RC51 vs. 999R

What's the price of true twin-cylinder happiness--$30,000 for Ducati's 999R or $16,000 for our hot-rodded Honda RC51?

Cheap Duck
An affordable Ducati isn't an oxymoron. It's all in your heads...

Maybe a $30,000 999R is totally out of reach, and even mentioning a standard 999's $17,695 sticker price incites domestic unrest. Maybe you still prefer the look of Tamburini's 916 to Terblanche's 999. Just remember that cheap is a vulgar little adjective in desmodromic circles.

When it comes to desmoquattro twins, there's no such thing, really. Infirm, abused or high-mileage examples of the breed aren't bargains. Like many aging supermodels, eight-valve Ducatis can get cranky--and expensive--in their old age. Better to pay a little more up front for, say, a 2002 998 than pay a lot more later in somebody's service department.

The big reason is that Testastretta engine. Named for its narrow, compact head, the 998cc Testastretta powerplant was the first major makeover of Ducati's iconic desmoquattro twin, and it was new from the top down. The most obvious change--flattening the included valve angle from 40 to 25 degrees--did more than shrink the heads. It made room for bigger valves, more compression and steeper, more downdraft intake ports feeding 100mm by 63.5mm cylinders. The 100mm pistons are an ounce lighter than the 996's 98mm slugs.

Virtually every part in this more compact engine is stronger, lighter or both. Spinning the more rigid hollow cams in plain bearings saved weight. Redesigned cam lobes put tighter tolerances between valve adjusters and rocker arms, allowing hotter cam timing and less clatter. Symmetrically opening rocker arms are stronger and lighter. New rocker geometry reduced critical side loading on the valves. Valve guides and seats are machined to tighter tolerances as well. And new covers provide drastically easier access to the valves themselves.

Plain-bearing cams need clean, high-pressure oil, so the 998's lubrication system was designed to deliver both. Dual-stage filtering keeps oil cleaner, and revised routing sent cooler lube to the new heads. Everything sits on externally reinforced crankcases that tilt the cylinders 10 degrees rearward, channeling oil back to the sump more efficiently. Ducati claimed 123 horsepower for the 157-pound engine, while our last 998 made 111.2 rear-wheel horses on the dyno at 10,250 rpm.

It's much easier to live with as well. "The 998 is a much improved engine compared to the 996," says Jeff Nash, owner of AMS Ducati, located near Dallas, Texas. "Checking valve clearance is a vastly simpler deal. Just remove the 10mm screws, pop open the covers and it's all right there. Once they're set up right, tolerances really don't change much. Testastrettas are also much more responsive to tuning than the older eight-valve Ducatis. You don't need such radical cams to make useful, reliable power."

Outside of the engine, most other 998 components were translated from the '01 996. At 479 pounds (wet), it is one pound lighter than the 996. Depending on where you live, a clean, well-tended '02-spec 998 can sell for anywhere from $11,800 to $12,500--generally about $1500 more than an equivalent '01 996. But once you know what's under the hood, it's worth every nickel.--Tim Carrithers

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