2003 Aprilia Tuono R | Classic Test

Almost too much motor for us mortals

In the decade of the oughts, motorcycling saw some pretty stellar performers. In 2000, Suzuki radically updated the GSX-R750 and the next year unleashed the GSX-R1000, a bike that finally delivered on the promise of literbike-plus performance in a midsize package. In this decade, we got the uncommonly styled Ducati 999 as well as the Bologna firm’s “apology” in the form of the 1098/1198.

But few bikes surprised us like the Tuono. In fact, putting Aprilia's naked bike on the January 2003 cover almost didn’t happen. The original test bike, a Euro-spec example brought over by Aprilia USA to help judge its viability on our shores was already fitted with a factory-accessory exhaust. It was dropped off for a very short-term visit with an exhortation from the press guy to put fewer than 500 miles on the beast. It was the only one in the country and all the magazines would have to play nice and share. (As if.) Our original plan was to run a First Ride in the front of the magazine and wait to see if Aprilia would actually bring the naked-ified Mille R to our land. For us, it was a conservative, rational approach.

That plan went out the window after the first ride. Tim Carrithers and I escaped our Wilshire Boulevard offices for the day and jetted up the coast to Malibu. The Tuono, despite weighing 453 pounds and packing “only” 118 horsepower, was the King of Latigo Canyon, a difficult, technical, often dirty sprite of a road that demands a lot from a bike and rider, specifically the ability to make path corrections at any point in a corner. The Tuono’s tall, wide bar, broad spread of power, killer brakes, and top-spec suspension combined to make it an almost religious experience upon that untamed belt of asphalt.

We returned to the office and handed the keys to then-editor Mitch Boehm, who remained unconvinced. He rode it home that night. The next morning, his eyes wide and voice half an octave above normal, he admitted the mistake we almost made. We cooked up a reason to run it on the cover... and here we are.

Aprilia brought just 50 of the Tuono Rs to the U.S. in 2003 but many more of the standard Tuonos—with Showa/Sachs suspension in place of the R’s Öhlins kit—for $11,999. It would be overstating the case to say the Tuono put Aprilia on the map, but it opened the door to customers who thought the Mille was too committed, the Falco not quite sporty enough, and the Futura, well, just funny looking. We’re still waiting for another manufacturer to do what Aprilia did—take its top-line supersport and make it naked without cutting power or dumbing down the chassis. (Ducati's Streetfighter and Aprilia's new Tuono V4R are technically detuned.) It was a shock in 2003, and likely will be again the next time a company other than Aprilia attempts it.

Off the Record


Age: 29 | Height: 5 ft. 10 in.

Weight: 135 lb. | Inseam: 30 in.

At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I’m going to declare the emperor is buck naked on this one. I’m sure the Tuono is capable of a high level of performance, but the problem is it’s not easily accessible. Whereas a bike such as the Honda 919 feels small, controllable and even a bit underpowered, the Tuono feels big, tall, unwieldy and simply too powerful. Yes, I said too powerful—this bike wants to wheelie all the time due to the laid-back seating position and massive amounts of torque. One tester said he was able to get it to wheelie off bumps in the road in fourth gear, if you can believe that. Normally I’d be all for mondo-power, but the Tuono’s bars are so tall and you sit so high and far back that there’s almost no weight on the front wheel. This trait makes rapid corner entries practically impossible, forcing you to tiptoe in and then bomb out of corners using the bike’s midrange. That’s not the way I like to ride, and I’d venture to say for someone my weight even the Yamaha FZ1—with its non-Öhlins suspension—delivers a more compliant and confidence-inspiring ride. The Tuono looks and sounds absolutely killer, but for me its beauty is only skin deep.

—Josh Norem


Age: 40 | Height: 6 ft.

Weight: 225 lb. | Inseam: 32 in.

Really, this is the bike I—and a lot of 40-and-over riders—have been looking (and asking) for for a long time. It’s amazing it took an upstart Italian company to do it. Or maybe it isn’t. If the Japanese makers are anything it’s conservative in their thinking. The Italians, with smaller slices of the motorcycle pie, a typically more aggressive outlook and offshore-based CEOs with a less paranoid view of opportunist U.S. trial lawyers, seem a lot less risk-averse these days—the upshot of which are gnarly, in-your-face, outstanding two-wheelers such as the Tuono. You 40-and-over sportbike riders out there, take it from me: The Tuono R is a thrill ride you simply will not believe (Norem’s “it’s so scary” comments notwithstanding). If the standard bike is 85 percent as good as the R-version, we’re all in for a treat.

—Mitch Boehm


Age: 44 | Height: 6 ft. 3 in.

Weight: 209 lb. | Inseam: 35 in.

If you take your pavement in long, twisty stretches rather than a quarter-mile at a time, Aprilia’s Tuono R is what Yamaha’s V-Max was 18 years ago: stunning in every sense. The chassis takes a little getting used to, so use the brakes. But the Öhlins suspension is straight-up magic. This engine kicks the slats out of any other quasi-legal V-twin on the planet, including Honda’s RC51 and any Ducati you can name. I don’t have the heart or the stomach to talk about what it would do to any Buell. Somebody tell me why Milwaukee can’t build an engine like this.

The front wheel’s levitation act during steam-catapult corner exits is a little scary at first. This motorcycle doth not suffer fools. It will hammer the unwary and unwise into the terra like cheap tent pegs. Scarier still, I find myself doing the mental arithmetic necessary to owning a motorcycle that costs only slightly less than the nice, new Ford pickup truck I really need. Irrational machinery inspires irrational thought. And irrational behavior.

Adhering to posted speed limits is always difficult and mostly impossible. Even if I could afford the bike, my driver license couldn’t. Alas, there is no truth to the rumor that every Tuono comes with a matching carbon-fiber and Kevlar attorney.

—Tim Carrithers

Aprilia cast a new upper triple clamp for the Tuono and slapped a big, fat aluminum tube on top. All that leverage makes quick work of tight transitions.
Our 2003 testbike came with the Aprilia can, loud as the hammers of hell. No truth to the rumor that the speedometer sensor fell out after 500 miles.
Then-current Brembo brakes and �hlins fork were high points of the Tuono R. Literally, as the front wheel was often at shoulder height.
�hlins suspension and carbon-fiber goodies demarcated the Tuono R from the mainline bike. Aprilia failed to dumb down any of the Mille’s capabilities.