for burning away miles. Aprilia reportedly revised the fuel mapping to address this issue, but it would appear as though it was not entirely successful. For $3000 more than the Yamaha, one must really want a slice of exotica if they pick the Aprilia.
“Some have said that MV Agusta is the Ferrari of the two-wheeled world,” Duke comments. “To that I’d say the RSV4 is the Lamborghini. Its V-4 engine is unique in the literbike world, and it’s a raucous and rapturous ride that makes its pilot feel very special.”
So when it comes to picking a winner in the traditional sense between these two combatants, we’d have to defer to the intentions you, the end user, want, as these two motorcycles are seemingly polar opposites within the literbike genre. For the serious track junky, budding racer or even hardcore street rider, the RSV4 R is the ticket.
I’d say I fall into this category; pushing my limits to get the most I can out of a motorcycle keeps me excited. Street cred at coffee shops (if that’s your thing) is attained with the fact it’s not a Japanese motorcycle, while the latest and greatest technology of the day encourage me to push faster than I thought I could before.
However, street riders who occasionally see the racetrack yet want a well-rounded machine will pick the YZF-R1.
“I think the Yamaha makes for a better all-around sportbike — the key to its success being its user-friendliness,” says Tom. “As much as I like the Aprilia, its V4 engine and its sex appeal, the bike's nervousness isn't to my liking and kept me migrating back to the R1 and its more stable handling mannerisms.”
Of course, the R1’s cheaper price tag doesn’t hurt either. After flogging both bikes, one of the few conclusions we could agree on was that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be trading our wrenches in for keyboards when trying to extract the most from a sportbike.
2012 Yamaha YZF-R1 Review
2011 Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE Review
Italian V-Four Literbike Shootout: Aprilia RSV4 Factory vs. Ducati Desmosedici
2010 Aprilia RSV4 R Review
2010 Literbike shootout: RSV4 R vs. S1000RR vs. CBR1000RR vs. ZX-10R
2009 Yamaha R1 Review