This year's BOTY class has been a complete eye-opener on how the other half (aka: the European brands) operates. I've been so used to the refinement of Japanese bikes and how they simply work and work well - Kawasaki's ZX-6R is a perfect example. While we're talking about the ZX-6R, it was obviously outclassed in this year's test, but by no means is it a bad motorcycle. The 600s we always include in BOTY make it to the dance because of their merits within the middleweight class and in that regard the Kawi is top notch. But back to the other half. I'll just say it now: the BMW S 1000 RR is not my favorite literbike this year. Yes it's fast, yes it comes loaded with electronics, and yes it's the bike to have if you're serious about shredding lap times. But it lacks one intangible thing: character. It's so refined that it feels, well, Japanese. I'm sure I'll catch a lot of flak for not jumping on the BMW bandwagon, but for me - someone who doesn't race full-time - there was a bike in this test that did have character and got my heart racing with its razor-like precision and raw attitude. For me it's the Aprilia RSV4 Factory.
Bike of the Year has become quite a Euro-fest this time. A lot of surprises with this bunch, the Aprilia RSV4 Factory being the biggest of them all; while it didn't get my vote for the street (just a bit tight ergo-wise) it wasn't far behind. But it ruled the track as far as I was concerned - well worth the extra $$ over the R model. My buddy Andrew T. once told me, "Ya know, it is possible to have too much of a good thing" - I figured he was just a crazy Canadian, but his words rang true with the BMW at Buttonwillow; it was too much of a handful to ride, more work than pleasure - but it was the most comfortable on the street. The Ducati 1198S is such a beautiful bike, yet I was surprised just how roomy the cockpit was for someone six foot tall. It's kind of like a frozen Snickers bar; it's a little stiff and hard to work in the slower turns, but once it thaws out a bit and you can open her up, she puts a smile on your face! The MV Agusta is another Italian beauty, but the footpegs didn't allow the bike a fair shot in this group - they wouldn't let me get comfortable enough to really push it. And last but not least, the little ZX-6R had some competition to keep up with; it surprisingly kept the big boys in sight, but definitely took a lot of work to be there.
Bike of the Year is always a blast and there's a lot of personality across the board this year. These machines are the class of the sportbike world, and this nearly all-Euro affair brings some close competition. Kawasaki's little 600 showed heart when battling against the bigger and substantially more expensive literbikes. The ZX6R is the second most streetable bike of the bunch and brings simple yet functional qualities to the table. Both the MV and Ducati are two peas in a pod in several categories with styling being the obvious standout quality and sharing the famous Italian flair in a balanced yet original approach. Those Italians sure know how to cook, though...the F4 roasts your backside, while the 1198S complements that with a good baking to the rider's frontal areas.
Though it was close among the big dogs there was definitely a clear cut winner and it was the Aprilia that deserves the title of Bike of the Year. The RSV Factory has the feel and precision of a 600 yet pulls like a pissed off pit bull involved in a tug-of-war. The V-4 dominates the sport category in impressive fashion.
Side note: if I was to choose an all-around bike with the street environment being a critical deciding factor, it would be the BMW. The Beemer's usable electronic functions, big block motor and brilliant ergos are second to none in this gang of five.
It's been a while since the European manufacturers have made an impact on Bike of the Year. When Ducati's iconic 916 took the BOTY crown back in '94, there wasn't much debate about its performance. But the Japanese have progressed by leaps and bounds since that time, and with many European brands hitting a financial rough patch during the early part of the second millennium, the advantage clearly was in the Japanese court for quite some time.
The pendulum has clearly swung the other way this year, much of it due to the economic crisis affecting the higher-volume Japanese corporations that had higher overhead costs to deal with. But I think a big part of the performance shift is the ability (and desire) of the smaller Euro brands to be a little more adventurous on the design front. Ducati ushered in the current electronic revolution with the 1098R's traction control system, BMW took it a step further with its Race ABS setup, and most of the other Euro brands are quickly following suit. The Japanese have been a bit more cautious about adopting this technology, for various reasons.
And while the Aprilia RSV4 Factory isn't exactly dripping with cutting-edge new technology, its superb performance is at the forefront of a major European renaissance. They're not just expensive styling exercises anymore.