Aprilia RSV4 Special Edition | First Ride

Taming the beast

By Roland Brown, Photography by Milagro

"Better a lion for a day than a lamb for a hundred years!" The words of the old proverb, quoted by Aprilia's marketing boss at the previous night's press conference, flash into my mind as I crest a rise at the Jerez circuit in southern Spain. For a few moments the RSV4's throttle remains wide-open and the bike's fat 200mm-wide rear Pirelli squirms on the edge of adhesion as I accelerate toward the blue-and-white curb outside the corner. If ever I've felt the thrill of pushing the envelope, today is the day!

I hadn't intended to be particularly brave today, especially exiting that particularly fast right-hander where a decade ago I high-sided Noriyuki Haga's Yamaha YZF-R7 during a World Superbike racer test. But if any superbike can make a lion out of anyone who rides it, it's this APRC Special Edition of the Aprilia RSV4 Factory.

This latest V4 is a street-legal version of the works RSV4 on which Max Biaggi won Aprilia's first World Superbike Championship. Biaggi's status as king of the superbike jungle is beyond doubt, but the main benefit from this RSV4 will be to riders lower down the food chain. Those APRC initials-standing for Aprilia Performance Ride Control-indicate the addition of an electronics package designed to give us mere mortals the confidence of much greater men.

The Special Edition's chassis is identical to that of the Factory, with an adjustable aluminum frame, Öhlins suspension and forged wheels. Just 350 units will be produced, the electronics and other goodies adding $1500 to the Factory's $20,999 price tag. Updates to the 999cc, DOHC V4 engine include improved lubrication, a revised gearbox, reworked combustion chambers and a redesigned muffler and exhaust valve that are said to boost low-end torque. The unchanged peak power is delivered 250 rpm sooner at 12,250 rpm and Pirelli's latest 200/55 Supercorsa tire graces the rear wheel. Along with some Biaggi graphics and a patriotic flash of Italian colors, the Special Edition gets an updated instrument panel that offers the option of a race display with lap time and other track-relevant info prominent.

But this new-generation superbike is all about its electronics. With its ride-by-wire throttle, alternative engine maps and variable-length intake tracts, the RSV4 was already a sophisticated machine. The addition of APRC simply makes it state-of-the-art. The system comprises four electronic functions, each of which has its own acronym: ATC (traction control), ALC (launch control), AWC (wheelie control) and AQS (quick-shifter). All the features are clever, but the traction control is by far the most important. Like the system on Kawasaki's new ZX-10R, ATC allows the rider to slide the rear tire in relative safety.

Apart from that new instrument display, the RSV4 looks and feels just as I remember it: compact, sharp-edged and thrillingly powerful. It was recommended we start with ATC on its most conservative #8 setting, which is intended for wet weather, and which blunted the throttle response even at modest lean angles while I was re-learning the track.

In subsequent sessions I moved up through the settings, marveling at the ATC's transparency. With the ultra-grippy, soft-compound rubber available these days, you have to be cornering pretty hard to get the rear end sliding. At my aging ex-racer's pace, if I get into a slide I normally take the hint and back off rather than risk a repeat of that Haga R7 incident.

But the ATC system meant I was happy to push harder into that dark zone on the edge of traction, to find and ride at the limit. As the RSV4 squirmed out of the Dry Sack hairpin and drove through the thrillingly fast Turn 8, the confidence I felt in the bike and my abilities was remarkable.

Stability is an important part of the package. Top-notch suspension and brakes, a fantastic electronics package and functional slipper clutch keep the bike composed under almost any circumstances. The only thing missing is race ABS, which Aprilia's engineers say they're working on.

The front Pirelli got a rest every lap as the RSV4 catapulted out of the slow turns with its front tire barely touching the ground. This was the cue for the wheelie control, which limits power if the front end gets too high. The quick-shifter was also a nifty feature, working flawlessly to move through the gearbox without losing a beat.

The only electronic system that didn't aid lap times was the launch control, which we lined up to test on the pit straight at the end of the day. After selecting the function on the dash, it was possible to nail the throttle and release the clutch, though you still have to let out the lever at a suitable rate. The system didn't seem to allow especially rapid getaways, but would be more reliable than most riders amid the stress and noise of a race start.

That final burst of drag racing ended a day that was memorable not just for being great fun, but for the realization that the limits of today's fantastically capable motorcycles have been nudged forward yet again. The RSV4's racetrack potential was never in doubt, but the Factory model's launch 18 months ago, when numerous bikes were crashed at slippery Misano, highlighted the lack of electronic aids fitted to its rivals.

That discrepancy has been answered by the RSV4 SE. It's a stunning bike not just for its outright power and speed, but for the ease with which its performance can be accessed and enjoyed by riders of different abilities. Aprilia claims that "all the racing expertise gathered during the successful 2010 season has been brought together in a machine that sets the standard for road bike development." After a day at Jerez, it's hard to disagree.

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