It's become an old cliché to say that racing improves the breed, but if ever that applied to any motorcycle, it's the new Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE - as in Aprilia Performance Ride Control Special Edition.
This alphabet-soup version of Aprilia's unique RSV4, which since hitting the marketplace in 2009 has become the benchmark by which all other sportbikes are currently measured, was launched at Intermot in October, exactly eight days after Max Biaggi cemented the badge of excellence to the Italian bike by clinching Aprilia's first ever World Superbike Championship at Imola. The Roman Emperor followed that up a week later with the manufacturers' crown for the Piaggio Group's main motorcycle brand, winning the final race of the season at Magny-Cours. Later that same month, the chance to cut some laps of the Jerez GP circuit aboard the APRC, of which just 350 examples will be built and clothed in commemorative SBK title-winning livery, gave a hands-on demonstration of how the various electronic systems that helped turn Biaggi's bike into a World Champion have been so effectively adapted to customer use by the R&D team led by ex-Cagiva 500 GP chassis designer Romano Albesiano.
I'll immodestly admit to having an edge in assessing how well this had been done, having covered 20 laps of Mugello in 2009 aboard Biaggi's first-generation factory Superbike as well as riding its title-winning successor at the new Aragon racetrack in Spain. One of the significant differences between the two bikes - quite apart from the benefits of an extra 10 horsepower and five percent more torque from one year to another - was in the electronics. These have been patiently refined in-house by Aprilia over the past 18 months, with three engineers solely occupied on mapping the various programs on an ongoing basis, using systems their counterparts at Aprilia Racing had already developed for the RSV4 Superbike and before that the 250 GP two-strokes on which the company's traction control system was developed. So, for example, midway through Max's march to the world title this season, Aprilia added an anti-wheelie control to the RSV4 racebike for the first time. That is just one of the several electronic rider aids added to the APRC streetbike now on sale at an inevitably quite steep $22,500, $1500 more than the 2010-version RSV4 Factory to which it's otherwise mechanically identical save for a couple of improvements.
These aren't very numerous - Aprilia got it pretty much right first time - and include a revised internal oil system to improve cooling and lubrication, while the gear-driven counterbalancer now runs on roller bearings for reduced friction. The bottom three ratios in the six-speed gearbox have been lowered to improve acceleration still further, while also closed up by nine percent overall to one another - although the Aprilia is still geared very long, so you need to be travelling well over 125 mph on it before pulling a true sixth gear. We only pulled fifth at Jerez on standard road gearing without venturing anywhere near 13,700 rpm, at which point the engine starts to slow as the soft-action rev limiter comes in. At the 14,200 rpm peak, the Aprilia simply stops building revs and holds a constant engine speed. Whereas on the original RSV4 Factory the rather notchy direct-action gearchange was the one thing I didn't care for, on the APRC this is miles better, not only because it now has the linkage it always should have had, but also because it's fitted with one of the best wide-open powershifter systems I've yet sampled on any streetbike.
With the more extreme Track version of the three available riding modes (the others are Sport and Road) selected, the Aprilia pulls cleanly from as low as 3000 rpm on part throttle. This is doubtless thanks to a combination of the electronically controlled variable-length intakes and the exhaust powervalve, but as power builds smoothly the engine comes alive at 6500 rpm (when the valve is wide open) and accelerates very hard with a very linear delivery to the 14,200 rpm redline. I tried to spot the transition point at 10,000 rpm when the velocity stacks lift off the throttle bodies for more oomph up high, but failed - they just do. With the same 180 horsepower at the crank at 12,250 rpm as the Factory, this is just as fearsomely fast and radically rideable a Superbike with lights as the RSV4 has been from the first. Except, now, it's even better.
The updated exhaust system...
The updated exhaust system now incorporates a butterfly valve and is lighter than the previous unit. The standard RSV4 R model will also receive the new exhaust and internal engine updates. The rear tire is a 200/55, an upgrade specific to the SE model that was developed in collaboration with Pirelli.
The APRC's exhaust system is new, restyled to look better and sound better (this is an Italian bike, after all!), while saving four pounds compared to before. It incorporates a new butterfly exhaust valve better adapted to the ride-by-wire throttle, and also offers improved breathing. Finally, Pirelli's sticky new 200/55-17 Diablo Supercorsa SP dual-compound rear tire is mounted on the same 6.0-inch forged aluminum OZ wheel as before. Although this is presented as being a product of World Superbike development, that's not strictly true, since none of the seven factory teams has opted to race with it, in spite of Pirelli pushing them quite hard to do so by constantly producing it for testing. So, instead, the Italian firm has imposed il gommone (literally, the BIG tire!) on the FIM Superstock series support class, where it was the mandated control tire everyone had to use all through 2010. While side grip is presumably improved with the fatter rear footprint, especially matched to a slightly taller profile and slightly wider front, there's little doubt that the bigger rear tire detracts from the ease in flicking the sweet-steering Aprilia from side to side in a chicane or esses. Even if the grip from the Pirellis is outstanding, the race-developed rubber proved a fine partner in showing the SBK-derived electronic software to best advantage.
The Mode switch and up/down...
The Mode switch and up/down buttons on the left clip-on are used to select from three engine power modes, eight levels of traction control, three settings of wheelie control and three settings of launch control. The traction control can be changed without stopping the bike or even closing the throttle.
For what the Aprilia has become in APRC mode is the single most intelligent motorcycle I've ever ridden, thanks to the electronic rider aids that have been developed so successfully on Biaggi's and teammate Leon Camier's superbikes. Aprilia demonstrated these various systems very effectively at Jerez, adding successive layers of electronic control so that you could really identify how each one worked and to what extent each of the programs interacted with one another. This happened with the AQS (Aprilia Quick Shift) powershifter permanently functioning, which operates by reducing spark advance for an instant and then restoring it when the next higher gear has gone in. Ditto the variable-idle-speed engine braking control, which in conjunction with the ramp-style slipper clutch worked better than those on most racebikes I've ridden. This allows you to brake hard on the superb radial Brembo brakes and just tap back two, three or even four gears in swift succession without any sign of instability or chatter, by just fanning the clutch lever and of course without ever blipping the throttle. Outstanding.
The APRC package uses what Aprilia labels an "automotive inertial sensor platform," complete with twin gyrometers and twin accelerometers, to communicate to the ECU the dynamic state of the bike, allowing it to adapt the engine management parameters accordingly. First up was the ATC (Aprilia Traction Control), offering a total of eight different levels (with 8 the most intrusive and 1 the least - that's if you don't switch it off altogether) accessed via the twin thumb buttons on the left clip-on. This sophisticated system offers two big improvements versus other TC packages, the first being that you can adjust it on the go without stopping and turning the engine off or even shutting the throttle, as many comparable systems require. Also, it incorporates an autocalibration setup that allows the ATC to recognize when you've installed a different make or size of rear tire.
An updated LCD panel features...
An updated LCD panel features road and race displays, with the pertinent information - including the various APRC selections - legibly shown in each.
The new shift linkage incorporates...
The new shift linkage incorporates the sensor for the AQS system and can be set for standard or reverse shift pattern.
The APRC SE model has all...
The APRC SE model has all the top-drawer components of the Factory, including the variable-length intakes, adjustable chassis, Ohlins suspension and steering damper and forged aluminum wheels. Note the sensor ring for the ATC system.
I started out on level 8 knowing it would be super-intrusive, except I then spent the first two laps trying everything I could to make it work, without success - or so I thought! There was no sign of any of the stutter you get from the engine on other TC programs as the ignition cuts out briefly once the rear wheel starts spinning. That's because, instead of cutting the spark as other bikes still fitted with throttle cables do, the Aprilia's ride-by-wire setup simply retards the ignition and closes the throttle-body butterflies as soon as it's told by the various sensors that the rear wheel is spinning. Then in restoring drive it does so in an equally smooth way that's completely stepless. Working through the various settings I got down to 2, which I think gave the best combination of control and acceleration - one downside is that if you can't hear the TC cutting out it's all a bit of guess work.
Next system up was the AWC (Aprilia Wheelie Control), and after scaring myself stiff at Mugello last year with two sixth-gear power wheelies on the Biaggi Superbike at a speed the telemetry said was 180 mph both times, I was ready to see how this system was going to work. There are three different settings from 1 to 3, with the latter the most intrusive and not really worth using. But 2 was just magnificent, allowing me back at that slow last turn to get the Aprilia lined up straight before pulling the trigger, then rocketing past the pits with the front wheel hovering about six inches above the ground. Going to 1 revealed this offered less control and so wasn't as effective - I'd still have to be standing on the footrests trying to force my body weight over the front wheel to make it stay down, whereas in 2 I could just stay in the seat and crouch down behind the screen.
The final electronic aid the APRC offers is the only one I didn't like - ALC (Aprilia Launch Control). Ideally, the whole point of the system is that you should come to the line, wait for the lights to change while winding the throttle hard open and then just dump the clutch and let the electronics take care of dealing with the consequences. The APRC's launch control, like all other motorcycle offerings, simply holds revs at a set value until the clutch is completely let out and is not launch control in the accepted competition sense.
But that slight disappointment aside (on a program I doubt many owners will end up using), I have to say this APRC package is an extremely clever piece of empirical development taken from the racetrack to the highway - though I suspect most owners of these bikes are going to be track-day bound. At the stage you're spending that sort of money to buy a sportbike, you really can't afford not to spend another $1500 to get the benefits of this electronic wizardry, because the sum of its parts holds a great deal more than that in value. The Aprilia RSV4 Factory was already an exhilarating, exciting and rewarding bike to ride hard and fast on but the APRC electronic riding aids package makes it even more rewarding to ride - as well as a whole lot safer, too.
Like I said, racing improves the breed...
An extensive array of race parts are available for the RSV4, including the camshafts, dashboard and ECU shown here.
2011 Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE
Liquid-cooled, four-stroke DOHC 65-degree V-four
Bore x stroke:
78.0 x 52.3mm
Weber Marelli EFI, 48mm throttle bodies w/variable length intake, two injectors/cyl.
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rear tire: 200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rake/trail: 24.5 deg./4.1 in. (105mm)
Wheelbase: 55.9 inches (1420mm)
Seat height: 33.3 inches (845mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal. (17L)
Claimed dry weight: 394 lb. (179kg)