There she sits. Blacker than black with a touch of crimson. Silver frame with gold brakes and suspension. Subtle hints of carbon-fiber and magnesium. Pointed nose and tail like a two-wheeled Batmobile. All glistening, shiny and wet.
Wet? Yup. It rained the day the English-speaking press got to ride Aprilia's new RSV4 superbike. At Misano, Italy--one of the most notoriously slippery circuits in the dry, let alone the wet. But no worries, I'd ridden there dozens of times--except they'd reversed the direction to regain a MotoGP round since I'd last been here, so it was effectively an all-new track. Still, short of something with ABS and traction control, it would be hard to imagine a better bike for the conditions.
Aprilia has been absent from MotoGP and World Superbike for a few years now, and thus from most enthusiast's minds. (Yes they take part in 125 and 250cc GP racing, but most Americans don't pay attention to those classes.) A financial downturn brought about by excessive expenditures in racing and a helmet law that effectively halted 50cc scooter sales in its native Italy brought the Noale-based company to the brink of bankruptcy. And it looked like The End until Aprilia (along with its sister company Moto Guzzi) was purchased by Piaggio, famed makers of Vespa scooters.
That acquisition gave Aprilia the money it needed to develop a new superbike, and what a superbike it is! Drawing from their experience building V-twins, and surveying the current MotoGP scene, Aprilia engineers determined that a V-4 was the optimum engine configuration. To create that engine, they enlisted the aid of veteran automotive designer Claudio Lombardi, who's worked for Ferrari and Lancia. For his first-ever bike engine, Lombardi sought to create a 60-degree V, like Aprilia's previous Rotax-built twins. But there just wasn't room for four throttle bodies between the cylinder banks, so he settled on 65 degrees--still a much tighter package than any other maker's V-twin or V-4. How ironic is it that Ducati, Honda and Suzuki all campaign V-4s in MotoGP, and yet Aprilia beat two of the three to the punch? And arguably the third as well, since the Ducati Desmosedici RR is a limited-production model that sells for three to five times what the two RSV4 models will when they go on sale this fall. Though final prices have yet to be set, the goal is to undercut the Ducati 1198 and 1198S, so look for the base-model RSV4 to sell for around $15,000 and the uprated Factory for around $20K.
That ultra-compact engine is the centerpiece of a bike that has "the silhouette of a 250cc Grand Prix racer." Designed by Jose Gonzales (creator of the quirky Derbi Mulhacen) under the direction of Aprilia design chief Miguel Galluzzi (best known for creating the Ducati Monster), the RSV4 is indeed sexy in the inimitably Italian way. Yet ironically, neither designer is from Italy--Gonzales is from Spain and Galluzzi from Argentina, and both attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California! As did Ducati-turned-Guzzi designer Pierre Terblanche, who incidentally hails from South Africa. Are we sensing a pattern here?
Regardless, the Aprilia is a thing of beauty, and it is tiny. But thankfully it accommodates taller riders, due in part to the efforts of MotoGP racer-turned-development tester Alex Hoffmann, who stands about 6 feet tall. I'm a smidge taller than that, and while I did feel big on the bike, I didn't feel cramped.
The RSV4 features variable-length intake funnels. At 10,000 rpm the upper 35mm snaps up ou
V-4 engine is ultra-compact, which allows the entire bike to be 250cc GP-sized. Six-speed
Pushing the starter button, the RSV4 responds with a throaty growl, sounding like a cross between a twin and a four. Throttle response is instantaneous, the revs zinging to redline in what seems like milliseconds. That reminded me that there are three different engine maps, or "modes," so I selected the slowest one, "Road," and headed out of the pits to learn how to ride Misano backwards. I selected "Sport" mode for my subsequent sessions, but because it rained all day I never did try "Track." That will have to wait for drier conditions, and according to Hoffmann, testers set their quickest lap times in "Sport" mode anyway. "Track" mode is best saved for Superpole.
You notice different things in the wet than you do in the dry, and my first impression was that this is a supremely smooth and tractable engine. Though equipped with variable-length intake tracts and twin injectors (see "Hard Parts," page 40), the transitions are transparent. All you feel is abundant low-end torque becoming high-revving horsepower, peaking at a claimed 177.5 bhp at 12,500 rpm. That's shy of the 13,700-rpm soft limit, or the 14,200-rpm hard limit, which actually isn't hard at all. That gives plenty of overrev to save a shift here or there.
At higher revs the exhaust note is positively soul-stirring; closer to a MotoGP racer than anything save a Desmosedici RR or '09 Yamaha YZF-R1. It's not as raucous as the Desmo, yet far more satisfying than Honda's comparatively pedestrian Interceptor.
Though the wet track slowed our inputs, the Aprilia impressed with solid stability at speed and under braking, plus incredible feedback from both ends. Fitted with Pirelli Diablo rain tires, it clung to the track so tenaciously that I could almost get a knee down. Even in the wet the bike pulled fifth gear down Misano's long back straight, reaching speeds in the 150s before starting the series of four decreasing-radius rights that put braking feel to a true test. The latest radial-mount Brembo Monoblocs work as well here as on any other so-equipped bike, and minimal engine braking coupled with a slipper clutch makes for drama-free corner entries. The Factory's hlins suspension worked perfectly right out of the box. In fact, my only complaint had to do with the gearbox, which while positive-shifting took a fair amount of effort, even after I raised the lever's adjustable toe-piece.
Countless magazine riding impressions have ended with a statement that to truly ascertain a bike's capabilities, the tester needs to get it back on his home turf and ride it back to back with its competition. That sounds like a cop-out, but never has it been truer than with this Aprilia. We can't wait to get one in sunny SoCal and flog it on road and track. And if we can ride it alongside its competition--especially the forthcoming BMW S1000RR--so much the better.