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

And the winner is...
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Japanese manufacturers have lately seemed more interested in air-kissing each other's butt cheeks than building ass-kicking sportbikes. Most of the Big Four's offerings are so similar, it's hard to tell them apart. With European sportbikes, on the other hand, there is no archetype. Consider the Class of 2010: Some have aluminum spar frames, some use a steel trellis, one has both. Some have V-twins, some have four cylinders, one is a V4. And because each bike is so unique, our individual opinions diverged more than normal. It wasn't unusual to see the same bike at the top of one tester's list and at the bottom of another's. All we could do was crunch the numbers, call each other names, cast our votes and strive to arrive at something resembling a consensus.

With a similar steel-trellis frame and identically sized V-twin, KTM's RC8R will inevitably endure comparisons to Ducati's 1198S. The ultra-adjustable Austrian machine offers something its Italian rival doesn't-namely comfort-but that high degree of adjustability is both a blessing and a curse. Change works in both directions, and we spent a goodly portion of this test searching for a set-up that worked. We eventually got the chassis sorted, but abrupt throttle response soured everyone's impression, landing the RC8R at the bottom of our collective ballot.

BMW's all-new S1000RR came home fourth-talk about an upset! We all expected the velvet-hammer RR to crush all comers with its singular combination of brute force and sophisticated braking and traction assists. But engineers still haven't written software that helps a stubborn bike steer, and those highly integrated electronic controls sometimes stepped on each others' toes. Not to mention, it takes an awfully strong personality to stand out in this crowd! As adept as the Germans are at creating motorcycles with character, they haven't nailed that with the S1000RR quite yet. Setting their sights on "conquest" sales to former owners of Japanese bikes cost them dearly here.

Our Italian stallions ran away with this show, and in the end just three points separated the trio. The MV Agusta F4 ended up third, which is two positions higher than any of us predicted. It's too easy to dismiss the F4 as an overpriced midlife-crisis antidote. When one tester noted that it didn't have a clock, another said, "If you're riding this bike, you've already got a Rolex." Not necessarily: The second-generation machine is a genuine contender, with the lap times and price tag to back it up. And it still manages to be the most elegant and exotic machine here. The MV handled as well as the Ducati and hauled ass harder than anything else. In all honesty, it was a set of adjustable footpegs and some undercut gear teeth away from winning this shootout outright!

If the Aprilia RSV4 Factory had traction control, it would have been Game Over. Without the invisible throttle hand, it ended up being a very close call between it and Ducati's 1198S. The V-twin does have traction control, making what might otherwise be an unmanageable motor easy to exploit. What's more, no one had any critique of the Ducati's brakes, suspension or styling. The 1198S is very expensive, however, and very uncomfortable on the street. More to the point, it also suffered a mechanical problem for the second straight year.

Which makes Aprilia's RSV4 Factory our pick from the Class of 2010. It's no surprise that Max Biaggi has won World Superbike rounds on the real "factory" V4. The production version presents a race-ready package right out of the box, and makes a surprisingly satisfying streetbike, too. Innovative engineering, high build quality and an inspired-and inspiring-V4 engine mean that even in this crowd of singular and special motorcycles, the Aprilia RSV4 stands out.

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