Aprilia Dorsoduro 750 vs. Ducati Hypermotard 796

Sumo lite

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Kevin Wing

Moment of silence, please, for supermoto. The wild-and-wooly, part-asphalt/part-dirt racing discipline that began life as The Superbikers on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports, then was exported to France as supermotard and re-imported to America as supermoto, is pretty much dead. Though various grass-roots regional series remain, the AMA Pro Series that ran for a few years at the start of this century with such luminaries as Jeff Ward, Jeremy McGrath, Doug Henry and the Boz Bros competing is no longer happening. The story goes that near the end of the first meeting of the Daytona Motorsports Group after it had acquired AMA Pro Racing, someone asked, What about supermoto? The reply: Oh, do we own that too?

Grrr...

But while supermoto racing may be fading into oblivion, supermoto streetbikes have actually been gaining in popularity—and not just 250-450cc singles. The problem with dirtbike-based sumos is they run out of steam at higher speeds; great fun around town, on a go-kart track or a diabolical stretch of twisty 1.5-lane; not so much on a faster two-lane road, let alone a proper racetrack.

That’s where twins come in. Bikes like Ducati’s Hypermotard 1100 and KTM’s 950 Supermoto take the high road, while Aprilia’s SXV450 and 550 take the low. And then there are these two midi-motos: Aprilia’s Dorsoduro 750 and Ducati’s Hypermotard 796.

Talk about striking the perfect balance. These two three-quarter-liter machines are powerful enough not to feel wrung-out on the open road, but lightweight enough to positively dissect the twisties. Note we said balance, not compromise: These bikes’ only concessions are to the bottom line. That’s just shy of $10K, if you flipped open this issue without reading the cover blurbs, which used to be a lot of money for a motorcycle before the economy headed south for the winter. If 50 is the new 35, then $10K is the new $6999.

In the interest of alphabetical PCness, let’s start with the Aprilia. While a 750cc V-twin may not seem like a big deal, this engine represents a huge step forward for the Noale, Italy-based manufacturer. Where previous Aprilia V-twins used engines built by Rotax in Austria, this one is made in-house by parent company Piaggio. Furthermore, where those Rotax twins arrayed their cylinders at 60 degrees, this one is a 90-degree Vee like a certain Bolognese rival. Coincidence? Not a chance.

The Aprilia’s engine isn’t the only thing that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Ducati. Though it’s assembled differently, with its steel main tubes bolting to cast-aluminum swingarm pivots, the frame is a trellis in the best Italian tradition, the engine suspended beneath. The aluminum swingarm is a conventional double-sided design, but it’s a work of art, as exquisite as any part ever made by Bimota. Ditto the kickstand. The minimalist windscreen; the abbreviated bodywork; the long, dirtbike-style seat; the underseat mufflers; even the name Dorsoduro (Italian for hard back, whatever that means) owe a debt to the Hypermotard. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then former Ducati design chief Pierre Terblanche should be well and truly blushing!

The 796 looks just like a Hypermotard 1100 because it effectively is one, with precious few changes. Sometimes, Ducati’s smaller models make do without some of their bigger brothers’ features, for example the single-sided swingarm or radial-mount brakes. But the 796 has both of those, along with the requisite steel-trellis frame and a smaller version of the venerable Desmodue engine. Like all current Ducatis this one’s fuel-injected and equipped with the firm’s trademark desmodromic valve actuation, meaning it uses camshafts and rocker arms to open and close the valves, sans springs.

With the Angeles Crest Highway open again after the past few years’ landslides and brush fires, we pointed these two midi-motos north toward La Crescenta-Flintridge. Throw a leg over the Aprilia and the first thing you notice is how much it feels like a dirtbike. The next thing is how awkward its high-mounted, enduro-style kickstand is. The stand tucks well up out of the way next to the left side panel, but watch your leg when you flick it upand good luck finding it with your toe when it comes time to deploy it again! The seat is hard, and taller riders will find themselves sitting on the passenger grab strap; we removed the seat and replaced it with the strap tucked underneath. That seat is also high, the bars wide and the reach from one to the other quite long. The suspension doesn’t sag much when you climb aboard, either. This bike is definitely better suited to taller riders.

Toggle the Dorsoduro’s starter button and you find it’s cold-blooded, coughing and sputtering before coming to life. It takes a while to warm up, too, which is unusual for a fuel-injected motorcycle. Once it does, however, it’s a willing accomplice, quick-revving with a sound more like a Suzuki SV650 than any Ducati. In fact, one of our testers—a former SV650 owner who’d moved on to a GSX-R750—found herself longing for her old bike, and wondering how much fun a supermoto-style SV would be. Are you paying attention, Suzuki?

The Ducati feels much smaller when you sit on it, and smaller yet as the suspension settles beneath your weight. Riders as short as 5-foot-4 should have no problem getting their feet down—or at least one foot down. Fire up the desmo engine and it barks to life, sounding like a muted World Superbike. It’s almost too quiet, but there’s no mistaking that inimitable Ducati V-twin sound.

Heading up into the mountains, more differences became apparent. While neither bike buzzes badly, the Aprilia’s dirtbike-style serrated-metal footpegs tingle noticeably. With its smaller, liquid-cooled, four-valve-per-cylinder, dohc engine, it makes more power (75.2 bhp) at higher revs (9250 rpm) than the Ducati. It’s geared quite low, first dispatched almost as soon as you let out the clutch and sixth a tad short for freeway cruising, though it shifts positively. That helps in acceleration, as the Dorso nipped the Hyper by a tenth of a second in our dragstrip testing.

The Ducati is coarser and more mechanical feeling, and tingles through the bars. Its bigger, air-cooled, two-valve-per-cylinder, sohc engine churns out more torque (49 lb.-ft.) than the Aprilia, but doesn’t rev quite as high (peak power comes at 8000 rpm) in spite of its desmo valve train. Blame the fact that it has two big valves per cylinder as opposed to the Aprilia’s four small ones. The six-speed gearbox has perfectly spaced ratios and shifts well, and downshifts are aided by the APTC (Adler Power Torque Clutch), which is effectively a slipper, though it uses a threaded spline as opposed to the more common spring-loaded ramps. You need to exercise care while getting underway, however, as the engine’s torque coupled with the wet clutch’s narrow range of engagement can smoke the plates if you’re not careful. All that said, most of the time the 796 feels exactly like the 1100; you just find yourself turning the throttle farther.

With long-travel (approximately 6 inches) suspension befitting supermoto bikes, both of these motorcycles require a deft touch to ride quickly. Ham-fisted application of the powerful dual four-piston front brakes causes their chassis to pitch forward abruptly, making for squirrelly corner entrances. Best to drag the rear brake a tad to settle the chassis and keep the rear wheel in line. The Aprilia’s stiffer spring rates make it better here, though our testbike’s rear brake squeaked annoyingly. The Ducati’s suspension is soft, and there’s not much you can do about that as only the shock is adjustable. Supermoto-style, hacked-out corner entrances are best left to professionals, but the Aprilia’s chassis is better at this while the Ducati’s APTC clutch helps prevent stalling if you inadvertently lock up the rear wheel. At 476 lbs. full of gas, the Dorso is nearly 60 lbs. heavier than the Hyper, but you only really notice this at a standstill, where it feels a bit more top-heavy and tippier, especially to shorter riders.

As we climbed up into the colder, higher elevations, we couldn’t help noticing these bikes’ wind protectionor lack thereof. The Aprilia has a slightly more effective windscreen while the Ducati’s hand guards work better. Speaking of which: The Hypermotard’s folding bar-end mirrors are a clever idea and provide an excellent rearward view, but they stick out way too far, measuring 48 inches from tip to tip—fully 14.5 inches wider than the Aprilia’s! Even if you never split lanes, you’ll clobber something. The Ducati’s high-beams proved elusive until we figured out you have to flick the passing-light switch down. Likewise, the Aprilia’s left-hand switches are reversed, so you find yourself honking when you want to signal and vice versa. It takes a while to get used to that.

As for looking forward, with their high seats, wide bars and upright riding positions, both of these bikes are great for commuting, providing a commanding view of the road (and traffic) ahead. But while they both get great fuel mileage (around 40 mpg), they suffer from lack of range. The Aprilia’s low-fuel light illuminates with as little as 85 miles on the odometer and is running on fumes by 120, while the Ducati doesn’t go much farther. Something to keep in mind if the open road beckons.

By the time we got to Wrightwood, we’d reached a consensus. In spite of their obvious similarities, these are two very different motorcycles. The Ducati is smaller, lighter, more plushly suspended, torquier and thus more manageable, and its APTC clutch is a real boon to inexperienced riders. It also has more character, and there’s a fat Ducati Performance catalog full of accessories. If you’re small in stature and longing to belong to the exclusive club of Ducatisti, look no further.

But if you’re looking for the better motorcycle, choose the Aprilia. It’s bigger and heavier but more powerful, and works significantly better in sporting environs. It also doesn’t have the Ducati’s goofy mirrors. Then there’s the price: $500 cheaper than the Hypermotard when we first received our 2010 testbikes, making the Dorsoduro’s victory a slam-dunk, but since raised to $9999 for 2011 so it’s now $4 more expensive. That’s okay: We’ll make coffee at home one morning, save the four bucks at Starbucks and live happily ever after.

Just one question: Does that make us Dorsoduristi?

Off the Record
Kristi Martel
Age: 29 Height: 5’ 10
Weight: 140 lbs. Inseam: 33.5 In.

The Aprilia had me at ciao. Sure, these bikes share a nasty, Effff Youuu hooligan appeal that immediately transforms one’s inner monologue to that of a pub barback, plus manageable power and responsive steering. But the dividing line was drawn here: The Ducati’s bar-end mirrors make the bike about as deft filtering through traffic as a seafood truck. Sure, they fold in, but am I wrong to want to see things behind me and not pluck off every Volvo’s side mirror while lane-splitting?

Cat reluctantly offered up the Dorsoduro halfway through our day together, and I quickly figured out why: There’s a romance that occurs between this bike’s wheelbase, rake and trail specifications. It feels planted, but still steers nimbly. Its throttle response is smoother, its mirrors are optimally placed and, at the time of our test, it boasted a $500 smaller price tag than the Hypermotard. How do you say Come home with me in Italian?

Off the Record
Brian Catterson
Age: 49 Height: 6’ 1
Weight: 215 lbs. Inseam: 34 In.

As a former supermoto racer who qualified for the AMA National Championship finals the first year they were held, I’m sad to see the current state of the sport. I sincerely hope that sumo streetbikes like these two can turn the spotlight back onto this oft-overlooked segment. They should, because in the real world in which we ride every day, they’re superb motorcycles.

For me, choosing between these two was no contest—and a righteous "Up yours!" to those who claim I’m on Ducati’s payroll. I loved my long-term Hypermotard 1100—and I’m sure the new EVO version is better yet—but the 796 is cut from different cloth. It’s best suited to shorter, lighter, less experienced riders, which perhaps is the point.

The Aprilia, in contrast, appeals to taller, heavier and more experienced riders. (Read: me.) It’s a sportier, much more willing machine, and as such riders won’t soon outgrow it. That said, I can’t wait to ride the 1200cc version!

Aprilia Dorsoduro 750 | Price: $9999

Dyno
Though its liquid-cooled engine is smaller in displacement than the Ducati’s, the Aprilia uses four valves per cylinder to make 5 more horsepower at a relatively stratospheric 9250 rpm.

Ergos
Only those long of limb need apply as the Dorsoduro boasts a dizzying 34.1-inch seat height and a rangy 24.6-inch reach to the bars. It feels like a big bike because it is one.

Tech Spec
Engine type: l-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve train: DOHC, 8v
Displacement: 749.9cc
Bore x stroke: 92.0 x 56.4mm
Compression: 11.0:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Transmission: 6-speed
Frame: Steel trellis with aluminum side plates and swingarm
Front suspension: 43mm inverted fork with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Sachs shock with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual four-piston radial calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Single-piston caliper, 240mm disc
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17
Rear tire: 180/55ZR-17
Rake/trail: 26.0/4.3 in.
Seat height: 34.3 in.
Wheelbase: 59.3 in.
Fuel capacity: 3.2 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 476/457 lbs.
Measured horsepower: 75.2 bhp @ 9250 rpm
Measured torque: 46.8 lb.-ft. @ 7000 rpm
Corrected -mile: 12.01 sec. @ 108.47 mph
Top-gear roll-on 60-80 mph: 3.62 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 42/32/38 mpg
Colors: Aprilia Black, Laser Green
Availability: Now
Warranty: 2 yrs., unlimited mi.
Contact: Piaggio Group Americas, Inc. 140 E. 45th St., 17th Floor New York, NY 10017 212.380.4400 www.apriliausa.com

Ducati Hypermotard 796 | Price: $9995

Dyno
Though the air-cooled Ducati has just two valves per cylinder, it uses 50cc more displacement and desmodromic valve actuation to pump out 2.2 more lb.-ft. of torque than the Aprilia.

Ergos
Though the Hypermotard’s 33.6-inch seat height seems high, its relatively soft suspension and slim profile help shorter pilots plant both feet on the ground. The riding position has a pronounced forward cant

Tech Spec
Engine type: l-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve train: SOHC, 4v, desmodromic
Displacement: 803cc
Bore x stroke: 88.0 x 66.0
mm
Compression: 11.0:1 Fuel system: Siemens EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Frame: Steel trellis with single-sided aluminum swingarm
Front suspension: 43mm Marzocchi inverted fork
Rear suspension: Sachs shock with adjustable spring preload
Front brake: Dual four-piston radial calipers, 305mm discs
Rear brake: Two-piston caliper, 245mm disc
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso
Rear tire: 180/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso
Rake/trail: 24.0/4.0 in.
Seat height: 32.5 in.
Wheelbase: 57.3 in.
Fuel capacity: 3.3 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 417/397 lbs.
Measured horsepower: 70.2 bhp @ 8000 rpm
Measured torque: 49.0 lb.-ft. @ 6000 rpm
Corrected -mile: 12.11 sec. @ 106.96 mph
Top-gear roll-on 60-80 mph: 4.03 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 51/37/45 mpg
Colors: Matte Black, Matte White, Red
Availability: Now
Warranty: 2 yrs., unlimited mi.
Contact: Ducati North America 10443 Bandley Dr. Cupertino, CA 95014 408.253.0499 www.ducati.com

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By Brian Catterson
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