Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC vs. BMW S1000RR vs. Ducati 1199 Panigale S vs. MV Agusta F4R | Class of 2012 Part II

MC Comparison

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing

Ducati 1199 Panigale S

Best Lap: 1:53.9

The 1199 Panigale S, Ducati’s first all-new superbike in two decades, boldly goes where no production sportbike has gone before. Featuring a superlight monocoque chassis, the most powerful production V-twin engine ever and more e-gadgetry than Radio Shack—including electronically adjustable suspension, a superbike first—the Panigale was favored to win this contest before it even turned a wheel. After a stunning First Ride impression at Yas Marina race circuit in Abu Dhabi, expectations for the street debut were extremely high. Would Ducati’s next-generation superbike live up to the hype?

Blood-red bodywork, gold Öhlins suspension, black forged Marchesini wheels—are there any other colors?—all look familiar, but this isn’t like any Ducati that’s come before. It’s tiny—smaller than most 600s, the Panigale positively disappears beneath you. The subframe is barely wider than the rear cylinder head it bolts to, and there’s nothing between your legs but the side-mounted Öhlins TTX shock that pokes your left thigh at a standstill, but disappears once your feet are on the pegs.

The Panigale is almost comfortable—words we’ve never uttered in the direction of a Ducati superbike. The 1198’s long, laid-out riding position is gone, replaced with high, wide, flat clip-ons that create an upright, elbows-up riding position some riders loved, but others felt was a pain in the wrists. The saddle is supportive and properly shaped but slopes downward slightly, making the narrow, hard-to-grip fuel tank a familial liability under heavy braking. And even with the exhaust relocated underbike rather than underseat, the Panigale still roasts its pilot’s legs. The poorly shielded rear header is shaped like a heating coil and acts like one too, especially at commuting speeds.

A cool, fighter jet-style shielded starter switch ignites the Superquadro (“Supersquare”) V-twin with some effort—our testbike occasionally struggled to start, especially when hot. An 11,500-rpm rev-limit makes this the highest-revving production V-twin ever built, and generating 158 bhp and 80 lb.-ft. of torque, it’s the most powerful, too. Unlike most V-twins, however, that power is concentrated over a narrow band between 8000 and 10,500 rpm. The old Testastretta’s legendary low-end lunge is gone, and although the upper-rpm acceleration is truly ferocious, the soft bottom end often made the superlight Panigale feel like the slowest bike here.

The peaky powerband, coupled with a close-ratio transmission, made street riding a chore. Where the other three bikes can be treated as single-speeds anywhere from 40 to 100 mph, the Panigale needs constant shifting. Luckily, the transmission is the best of this bunch, with an effective quick-shifter aiding upshifts. The calibration of this U.S.-spec machine also left something to be desired. While the factory-prepped machines at Abu Dhabi amazed with an instantaneous appetite for revs, response here felt stifled off closed throttle and lackluster until we reached the upper half of the tach.

The 56.6-inch wheelbase is slightly longer than the 1198’s, but the old bike’s slow-steering stability has been replaced by a hyper-responsive willingness to turn. The Panigale loves corner speed, and has the ability to follow lines that less-agile bikes could never negotiate. Low weight and a higher mass center let the Panigale snap from edge to edge like a MotoGP racer, and it feels like you can always tighten your arc. Three-level-adjustable engine-braking control, an excellent slipper clutch and foolproof race ABS let you rush corners like a Roman scooter jockey runs red lights, and there’s never any argument from the chassis while trail-braking.

Even assisted by game-changing Öhlins/Ducati Electronic Suspension (DES) that lets you alter damping rates instantaneously by pushing a button, we struggled for a setup that would settle the Panigale down. A harsh ride on the street, flighty behavior over mid-corner bumps, excessive pogoing and lots of rear-end pumping under hard acceleration all suggest the Panigale is oversprung. That twitchy behavior eroded confidence at the racetrack, where the Duc only turned the third-quickest lap. With such light weight, great top-end power and flawless traction control the Panigale should have topped the timing charts, but poor suspension setup—if not outright chassis compliance—held it back.

The Panigale is a technological tour de force. Once you experience the clarity of the iPhone-like TFT dash, which reconfigures its display depending on ride mode, everything else looks obsolete. Now we're spoiled forever by the convenience of tool-free damping adjustment. The LED headlights (only on the S-model) are remarkable too, even if they add 6 lbs. But ultimately, our honeymoon with the Panigale was over too quickly. We were dazzled by the technology and thrilled by the features, but undercooked engine and suspension calibration left us frustrated. On paper, the Panigale is unlike any Ducati superbike built before. But in practice, it’s the same as it ever was. It’s still committed and uncompromising, still sensitive to setup, and it still demands to be ridden hard and fast in order to work best.

Off The Record

Matt Samples, Test Consultant

Best Lap: BMW 1:55.4 | Age: 36 | Height: 6’2” | Weight: 200 Lbs. | Inseam: 34 In.

Forget the conclusion of this comparison—Aaron got it all wrong! The Ducati is the real winner here. Sure, the exhaust heat burned even my Gold Bond-medicated bum, and the back end bucked around a bit on corner exits, but who cares? No other bike here thrilled me like the Panigale. This cutting-edge scalpel exudes next-generation appeal, and because it’s the lightest bike in the test, it’s not exhausting to ride. So there’s no low-end grunt—so what? I wasn’t missing anything each time I felt the manic rush crossing the 8000-rpm rev threshold. Talk about exhilarating! The ergonomics fit my 6-foot frame just fine, the quick-shifter was flawless, and did I mention the TFT dash, which has more functionality than your iPhone, plus electronically adjustable suspension? This bike is the future—even if it still needs a bit of tweaking to find the perfect setup.

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