MV Agusta F4 Strada - Road Test

Is $19,000 Too Much For A Piece Of Motorcycling History? When The Bike Actually Works, The Answer Is No

By Marc Cook, Photography by Kevin Wing

At a recent track school, the 40-something advertising executive looked out over the collection of student motorcycles-a Ducati 748 here, a handful of modified Honda Super Hawks there-and coyly admitted that he was happy to be thrashing a school bike rather than his Ducati 916. "But the Duck's not long for the stable," he opined. "I'll get rid of that when my Aprilia Mille comes in." Such difficult decisions. "But," he said, stubbing out his cigarette and idly polishing his Phil Read-replica Arai, "when my MV comes in..." he looked around to make sure he had our attention, "the 'Priller will be right out the door."

For this rabid, Euro-biased enthusiast, the fact that the MV Agusta F4 Strada will be roundly whipped by your average, off-the-linoleum 2000 GSX-R750 is of absolutely no consequence. That the Suzuki will likely run for years with little more than a passing glance to maintenance while the MV will surely require more tender loving care than an Italian mistress, is also of small importance. And while this man is starkly aware that a track-day miscue on the MV will result in the immediate need of much cash and plenty of patience, he's blithely unconcerned. If you have to ask (or be worried about such things) you simply can't afford it.

Won't our ad man be surprised to learn that, against all odds, the MV Agusta is a very good motorcycle? It is not the absolute cutting edge in 750 supersports but it admirably steps up to the standards set in this category some four years ago when the bike was initially developed. (Unfortunately, Suzuki had unexpected plans for a class most industry watchers have left for dead.) The MV deigns to commit such mundanities as being untemperamental. It starts well when cold and the fuel injection is far less glitchy than some mass-produced bikes we could name. The electrics always worked and the level of fit and finish beats the already commendable Japanese sportbikes with a 10-pound sledgehammer. (Was it totally reliable? Well, no...more on that shortly.)

Plunk down $18,895 and you'll get a truly beautiful motorcycle assembled with obvious loving care. That price tag is right in there between the garden-variety Ducati 996 ($16,495) and the limited-edition 996S ($20,995) and maybe a nice set of Dainese leathers dearer than an Aprilia RSV Mille R. Certainly for a brand so revered, the Strada's ticket is perfectly justifiable, an almost rational entre to the penthouse of motorcycling. MV will be giving the United States only 300 Stradas this year, delivered through the well-oiled warehouses of Cagiva USA. There are no plans for increasing production at the risk of "flooding" the market with such a collectable.

MV Agusta has created a hybrid chassis, its main parts consisting of a steel-tube trellis primary frame and an aluminum auxiliary casting that joins the rear of the engine and the aft legs of the tube frame with the swingarm and aluminum-tube subframe. Wispy light footpeg carriers mount to this hunk of cast artwork and the steel main tubes do a hide-and-seek through the voluptuous bodywork, which teases you with a view of a fuel-injector body here and an engine case there. Race-spec quarter-turn fasteners hold the fairing in place and make for surprisingly easy access to the underpinnings. (Just because you can see the engine doesn't mean you can work on it; the compact four's surroundings are densely packed, like canned fruit.)

Some numbers, then: It rides on a fashionable 55.6-inch wheelbase-2mm longer than the GSX-R750's and 17mm shorter than an R1's. Steering-head angle is set at 24.5 degrees (a bit more staid than the Suzuki's) and trail measures 4.1 inches. So much like the others that you'd think there was some kind of sportbike orthodoxy going on. The only number that raised an eyebrow was the bike's weight-at 445 pounds with an empty fuel tank, the F4 would have been the porkiest of the bikes we tested in Superbikes 2000 (see "Superbikes 2000," July '00), outweighing even the comparatively lardy ZX-9R by nine pounds. Suzuki's 750 is nearly 50 pounds lighter. Exotica must be more dense than plasticization.

On the road, the Strada indeed feels heftier than the Suzuki, but not by such a large margin. Initial impressions are of a four-cylinder Ducati 996, thanks to the aggressive riding position, with low bars and high footpegs. The pad-like seat isn't mahogany-hard but is no more plush than, say, upholstered pine. (Compared with the 996, the Strada has a slightly larger included seating angle, with a bit less handlebar rise but slightly more seat-to-peg room. But it's a rack next to the GSX-R.)

The first time you bend the Strada into a turn you're reminded of the Ducati. It's inordinately stable and predictable, giving no indication, even at triple-digit speeds, that it would like to shake its head, come unglued and spit you off into the nearest patch of CalTrans-planted brambles. But the Strada's steering response is the real surprise. You notice immediately that it dives into corners with less effort than the Ducati (although it's higher effort than the Suzuki) and that the handlebars communicate clearly what the front end is doing. Even though we'd rate the GSX-R as more accessible and easy to ride at a moderate pace, the MV is not far behind and only requires a slight recalibration of your senses and responses to start making good time. After a while you forget that you're riding a rare piece of machinery and really enjoy flogging the thing. Essentially unlimited cornering clearance means you can concentrate on your work rather than worrying about scraping up expensive bodywork or undercarriage.

Fine suspension components assist the MV in making you look and feel good. The trick, 49mm Showa inverted fork up front is adjustable for everything but stock-market price and comes with a thick, hollow axle for maximum rigidity. In back, there's a Sachs shock adjustable for preload and compression and rebound damping. (Wear your asbestos mittens if you need to adjust damping on the road, thanks to the proximity of the shock to the cool-looking but hot-running 4-into-2-into-4 exhaust system.) We were happy to note that both ends have sufficient authority in the damping adjustments to really mess up the ride; incumbent in that statement is that if you know what you're doing you can get the rates you need from the stock components.We've also marked the "yee-haw" category in our test notebooks for the Nissin brakes. Six-piston calipers up front grip 310mm discs and are as good as anything on the street. It's just so easy to drive hard into corners, feeling totally secure that the binders will keep you from creating a roadside art exhibit.

On the highway, the Strada's ride is firm but not punishing. You can feel the quality of the suspension components as they tackle the sharp edges of expansion joints and carelessly filled potholes. Engine vibration is commendably absent and the 5.8-gallon tank provides good range. A raceresque riding posture ensures that you'll be wanting off well before the low-fuel light comes on. And it's worth mentioning here that the Strada's sexy rearview mirrors (that house the front turn signals in one of the nicest implementations of this scheme we've seen) are, for all but the jockey-sized, totally and completely worthless. It's a bit of Italian style-over-substance payback, like the proverbial fly captured under the clearcoat, that either seems charming and completely in character or wholly crazy-making. Oh, and skipping through the instrument panel's odometer/clock/tripmeter display requires toggling the starter switch. When the engine is running!

We're taken with the MV's chassis/ suspension package-that much ought to be clear-but we're not quite as eager to praise the bike's engine. It's highly oversquare (73.8mm bore and 43.8mm stroke, compared with the Suzuki's 72.0mm by 46.0mm measurements) and uses four valves per cylinder arranged radially around the spark plugs. This is accomplished by cutting the cam lobes at an angle and using conventional shim-under-bucket followers. A 12.0:1 compression ratio is used. Otherwise the 749cc engine follows conventional designs closely and is notably compact.

A quartet of conventional throttle bodies supply the engine, controlled by a Weber-Marelli computer. Happily, we note that the system is largely glitchfree, with good cold-idle characteristics and a generally accommodating throttle response. We did find, however, that there's a tendency for the throttle to "hang" slightly when accelerating after closing the throttle at high rpm, as though the engine's suction was holding the butterflies closed against the rider's wishes. Once past that extra effort, the system proved linear and predictable. It's only next to Suzuki's new dual-butterfly system for the GSX-R that the Strada's seems anything less than up-to-date.

If only the MV's inline-four were a class-leader for power, too. All by itself, the Strada feels plenty powerful, with a meaningful high-rpm lunge and a scintillating emanation from the four rear-firing exhaust tips. And although the engine is responsive and clearly willing to rev, it doesn't feel as powerful or eager as the new-generation GSX-R's. The transition from midrange to top end is somewhat muted (from an engineering standpoint, that's a good thing, because it means the delivery is absent of unseemly lumps and bumps) but it makes the engine seem less thrilling. What's more, with a peak output of 114.6 horsepower, it's 13 down on the Suzuki. Riding the two bikes back to back, you're aware that the Strada lacks the Japanese bike's headlong rush to the rev limiter. For a first effort, the MV's powerplant deserves praise, but while the Italians were toiling, their counterparts across the globe were resetting the class standards.

MV Agusta more than measures up to sportbiking's best in the transmission department. Even with just 400 miles on our test bike, the Strada always clicked through the gears with little effort and perfect accuracy. We're even going to praise the hydraulically actuated clutch for its seamless behavior. What's this, then? A true-blue Italian exotic without a notchy gearchange and a grip-master clutch pull? It's the end of the world as we know it.

True to form, though, the MV did let us down partway into our testing. With one of our testers aboard (not McQuide), one of the high-pressure fuel lines ruptured and hosed down the rear wheel. The MV high-sided itself, breaking up the rear bodywork, bending the left footpeg and carrier, and nipping the adjustable end of the shift lever. Rolling it out of the van the next morning, our test-bike coordinator opined that, "It doesn't crash well." You can't say we don't thoroughly test motorcycles, can you?

With the damage fixed, we trundled the MV off to our secret top-speed test site, where-under the baleful glances of the California Highway Patrol-the Strada clicked off a 162-mph run. Previously, we committed high sacrilege by hammering the bike down the quarter-mile, with a best corrected run of 11.09 seconds and 128.0 mph.

You will note that these numbers are not equal to the Suzuki GSX-R750's. We point this out purely as a matter of tangential interest. You know (and we know) by taking your pulse and looking at your bank account if this bike is for you. And if it is, you'll have no interest in the plastic-fantastic Suzuki. Next to the current Kings of Cred-the Ducati 748 and 996-the MV seems entirely more exotic and desirable. Because while the Ducatis work well and have been developed into fast and reliable sportbikes, they've become victims of their own successes. They're nearly a dime a dozen. No way will you see yourself coming and going on the Strada, which may well be the primary reason to want one. That MV Agusta has produced a bike that also works well is just the added incentive to kick that slacker 996 or has-been Mille out of your garage.

Cheers & Jeers

MV AGUSTA F4 STRADA
Engine 8 Well-mannered and smooth
Drivetrain 9 Progressive clutch, snick-snick gearbox
Handling 8 Modest effort required, precise
Braking 9 Perfectly developed six-piston Nissins
Ride 8 Firm but not punishing
Ergonomics 5 Same neighborhood as a 996
Features 7 No place for a passenger
Refinement 9 Good for first-time, low-volume specialist
Value 8 Close to the norm and collectible, too
Fun Factor 7 In the back of your mind, "Don't drop it..."

Verdict: Beautiful and stunningly well-built, the MV is by lucky coincidence on the pace with other supersports.

MSRP $18,895
Warranty two years, unlimited miles
Colors red/silver
ENGINE
Type liquid-cooled inline-four
Valve arrangement dohc, 16v
Bore x stroke 73.8 x 43.8mm
Displacement 749cc
Compression ratio 12.0:1
Carburetion fuel injection, TKmm
  throttle bodies
Transmission 6-speed
Final drive #530 chain
CHASSIS
Frame steel-tube and aluminum castings
Weight 480 lb. (wet)
  445 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 5.8 gal. (22L)
Suspension, front 49mm cartridge fork
  adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Suspension, rear single shock adjustable
  for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Brake, front dual six-piston calipers,
  310mm discs
Brake, rear single four-piston caliper, 210mm disc
Tire, front 120/65ZR17
  Pirelli Dragon Evo
Tire, rear 190/50ZR17
  Pirelli Dragon Evo

Details, Details
Gorgeous bodywork comes off with quarter-turn fasteners
Spring-loaded sidestand means you'll probably have to use those fasteners
Dreadful mirrors
No under-seat storage but you can amuse yourself with the flip-up tail section
Dual projector headlamps perform exceptionally well

Performance

PERFORMANCE
Corrected 1/4-mile* 11.09 sec. @ 128.0 mph
0-60 mph 3.52 sec.
0-100 mph 7.47 sec.
Top-gear roll on, 60-80 mph 4.86 sec.
Power to weight ratio** 5.67 lb./hp
Fuel mileage (low/high/average) 29/40/33
Cruising range (exc. reserve) 165 miles

Test Notes
Speedo error:60 mph, actual 58

Largely lumpfree and evenly spread, the MV's power output is a commendable achievement for a small manufacturer.

Compared with the current GSX-R, the MV trails in torque and horsepower.Their horsepower curves touch at 3500 rpm, and nearly come together again at 5500 rpm. The biggest gap (at 9250 rpm) is 12.6 hp.

*Performance corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury)

**Wet weight plus 170-lb. rider divided by measured horsepower

Off The Record
McQuide

Age: 30
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 205 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
Most exotic possession: the Betty
Dispassionate journalism aside, there's a lot of pressure swirling about the MV. There's the pressure not to crash it, the pressure to dress your poseur best (Blue jeans and a ratty leather jacket? Please.), the pressure to be completely impressed by the exotica of the thing and-finally-the pressure not to be too impressed. Ugh. Luckily, youth and enthusiasm prevailed, and I immediately found myself looking to see who was looking at me. And when you ride the MV, they all do. Dare I mention to them that one's thumbs can get horribly pinched between clip-on and airbox cover? Or that, in town, I'm grimacing in ergonomic pain beneath my darkened visor? Or that my buddy on his GSX-R750 has left me in his dust? Of course not. Why would they care? And for that matter, why should I?-Greg McQuide

Burns
Age: 40
Height: 5 ft. 7 in.
Weight: 150 lb.
Inseam: 30 in.
Most exotic possession:half bottle of Bushmill's
As a guy who's never been in a financial position to think of motorcycles as collectibles, I honestly don't feel qualified to comment on this one but why let that stop me? Sure it's beautiful, sure I'd love to own one. But if I did, I'd be afraid to ride it, or not really afraid as much as unwilling to put miles on it, because miles as everybody knows, drive down the worth of the bike. OK, I'd compromise and disconnect the odometer. But seriously, this is a bike for a person who owns more than one, and if that were me I'd ride something else most of the time just because, while the MV does everything fine, it's no sharper and no more interesting to ride than a GSX-R or a 929. If Kawasaki or Yamaha had built this bike, I'd have to say it's a bit heavy and slow (but beautifully turned out). And for twice as much money as a Japanese bike I expect at least equal performance. See how jealous I am?-John Burns

Boehm
Age: 38
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 225 lb.
Inseam: 32 in
Most exotic possession: trick Italian espresso machine
The big surprise with MV Agusta's new F4S is that it works nearly as good as it looks-an amazing thing considering it's arguably one of the most beautiful and desirable sportbikes ever built. As with many Italian two-wheelers, perceptual context is key: Ride the F4S back-to-back with Suzuki's giant-killing GSX-R750 (as I did during our test) and you come away feeling the F4 is functionally superb, but just a few clicks aft of the new GSX-R. But ride it far from the GSX-R's long and very dark shadow (as I did when I rode Alan Cathcart's personal F4S at the Isle of Man) and you can't help but feel it may be the most flickable, hard-wired back-road device yet built. I'd make a lot of sacrifices to own one of these things. -Mitch Boehm

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