Like the first day of school, the start of a sportbike comparison test can be confusing. Which bike vibrated like a cracked-out chipmunk under 5000 rpm? Was it the Ducati or the Yamaha that power-wheelied so hard in third? Does or doesn't the Kawasaki have a slipper clutch? Who's got the company gas card? And fercrissake, how did I misplace my ignition key again?!
Testing can be chaotic. Inputs and impressions come quickly, and in the beginning it's all a blur. All the new models are awesome. All of them feel like the fastest thing you've ever ridden. All of them change direction quicker than a Cooper's hawk, and stop as if slowed by the hand of God himself. And damn if they don't all look like they've been plucked from a MotoGP starting grid. Do we really have to pick a winner?
Saddle time brings clarity. The blur resolves, and subtle differences sharpen into stark relief. Strengths assert and weaknesses reveal, until a composite picture assembles in our brains. Patterns emerge. The bike no one wants for street sessions is the one everyone grabs first at the racetrack. On the street, the guys on the liter-bikes always want to go "just a bit farther" before swapping to a 600. Everyone wants to be the cool guy climbing off the Ducati at a crowded lunch spot.
We spent four days aboard 2009's all-new sportbikes: Ducati's 1198, Honda's CBR600RR, Kawasaki's ZX-6R, Suzuki's GSX-R1000 and Yamaha's YZF-R1. We started with two days on the street, taking the long way from Los Angeles to Rosamond by way of San Luis Obispo. Two tire-shredding days at the Streets of Willow race circuit followed, before one final flog back over the Angeles Crest to L.A.'s dark, rush-hour heart.
Our adventure covered everything from lane-splitting down Hollywood Blvd. to dodging big rigs on the 101, strafing Highway 33's blazing-fast sweepers and wheelying over the endless rolling hills of Highway 58. Conventional same-size comparos are an exercise in hair-splitting. Our version of class warfare, pitting 600s against 1000s and a 1200cc V-twin, reveals the larger picture. The "Class O'" concept draws out the various benefits and disadvantages of each bike not only against its direct competition, but also against bikes in other displacement categories.
This makes our job more interesting, if not any easier, translating broad differences into distinct benefits in search of the best do-it-all sportbike: 2009's Head of the Class.
Best Lap: 1:21:32
More than ever before, Ducati's Superbike deserves to be measured side by side with its rivals. Selling for $16,495, the 1198cc V-twin isn't that much more expensive than a Japanese liter-bike.
And with 145.2 horses at the rear wheel (just 1 bhp less than the R1), it's certainly not any slower--especially around a racetrack.
The racetrack is where the World Superbike-winning 1198 shines brightest. Just a few degrees removed from its paddock brethren, it delivers the same precise steering, immediate feedback and telepathic traction management as a dedicated racebike. Stiff and sharp-edged, the fully adjustable (including ride height) chassis is sensitive to setup, but take the time to dial it in and fast laps will be your reward. The 1198 was just a quarter-second off the quickest lap time at this test, even though it got crashed before some of our testers had their final go-round. On a larger, faster circuit, it would be hard to beat.
Compared to the Ohlins-equipped $21,795 1198S, the base model's Showa suspension is a bit harsh but still functional. Brembo Monoblocs are the same as on the S and as effective as ever, but demand a delicate touch as you near the edge of traction--just ask Matt! Though it's devoid of the S-model's traction control, engine spec is otherwise identical, putting those extra 100cc to good use to produce an impressive 84.6 lb.-ft. of torque--8 lb.-ft. more than the GSX-R, and almost 12 lb.-ft. over the R1.
Impressive numbers, but the V-twin's lower rev ceiling--and a rev limiter that hits harder than an unhinged Mafioso--means the 1198 requires more shifting than four-cylinder liter-bikes, highlighting the heavy clutch and stiff gearbox. Clunky action wasn't the only issue with the gearbox on our test unit: A bolt that holds the shift selector drum backed out at the track, locking up the gearbox and nearly landing Barry on his neon-orange head. Fortunately, Ducati supertuner Jeff Nash was on hand and able to fix it.
Away from the racetrack, opinions were mixed. Surprisingly, many testers--especially the taller ones--rated the roomy Ducati the most comfortable bike in this bunch. That tells you just how cramped the latest generation of Japanese sportbikes is! Still, the 1198's pegs are high and rearset, the bars are a stretch and the lumber-like saddle slopes downward uncomfortably--unlike on the 999, the 1198's saddle and pegs (and steering head) aren't adjustable.
Though not as iconic as the 916, the shark-like 1198 is still one of the sexiest bikes in showrooms today. The underseat exhaust looks stylish and sounds even better, but roasts your cheeks in traffic, and an after-dark adventure on Highway 58 inspired a suggestion that the 1198 should come with a white cane for nighttime riding! Low-rev vibration is annoying as well. Jeff suggested this was the result of Euro 3-compliant EFI settings that starve the engine for fuel at low rpm. One Dynojet Power Commander, please...
Despite its caged-animal street behavior, one of our testers actually nominated the 1198 for best overall--its overwhelming charisma and sheer sporting competence are that persuasive. As was the fate of the 1098 in our Class of '07 test, however, more versatility--and fewer rough edges--would improve the Ducati's overall appeal. But the legions of Ducatisti don't seem to mind.
And for everyone else, there's always the Honda.