A Quartet of Electronically Enhanced Superbikes | MC Comparison

Class of 2011: Divine Intervention

Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE
Ducati 1198SP
Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R

The signs were everywhere: on USA Today's front page, the TV news and splashed on giant billboards throughout the Southland. "Judgment Day is coming!" they warned. Or so said Harold Camping, the 89-year-old fundamentalist radio preacher/lunatic from up north near San Francisco. Naturally…

While the righteous unloaded their earthly possessions and scrambled to arrange post-Rapture pet care, and godless heathens dutifully reviewed the CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse preparation guidelines, we readied for the End Times in the best way we knew how—by planning an epic sportbike ride. Heaven would have to wait. We had a garageful of overpowered superbikes calling our names, and we felt obliged to worship the great god Horsepower.

It was time for our fifth-annual “Class of” sportbike shootout, focusing this year on the most sophisticated, electronically enhanced superbikes on the market. We were searching for our own form of Divine Intervention—a digital angel that would watch over us and protect us from skyshot high-sides, blessing us with safer street rides and quicker lap times.

Our prophets were carefully chosen. Some, like BMW’s S1000RR, equipped with traction control, wheelie control and race-grade anti-lock brakes, returned in the exact same form as at last year’s “Class of 2010” comparo. Ducati’s traction-controlled 1198 was brought back as well, now in SP guise with a slipper clutch and electronic quick-shifter. Making an encore appearance was 2010’s defending champ, the Aprilia RSV4 Factory. While last year’s bike was all analog, this year our RSV4 was equipped with the Aprilia Performance Ride Control (APRC) package, which includes traction, wheelie and launch control. Finally, we welcomed a wild card in the form of Kawasaki’s all-new Ninja ZX-10R, the first Japanese superbike to come factory-equipped with TC.

Again we subjected this quartet to a rigorous, four-day testing regimen, with two days of street riding bookending two days at the racetrack. While in previous years we ventured north, this year we headed east to the post-apocalyptic environs of Desert Center, California, home of the new Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Though we didn’t encounter any walking dead, we did dodge the occasional dust devil.

Street sessions subjected these bikes to everything from suburban commuting to and from our El Segundo offices to freeway droning on the battered I-5 to classic SoCal canyon strafing on legendary State Route 74—better known as Ortega Highway. Idling through gridlock, humming along HOV lanes and spreading darkness in every corner between San Juan Capistrano and Palm Springs was a real-world workout for these big-bore cannons, favoring finesse over brute force.

Thank God reports of the earth’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. Instead of spending eternity wandering through the desert with the rest of the left behinds, we blasted back over the mountains and filed this report. It’s not the same as being teleported to heaven, but riding any of these superbikes isn’t a bad substitute for eternal afterlife.

Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE
Best Lap: 1:52.5

Aprilia’s RSV4 superbike is the defending champion in World Superbike competition and our “Class of” comparison. The rowdy, V4-powered rocket was the runaway winner in last year’s shootout, despite lacking traction control or any other rider aids. This year it returns with the Aprilia Perform-ance Ride Control (APRC) package, a full suite of electronic assistance lifted directly from Max Biaggi’s championship-winning racebike, making the 2011 model even more potent—and accessible—than before.

“We expected wheelie control to be a buzzkill, but we were having so much fun hanging the back out that we didn’t miss wheelying at all!”

APRC is the most comprehensive and intuitive electronics package we’ve sampled on a streetbike, equaling anything we’ve experienced on actual racing machines. Driven by a sophisticated “inertial platform” using two gyros and two accelerometers operating in conjunction with the ride-by-wire throttle, it alters power delivery instantly and almost undetectably in response to wheelspin. Aprilia Launch Control (ALC) enables full-power race launches, while three-level-adjustable Aprilia Wheelie Control (AWC) keeps the front wheel grounded without harsh power cuts. And if that isn’t enough, three selectable drive modes allow you to adjust power output to suit changing conditions.

Each system can be independently adjusted, so you can dial-in more traction control or less wheelie intervention as desired. Eight-level, adjustable-on-the-fly “dynamic” TC is especially impressive in the lowest settings—stay in the throttle and the rear tire continues spinning, cutting power enough to maintain control but still allowing the rider to steer with the rear. This is the least intrusive system here, and more of a performance feature than safety override—chop the throttle and you could still launch over the high side.

We expected wheelie control to be a buzzkill, but it worked so well that we left it in the most aggressive mode all the time. Aprilia’s anti-wheelie programming is gentler than BMW’s and more consistent than Kawasaki’s, intervening before the wheel even leaves the ground. This really helps to keep the front end planted and pointed in the right direction, contributing to the RSV4’s impressive corner speeds. Besides, we were having so much fun hanging the back out that we didn’t miss wheelying at all!

Electronics aside, the Factory is essentially unchanged from last year. It’s still heavier and less powerful than it feels from the saddle, weighing 453 lbs. ready to ride and making “just” 152.6 horsepower—2.8 bhp less than last year. Blame the exhaust valve, remapped to smooth the power curve and improve the formerly abysmal fuel economy. The engine still feels soft under 6500 rpm and sputters out soon after the 12,500-rpm power peak, but midrange torque is impressively flat, hitting 60 lb.-ft. at 6200 rpm and building to a peak 73.4 lb.-ft. at just 9700 rpm. It’s not an especially wide powerband, but a revised shift linkage, tighter ratios in the bottom three gears and the Aprilia Quick Shifter (AQS) make it easy to stay in the happy place.

The Aprilia’s biggest advantage is its chassis. The V4 configuration and committed mass centralization combine the agility of a skinny twin with the mid-corner stability of an inline-four. With the shock eccentric in the raised (+15mm) position, the RSV4 snapped into corners better than anything else, and was the easiest bike to take from edge to edge in chicanes. The super-compliant 43mm Öhlins fork inspired confidence during even the deepest trail-braking, and the short front-center distance put the rider right over the front axle for excellent control.

On either side of the apex the RSV4 felt rock-solid in a way you’d never expect from such a reflexive bike, completing Chuckwalla’s long corners with appreciably greater speed than any other bike. And no news is good news regarding the Brembo brakes: Plenty of predictable strength means you don’t even notice them at speed, which is as it should be. It’s no surprise that all four of our testers turned their quickest lap times on this three-eyed monster, most with a full second separating this from their second-quickest bike.

Big riders still criticized the cramped, stinkbug ergonomics that get tiresome on the highway, where a high-frequency handlebar vibration around 6000 rpm is equally annoying. The combination of stiff suspension and a light throttle-return spring can fool you into thinking there’s a fuel-injection surge on the street. This, combined with tall overall gearing, can make an in-town commute less than pleasurable.

Brutish in both appearance and attitude, the RSV4 is not the most civilized superbike—but it might be the most thrilling. It has the nastiest exhaust note this side of a Desmosedici V4 and more charm than any other bike here, proving Ducati isn’t the only Italian manufacturer building bikes with character. That all this power and attitude is even more accessible now thanks to the peerless APRC makes the race-ready RSV4 even more desirable. Max Biaggi is certainly a talented racer, but his replica is world-class, too!

Best Lap: 1:53.8

How fast is too fast? BMW’s awesome S1000RR comes uncomfortably close to answering this question. Even in this crowd of alpha superbikes, the brutish Beemer feels heart-stoppingly fast. Cramming a 177.8-bhp inline-four into a 458-lb. package, with just 56.4 inches between axles, the pirate-faced Beemer is undeniably thrilling on an open stretch of tarmac. You’ll still laugh out loud the thousandth time the bike power-wheelies its way through fourth gear!

“You’ll still laugh out loud the thousandth time this bike power-wheelies its way through fourth gear!”

As entertaining as this anti-social excess is, however, the S1000RR can be a handful in the canyons and downright overwhelming on a technical racetrack. Fast laps require constant recalibration: Get an especially good drive out of one turn and the BMW builds so much more speed, so quickly that you inevitably blow the next. The Beemer will deliver a quick lap—indeed, it was the second-quickest bike here—but it requires significantly more mental effort and attention. You’ve heard the line about flying a fighter jet inside the hanger? That’s riding the S1000RR at the racetrack.

It’s a credit to BMW’s sophisticated electronics package that we can handle this mega-motored monster at all. Traction control, wheelie control and race-grade ABS are all in effect, and all necessary to manage this beast at speed. The three systems are not independently adjustable, but instead integrated into four preset ride modes—Rain, Sport, Race or Slick—which also alter power level and throttle response. This makes the systems easier to navigate, at the expense of some ability to fine-tune the response. Modes can be changed in motion, but you have to close the throttle and pull in the clutch for them to take effect. You can also disable ABS and TC completely at start-up—at your own risk.

BMW’s TC, driven by dual gyroscopes that monitor lean angle and acceleration, is effective but somewhat more invasive than on the other bikes. Lacking the ability to adjust the level of intervention proved frustrating, especially in Race mode where the TC would sometimes cut power so much that the front end would dive and cause the bike to run wide at corner exits. The wheelie control was also too abrupt, allowing too much lift and then cutting power too drastically, causing a pogo effect. Switching to Slick mode disabled wheelie control (along with rear-wheel ABS), but ultimately the bike handled better with the front wheel on the ground. This one-setting-fits-all mentality inevitably shows some holes.

BMW’s Race ABS, on the other hand, is essentially transparent, despite the most powerful brakes in this group. Massive initial bite and fade-free deceleration, combined with firm, predictable feedback from the fully adjustable, 46mm Sachs fork made the Beemer easy to bend into corners. Last year we struggled to find a good track setup for the S1000RR. This year, with able assistance from Evan Steel, who currently supports BMW-mounted Chris Peris in the AMA Superbike Championship, the BMW cooperated from the word go. Flipping the shock eccentric raised rear ride Height by 15mm for quicker turn-in and better completion of corners. Though it felt agile for a four-cylinder—and was quicker side-to-side than the Kawasaki—the S1000RR still required more steering effort than either the Aprilia or the Ducati. There’s only so much you can do to hide the inertial effect of that wide, heavy crankshaft.

Not surprising from a brand that built its reputation with luxurious touring bikes, the BMW is the most refined bike in this bunch. The white LED dash looks luxe—the entire bike looks luxe, in fact, especially in our test unit’s optional red/white/blue Motorsport livery. Navigating the electronics is simple and intuitive, changing multiple parameters with the single push of a button. If only BMW would incorporate Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) as used on its sport-touring bikes, you could likewise alter suspension settings at the touch of a button.

Of this quartet, the S1000RR is the best outright streetbike. The riding position is relatively roomy, the fairing is more functional than its shape suggests, the saddle is supportive and it has the most legroom. The only street critiques have to do with the engine: Fluffy fueling at low revs and constant throttle openings causes some surging, and at higher revs a bit of buzzing transmits through the bars. The transmission feels a bit clunky around town, too, but you’ll never notice this at speed if you’re using the optional Gear Shift Assistant quick-shifter, which upshifts seamlessly in milliseconds.

Any criticisms seem minor, however, when judged against such an awesome powerplant. That BMW has harnessed such overwhelming output in a package that is almost easy to exploit is a testament to the excellence of German engineering.

So, then, just how fast is too fast? We don’t know yet. A bit of courage at the controls—and lots of blind faith in the electronics—proves that as fast as the S1000RR is, it’s still not too fast to be fun.

Ducati 1198SP
Best Lap: 1:54.7

If there has been one constant since we began our annual “Class of” testing in 2007, it’s been Ducati’s Testastretta Evoluzione-engined superbikes. We started that year with the 1098, followed by the 1198 in 2009 and the super-pimp, 1198S Corse Special Edition in 2010. This year brings the top-of-the-line 1198SP, the latest—and likely final—Testastretta, as Ducati is expected to debut its all-new Superquadrata in 2012. Fitted with a larger, 4.75-gallon aluminum gas tank, Öhlins suspension, forged Marchesini wheels and more, the 1198SP can rightfully be considered the ultimate version of the superbike platform we’ve become so familiar with over the past five years.

“It’s a shame Ducati doesn’t incorporate a wheelie-control strategy; of all the bikes here, this one would benefit the most.”

Compared to the Corse Edition we rode last year, the SP (Sport Production) is improved with the addition of Ohlins’ best twin-tube TTXR shock, an electronic-assisted Ducati Quick-Shifter and—finally!—a slipper clutch. The four-valve, desmodromic, 1198cc, 90-degree V-twin is essentially unchanged. Gaping, World Superbike-derived 63.9mm throttle bodies and a symmetrical, tapered, 2-1-2 exhaust system are carefully tuned to boost low-end and midrange torque. It works: The monstrous 87.9-lb.-ft. of torque lords over the others, an impressive 10.2 lb.-ft. ahead of the runner-up BMW.

You feel every last bit of that torque, especially at the track. The 1198SP wants to wheelie and run wide everywhere, particularly in tight chicanes where even light throttle application lifts the front, complicating trans-itions and occasionally causing headshake. It’s a shame Ducati doesn’t incorporate a wheelie-control strategy; of all the bikes here, this one would benefit the most. Without it, short-shifting to run one gear higher than optimum was the only way to keep the front wheel pointed in the right direction.

Wheelies are only an issue because Ducati Traction Control (DTC) puts power to the pavement so effectively. Ducati was the first manufacturer to offer race-spec TC on a production superbike back in ’09, and the same relatively simple system is still used here, employing a single accelerometer along with throttle-position, gear and engine-speed sensors to assess available grip. Eight-level-adjustable and running the same software logic as the SBK-winning racebikes, DTC retards spark and reduces fuel to manage tire slippage. It’s commendably smooth and does a better job of keeping the bike in line, allowing significant wheelspin without the extreme slide angles of the Aprilia or Kawasaki.

The new slipper clutch is a huge benefit, eliminating rear-wheel chatter on downshifts that plagued the back-torque-heavy twin in previous years. The Ducati transmission remains one of the best in the business; positive, secure and now even easier to operate with the addition of the Ducati Quick- Shifter (DQS) that allows full-throttle, clutchless upshifts. Ducati-specific Brembo Monobloc front brake calipers, each concealing four oversized, 34mm pistons clamping down on equally oversized, 330mm rotors, deliver major stopping force—second only to the Beemer’s mega-binders.

The 1198SP worked well enough for the first leg of street testing, delivering the familiar harsh-with-high-feedback handling we’ve come to expect—and even admire—from the Italian brand. We wrote last year that “front-end feedback is the Ducati’s strongest attribute,” and praised it for neutral steering at speed and lack of resistance to mid-corner line adjustments. These sentiments still applied on the street, but when we got to the track and swapped the stock Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tires for Dunlop D211 GP-As, it was Game Over. Despite the best efforts of Advanced Motorsports’ Jeff Nash, on hand to assist with setup, we couldn’t work around the cursed combination of the hard-compound Dunlop front and too-stiff, 1.1-kg/mm fork springs. Together these caused vague front-end feel and a disturbing lack of stability at full lean. The result was atypically slow lap times, followed by an unceremonious dirt bath after guest tester Matt Samples tucked the front under heavy braking. This suggests how fickle the Ducati’s chassis is. When it works, it works very well—last year, three of five testers went fastest on the 1198. This year, none did.

The 1198SP was exactly what we expected after five years’ experience with this platform—full of potential when properly setup and punishing when it’s not. It’s still an iconic beauty and modern classic, especially in red, though we’re ready for a makeover after staring at that same face for so long. And it’s still no creature of comfort, with that thin, flat saddle and a long reach to the low bars, though taller and more athletic testers swear it’s reasonably comfortable for a superbike. If you can handle the rough edges and are willing to take the time to get it working right, the Ducati 1198SP remains an extremely rewarding, soul-stirring superbike.

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R
Best Lap: 1:53.9

Kudos to Kawasaki, the first Japanese manufacturer to stand up and deliver a traction control-equipped superbike. Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control (S-KTRC) is the big news here, but it isn’t the whole story. In addition to the extra-big brain, the 2011 Ninja was given a comprehensive wheels-to-windscreen makeover that trimmed away more than 20 lbs., confirmed when the new bike weighed just 440 lbs. ready-to-ride on our scales. The ZX-10R was the only all-new bike in this year’s mix, so we were understandably excited to pile on some miles.

“Despite its plebian parts, the Kawasaki’s performance feels equal to any of its European counterparts.”

Riding the new Ninja alongside hard-edged race replicas like the Aprilia and Ducati reminded us just how approachable a Japanese sportbike can be. Long and low with softer suspension that doesn’t require race-level cornering loads to activate, the Kawasaki was the easiest bike to hustle along a chilly and damp Ortega Highway. The Alpha Ninja is perfectly content cruising along at 75 percent effort, unlike high-strung European machines that aren’t happy until they’re flogged at 110 percent.

That friendly character is less desirable at the racetrack, however. The ZX-10R was a lumbering bear until Kawasaki tech (and former AMA race tuner) Joey Lombardo shimmed the shock 10mm and stiffened everything up, providing race-ready reflexes without sacrificing the rock-solid stability we found so reassuring on the street. The Kawi still couldn’t match the outright agility of the narrow, quick-turning Ducati or Aprilia—blame the innate inline-four girth—but it was the least nervous mount, especially in long, fast turns like Chuckwalla’s high-banked bowl.

Despite its plebian parts, the Kawasaki’s performance feels equal to any of its European counterparts. Radial-mount, four-piston Tokico front calipers stop as well as the other bikes’ Brembos and the Showa Big-Piston Fork (BPF) matches the action of the high-dollar Öhlins units on the European machines. In fact, in terms of small-bump compliance, the BPF was actually the best of the bunch, enhancing the ZX-10R’s already impressive mid-corner stability. The fully adjustable Showa shock, mounted horizontally above the swingarm to isolate it from performance-sapping exhaust heat, impressed us as well, highly reactive and capable of withstanding the biggest acceleration loads we could throw at it.

The S-KTRC system doesn’t use a gyroscope or accelerometer, just a multi-parameter ECU that monitors front- and rear-wheel speeds, gear position, throttle position and rpm to detect wheelspin and respond by retarding spark. Three TC levels are available, in addition to Full, Middle and Low (FML) power modes. Tilting a rocker on the left switch cluster upward changes the power mode. Tilting it downward adjusts TC on the fly, though you have to come to a stop to switch it off completely.

Like the Aprilia, Kawasaki’s least invasive setting (Level 1) allows significant wheelspin before stepping in, letting you paint corner exits like a high-speed Picasso. Level 2 is preferable for most riders because it intervenes sooner, giving a better sense of what’s happening at the contact patch. Level 3 is too bossy, and best suited for rain or other low-grip situations. There isn’t wheelie control per se, though the ECU does cut spark when it decides the front end is rising too quickly.

Unintended wheelies weren’t an issue on the Ninja. Tall gearing and muted power delivery made the ZX-10R feel comparatively tame. Larger intake valves, more aggressive cam timing and a higher, 13,500-rpm redline should make the new Ninja feel more muscular, but if anything it felt anemic under 10,000 rpm—especially alongside the arm-stretching BMW. Our test unit also stumbled off closed throttle, which proved annoying on the street and downright aggravating at the track. Lombardo adjusted throttle cables and even swapped the ECU with no improvement—we suspect this is an emissions-tuning side-effect that will require an injection remap to correct.

Even if it’s down nearly 20 ponies to the S1000RR, 159.5 bhp isn’t shabby, and the Ninja still came within .1-second of eclipsing the BMW’s Best Lap. And this was the only bike without a quick-shifter, which might have been worth as much as a half-second per lap. Neutral, forgiving and probably the easiest for the widest range of people to ride fast, the ZX-10R is the archetypal, broadband Japanese sportbike. Plus, unlike some of the other more “charismatic” competition, the Kawasaki’s mirrors actually work, its balance shaft kills vibes dead and it boasts two-position adjustable footpegs.

Moreover, at $13,799, the Ninja is a relative bargain. Even if that’s a whopping $2300 more than last year’s ZX-10R, the added benefit of traction control makes it a steal compared to its European competitors. A comparably equipped BMW S1000RR costs $1631 more—a difference that leaves you a lot of spare change to spend regearing, remapping and making the other minor improvements that will pay major dividends on the road and track.

Off the Record

Barry Burke
Guest Tester
Best Lap: Aprilia 2:00.4
Age: 50
Height: 6'
Weight: 170 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.

This year’s shootout quickly became a technology competition because all the bikes have amazing electronics. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate advancements that make it easier to go faster. However, I sometimes feel this can insulate you from the motorcycle. And I know I still hesitate to snap the throttle open mid-corner. I realize traction control works; it’s just a matter of learning to trust it!

That said, the BMW has the most unbelievable motor. It’s just ballistically fast! The Ducati’s power also felt great and ergonomically it fit me the best, but it suffered from a lack of front-end feedback. The Kawasaki has smooth power delivery and is stealthily quiet compared to the others, but it’s long, low, cramped and needs help to change direction. There’s no quick-shifter, either.

The Aprilia has it all: superb power delivery, TC, a quick-shifter and a slipper clutch. It’s very easy to go fast on. It just comes at too high a price.

Matt Samples
Guest Tester
Best Lap: Aprilia 1:56.1
Age: 35
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 195 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.

Ducati’s 1198SP oozes sexuality with its classic color, lines and sounds, but this brute is overdue for an update. The competition has been gunning for it for years and has finally equaled its excellence. Kawasaki’s ZX-10R felt planted with next-generation, MotoGP-inspired traction control predicting my every move. The BMW S1000RR’s motor rips your arms out like the All-Drug Olympic Dead-Lift competition! Pure power, and the best brakes, but its chassis needs sorting. Stuff a badass V4 in a GQ-good-looks scalpel, dial it in with on-the-fly adjustable TC and cue Aprilia’s RSV4. Winner!

Want to go faster on the Aprilia? Just gas it sooner and the superior traction control takes care of the rest. So what if your self-preservation mechanism is screaming, “Don’t you dare open the throttle that far!” Just ignore that little voice—APRC has got your back. Who needs throttle control with electronics as good as this?

Ari Henning
Associate Editor
Best Lap: Aprilia 1:52.5
Age: 26
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 175 lbs.
Inseam: 33 in..

These bikes’ traction-control systems work so well, it’s like cheating. If I were racing I’d be all about it, but for track days I think it diminishes the fun. I enjoy riding motorcycles fast because it’s challenging, and with TC one of the major hurdles—managing rear-tire traction—is effectively removed from the equation. Over the course of this comparo, TC made me complacent.

But I digress…

Once again, Aprilia’s amazing RSV4 blew my mind! I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, and the only complaints I heard from my taller peers was that the bike was too small and too easily upset. It fit me perfectly and felt nimble, planted and powerful. It’s the ultimate track tool and a bona fide Superbike for the street. And on top of all that, you can turn off the TC on the fly.

Aaron Frank
Best Lap: Aprilia 1:57.1
Age: 36
Height: 5'7"
Weight: 155 lbs.
Inseam: 31 in.

Going fast on a motorcycle has always been an act of faith, trusting two tiny contact patches to keep you upright. Traction control makes riding an even more submissive act, demanding you purposefully exceed the limits of control and then rely completely on electronic overrides to keep you upright. But once you learn to stop worrying and love TC, you feel as invincible as a wheeled god. This power is addictive: The more electronic assistance you use, the more you want. TC puts down power so well that wheelie abatement becomes mandatory. Good drives only elevate corner-entry speeds, making you beg for ABS.

Even though it lacks ABS, Aprilia’s sophisticated, perfectly integrated and intuitive APRC system stands head and shoulders above the rest. It was the easiest to trust and delivered the fastest, most consistent laps, making the charismatic RSV4 my runaway choice for the second year in a row. Heaven help us if Aprilia comes out with ABS!

In the End…

Some claim Ducati’s designs never grow old, but five years on even the gorgeous 1198SP is nearing its sell-by date. After the looks start fading, it’s more difficult to ignore those temperamental tics that once seemed almost endearing: things like the overly stiff suspension, demanding ergos, bum-roasting exhaust and the way you crush your thumbs against the fairing every time you back out of the garage. There’s still plenty to love about this fiery Italian redhead—especially that eye-watering Testastretta Evoluzione engine—but the fickle chassis, unforgiving attitude and familiar looks remind us that this superbike is overdue for an update. Luckily, Ducati looks set to deliver in time for our “Class of 2012” comparo.

We had high hopes for the all-new Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R, but the final product just seems a little—if you’ll excuse the expression—green. The S-KTRC traction-control system is pure awesomeness. You can still spin and slide the big Ninja like a World Superbike racer, but now thanks to software that’s roughly 200 times faster than your right hand, you’re approximately 99 percent less likely to end up on your head. The rest of the bike, however, seemed unripe: The engine especially lacked power and personality—two areas where Kawasaki traditionally excels. There’s a strong argument for value here, but no matter how much money you save, you can’t buy soul.

Despite its Teutonic heritage, BMW’s S1000RR doesn’t lack for character. The way it tears through the upper revs—both sonically and in terms of ground speed—is enough to make any red-blooded enthusiast an instant Germanophile. Power is nothing without control, and fortunately the S1000RR offers plenty of that, too. We wish the preset ride modes offered greater adjustability, but each cooperates well enough to get the job done. The Beemer is also the easiest bike to live with day-to-day, though some of the things that make it such a willing companion—the comfortable riding position, forgiving suspension and simplified electronic controls—hold it back at the racetrack.

Which brings us to the competent and endlessly charismatic Aprilia—our top pick for the second year in a row. We effectively wrote this conclusion last year: “If the Aprilia RSV4 Factory had traction control, it would have been Game Over.” This year it does—the best system in the business, in fact—and the results are even better than we anticipated. Max Biaggi’s World Superbike winner thrilled us on the street and made us feel like gods at the racetrack. When you’re searching for the ultimate superbike, it doesn’t get more divine than that.

2011 Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE | PRICE: $22,499

Midrange is the Aprilia's mission. Torque is underwhelming below 6000 rpm and falls off shortly above 10,000 rpm, but between those marks the output is stout and easy to access thanks to the 999.6cc V4's responsive, quick-revving character.

Tech Spec

Engine type: l-c 65-deg. V-4
Valve train: DOHC, 16v
Displacement: 999.6cc
Bore x stroke: 78.0 x 52.3mm
Compression: 13.0:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Measured horsepower: 152.6 bhp @ 12,500 rpm
Measured torque: 73.4 lb.-ft. @ 9700 rpm
Corrected ¼-mile: 10.36 sec @ 142.35 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 2.82 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 41/27/34 mpg
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension: 43mm Öhlins fork with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Öhlins shock with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Four-piston Brembo radial Monobloc calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Two-piston Brembo caliper, 320mm disc
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rear tire: 200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rake/trail: 24.5°/4.1 in.
Seat Height: 33.3 in.
Wheelbase: 55.9 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 453/428 lbs.
Colors: Black/red/white/green
Availability: Now
Warranty: 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: Piaggio Group Americas, Inc. 257 Park Ave. S., 4th Floor New York, NY 10010 212.380.4400 www.apriliausa.com

Like everything on the mass-centralized RSV4, the riding position is compact. The short seat-to-bar distance is fine for keeping the front end down at the track, but coupled with high footrests literally cramps your style on the street.

2011 BMW S1000RR | Price: $16,630 (As Tested)

The S1000RR's dyno graph will make even the most confident Hayabusa or ZX-14 owner cower in fear. Peak numbers are impressive, but what's more remarkable is the thickness of both curves. Power increases steadily and rapidly from idle to redline.

Tech Spec

Engine type: l-c inline-four
Valve train: DOHC, 16v
Displacement: 999cc
Bore x stroke: 80.0 x 49.7mm
Compression: 13.0:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Measured horsepower: 177.8 bhp @ 13,100 rpm
Measured torque: 77.7 lb.-ft. @ 10,200 rpm
Corrected ¼-mile: 10.31 sec. @ 147.72 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 2.62 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 39/31/36 mpg
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension: 46mm Sachs fork with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Sachs shock with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Four-piston Brembo radial Monobloc calipers, 320mm discs with optional ABS
Rear brake: Single-piston Brembo caliper, 220mm disc with optional ABS
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Metzeler Racetec
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Metzeler Racetec
Rake/trail: 23.9°/3.8 in.
Seat height: 32.3 in.
Wheelbase: 56.4 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 458/431 lbs.
Colors: Thunder Grey Metallic, Light Grey Metallic, Shine Yellow Metallic, Motorsport red/white/blue
Availability: Now
Warranty: 36 mo., 36,000 mi.
Contact: BMW of North America P.O. Box 1227 Westwood, NJ 07575 800.831.1117 www.bmwmotorcycles.com

It's not quite as plush as one of BMW's mile-munching sport-tourers, but the S1000RR is the most comfortable bike here. Generous measurements, a stellar saddle and wide, flat clip-ons create a reasonably relaxed riding position.

2011 Ducati 1198SP  | Price: $21,995

Nothing beats a big-bore twin for bottom-end grunt. The Testastretta EVO makes more torque at 3750 rpm than the fours make anywhere on the tach. A low-rpm torque peak makes short-shifting necessary to keep the front end grounded.

Tech Spec

Engine type: l-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve train: DOHC, 8v desmodromic
Displacement: 1198cc
Bore x stroke: 106.0 x 67.9mm
Compression: 12.7:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Dry, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Measured horsepower: 152.9 bhp @ 9900 rpm
Measured torque: 87.9 lb.-ft. @ 8300 rpm
Corrected ¼-mile: na
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: na
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 43/29/35 mpg
Frame: Tubular-steel trellis with single-sided aluminum swingarm
Front suspension: 43mm Öhlins fork with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Öhlins shock with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Four-piston Brembo radial Monobloc calipers, 330mm discs
Rear brake: Two-piston Brembo caliper, 245mm disc
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rake/trail: 24.5°/3.8 in.
Seat height: 32.2 in.
Wheelbase: 56.3 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.1 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 430/405 lbs.
Colors: Red, black
Availability: Now
Warranty: 48 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: Ducati North America, Inc. 10443 Bandley Dr. Cupertino, CA 95014 408.253.0499 www.ducatiusa.com

You could blindfold Mike Hailwood's ghost and he'd still recognize the 1198's riding position. Like every Ducati superbike, a high, flat seat and low, narrow clip-ons demand an uncompromising racer crouch. The roomy ergos fit taller riders best.

2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R | Price: $13,799

The new Ninja disappointed at the dyno, lagging 18.3 bhp behind the similar-spec BMW. Kawasaki claims the ZX-10R was engineered for optimum midrange, but even there it's outperformed by the S1000RR, which makes more torque at lower rpm.

Tech Spec

Engine type: l-c inline-four
Valve train: DOHC, 16v
Displacement: 998cc
Bore x stroke: 76.0 x 55.0mm
Compression: 13.0:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission: 6-speed
Measured horsepower: 159.5 bhp @ 11,600 rpm
Measured torque: 74.1 lb.-ft. @ 10,800 rpm
Corrected ¼-mile: 10.37 sec. @ 142.92 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 2.76 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 44/29/36 mpg
Frame: Aluminum twin-spar
Front suspension: Showa Big Piston Fork with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Showa shock with adjustable spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual Tokico four-piston radial calipers, 310mm discs
Rear brake: Tokico single-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Bridgestone Battlax BT016
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Bridgestone Battlax BT016
Rake/trail: 25.0°/4.2 in.
Seat height: 32.1 in.
Wheelbase: 56.1 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty): 440/413 lbs.
Colors: Green, black
Available: Now
Warranty: 12 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA 9950 Jeronimo Rd. Irvine, CA 92618 949.770.0400 www.kawasaki.com

Cynics might accuse Kawasaki of copying BMW. Seat-to-peg and seat-to-bar distances are almost identical, while the Ninja's clip-ons are positioned barely a quarter-inch higher. Two-position-adjustable footpegs make it a tad more accommodating.

Chuckwalla Valley Raceway
They don't call it desert center for nothing
WORDS: Ari Henning
PHOTOS: Kevin Wing
All a superbike needs to impress you with its power is a long, straight stretch of road, but corners are where a bike's true character comes through. Eager to expose the intricacies of our four testbikes' personas, we headed to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in Desert Center, California.

CVR opened last spring and enjoyed a successful debut season, for good reason. The course is safe, well thought-out, challenging and relatively smooth. Although it’s an easy track to learn, it’s difficult to master, thus entertaining for riders of all skill levels.

A few slow laps during your first visit will help you get acquainted with which way the track goes. And once you start stringing the corners together, Chuckwalla offers addicting flow, even left/right tire wear and a pretty intense workout. There’s no time to rest and no long straights, but the track is still plenty fast; we never clicked into fifth gear yet still saw 135 mph on the dash.

Chuckwalla's grounds are Spartan, but proprietor (and SoCal Track Days owner) Mickey Grana is making regular improvements. Garages should be under construction by the time you read this, and a second road course is in the planning stages. Interested in experiencing the track? Check out _www.chuckwallavalleyraceway.com_ to view a calendar.

Since Chuckwalla sees a bike laid over on its side for roughly half of each near-2-minute lap, cornering grip took precedence in selecting an appropriate tire for this year's comparison. The footprint of Dunlop's D211 GP-As grows the further you lean over, with the maximum occurring at an elbow-dragging 50 degrees. With that in mind, we dialed up Kevin Erion of Erion Racing (_www.erionracing.com_), Dunlop's new West Coast race tire distributor.

Dunlop D211 GP-A Tires
Made in the USA for the AMA
WORDS: Ari Henning
PHOTO: Joe Neric
What's the difference between Dunlop's D211 GPs and GP-As? The "A" stands for America, referring to the tires' country of origin. Although engineered in England, they're constructed in Buffalo, New York, and are the "spec" tire for the AMA Daytona Sportbike and Supersport classes.

Like the UK-made tires, the GP-As utilize N-TEC (New Technology) carcass construction that blends nylon and Aramid belting to achieve the desired balance of straight-line stiffness and cornering compliance. The tires also incorporate the steep IRP (Intuitive Response Profile) first introduced on the Sportmax Q2s, and have a multi-compound rear and single-compound front tread.

Although day one of our test saw some wear issues due to low track temperatures and windblown sand, day two was warmer and calmer and resulted in much better tire life, in spite of our traction control-induced ham-fisted riding. The GP-As’ aggressive profile improved the responsiveness of all our testbikes, helping them turn-in faster and feel more planted at full lean, yet didn’t adversely affect straight-line stability or cause undue front-end nervousness as some steep-profile tires do.

Thanks to the bikes’ electronic rider aids we were able to safely see just how well these tires stuck, and it was amazing how much power the medium-compound rears could handle. The hard-compound fronts didn’t offer a lot of feedback, but seldom slid and lasted all day, both days.

The D211 GP-As are available in several compounds, but seeing as how they’re made specifically for AMA Pro Racing they’re only available in 190/55-17 rears suitable for high-powered sportbikes. Fronts retail for $155 and rears for $220, right in line with other DOT race tires and relatively affordable considering their pedigree.

The Factory APRC SE option adds $6500 to the $15,999 base price. Upgrades include Öhlins suspension, forged wheels, carbon-fiber bodywork, rider-aid electronics and special-edition tricolore paint.
Price for the S1000RR as equipped with the “premium package” (Race ABS, DTC and Gear Shift Assistant) is $15,880. Add another $750 for our testbike’s special Motorsport graphics.
The $21,995 1198SP is a relative bargain compared to last year’s lower-spec, $24,995 1198S Corse Special Edition. A slipper clutch, quick-shifter and Öhlins TTXR shock are the major upgrades.
Although traction control is included in the ZX-10R’s $13,799 base price, KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Braking) is a $1000 option. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available in time for this test.
Chuckwalla’s Turn 13 is aptly referred to as “The Bowl.” It’s banked 10 degrees and spins round 180 degrees. Taken at speed, it tests both cornering clearance and suspension setup.