The Italian motorcycle manufacturers have always made a habit of producing upgraded versions of their standard machines, both for homologation racing reasons and for the additional sales interest those bikes create. While a few of these upgraded editions in the past were little more than the standard model tarted up with new paint and some carbon bits sprinkled in, thankfully that practice has mostly been discarded. The special models these days are usually equipped with upgraded suspension, electronics, and even engine specification, meaning you’re getting a lot more for your money…which in these still-recovering economic times means northward of $20K.
The Ducati 1199 Panigale S that we tested in the August 2012 issue (“Red Dawn”) is a perfect example. While the engine spec is basically the same as the standard Panigale that we used in our annual literbike comparison (September 2012, “Superbike Slugfest”), the S model comes with the groundbreaking electronically adjustable Öhlins suspension and lighter forged aluminum wheels. Aprilia’s RSV4 Factory APRC follows a similar route to the standard RSV4 that we tested in that same literbike comparison, with variable-length intakes, Öhlins suspension, forged aluminum wheels, and higher-spec Brembo brake calipers.
OE Pirelli Supercorsa SP tires...
OE Pirelli Supercorsa SP tires kept the playing field even at the track and on the street. Even though these are technically a street tire, the Pirelli rubber provided superb grip over multiple laps and in 100-plus temperatures.
Or there’s the MV Agusta F4RR (December 2011, “Radial [R]Evolution”), which goes a step farther and not only offers the latest Öhlins suspension, forged aluminum wheels, and upgraded Brembo brakes, but also has a more powerful engine than its F4R brother, courtesy of a lighter crankshaft and different rods/pistons. In fact, MV Agusta is claiming 201 horsepower at the crankshaft, making it the most powerful 1000cc sportbike on the market if true.
All three bikes are within $2000 of each other — as well as being above the $20K mark — so we decided to bring this trio of high-end Italian supermodels together to see just where they stand. We spent weeks living with the three in daily life, commuting during the week and playing in the canyons on weekends. Then to really let them unwind, we spent a day at Buttonwillow Raceway in central California, with Pirelli providing a fresh set of the stock fitment Diablo Supercorsa SP tires on all three bikes, a superb tire that easily handles track usage. So just what kind of performance is available in the higher altitudes of the sportbike financial spectrum?
Ducati 1199 Panigale S: 88.5 points
Given more time with the Panigale S, we were able to fine-tune the electronic Öhlins suspension settings to get a bit better ride from the chassis, allowing better overall feel for the racetrack instead of getting jarred over the bumps and rattling our tooth fillings. This not only provided better front-end feedback for corner entry (aided by the superb Brembo front brakes that are hands-down the best on a production sportbike) but also allowed us to make better use of the Ducati’s agility through the transitions; while the Aprilia and MV Agusta required some definite muscle to get through the esses, the Ducati was a comparative walk in the park. The superquadro powerplant’s ferocious top-end definitely gets your attention coming off the corners, and the well-dialed quickshifter keeps those drives smooth, while the adjustable engine braking control does likewise for corner entries.
It’s still difficult to get past the Panigale’s penchant for busy handling on corner entry, however. Once the Ducati is leaned over and planted in a corner, the 1199 is one of the best bikes out there; the problem is a lot of mental and physical effort is expended in order to get to that point. “It really takes a surgeon’s touch and a good understanding of what the bike wants as far as input,” stated Bradley; you really have to relax and let the Panigale work itself out into the corner, as attempting to manhandle it only makes the loose handling feel worse. Not helping matters here were the grips rotating on the bars (note to Ducati: change grips or add glue, please) and slippery footpegs, as well as the slightly abrupt throttle response.
Ducati 1199 Panigale S
+ Top-end rush like no other V-twin
+ Excellent electronics
+ Best brakes on any sportbike
– Nervous handling on corner entry
– Need asbestos underwear
– Give us back some midrange
x We’re wondering if EPA noise and emissions regs have strangled the U.S. Panigale
Suggested Suspension Settings
Front:Spring preload — 6 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping — 12; compression damping — 8
Rear: Spring preload — 6mm thread showing on shock body; rebound damping — 8; compression damping — 6
MV Agusta F4RR: 88.5 points
The MV Agusta really surprised us at the racetrack. The radial-valve inline-four engine is without doubt the strongest in the bunch, with a very stout, quick-revving midrange and incredible top-end pull that continues right up to the 13,250 rpm rev limiter; in fact, the only other bike we can think of with such brutal acceleration is the BMW. Couple that with a rock-solid chassis that offers excellent feedback and rear grip that easily puts that power to the ground (aided by the very transparent but effective traction control system), add super-strong Brembo brakes and an effective slipper clutch, and you have a bike that can get around a racetrack quickly. The NIX fork and TTX36 shock are the latest generation Öhlins tackle, and there’s a definite difference in overall action and feel.
The problem is that you’ll wear yourself out turning those quick laps, especially if there are a lot of transitions; the MV isn’t the lightest sportbike around at 469 pounds. Although the Brembo brakes are strong, they are a bit high-effort and lack the feel of the Ducati’s units, and the lack of quickshifter is exacerbated by a transmission that requires rolling off the throttle quite a bit before it will permit an upshift. Throttle response can be abrupt, and the LCD dashboard’s poor contrast and barely visible shift lights make shift points a bit of a guessing game.
MV Agusta F4RR Corsacorta
+ Monster power
+ Rock-solid chassis
+ Excellent suspension
– LCD dash is useless
– Needs to lose some weight
– Slippery footpegs, high-effort brakes
x Surprised us with its excellent performance after previous MV disappointments
Suggested Suspension Settings
Front: Spring preload — 16 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping — 6 clicks out from full stiff; compression damping — 7 clicks out from full stiff
Rear: Spring preload — 30mm thread showing on shock body; rebound damping — 15 clicks out from full stiff; compression damping — 7 clicks out from full stiff
Aprilia RSV4 Factory: 90.5 points
Despite the MV turning a marginally quicker lap time, everyone agreed that the Aprilia offered the best combination of strong, usable power and fairly agile yet stable handling. The V-four engine has good power everywhere (for the most part), and its superb traction control system helps keep the RSV4 Factory hooked up and driving hard off the corners. “Practically feel like I could do no wrong on it,” said El Jefe, while Bradley added, “It does everything well.” The Öhlins suspension components keep the chassis well under control through the hairiest sections, and the Brembo brakes bleed off that speed with ease, assisted by the excellent slipper clutch system.
That said, the Aprilia does have a few weaknesses. As we’ve stated before in previous tests, the RSV4 could stand to lose a little weight, and while the chassis masks that heft better than the MV Agusta, it still becomes an issue at a tight and twisty track like Buttonwillow. Flicking the bike from one side to the other required a surprising amount of effort considering how small and agile it felt in most other situations. “Fun isn’t having your arms feel like they want to fall off every time you roll through a set of esses,” griped Bradley. Top-end power seemed a little flat in the company of the Ducati and MV, and brakes were also a little higher effort than we liked as well.
Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC
+ Outstanding electronics
+ Powerful, flexible V-four engine
+ Stable yet nimble chassis
– Needs to lose some weight
– Could use a little more top-end
– Ultra-tall first gear
x The Öhlins and Brembo components on the Aprilia are the older generation units
Suggested Suspension Settings
Front: Spring preload—7 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping—7 clicks out from full stiff; compression damping—12 clicks out from full stiff; ride height—3 lines showing above top triple clamp
Rear: Spring preload—7mm thread showing on shock body; rebound damping—12 clicks out from full stiff; compression damping—10 clicks out from full stiff