It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair... Hold on, wrong story. Ease your eyes over the quintessential Italian wrist rocket--Ducati's latest R-spec 999. It's unquestionably the finest production twin-cylinder sportbike ever offered to the paying public. In the right hands, this 139-horsepower, 452-pound synthesis of surgical handling and carbon-fiber sex appeal is all but invincible. For 30 grand, the paying public expects no less.
The question, then, for twin-cylinder devotees orbiting somewhere below the socioeconomic troposphere is simple: Can you rattle the Ducati's cage for less than the down payment on a three-bedroom condo? How much twin-cylinder love can you get for roughly half the 999R's sticker price? At $11,599--plus about $4500 in bolt-ons--our long-term RC51 is one perfect answer to that question.
Remember the RC51? Minted six years ago to replace the RC45 as Honda's global Superbike contender, it won the 2000 and '02 World Superbike championships under Colin Edwards. Honda's V-four couldn't break Ducati's desmodromic SBK stranglehold, but its half-brother could. Two years later, Nicky Hayden nailed down the AMA Superbike title. Although it appeared essentially identical to all but RC51 extremists, the '02 production bike was dramatically improved, especially in the chassis department. But despite its track record and HRC pedigree, showroom success was less resonant. The original 489-pound, 118.5-horsepower twin has been upstaged by a parade of lighter, stronger and flashier fours. Still, resolute handling manners and an aftermarket full of go-fast ordnance have sold enough hardcore fans on the RC to keep it in Honda's '05 lineup.
Even with supplemental hard- and software from various speed merchants, our RC can't suck the headlights out of a new R1. Not yet, anyway. But who cares? Once you're hooked on the linear rush of two 499cc cylinders ripping through 9000 rpm, it's more fun than any four. OK, like many ex-racers, weight can be an issue. But thanks to Sato Racing titanium mufflers and a few other lightweight bits, our blue-collar Duck hunter is down to 470 pounds, complete with life-giving bodily fluids.
The Ducati looks lighter because it is--by a full 18 pounds (wet), according to the Motorcyclist scales. After rubbing your nose in that little factoid, grandiloquent Ducatisti invariably point out all the spendy carbon-fiber bodywork (don't forget the chain guard), forged aluminum wheels and magnesium mounts for the headlight and mirrors. That's when zealous RC51 pilots--as if there were any other kind--bring up the fact that the 999R's tailsection is made of, um, plastic.
Not that there's anything wrong with plastic. It's what's under the skin that counts, right? With the obligatory Power Commander sending more fuel through those yawning 62mm throttle bodies, the soft rev limiter and intake flapper valve disengaged, our tweaked RC makes a respectable 129 horsepower at 10,250 rpm. That's a significant bump from the '04 model's stock output of 123 at 9250. Better still, this one makes 18 more horses than a stocker at 6000 rpm.
The Ducati's 499cc cylinders describe the same 90-degree angle and breathe through eight valves, but similarities end there. Each 104mm forged piston--4mm broader than the Honda's--moves through a 58.8mm stroke. Both engines are happy on super-unleaded pump gas, but the 999R sets compression at 12.5:1 vs. 10.8:1 for the RC. Ducati massaged the 999R to meet '05 AMA and World Superbike rules that hew closer to full-factory spec. That means seriously massaged heads, titanium connecting rods, bigger but lighter titanium valves, hotter cams and a lighter, streamlined crankshaft spinning in sand-cast cases.