Superbike Shootout: Aprilia RSV4 RF vs. BMW S1000RR vs. Ducati 1299 Panigale S vs. Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R vs. Yamaha YZF-R1M

A Five-Way, Big-Bore Battle for Sportbike Superiority

Aprilia RSV4 RF vs. BMW S1000RR vs. Ducati 1299 Panigale S vs. Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R vs. Yamaha YZF-R1M
©Motorcyclist

It's hard to believe for those of us on the inside, but this is the 10th time we've gathered the troops to conduct our annual "Class of" sportbike test that pits the year's hottest new sport motorcycles against the standout machines from years past. (see Best Sportbikes Class Reunion HERE) This basic test format has taken many forms in recent years, comparing bikes with many different engine configurations and occasionally even bikes from different displacement categories, but recent trends have been somewhat more troubling, as we've been forced to address an ever-widening performance gap between Japanese and European sportbikes. In 2012 we even conducted segregated Japanese and European "Class of" tests, tired of watching more advanced Euro bikes consistently trounce Japanese machines year after year.

Not so this year. Taking the arrival of an all-new and hugely impressive Yamaha YZF-R1 (see 2015 Motorcycle of the Year HERE) as a signal that Japanese manufacturers have finally shaken off the dust of economic recession and returned attention to legitimate sportbike performance, we decided it was time for another classic, biggest-and-best, no-holds-barred, open-class sportbike shootout. We rounded up the three leading European superbikes—incidentally, all redesigned for 2015—the Aprilia RSV4 RF, BMW S1000RR, and Ducati 1299 Panigale S, along with the premium-spec M version of the aforementioned Yamaha YZF-R1 and also the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R, the current standard-bearer of Japanese literbike performance, and went to work.

As with previous years, we kicked off testing with a few hundred miles of SoCal street riding, up and over the Ortega Highway and out toward the highlands surrounding Idyllwild. Then, once the bikes were warmed up and run in, we subjected them to the usual battery of dyno runs and acceleration tests at the dragstrip before reporting to the racetrack where we could sample handling at the limit. This year saw a change of road course venue after so many years testing at the desert oasis of Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Instead we went to Buttonwillow Raceway Park’s west loop, a better track for big-bore bikes with fast sections combined with quick direction changes and hard braking areas, where we could better assess high-speed handling and get deeper into the power of these so-powerful superbikes.

Does the R1M have what it takes to end what seems like ages of European sportbike superiority? Read on...

sportbikes, superbikes
Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R©Motorcyclist

Kawasaki’s big-bore Ninja, a past “Class of” champion (2012) and perennial leader of the Japanese literbike fleet, is our archetype of the traditional inline-four superbike the likes of which has dominated this category sales-wise, if not performance-wise, ever since the very first Kawasaki Ninja—the GPz900R—defined the form in 1984.

Look closely and you’ll spy special 30th Anniversary graphics (a $300 add) on this bike, highlighting Kawasaki’s long-term commitment to this design form. Like that very first Ninja, this latest iteration packs a liquid-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve inline-four displacing 998cc and producing 160.9 hp. That’s roughly 60 more horsepower than the original, but it’s the least powerful of this group, lagging 4 hp behind the R1 and a whopping 24 hp behind the same-displacement S1000RR. It’s also the least sophisticated bike here, with three-level-adjustable (plus off) traction control and three power modes the extent of its rider aids. Kawasaki’s Intelligent antilock Brake System (KIBS) is a $1,000 option not found on our testbike; that said, the Ninja’s powerful Tokico brake setup was praised by more than one tester for having better feel and feedback than some of the Brembo systems on other bikes.

On the open road, the ZX-10R resembles a poor man’s Beemer, with the same thick-cut feel and similarly comfortable ergonomics defined by a long, roomy cockpit, supportive saddle, and adequate legroom—though the bars are lower in relation to the seat. It also has the same broadband, always-ready power delivery as the big Beemer, only without the same manic, arm-straining rush after the tach enters five digits.

sportbikes, superbikes, zx-10r
Petal-cut rotors provide a little extra eye candy on the hardly sedate Ninja, and perhaps better cooling, too (above left). Fan-style tach is flashy but not as easy to decipher as a conventional needle (above right). Note the color-coordinated fork caps.©Motorcyclist

You might think less power would make the ZX-10R easier to manage at the racetrack; you would be wrong. Even with too-tall gearing, there’s plenty of power to set the rear tire spinning and sliding, and here the Ninja’s electronic deficits show. This is the only bike in the test without some form of 3-D inertial measurement unit—S-KTRC is a comparatively crude system that functions by comparing wheel speeds only—and it’s possible to get the bike into a lateral slide that the electronics aren’t prepared to counter. This shortcoming was made all the more apparent by the fact that our testbike struggled with rear-tire grip. In years past Kawasaki’s sportbikes have exhibited excellent chassis behavior, but for some reason—despite no announced suspension changes and repeated adjustments—the ZX-10R could not be cured of a nasty tendency to skate the rear tire during all parts of a turn. This lack of cornering prowess held the Ninja back at the racetrack, where its best lap was over a second off the pace.

Rear-tire traction issues aside, the Ninja handled quite well once the suspension was adjusted to the recommended track settings. The squashed stock settings seem designed more for a low seat height in the showroom than snappy turn-in on the street; shimming the rear upward 8mm and dropping the front 2mm delivered sharper steering response, aided by the fact that, at 442 pounds, this is the second-lightest bike here (only the 428-pound Ducati is lighter). Even compared to Öhlins hardware on other bikes, the Ninja’s Showa Big Piston Fork (BPF) delivered exceptionally smooth action and predictable front-end feedback, but rear-end stability remained problematic, and rear tires wore significantly more quickly here than on other, more powerful machines.

How quickly things change. Last updated in 2011, the Ninja ZX-10R is a fine bike that’s showing its age alongside more powerful and capable rivals like the S1000RR and the all-new YZF-R1. It is, however, the most affordable bike here, undercutting the BMW by $4,346, but that’s faint praise, especially since this is the least sophisticated bike here. (Keep in mind a base-model Aprilia RSV4 is $1,000 more, and a base R1—with MotoGP-spec electronics—only adds $1,900.) It’s time for another Ninja update, and now that the supercharged H2 has shown that Kawasaki is back in the performance game, we fully expect that attention will turn to a revitalized ZX-10R next.

KAWASAKI NINJA ZX-10R  
PRICE $14,599
ENGINE 998cc, liquid-cooled inline-four
BORE x STROKE 76.0 x 55.0mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 13.0:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 16V
FUELING EFI
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate slipper
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Aluminum twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping, 5.5-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping, 5.5-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Tokico four-piston calipers, 310mm discs
REAR BRAKE Tokico one-piston caliper, 220mm disc
FRONT TIRE 120/70-ZR17 Bridgestone Battlax BT016
REAR TIRE 190/55-ZR17 Bridgestone Battlax BT016
RAKE/TRAIL 25.0º/4.2 in
SEAT HEIGHT 32.0 in
WHEELBASE 56.1 in
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 442/415 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.5 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 44/32/39 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 176 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 10.54 sec. @ 143.2 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 3.3 sec.
WARRANTY 12 mo., unlimited mi.
CONTACT [kawasaki.com][]

What a difference 87cc makes! Bumping up the displacement of Ducati’s ultra-short-stroke Superquadro V-twin (via even bigger bores) not only boosted rear-wheel horsepower to a remarkable 177.2—a full 23 hp more than the 1199 Panigale R we tested in 2013, albeit on two different brands of dyno—but also filled a big hole in the torque curve from 4,500 to 7,500 rpm, bringing midrange power the previous version sorely lacked. The 1199 Panigale suffered from peaky power delivery that required a lot gearbox rowing in order to ride fast. Not anymore. Although still not as strong off the bottom as the old Testastretta, you can ride a gear higher on the 1299 and use all that torque—93.0 pound-feet, towering over the closest rival, the BMW with 80.8—for a swift kick right into what remains a screaming top-end rush.

Added displacement isn’t the only upgrade; the addition of a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU) now feeds lean, pitch, and acceleration data into the information mix that informs wheelie control, three-level race ABS, and the Öhlins semi-active electronic suspension fit to the S-model we selected for this test. (The IMU does not share information with the eight-level-adjustable DTC traction control.) An instantly addictive auto-blip quickshifter that delivers clutchless shifting up and down the gearbox is new this year, too.

Some things never change, however, like testers unanimously ranking the Panigale the worst streetbike of this bunch—even after this year’s addition of the wider fairing and taller windscreen more akin to the Superleggera and softer saddle from the 899. The unusually flat handlebars put some testers’ wrists at an awkward angle and while the 1299 has generous legroom, it’s impossible to overstate just how much heat radiates off that underseat exhaust loop. This bike is torturous on a hot day. Shuddering low-speed acceleration, exacerbated by virtually no flywheel effect, too-quick clutch engagement, and sensitive throttle pickup, degrade around-town driveability too.

sportbikes, superbikes, brembos, ducati 1299 panigale s
Big, bad, Brembo M50 brake calipers bolstered by lean angle-informed ABS lend the Panigale S the best braking behavior of this bunch.©Motorcyclist

None of that matters at the racetrack, however, where the Panigale shines. At just 428 pounds with a full tank, it’s the lightest here by a bunch and the easiest to turn, with the quickest transitions from side to side aided by those wide clip-ons. There is no “frame” on the Panigale—front and rear subframes, as well as the swingarm, bolt directly to the engine—and the resultant arrangement is remarkably light. It’s coupled with firmly sprung Öhlins electronic suspension that can make the Panigale feel nervous at casual speeds, but like all Ducati superbikes it feels much happier at speed. With gobs of ground clearance and excellent stability even at very deep lean angles, the Panigale easily cuts corner lines that the bigger, less agile inline-fours struggle to achieve. With its brick wall-powerful Brembo M50 calipers and three-level race ABS this is the best bike on the brakes too.

sportbikes, superbikes, ducati 1299 panigale s
Öhlins suspension with “event based” electronic control automatically adjusts damping in response to real-time road inputs; side-mounted positioning supports mass centralization.©Motorcyclist
superbike comparison, best sportbikes of 2015, ducati 1299 panigale s
This is what an Italian rump-roaster looks like.©Motorcyclist

In past tests we’ve complained about the Panigale’s tendency to pogo on the rear shock exiting corners. This year Ducati dropped the swingarm pivot 4mm for more stability under acceleration and that helped, though there is still some residual “Ducati pump,” especially when the DTC is activated. The Panigale still fires off corners really well though. Unlike the broadband four-cylinders, the Panigale power profile is comparatively shorter, steeper, and harder to manage, with revs quickly gained and power building right up to the harsh rev limiter, with no useful over-rev. You feel the Panigale power hit, which is undeniably thrilling, but you also have to shift more and babysit the (hard to read) tach carefully or risk interrupted drives.

Ducati 1299 Panigale S dash
Ducati’s TFT dash automatically reconfigures its display according to which ride mode you select, but fine details can be difficult to read in bright sunlight.©Motorcyclist

Fourth place might seem like a failure for such a heavily revised and sophisticated machine, but better to view this as a natural outcome of Ducati’s more race-oriented focus for the 1299. The Panigale is built for the circuit, with all the usual compromises that entails. Depending where you sit along the street-track continuum, this bike might be more or less appealing than our fourth-place ranking suggests. But if you’re looking for all-around balanced performance you can actually live with, other bikes here do more for much less than the 1299 Panigale S’s account-sapping $24,995 price.

DUCATI 1299 PANIGALE S  
PRICE $24,995
ENGINE 1285cc, liquid-cooled 90° V-twin
BORE x STROKE 116.0 x 60.8mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 12.6:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 8V
FUELING EFI, ride by wire
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate slipper
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Aluminum monocoque
FRONT SUSPENSION Öhlins 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Öhlins shock adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 5.1-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 330mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo two-piston caliper, 245mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 120/70-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
REAR TIRE 200/55-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/3.8 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.7 in
WHEELBASE 56.6 in
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 428/401 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.5 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 40/27/35 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 158 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 10.35 sec. @ 144.8 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 2.4 sec.
WARRANTY 24 mo., unlimited mi.
CONTACT [ducati.com][]
bmw s1000rr, sportbikes
©Motorcyclist

Let’s call BMW’s S1000RR Exhibit #2 in the department of “My, how quickly things change.” (Kawasaki’s Ninja ZX-10R is Exhibit #1.) Another former “Class of” champion (consecutive years, 2012 and ’13), the original Bavarian Badass falls this year to the third spot through no fault of its own. It still delivers the same lightning-in-a-bottle combination of eye-watering acceleration, NASA-level e-technology, and coddling civility that have since made it a favorite of stoplight-sprinting street squids and sophisticated supersport-tourers alike. It’s just that, alongside vastly more powerful versions of the Aprilia RSV4 and Ducati Panigale and a leaner, meaner, much more sophisticated Yamaha R1, it’s harder than ever for the S1000RR to stand out.

Not that BMW hasn’t been keeping up—this is essentially an all-new model with significant updates, including the addition of Dynamic Damping Control (DDC) electronic suspension, engine changes that boost rear-wheel horsepower to 184.6 hp (from just 999cc!), and a host of careful detail changes that cut 8 pounds, even after the addition of DDC. BMW is not standing idly by.

bmw s1000rr, brakes, sportbikes
They don’t look different, but BMW’s brakes seem to deliver 20 percent more braking force.©Motorcyclist

We weren’t kidding when we said “supersport-touring.” With a low, supportive saddle, a roomy cockpit, high, perfectly angled clip-ons, excellent wind protection, and electronic indulgences including cruise control and even heated grips, the S1000RR was the unanimous choice for a street sled. With a Sport ride mode (one of five available modes when you check the Premium option that adds an IMU to enable lean angle-informed traction control, ABS, and DDC) that tailors power delivery for street situations and a Road suspension setting (one of three available DDC baseline presets) that reduces damping rates accordingly, this is a bike few would hesitate to take out for a 500-mile day.

bmw s1000rr, dash
Call us old fashioned, but we prefer this analog tach.©Motorcyclist

With the ride-mode selector toggled to Slick and DDC set for Track, it’s another animal entirely. All 184 ponies arrive unadulterated, with rider aids more permissive than a teenage babysitter with her boyfriend hiding in the closet. Exiting Buttonwillow’s flat, second-gear turn one, the S1000RR would assertively spin, slide, and wheelie all at the same time, various electronic controls conspiring with surprising effectiveness rocket you out of the corner with remarkable speed. “S—t gets real past 12,000 rpm!” one tester said. Thankfully there’s a very effective auto-blipping, up-and-down quickshifter to simplify at least one task.

bmw s1000rr, suspension
That small rod parallel to the shock body is a travel sensor, an essential component of the DDC electronic suspension system.©Motorcyclist
bmw s1000rr, exhaust
The catalyst is inside the muffler now, allowing the heavy underchamber to be deleted.©Motorcyclist

Even with such capable electronics, all that power can sometimes feel like too much—an extra fraction of a second on-throttle can feel like another 5 mph at the end of a straight, making it too easy to rush into corners. A good thing, then, that the BMW has powerful brakes, with what feels like 20 percent more stopping force than the other bikes. It was the only bike on which you would regularly feel the ABS activate, and jumping off any of the other bikes it wasn’t uncommon to overbrake until you recalibrated your right hand for the BMW’s stronger braking hit. How much is too much?

The other overwhelming impression of the S1000RR is size: Sandwiched between the 7⁄8-scale Aprilia and Ducati or ridden alongside the newly slimmed R1, the BMW feels rotund, and dull steering compared to those hyper-agile stablemates makes it feel out of step. Lazier ergos make it hard to get over the front of the bike, and, despite lighter forged wheels included in the Premium kit, it takes more effort to hold the S1000RR on-line, especially as speeds rise. The BMW wanted to run wide at the 120-mph exit of Riverside corner and it took real effort—and, occasionally, rolling out of the gas—to negotiate the fast left up to Phil Hill, which other bikes could blitz through flat out. All this conspired to keep the BMW, a lap-time leader in past tests, stuck at third peg in this year’s charts.

Despite the downgrade from first to third, BMW’s S1000RR remains one of our all-time favorite sportbikes. At $18,495 as equipped with the Premium Package and Racing Red paint, it’s also the best value in this test, offering so much performance, functionality, and features for thousands less than the Yamaha and the two other European bikes.

BMW S1000RR  
PRICE $18,945
ENGINE 999cc, liquid-cooled inline-four
BORE x STROKE 80.0 x 49.7mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 13.0:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 16V
FUELING EFI, ride by wire
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate slipper
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Aluminum twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION Sachs 46mm fork adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Sachs shock adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo one-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 120/70-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
REAR TIRE 200/55-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
RAKE/TRAIL 23.5º/3.8 in
SEAT HEIGHT 32.1 in
WHEELBASE 56.1 in
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 451/423 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.6 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 44/29/37 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 170 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 10.16 sec. @ 149.9 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 2.5 sec.
WARRANTY 36 mo., 36,000 mi.
CONTACT [bmwmotorcycles.com][]
aprilia rsv4 rf
Everything on the new RSV4 looks familiar but different, including a fairing that is taller and wider but still retains the unique triclops design.©Motorcyclist

The undisputed lap-time leader the last time we gathered all the open-class Euro bikes in 2013, the lively, lusty RSV4 is back and truly better than ever, thanks to a thorough update for the 2015 model year (though the new RSV4 is technically tagged a 2016 model in the US). It hardly looks different in the flesh, but this is an entirely new bike with a 21.5-hp increase over that last version we dyno’d in 2013. The improvement is dramatic.

Forget the devil. This time, the development is all in the details. There are no dramatic changes to the 65-degree, 1,000cc V-4 mill, just myriad micro-changes to every internal component—a few millimeters hacked off the intake stacks here or added onto the valve heads there and a few grams shaved from the camshafts or connecting rods—that add up to 175.2 hp and silence old complaints about the RSV4 being underpowered for the class. Best of all, the goosebump-inducing, half-a-V-8 soundtrack remains unchanged.

So much is familiar from the saddle, with the same old roomy cockpit that seems at odds with the compact overall size of the RSV4, even if the new fairing is both wider and taller than before. This makes the bike easier to tuck into at speed and also makes room for higher, wider bars, both improvements for street riding. There most testers gave the RSV4 generally agreeable marks, bothered only by some sharp edges on the seat and persistent engine heat.

For this test we ordered the RF version (formerly called the Factory) that adds racy “Superpole” graphics, lighter forged wheels, and premium Öhlins suspension, the latter without any dynamic-electronic component so you have to adjust your settings the old fashioned way—with your own two hands—and are left with a single, static setting. First-world problems… That said, many felt the RF offered the best suspension action of this test. There’s no comparison for a properly tuned Öhlins NIX/TTX combination’s perfect blend of low-speed damping for the street and high-speed action for the track, and our fastest riders actually preferred the analog setup at the track, praising its consistency and predictability.

sportbikes, superbikes, aprilia rsv4 rf
Forged aluminum wheels and (non-electronic) Öhlins suspension account for most of the $6,350 upcharge for the RF.©Motorcyclist

The racetrack is where the RSV4 RF really came alive. Everything we loved about the old RSV4 applies here, especially perfect front-rear balance and buttress-like stability even at fairing-dragging lean angles and triple-digit speeds. At 460 pounds wet it’s 5 pounds lighter than before but still the heaviest bike here, and you sometimes feel that weight in high-speed transitions where the RSV4 is slower to snap to attention. It seldom feels anything less than totally confident, though, with none of the skittishness sometimes displayed by the Ducati and none of the numbness of the BMW.

Power delivery from the new motor is markedly smoother than before. The curves have been backfilled and bolstered, and the old torque step is gone, giving the RSV4 even more predictable and linear power delivery that had pilots wheelying wild-eyed over Phil Hill and confidently charging through Riverside with knee buried at 120 mph. Three power modes let you further fine-tune delivery (though the nomenclature, Track, Race, Street, is confusing), and flawless APRC electronics that combine to always maintain rapid forward motion increase confidence even more. The menu/submenu format can be difficult to navigate at first (and one tester suggested the readout looked “first-generation Nintendo” beside other bikes’ TFT displays), but we still love the paddles that let you easily trim TC intervention on the fly. (To be fair, the Panigale and R1 have these as well.)

Last time we criticized Aprilia for being a half-generation behind, and even after this major overhaul that’s still somewhat true. Lack of an e-suspension option sacrifices versatility and convenience if not actual performance, and other little details like an up-only quickshifter—when the BMW and Ducati go clutchless both ways—add to the impression that it’s every-so-slightly behind the times. But we can’t argue its outright abilities, and, all objective comparisons aside, it’s still the subjective top dog for many of our testers, as our “off the record” conclusions attest. Not a distant second place by any means.

APRILIA RSV4 RF  
PRICE $21,999
ENGINE 1000cc, liquid-cooled 65° V-4
BORE x STROKE 78.0 x 52.3mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 13.6:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 16V
FUELING EFI, ride by wire
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate slipper
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Aluminum twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION Öhlins 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Öhlins shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 5.1-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo one-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 120/70-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
REAR TIRE 200/55-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
RAKE/TRAIL 25.0°/4.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 33.0 in
WHEELBASE 56.5 in
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 460/431 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.9 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 40/31/34 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 167 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 10.39 sec. @ 146.9 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 3.2 sec.
WARRANTY 24 mo., unlimited mi.
CONTACT [apriliausa.com][]

We’ve been waiting a long time for a new Yamaha R1 and we’ll say right from go that this one was more than worth the wait. Our testers’ notes tell all: “An absolute joy to ride.” “The definition of precision.” “Confident from the first corner.” “Will make anyone feel like Superman.” Praise for this bike was universal and universally exuberant.

This seventh-generation R1 was conceived of differently than previous models, arising organically from Yamaha’s M1 MotoGP program. This race-centric design philosophy is evident in every detail, and it feels closer to race-ready than any Japanese superbike ever before. It feels as taut and trim as the Panigale but with none of the rough edges. Its electronics are as comprehensive and easy to use as the BMW and in some ways—specifically with regard to data acquisition and telemetry—more sophisticated. And it all combines to produce the lowest lap time, 0.2 second ahead of the unflappable Aprilia.

That it does this all with just 164 hp—11 less than the RSV4, 13 less than the Panigale, and 20 less than the S1000RR—says everything about how effectively the R1 gets the job done. The latest evolution of Yamaha’s crossplane inline-four (CP4) with larger bores and bigger valve openings on both sides has the same strong low- and midrange power as before but now with a livelier top end. Its flat, droning exhaust note produced by the irregular firing order predicts exceptionally smooth power delivery that helps the R1 fire off corners better than any other bike here. Unlike other bikes that occasionally snap, pump, or buck under power, the R1 just smoothly slides while still driving forward. It’s the best transmission of the bunch, with short throws between gears and creamy clutch action—and an up-only quickshifter—that helps too. And it would only get faster with shorter gearing—this bike goes 99 mph in first (we checked).

We tested the limited-production R1M version that adds Öhlins electronic racing suspension (ERS) and the GPS-enabled, 21-channel Yamaha Telemetry Recording Analysis Controller (Y-TRAC). Öhlins ERS, ostensibly similar to what’s on the Panigale S, automatically optimizes suspension damping to make this the most predictably stable bike here, with almost no discernible diving under braking or squatting under power (you can still select fixed suspension settings if you desire, as some testers did at the racetrack). Credit also the IMU-informed traction/wheelie control bolstered by a lateral slide-control system, which never puts a wheel any further out of line than you ask it to. Front-rear linked ABS was the only electro-control any testers criticized on the R1, mostly because, unlike the other systems that are easy to manipulate or even deactivate completely, you can’t turn the ABS function off (nor can you change ride modes at-speed).

yamaha, yzf-r1m, r1m
The GPS unit for the Communication Control Unit (CCU) comes standard on the R1M and allows the rider to download and analyze ride data.©Motorcyclist

Yamaha took great pains to shrink everything—even the engine is almost 2 inches narrower. The new R1 feels compact in every way and, at just 444 pounds full of gas, very light, too. The seat is tall—33.9 inches off the ground now—but a relatively close height relationship between the smooth seat and wide bars makes it easy to move around, and the compact, mass-centralized sensation continues when you’re traveling at speed. The YZF-R1 feels more like a race-prepped sportbike than any other here, with quick steering, impressive stability at full lean, an easy ability to change lines midcorner, and a communicative chassis that lets you appreciate all of these traits.

Speaking of bike-to-rider communication, the Y-TRAC system, which provides a comprehensive picture of each lap and allows you to monitor everything from brake pressure, lean angle, throttle opening, TC/ABS/SCS activation, and so much more at any point on the track using a tablet app, is legitimately thrilling to geek out over. This will once and for all end any benchracing shenanigans. “Look right there! I was leaned over at 51 degrees and going 121 mph, with slide control working!”

yamaha r1m
Yamaha’s dash is smaller than the Ducati’s but is still crammed with information.©Motorcyclist

That you can get MotoGP-like data acquisition on your production bike—plus electronic suspension and the fastest lap times too—for virtually the same price as the Aprilia RSV4 RF was the deciding factor in picking the champion this year. That it’s also a functional streetbike is even more compelling. Great work, Yamaha. It looks like Japan is finally back in the superbike game.

YAMAHA YZF-R1M  
PRICE $21,990
ENGINE 998cc, liquid-cooled inline-four
BORE x STROKE 79.0 x 50.9mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 13.0:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 16V
FUELING EFI, ride by wire
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate slipper
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Aluminum twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION Öhlins 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Öhlins shock adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Advics four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Nissin one-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 120/70-ZR17 Bridgestone Battlax RS10
REAR TIRE 200/55-ZR17 Bridgestone Battlax RS10
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/4.0 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 33.9 in.
WHEELBASE 55.3 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 444/417 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.5 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 36/26/30 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 135 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 10.51 sec. @ 145.7 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 3.2 sec.
WARRANTY 12 mo., unlimited mi.
CONTACT [*yamahamotorsports.com *][]

DYNO

The V-twin Ducati dominates the dyno charts due to its almost-300cc advantage over the 1,000cc fours, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to faster lap times because the steeper, narrower powerband is harder to mediate.

2015 sportbike horsepower
Class of 2015: Horsepower©Motorcyclist
sportbike torque, dyno
Class of 2015: Torque©Motorcyclist

ERGOS

There is remarkably little ergonomic variation among these five bikes. The only real outlier is the R1, with the longest reach to the bars and nearly the most legroom, which might explain why most testers rated that bike easiest to move around on.

superbike comparison, best sportbikes of 2015
It was this close the entire time, the competition between Aprilia’s awesome RSV4 RF and Yamaha’s radically reborn YZF-R1M. Both bikes over-deliver on the superbike promise of arm-stretching acceleration and elbow-dragging agility, but both do so with enough refinement and versatility that you can actually ride either on the street without fear of entering a discomfort-induced road-rage state. They aren’t as alike as the near-identical lap times—or identical-to-the-dollar price tags—might suggest. The soulful Aprilia, with its roaring V-4 heart, plays the hot-blooded Latin lover against the Yamaha’s more coolly calculating Samurai type, but both hit the right marks whether on a twisty backroad or a demanding race track. The more modern R1M just brings more to the game technologically, giving it a crucial advantage.©Motorcyclist

Off the Record

ALEX DUNSTAN, GUEST TESTER
AGE: 36
HEIGHT: 6'1"
WEIGHT: 185 lb.
INSEAM: 32 in.

There’s no denying Yamaha hit it out of the park with the new R1, and the pages of praise heaped upon it are all well deserved. After an underwhelming previous generation R1, it’s nice to see the boys in blue come out swinging, and it rightfully deserves the number-one plate. That said I’m awarding the RSV4 RF my personal “Best in Class.” Riding the RF is a visceral experience that extends from your ears, through your throttle hand, and out the footpegs as the rear wheel spins and the front tire claws toward the sky. Less of a ballet and more of a salsa, the V-4 talks back to you and lets you know exactly what it wants. With my best RF lap time coming in a full two seconds faster than the Yamaha (which was second quickest for me), it was clearly the dance partner I jelled with both on and off the track. Cue the music. I’m ready to go for another ride!

ARI HENNING, SENIOR ROAD TEST EDITOR
AGE: 30
HEIGHT: 5'10"
WEIGHT: 175 lb.
INSEAM: 33 in.

For me this test really boiled down to the R1M versus the RSV4 RF. The R1M is more sophisticated and has made the largest improvement from one generation to the next and fully deserves the “Class of” crown. I’d recommend the Yamaha to anyone who intends to stack on trackdays or just wants to be on the cutting edge.

But for my money, Aprilia’s RSV4 RF is the complete superbike package. Even before Aprilia stuffed another 20 (20!) hp into it the RSV4 already held my heart. This new bike is nearly as fast as the R1M on the track and offers more thrills on the street, mainly because of that shuddering, roaring V-4. That motor is simply mesmerizing, and while the R1’s engine is quite characterful, nothing competes with the sound and feel of four cylinders splayed at 65 degrees. Ride one and you’ll understand.

CHRIS SIEBENHAAR, GUEST TESTER
AGE: 30
HEIGHT: 5'10"
WEIGHT: 175 lb.
INSEAM: 31 in.

I wanted the RSV4 to be the bike for me—I really did—but I always felt a bit like a stranger when I got on it. The RSV4 brought a smile to my face with every twist of the throttle, but the BFF connection just wasn’t there for me. The ZX-10R really surprised me with how well it competed against much more expensive bikes. It’s not necessarily great, but it does everything really well, and while it’s not the best looking bike to me, it has a great personality. With its performance I could get over that. The R1M would be my unanimous favorite if the bike would allow me to be more in control. This bike will no doubt make for faster riders, but with all the electronic systems in play, it might not make better riders. It has the ability to cover for so many rider errors, which may or may not be a good thing.

ZACK COURTS, SENIOR EDITOR
AGE: 31
HEIGHT: 6'4"
WEIGHT: 185 lb.
INSEAM: 34 in.

As hard as we try to be impartial, you probably already knew which bike you wanted after skimming through the photos. Objective data about superbikes is kind of like nutrition information at a fast-food joint: Sure, there might be options that are better for me, but this big, greasy 180-hp superbike with cheese is what I really want. If a 1299 Panigale is all that will make you happy, you won’t care about the grabby clutch or if your thighs get seared by exhaust heat. It has no frame! It’s gorgeous and different! Besides, how many adolescent bedroom walls are coated with photos of BMWs? Ironically, my guilty cheeseburger is the S1000RR. Maybe all of this “objectivity” crap is getting to me, but the second-cheapest bike has the best amenities and the most horsepower? Yeah, I’ll take that one, thanks. And throw in a poster.

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