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?

After thoughtful digestion of all that plus innumerable pancakes (heavy on the syrup, please), the Saturday morning coffee klatch has reached a verdict: With 10 more horsepower, 18 fewer pounds and lines that make the RC51 resemble a farm implement, the 999R wins. Check please. Not so fast--for those who prefer leather jackets to tweed and riding to pontificating, the truth lies on a twisted stretch of pavement somewhere north of Ventura.

Hacking through the oxymoron of greater Los Angeles toward hilly Ojai, the Ducati defines impractical transportation, but you've got to get to the twisty bits somehow. It looks long, and the reach from seat to bars is exactly that, even with the saddle adjusted to its most forward position. In motion, the 999R feels light, tiny and impossibly slim, especially compared with the blunt, muscular Honda. Steering is light, but an XXL turning radius makes the 7-Eleven parking lot a dicey proposition.

The R's rearview mirrors are either annoying or totally useless, depending upon your personal dimensions. Those asymmetrical headers feeding the underseat muffler carry catalytic converters and radiate enough heat to roast your crotch in coagulated traffic. Then the dry clutch gets hot, howling like a wounded beagle at green lights. Take comfort in a smarter Magneti Marelli engine computer and track-spec injectors that deliver flawless rideability around town and everywhere else. And memorize the address of every gas station on the way, because the Duck gets thirsty when you goose it. Restraint can coax 160 miles from the dainty 4.1-gallon tank, but a little debauchery can drain it in just 100. The RCcan be just as thirsty, but it carries more fuel.

Meanwhile, parked on its crowned, nondescript saddle, you're more in the Honda than on it, wrapped around its 4.8-gallon tank and closer to narrower bars. With less leverage to work with, steering is a little heavier. And with more weight to steer, everything takes a bit more effort. Everything but the exemplary clutch and gearbox, anyway. Both are as good or better than anything else we've ever tested.

Climbing toward the 6000-foot peaks beyond Wheeler Springs, the 999 pulls like a cross between some nuclear freight train and Dale Jr.'s number-eight Chevy. Sporting thrust begins just past 4000 rpm, reeling in pavement quickly enough to make even the current crop of liter-class Japanese fours nervous. Even with cripplingly tall standard final-drive gearing (15/35), an impulsive throttle hand cues instant wheelies with frightening ease. After bolting up a rational set of sprockets (14/38), a mod any 999R owner should insist on, throttle control is even more crucial, but for a trifling expenditure the bike is literally transformed. Vaulting out of corners like a typical twin then revving as quickly as a four, the R-spec gives that fat rear Michelin plenty of time to get a grip between big bangs. The only downside is enough engine vibration above 7000 rpm to make the tach largely superfluous.

OK, so the maximum Ducati fundamentally outguns Honda's 999cc twin. There's less thrust on tap below 5000 rpm, and power builds progressively, though not as quickly. Still, unless you're stepping off a 999R, the RC is plenty quick. Basic intake and exhaust therapy lifts the power curve enough to keep things interesting. Although power delivery is as linear as they come, the Honda doesn't kick in with any serious muscle until 7000 rpm. Free of the soft rev limiter, it pulls all the way to 10,000 rpm rather than going gradually limp from 9000 to the 10,250-rpm cutoff point.

Riding quickly is more of a momentum game on the Honda, which lets you make the most of its brick-house stability. Matching the Ducati's 23.5-degree track setting, the RC's rake is on the steep side. But 95mm of trail--versus just 91mm for the 999R--is on the long side. Factor in less leverage at the bars and tight roads are a workout. The Bridgestone BT014 radials that went on when the stock Dunlops wore out delivered tenacious grip. Overall, the Honda is happier when corners are faster and farther apart.

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