Despite the current economic implosion, these are very good times to be sportbike riders. In the space of three months, we've been presented with two radically different alternatives to the sportbike status quo. First came the MotoGP-inspired crossplane-crank Yamaha R1. Now, hot in its tire tracks, comes the totally unique Aprilia RSV4, as fine a piece of clean sheet engineering as we've seen yet in the literbike class, with its ultra-compact 65-degree V4 powerplant. The fact that these two bikes proved so effective straight out of the box at the highest level, flanking the reigning world champion Ducati desmo V-twin—a third different option in superbike engineering—on the Qatar rostrum in the second race of the '09 World Superbike season, shows that each company did its sums right.
The chance to join journalists from all over the world at the Misano GP circuit in Italy to ride the production Aprilia RSV4 at the world press launch was initially subdued by the fact that it rained all day. Even in the dry, this is one of the MotoGP calendar's least-grippy tracks, and it becomes a skating rink in the wet. But close study of the weather forecast revealed that—just maybe—it'd be dry and bright the next day, and it was. Convincing Aprilia to let me have another go, this time in Italian spring sunshine, was the work of a moment. But at least this way I got to ride the Aprilia the way it was meant to be ridden, on a dry track.
Having been conceived all along as an ultra-compact package ("The main objective was to make the bike as small and narrow as possible— we figured, ‘let's make a 250GP bike with a Superbike engine,'" said RSV4 designer Miguel Galluzzi) the Öhlins-equipped Aprilia RSV4 Factory waiting for me in pit lane looked dinky and small, as well as very beautiful. Just as beautiful was the ultra-distinctive growl when you thumb the start button on the RSV4. This is one of the most distinctive-sounding streetbikes ever made, sounding like a high-pitched twin at low rpm, but a deep-voiced four up high. "We did quite a lot of work on the sound," admits Galluzzi with a smile. "We made 150 different variations on the exhaust before we settled for this one. It had to have a different character in terms of the exhaust note, but of course there's also a lot of power there, so we had to balance those two issues with the question of Euro 3 compliance."
The Aprilia chassis offers acres of ground clearance thanks to the slim motor, and an ease of steering that is truly addictive; even Honda's nimble, sweet-steering CBR1000RR doesn't have the lithe feel of the V4 Aprilia, and that's some compliment. The RSV4's pressed sheet and cast aluminum chassis weighs just 22.2 pounds, and its ultra-lightweight forged aluminum wheels surely play a part thanks to their reduced gyroscopic weight. Only the KTM RC8R matches the Aprilia in terms of the ease with which it flicks from side to side through a series of slow switchback turns without feeling nervous, or sacrificing stability through the ultra-fast fifth-gear sweeper on Misano's main straight. And the Austrian V-twin hasn't got the power-packed Aprilia's engine and top-end speed.
The multi-adjustability of the chassis will help you dial in an ideal setting for any condition, even if you don't go as far as adjusting the engine's position in the frame. Just as on Aprilia's limited-edition '99 RSV1000 SP homologation superbike, and various editions of its 250/500GP two-stroke racers, the position of the RSV4 engine can be moved up/down/forward/back within the chassis, although Aprilia team manager Gigi Dall'Igna says the factory race team has only experimented once with this…then ended up moving it back to the default location! In addition to this, the steering head angle, the swingarm pivot height, and the rear ride height can all be altered, too. Softening the Öhlins suspension settings helped with grip in the rain, while in the dry the wheelbase was shortened via the huge 40mm range of adjustment for the rear axle location to help the bike turn better in the tight first section of the circuit without compromising stability in the faster bends.