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
The MV Agusta’s long reach...
The MV Agusta’s long reach to the bars and tall seat put a lot of weight on your wrists. Although the MV also shows less legroom here as well, the footpeg brackets are adjustable.
Ducati 1199 Panigale S: 87.5 points
There’s no doubt that the Panigale is a far cry from the previous generation desmoquattros as far as street manners. You no longer have to put up with overly tall gearing, torture-rack ergos, or mirrors that show nothing more than a fuzzy view of your elbows to get your Ducati fix; the Panigale is a much more hospitable mount in that regard. The engine and chassis are responsive and willing when riding the bike hard, and the busy, loose feel on corner entry we encountered at the track isn’t an issue at the lower speeds and aggression levels of public pavement. And the near-endless adjustability (and the ease of that electronic adjustment) on the Ducati allows it to be custom-tailored to your riding preference or scenario.
But as we’ve noted before in our previous tests, the Panigale still demands a good amount of commitment from the rider. The suspension spring rates are racetrack-stiff, limiting the window for softening the damping rates to offer an acceptably comfortable ride on the imperfect pavement of public roads, and while the ergos are better, the seat’s minimal padding means you feel every bump. And pray that you don’t get stuck in traffic on the way to or from your favorite road; otherwise, we hope that you’re wearing asbestos underwear or have some burn ointment handy, as the heat from the rear exhaust header will toast your butt and thighs medium well in short order.
MV Agusta F4RR: 88.5 points
Just as the MV Agusta surprised us on the track, it also impressed us with its performance on the street as well once we stiffened up the suspension from its Cadillac-soft settings as delivered. The engine has gobs of responsive power everywhere, the chassis handles everything from high-speed sweepers to tight canyon roads with equal aplomb, and the Öhlins suspension keeps it all well-balanced with impressive ease while providing excellent feedback at both ends. The adjustable footpeg brackets allow you to get more legroom if wanted, and the single HID headlight provides a decent beam pattern at night.
Unfortunately, the MV received major criticism from our testers for its poorly thought-out LCD instrument panel. The contrast isn’t high enough to be readable at a glance in daylight or nighttime, making the bar-graph tachometer even more useless. Although you can now scroll through the various displays via a new handlebar switch, navigating those displays or changing any settings is frustratingly non-intuitive. The mirrors are still little more than styling accents, and while the heat coming from the underseat exhausts is nowhere near as bad as the Ducati, it’s still bothersome in traffic; a good amount of engine heat can be felt emanating from the front fairing openings at slow speeds as well. The F4RR’s excessive weight couldn’t be ignored, the transmission’s reluctance to upshift without rolling out of the throttle (exposing the lack of quickshifter), and an engine with a thirst for petrol (we averaged a paltry 29 mpg, meaning you’ve got about 125 miles before you better start looking for a gas station) only added to the annoyances that prevented the F4RR from scoring higher.
Aprilia RSV4 Factory: 90.5 points
The Aprilia’s flexible and character-filled V-four engine and stable chassis proved to be the preferred combination on the street as well as the track. The RSV4’s linear power delivery instills more confidence as the pace ramps up, and its ability to provide that power in a smooth and easily accessible manner at nearly any rpm only makes it that much more appealing. The chassis is nice and stable, yet nimble enough to carve any line you want in a corner, and the Öhlins suspension helps maintain an even keel throughout any riding situation. As far as electronics adjustability, the Aprilia is nearly on par with the Ducati, offering an extensive array of engine modes/throttle response, traction control, wheelie control, and launch control options.
The RSV4 Factory’s only real minuses are the tall first gear, slightly cramped ergos, and a very thirsty engine. The Aprilia’s seat isn’t the roomiest in the world, and its padding is rather stiff — good for rear tire feedback, bad for straightline droning comfort. Navigating the RSV4’s extensive menu options isn’t as intuitive as the Ducati, but it’s not as frustrating as the MV. And plan your gas stops; the RSV4’s tank allows you about 140 miles tops if you’re riding hard.
The Aprilia (top) retains the same analog tach/LCD info panel dash setup that we prefer, although the black background on the tachometer makes quick recognition more difficult. The Ducati’s TFT display (middle) has good contrast and is well-designed (including an automatic “night” feature that switches the display to dark background), although daylight reflection off the top triple clamp and steering damper obscures the lower portion during daytime hours. All of our testers hated the MV’s somewhat outdated LCD dash, (bottom) with poor contrast making it difficult to see at a glance, and frustratingly non-intuitive navigation.
Although the RSV4 Factory’s Öhlins fork (top)is an older generation item, it still works well, as do the older Brembo monobloc calipers. As far as the Ducati’s exclusive M50 Brembo caliper setup, (middle) there is no better front brake on a production sportbike, bar none. The MV Agusta’s Brembo monobloc calipers (bottom) provide good power, but are high effort and lack some feel.
THE WINNER IS ITALIAN...
High-end sportbikes like these three used to be derided in the distant past as tarted-up underachievers, but that label can no longer be applied in this company. All three are capable of staggering speed on a racetrack with little compromise, and they all accomplish it with more style and character than your standard Japanese sportbike fare.
The Ducati 1199 Panigale S and MV Agusta F4RR are both serious performers, yet with a lot more potential. We’d just like a less-busy handling feel entering corners and some midrange power back with the Duc, and some sessions with Jenny Craig and a rethink of the dashboard with MV. Perhaps next year?
We were impressed with the Aprilia RSV4 Factory back when it won our 2010 Bike of the Year comparison test, and the addition of the APRC electronics has made the RSV4 an even more formidable weapon. Aprilia has certainly found a good combination of power and flexibility with the V-four engine, and the superbly designed electronics have raised its game to another level. Former World Superbike champion Max Biaggi definitely wouldn’t argue.
There’s something about Italian sportbikes that gets a motorcycle enthusiast’s heart racing. Their looks are supermodel-esque, exhaust notes something straight from the soundtrack of your favorite dream and there’s almost always some longstanding history tied to them. Neither the Aprilia, Ducati nor MV Agusta fell short in the face of these expectations, but one did prove to be an all-around better package.
Öhlins suspension and Brembo brakes complement each of these bikes, so it wasn’t a surprise to find performance between the three models almost on par. The Aprilia’s weight was a hindrance at the tighter confines of Buttonwillow Raceway, but in every other way it impressed, with simply fewer flaws than the competition. The Ducati requires finesse and bravery on the street or track despite its svelte size, and while the MV seriously impressed with monster power and a rock-solid chassis, its weight, unintuitive electronics adjustment screen and small dealer network would keep me from spending my hard-earned $25,000. Albeit a close decision, I’d choose the Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC.
These bikes’ behavior street versus track couldn’t have been more varied, yet it was closer than any other comparison I’ve been a part of. The Aprilia may have edged out the competition on our street stint, but it was surprising how it didn’t “bring it” on the racetrack for me — simply put, it didn’t have the steam at warp speed. The MV shined on the racetrack even if it felt a bit heavy through the tighter stuff. The F4RR’s great motor and incredibly stable chassis coupled with the always-reliable Öhlins suspension edged out the competition in my opinion. Props, though, to Ducati and their all new Panigale S. Undeniably an incredible effort, the 1199 offers ground-breaking electronics that have stirred the motorcycle community, and that’s hard to fault. But I’d go with the MV Agusta when ordering my Italian.
I’m convinced that the Ducati is an ECU-reflash away from offering the superb power its engineers intended. The powerband simply has too many dips and flat spots to be anything that Claudio Domenicali would approve for production. Not so easily fixed, however, is the Panigale’s penchant for nervous handling entering a corner. Once banked into the corner and charging off the exit, the 1199 is fine, but it’s the entry where it has issues. Fix that and the powerband, and Ducati could have a winner.
I’ll admit I was surprised at the F4RR’s per formance at the track. The previous F4 models always seemed a step behind the competition, but this MV changes all that. The engine is a monster with strong responsive power everywhere in the powerband, the chassis works superbly, and were it not for the excess weight and useless dashboard, I might’ve been hard-pressed to make a choice between it and the Aprilia. But as it sits now, picking the RSV4 Factory APRC is an easy selection in this comparison.
G2X DATA ACQUISITION
Over the course of our track day at Buttonwillow Raceway, we monitored Bradley’s progress on each of the three bikes using our Racepak G2X data acquisition system. As usual at Buttonwillow, we used the west loop of the track only, an 8-turn, 1.6-mile section that incorporates a variety of corners and even some elevation changes. The data graph displays speed for each bike’s fastest lap vs. distance, while the track map includes sector times and displays the relative positions of the three bikes at various points around the track.
Aprilia: 4.94 sec.
Ducati: 5.09 sec.
MV Agusta: 4.84 sec.
Turns 2 & 3
Aprilia: 13.61 sec.
Ducati: 13.81 sec.
MV Agusta: 13.72 sec.
Aprilia: 7.05 sec.
Ducati: 7.06 sec.
MV Agusta: 7.03 sec.
Aprilia: 6.43 sec.
Ducati: 6.31 6.31 sec.
MV Agusta: 6.37 sec.
Aprilia: 9.75 sec.
Ducati: 9.81 sec.
MV Agusta: 9.75 sec.
Turn 7 (chicane)
Aprilia: 7.62 sec.
Ducati: 7.58 sec.
MV Agusta: 7.73 sec.
Max. speed on 7-8 straight
Aprilia: 131.2 mph
Ducati: 134.7 mph
MV Agusta: 133.8 mph
Aprilia: 5.28 sec.
Ducati: 5.19 sec.
MV Agusta: 5.23 sec.
Lap times are slightly slower than the last time we ran literbikes at Buttonwillow in our 2011 comparison test (July ‘11), a reflection of significantly higher temperatures and the continued degradation of the surface. While the MV Agusta carded the quickest lap time, it is just .055 seconds quicker than the Aprilia; in fact, note that the Aprilia leads the MV almost the entire virtual lap as shown by their icons, and it’s only in the last corner that the MV pulls an advantage. The Ducati trails the Aprila and MV by just a quarter second. The slim spread in lap times is indicative of the almost equal racetrack performance of the three bikes expressed by Bradley at the end of the day.
In general, the Aprilia and MV make time in the fast sweepers of the track, where their power and surefooted handling help them post consistently quicker segment times than the Ducati. In contrast, the Panigale makes time anywhere that quick transitions are essential — coming down the hill out of turn 4 and the turn 7 chicane — due to its light weight. The Ducati turns that prowess through the chicane into the highest speed recorded on the straight, faster even than the significantly more powerful F4RR. The Ducati is more than a half second behind the other two bikes midway through the lap, but makes up almost half that deficit through the chicane and on the straight. The heavy MV Agusta loses out to both the Ducati and Aprilia in the chicane, but its steamy motor allows it to make up at least some of the ground on the following straight.
In terms of longitudinal and lateral acceleration performance, no one bike shows any significant advantage over the course of the lap. The Ducati does post the highest deceleration number of the trio — .97 g into turn 6 — but in other corners the Aprilia is stronger on the brakes; the MV consistently shows slightly less braking power than the other two bikes. In our literbike comparison test earlier this year, the RSV4 R model had impressive trail braking, shown as high combinations of braking and lateral acceleration. But while the Factory did record the highest peak value here, it does not show any consistent advantage as the R model did previously. Likewise, one bike doesn’t stand above the others in terms of acceleration exiting the corner.
The MV and Aprilia are almost identically matched in cornering and braking performance, but anytime the track opens up and speeds get near triple digits, the MV shows noticeably more acceleration, in spite of its heavier weight and lack of a quickshifter. This is just enough of an advantage for the F4RR to edge the RSV4 in lap time. The Ducati’s nimble handling and light weight definitely work in its favor in some corners, but at Buttonwillow there are not enough slower transitions to offset its lack of power and front-end confidence in the faster corners; with such a small spread in performance, however, the results could very well have been different at another racetrack.
|Specs|| || || |
| ||2012 Aprilia RSV4 Factory||2012 Ducati 1199 Panigale S||2012 MV Agusta F4RR Corsacorta|
|MSRP||$22,999 ||$22,995 ($23,995 as tested with ABS)||$24,998 |
|Engine|| || || |
|Type||Liquid-cooled, 65-degree DOHC V-four||Liquid-cooled, DOHC 90-degree V-twin||Liquid-cooled, transverse DOHC inline four|
|Bore x stroke||78.0 x 52.3mm||112 x 60.8mm||79.0 x 50.9mm|
|Induction||Weber Marelli EFI, 48mm throttle bodies, dual injectors/cyl.||Mitsubishi EFI, elliptical throttle bodies with 67.5mm equivalent dia., dual injectors/cyl.||Mikuni EFI, 49mm throttle bodies, dual injectors/cyl.|
|Chassis|| || || |
|Front suspension||43mm Öhlins inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel||43mm Öhlins inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel||43mm Öhlins inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel|
|Rear suspension||Single Öhlins shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel||Single Öhlins shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel||Single Öhlins shock absorber, 4.7 in. travel|
|Front tire||120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP C||120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP||120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP|
|Rear tire||200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP||200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP||190/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP|
|Rake/trail||24.5 deg./4.1 in. (105mm)||24.5 deg./3.9 in. (100mm)||23.5 deg./3.9 in. (100mm)|
|Wheelbase||55.9 in. (1420mm)||56.6 in. (1437mm)||56.3 in. (1430mm)|
|Seat height||33.3 in. (845mm)||32.5 in. (825mm)||32.7 in. (830mm)|
|Weight||458 lb. (207kg) wet; 431 lb. (196kg) dry||428 lb. (194kg) wet; 401 lb. (182kg) dry||469 lb. (213kg) wet; 442 lb. (201kg) dry|
|Fuel consumption||28 – 33 mpg, 30 mpg avg.||29 – 34 mpg, 32 mpg avg.||27 – 33 mpg, 29 mpg avg.|
|FINAL RATINGS|| || || |
| ||Aprilia||Ducati||MV Agusta|
|Engine power delivery||9.5||9||9.5|
|Chassis and handling||9||8.5||9|
|Fun to Ride||9.5||8.5||9|