Class of 2010: European Sportbikes - Foreign Exchange

While Japan throttles back, Europe delivers its most serious sportbikes yet

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Adam Campbell, Joe Neric

Forget about PIIGS, or any other overseas currency crisis-this is the kind of Euro bailout we can get behind. In a season when Japan's motorcycle industry is on lockdown, recycling last year's sportbikes, Europe's top manufacturers have stepped up with some seriously hot machinery.

This is not a consolation prize. In years past, European motorcycles tended toward the fringe, mostly big-bore V-twins, inline-triples and other niche-oriented errata. The European manufacturers built bikes with "character," but conventional wisdom said they couldn't-or wouldn't-compete on equal footing with the Japanese. That excuse has now officially expired. This year's foreign fleet strikes right to the windpipe with a quintet of sportbikes every bit the equal, in design and intent, of anything from Japan, Inc. That these five Euro-sports also offer significantly more character than the average Asian offering is just a little extra octane in the tank.

Unlike our previous "Class of" tests that pitted 600s against 1000s and the occasional big-bore twin, all of this year's new sportbikes are liter-sized or larger. A trio of World Superbike-ready fours-the inline BMW S1000RR and MV Agusta F4, plus the V4-powered Aprilia RSV4-square off against two V-twins-Ducati's reigning champion, the 1198S, plus the bigger, more powerful KTM RC8R. Since the manufacturers weren't holding back, neither did we, ordering the fully optioned version of each. This means the Factory-edition RSV4, DTC/ABS-equipped S1000RR, Corse Special Edition 1198S and the Akrapovic Edition RC8R. Only the F4 was a "base" model-and there's nothing basic about it!

We stuck to the same four-day format of years past, with two days on the street and two more at the racetrack. After two years testing at the tight and technical (and bumpy) Streets of Willow, this year we made the long trek north past San Francisco to undulating Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, California. That Infineon is located nearly 500 miles from our new El Segundo offices, and required traversing some of California's most challenging and scenic backroads en route, played right into our plans.

Over four days we racked up almost 1500 miles of urban warfare, interstate droning, backroad blasting and edge-of-the-tire track antics. Lap times were duly noted but not decisive; We were looking for an all-around leader; a bike that could throw down at the track and also endure all-day backroad exploring and even commuting. Although the hardware was different, our aim was the same: To identify the year's most-advanced and alluring sportbike. You can bet a stack of Euros on that.

Aprilia RSV4 Factory
Sometimes, numbers lie. As was the case with our Class of '09 shootout winner, the Yamaha YZF-R1, hard numbers hardly give a good indication of what Aprilia's RSV4 Factory feels like at speed. Jumping off after a hot lap of Infineon, you'd never believe this bike weighs 459 pounds and is the least powerful four-cylinder here. On the contrary, extreme mass centralization and massive midrange make it the most ferocious.

The Factory option adds $5K to the base RSV4's sticker price. Upgrades include gilded Öhlins suspension front and rear, an Öhlins steering damper and forged-aluminum wheels. Underneath the Factory's up-spec carbon-fiber bodywork you'll find magnesium engine cases and variable-length intake stacks. Peak output rises by 5.4 bhp, and total weight is 10 lbs. less. Shed poundage is mostly unsprung, a difference you really feel.

Aprilia set out to create a machine with the silhouette of a 250cc Grand Prix racer, which explains the stubby nose and pointed tail. These attributes reduce aero drag, and also shave pounds from the outer perimeter of the bike. An underseat fuel cell and super-compact, 65-degree V4 engine further centralize mass. A compact cockpit and narrow width make the 1000 feel like a 600 from the saddle. More than one tester commented on how closely the RSV4 resembles Yamaha's YZF-R6, the most aggressive and hyper-responsive sportbike on the market.

The RSV4/R6 comparison holds water right up until you whack open the Aprilia's throttle, releasing one of the gnarliest combustion barks on the planet and unleashing truly vicious motive force. A butterfly valve in the exhaust spreads power across the bottom, while the variable-length intake stacks snap open at 10,000 rpm to boost output in the upper revs. Low-rpm power from the 999.6cc V4 is unimpressive, compounded by clunky low-end fueling and some vibration through the bars to make the Factory a bummer around town. Rev it above 6500 rpm, however, and this little missile absolutely comes alive. Just like the chassis, power is amassed in the middle, with a noticeable drop beyond 12K that not even electronic intake trickery can hide. Better to shift sooner, then, and enjoy the smooth action of the slipper clutch-now a conventional, mechanical-type that replaces the old Mille V-twin's vacuum-actuated unit.

A fly-by-wire throttle provides instantaneous response, and enables three selectable drive modes. Track mode provides full, unadulterated power, Sport mode cuts torque by 25 percent in the bottom three gears, and Road mode cuts power by 25 percent across the board. Modes are changeable on-the-fly using the start button, which transforms into a mode selector 5 seconds after start-up.

Thanks to the demands of World Superbike homologation, the Factory offers more chassis adjustments than most riders would know what to do with, including adjustable swingarm pivot, rake and even engine position-though you'll need race-kit parts to do so. Luckily, the bike works right out of the box, delivering neutral steering and loads of feedback. Don't let the stubby look fool you: The Factory has a full-size wheelbase, and needs all those 55.9 inches to help keep the front wheel down on the ground. As expected, the sophisticated Öhlins suspension is excellent. The shock, with both high- and low-speed compression damping, prevents squatting without sacrificing compliance, and the super-sensitive fork delivers laser-like feedback even when loaded up on the brakes.

Everyone raved about the Factory's stability after the first street leg, but on the track we wished for quicker response. Adding 15mm of rear ride height improved turn-in, making the Aprilia easiest to flick from edge to edge through Infineon's constricted chicane. The V4 engine delivers power more predictably than either an inline-four or a V-twin, but even these inherent traction-enhancing properties aren't enough to mask the RSV4's lack of traction control. The Factory rider can smear the rear tire at will, and needs to apply decidedly more discretion before grabbing a big handful compared to the other bikes. But with a good tire and good throttle feel, the Aprilia is unstoppable off the corners, and runs like a raped ape everywhere else. Such unbelievable acceleration, coupled with world-class communication from the chassis and a soul-stirring exhaust note, put the Aprilia near the top of everyone's list. No matter what the numbers say, the RSV4 Factory is hard to beat.

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