2014 Ducati 899 Panigale | FIRST RIDE

A wet, wild ride on Ducati’s incredible shrinking superbike.

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Milagro
They say: "Designed to dominate the street."
We say: "A lower-priced, less-punishing Panigale."

Ducati superbikes have always been exclusive and aspirational, none more than the 1199 Panigale—our Motorcycle of the Year for 2012. A frameless monocoque chassis, free-revving Superquadro engine, inimitable Italian style, and all that red, red paint conspire to make the Panigale one of the most desirable sportbikes in the world. But such exclusivity cuts both ways. Razor-edged performance makes the Panigale potent on the racetrack, but it isn't friendly to non-expert riders—especially on the street. Many who aspire to the Ducati superbike lifestyle have difficulty handling the machines.

That's where the new 899 Panigale "Supermid"—a portmanteau of "superbike" and "midsize"—enters the picture. Featuring the same MotoGP-derived technology and signature style of its 1199cc big brother, but with milder performance and an MSRP of just $14,995, the 899 is more accessible in more ways than one. For less experienced riders, more casual riders, or especially riders who rarely take to the track, the 899 is the superior Ducati superbike.

The 899 aces the 50/50 test—from 50 feet away or at 50 mph, it's indistinguishable from the $17,995 1199. Look more closely, however, and you'll see many differences, the result of strategic cost cutting. What looks like a diecast aluminum subframe is actually a set of plastic covers concealing a steel trellis. The single-sided swingarm is gone, replaced by a conventional double arm. The engine cases share a part number with the 1199, but the clutch, valve, and sump covers are aluminum here, not magnesium. Major components have been downgraded, too. A common Showa Big Piston Fork and unmarked Sachs shock hold up either end, while everyday Brembo M4 calipers replace the 1199's monstrously strong M50s. The 899 still looks stunning—especially finished in Arctic White Silk finish with red wheels—but it lacks the high-end sheen of the 1199.

Ducati Product Manager Paul Ventura, who recently relocated from American Honda to Borgo Panigale, said the 899 is the first example of a "new thinking" at Ducati. He called this "Performance Redefined," describing an increased emphasis on "useable performance, with a better rider interface." In the specific case of the 899, that means a broader spread of useable power, and a complement of electronic rider aids to improve performance, convenience, and safety.

The new 898cc V-twin engine retains the Superquadro designation denoting radically oversquare engine architecture. Bore and stroke measurements of 100 x 57.2mm result in a bore/stroke ratio of 1.75, making this motor less radical—just barely—than the 1.84-ratio 1199. It's still one of the most oversquare engines ever produced, and it still has the same ferocious appetite for revs as its big brother. Four-valve cylinder heads have been redesigned with specific porting and cams, and Ducati's signature desmodromic mechanism actuates 41.8mm intake and 34mm exhaust valves—larger than those on the 848 Testastretta. Mitsubishi-made, 62mm throttle bodies are smaller, however, and fitted with a single injector, not dual injectors as on the 1199.

Claimed output is 148 horsepower at 10,750 rpm and 73 pound-feet of torque at 9,000 rpm—enough to warrant the "super" prefix. That's 47 horses down from the 1199 but 8 horsepower more than the 848, with pronounced gains below 6,500 rpm and above 10,000 rpm. More importantly, thanks to increased torque and shorter, 15/44 overall gearing, the 899 accelerates 19 percent quicker in first gear at 50 mph, and 25 percent quicker in third gear at 85 mph.

One area Ducati didn't down-spec the 899 was the electronics package. This means selectable ride modes—Race, Sport, and Wet—that alter power output and throttle response, engine braking characteristics, traction control, and ABS intervention to suit different riding conditions. Each electronic control is further tunable within the ride modes. Traction control offers eight levels of fine adjustment; ABS and engine braking, three each. An electronic quickshifter, which enables instant clutchless upshifts, is standard equipment.

Just like the 1199 Panigale, the 899 has no conventional frame, taking structure from a Vacural-cast monocoque airbox/headstock that attaches directly to the cylinder heads. Rake and trail have been reduced slightly (rake is half a degree steeper, trail is 4mm less) and wheelbase has been trimmed 11mm compared to 1199. "Because the 899 is not so overpowered and wheelie-prone as the 1199," Ducati R&D Director Andrea Forni explained, "we could make the geometry more aggressive for even more responsive handling." A narrower, 180-section rear tire, compared to the 200-section tire on the 1199, should improve turn-in even more.

The 1199 was already most responsive production sportbike we've ridden—so the idea that the 899 could snap into corners with even less effort is enticing, indeed. Unfortunately, monsoon rains during the press launch at Imola Circuit, in the heart of Italy's "Motor Valley" and just 40 miles from Ducati's home base in Bologna, kept us from taking full measure of the 899's capabilities. Conditions were so awful that the original-equipment Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa street tires were replaced with Diablo Supercorsa racing rain tires, and we still got just three 15-minute riding sessions before standing water swamped the aptly named Acqua Minerale corner, ending our day.

One hundred percent humidity gave ample opportunity to experiment with Wet ride mode, which cuts output to 100 horsepower and recruits a "smooth" throttle response curve to reduce the likelihood of the rear wheel breaking traction. Even so it was still easy to light the rear tire, which only demonstrated how smoothly Ducati Traction Control (DTC) intervenes to keep the rear wheel lined up. Except for a flashing yellow light on the LCD dash, there's no outward indication that the system is working. Forward progress continues smoothly and without interruption. Clicking into Sport mode, which restores full power with "sporty" throttle response (Race does the same only with "direct" throttle action), only engaged DTC more quickly. Lack of traction made it impossible to tell anything about how quickly the 899 engine gained revs or accelerated.

The excellent Bosch-made 9MP ABS reacted with similarly reassuring transparency, no matter how hard we smacked on the lever and pedal. Brembo's budget M4 calipers lack both the strong bite and consistent modulation we've been spoiled with on the Brembo M50-equipped 1199 Panigale, however. We would have liked more laps to experiment with Engine Braking Control (EBC), which electronically manipulates the throttle butterflies to reduce engine-braking effect on corner entries. The baseline (Level 1) was a bit bossy, causing occasional chatter on the super-slick track. Levels 2 and 3 could lessen this effect, which would have been useful on this drenched day.

We'll have to wait to get back on an 899 in less dodgy conditions to make any credible evaluation of the performance and handling of this new bike, but that's probably okay—a local street ride will likely reveal more useful information about this superbike that's been comprehensively reconfigured to perform on the street. It certainly shows potential on paper. Despite all the cost cutting—and the addition of ABS—at 372 pounds claimed dry weight, it's still 11 pounds lighter than the 848 it replaces, contributing an impressive power-to-weight ratio.

The "affordable exotic" idea is always a bit of a conceit, and the 899 Panigale's price tag still puts it a rung above more-powerful Japanese literbikes. But with cutting-edge electronics, authentic Italian style, and legitimate performance for street riding, it's not unreasonable to call the 899 a good value. More importantly, you'll likely also enjoy riding it in the real world, not just on the racetrack. Maybe that makes this the least-aspirational Ducati superbike yet. In a good way.

Tech SPEC

Price $14,995
Engine type l-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve train DOHC, 8v
Displacement 898cc
Transmission 6-speed
Claimed horsepower 148.0 bhp @ 10,750 rpm
Claimed torque 73.0 lb.-ft. @ 9000 rpm
Frame Aluminum monocoque
Front suspension Showa 43mm BPF with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear Suspension Sachs shock with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake Dual Brembo Monoblock four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
Rear brake Brembo two-piston caliper, 245mm disc with ABS
Front tire 120/70SR-17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa
Rear tire 180/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa
Seat height 32.5 in.
Wheelbase 56.1 in.
Fuel capacity 4.5 gal.
Claimed curb weight 426 lbs.
Contact ducati.com

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