Class of 2010: European Sportbikes - Foreign Exchange

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

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Joe Neric, Adam Campbell

Ducati 1198S Corse Special Edition
Last year we raved about what a value Ducati's 1198 represented, offering world-championship-winning performance for only a few thousand dollars more than the Japanese competition. Not so this year: Though the base 1198 is still a relative bargain at $16,495, this year's "all-options" criteria yielded the 1198S Corse Special Edition. At $24,995, this exotic Italian cost $4000 more than the next most expensive bike here. A few laps around Infineon, however, convinced us it's worth the premium.

The biggest difference between the S and the base model is its suspension. Öhlins bits front and rear substitute for the standard model's plebian Showa parts, and trick seven-spoke Marchesini forged-alloy wheels drop a few pounds of unsprung weight. The $3200 Corse Special Edition package adds an impossibly cool, lighter and larger brushed-aluminum fuel tank, Corse graphics and a race kit consisting of Termignoni carbon-fiber slip-ons and a dedicated race ECU. The S is 5 lbs. lighter than the standard 1198, and the Corse Special Edition is 2.2 lbs. lighter yet.

We asked each manufacturer to deliver our testbike stock, and Ducati's definition of that term obviously differs from the rest. In its defense, the slip-ons and ECU come in the Corse's crate, and the two bikes at Infineon were air-freighted directly from Italy, barely arriving in time for our test. With its "cheater" parts installed, the Ducati pumped out 145.1 bhp and a stump-pulling 87 lb.-ft. of torque. When we got back to SoCal, we retrofitted the 1198S with the stock parts and output dropped marginally to 144.9 bhp and 85.3 lb-ft. All that thrust made shifting optional: We could lug the motor through the T9 chicane and T11 hairpin and short-shift without worry. In fact, short-shifting was the only way you could roll the throttle wide-open without wheelying in the lower gears.

With Öhlins components front and rear, and Ducati super-tuner Jeff Nash helping us in the pits, the 1198S sliced and diced the former Sears Point Raceway. Front-end feedback is its strongest attribute, especially while trail-braking. The Italian twin was also praised for its neutral steering at speed. There was zero resistance to mid-corner line adjustments, even in Infineon's super-fast downhill Carousel, where the bike hugged the inside best. The Ducati was harsh to the point of painful on the street, and doesn't turn that well unless loaded up, but when pushed hard responds better than the rest.

Numerous small adjustments make this year's 1198S friendlier than before. The Brembo Monobloc front brakes have a softer initial bite without sacrificing any overall power, for easier modulation. The Ducati was second only to the BMW in terms of outright braking ability. And the latest version of DTC (Ducati Traction Control, in this case), which now retards spark and reduces fuel, is smoother than before. You hear and feel the traction control more on the Ducati-perhaps because it works harder to resist all that torque-but it never upsets the chassis or disrupts your drive.

We still want a slipper clutch. Back torque is a big issue on this big twin, and it's nearly impossible to downshift to first without inducing massive rear-wheel chatter. The 1198S was also the only machine to experience a mechanical issue at the track, when the clutch locknut backed out, resulting in a dead lever. Otherwise, the Ducati's transmission is the best of this bunch, with a positive feel, decisive engagement and no missed or vague shifts.

The 1198S has the longest reach to the lowest bars, but our 6-footers preferred this compared to the cramped BMW and diminutive Aprilia-at least at highway speeds. Still, little things annoy: You will crunch your fingers between the bars and fairing at full lock. Despite theoretically perfect primary balance, the 90-degree V-twin thumps through the bars and seat at low revs. And the underseat exhaust rotisseries your rump.

The Ducati is the most committed and uncompromising machine here, which makes it the best on the racetrack. The bike flat-out works when you want to go fast, which makes it a weapon not only in SBK competition but also under hacks like us-three testers turned their best laps on the Desmo by a significant margin. Such single-minded focus comes at a cost, of course, and for day-in, day-out livability the 1198S offers little in terms of comfort or convenience. There's also the issue of price, though to be fair, the standard S-model would likely offer 95 percent of the performance for $3200 less.

Such common-sense considerations are usually of no concern to Ducatisti, however.

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