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

MV Agusta F4
Though the bikes are still built in the famous factory on the shore of Lake Varese, MV Agusta is owned-for now, at least-by Harley-Davidson. Fans of the Italian brand worried that The Motor Company would dumb down the product line when it took over in 2008. Those fears, thankfully, were unfounded. This essentially all-new version of the F4 1000-aside from increased displacement the first real redesign in 12 years-is improved in every way. More amazingly, its price was slashed some $3000 to just $18,500, making it the second least expensive bike here. That's right: The MV Agusta F4 might be the best value in this test. Talk about a sentence we never dreamed we would type...

The updated F4 was the biggest surprise of the test, and in many ways the most impressive. We were intimately familiar with the old model-Catterson even owns one, having purchased his 2005 long-term testbike-and though we appreciated its exoticism and exclusivity, the outright performance never equaled Japanese liter-bikes costing a fraction of the price. This year, however, that's different. Three testers turned their second-fastest laps on the F4, and everyone raved about its rock-solid stability, exceptional front-end feedback, transparent traction control and absolutely stonkin' inline-four.

Some criticized this F4 restyle for clinging too closely to the original, literally sharpening Massimo Tamburini's sensual curves. For the record, we love the dynamic new look. And beneath that edgier bodywork the bike is 85 percent changed. The engine received many updates, most significantly a new, heavier crank intended to smooth power delivery. The motor was relocated further forward to increase front-end weight bias and allow a longer, traction-enhancing swingarm, and every part was scrutinized with an eye toward shedding pounds. It's the heaviest bike here at 468 lbs. full of gas, but that's a full 20 lbs. lighter than before

With an almost 33-inch-high seat and just 17 inches between the saddle and pegs, the F4 feels tall and somewhat cramped. The bars are low and the reach is long, but the ergonomics work surprisingly well for going fast. The 50mm Marzocchi fork felt harsh on the street but delivered exceptional feedback at the track. Riders especially flipped for the F4's handling in Infineon's wicked-fast downhill Carousel; more than one said they railed that section harder and faster on this bike than on any other. Of course, having the legendary Eraldo Ferracci on hand to provide individualized set-ups helped!

Though you feel the increased crank inertia when changing direction at high speed, you never detect it through your right hand. The 998cc, radial-valve inline-four revs with remarkable quickness, enhanced by an F1-like howl from the square-tipped, quad-pipe exhaust. Though not the most powerful bike here-it's down 17 bhp to the BMW-testers said the F4 felt like the fastest of the bunch. It sucked up everything on the straights, and was the only bike to wheelie before the drop-off on the back stretch. MV's Torque Shift System of variable-length intake stacks accounts for some of this accelerative authority, as does shorter final-drive gearing and the transparent traction control. Though functionally crude-the ECU monitors changes in engine rpm, not wheel speed-this system was the most fluid in application, controlling wheelspin without seeming to stunt the motor at all. Like Ducati's, MV's system is eight-position-adjustable, but because those settings are changed on the dash, it's impossible to alter on-the-fly.

A superb slipper clutch aids corner entries, though the cassette-type gearbox didn't deliver the smoothest movement between first and second gears. The F4's brakes were also deemed merely adequate. They offered good feel and were easy to modulate, but lacked outright power-perhaps due to mismatched fluid ratios between the MV-spec'ed Nissin master cylinder and Brembo calipers.

One thing no one argued was the MV's build quality. Fit-and-finish is on a level of its own, even compared to the exquisite Aprilia and Ducati. The paintwork is flawless, the steering damper is sculptural, the dash is digital art and nothing says "exotic" like the blue blaze of a genuine HID headlight. That this all comes at a comparatively bargain price is even more astounding. Perhaps it's no surprise that MV recently reported first-quarter sales 50 percent up from the same period last year.

What doesn't make sense is why Harley-Davidson is trying so desperately to divest itself of MV Agusta, when the historic brand is positioned now more than any time in recent history for success. Harley already walked out on Buell; all we can say is please, Milwaukee, don't let another short-sighted business decision put an even better sportbike to rest!

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