2009 Aprilia RSV4 Factory first ride review

Three years and nearly £20 million in the making, Aprilia’s all-new V4 superbike is a Herculean effort for a firm that five years ago was in dire financial straits. It’s also quite brilliant...

Click to read: Aprilia RSV4 Factory owners reviews, Aprilia RSV4 Factory specs and to see the Aprilia RSV4 Factory image gallery.

First thing this morning £15,000 sounded like a lot of money; one-and-a-half R1s, a one-off payment to take the sting out of the mortgage repayments, a hell of a week in Los Angeles. But with every track session on Aprilia’s new RSV4 Factory the sum is becoming increasingly inconsequential.

As I write this, in the wake of the G20 summit, the US Federal Reserve has just pledged to snap up £843billion worth of debt. And, by way of perspective, Vauxhall ask similar money (£15,000, not £843billion) for an interminable Astra. By lunchtime I’m working out monthly repayments and half-seriously considering just where I’ll put my new baby. Welcome to the weird world of the RSV4 Factory, Aprilia’s first all-new sportsbike in a decade and quite simply one of the most special production motorcycles ever built.

Blipping the throttle in a flooded pitlane, I shouldn’t be smiling. Rain falls loudly and insistently on my half-open visor. Misano’s tarmac is soaked to a mirror-finish. In it the cloud-laden sky overhead is reflected perfectly. But smiling I am. The V4, surely an engine configuration with spine-tingling heritage like no other, is bouncing its oddball beat off the pit wall just feet from the exhaust. It sounds otherworldly.

Click next to continue

the size of a 600

The bike beneath me is CBR600RR-small but perfectly comfortable. The old-school, long-reach ergonomics of the V-twin RSV have been replaced by a riding position and a package so compact there’s barely any dead space between its flanks – like Honda’s great V4s this is dense engineering. With the front brake lever adjusted and the engine mode switched to Sport (softer throttle response, muted power in the first three gears) I’m ready when the flag drops.

The first dozen laps are spent learning where the track goes. The bike doesn’t get a second thought – praise indeed. But as a little precious heat finally permeates the race wets I can start to put a little force through the bike; the RSV4 Factory comes alive. In the technical briefing the engineers’ obsession with narrowness had seemed a little overbearing. After all, bar a smaller frontal area and reduced drag, what’s the big deal? But on the track, swinging from left to right, the bike’s ridiculous lack of girth is striking.

Changing direction is effortless and the bike looks and feels barely-there, like there’s nothing beneath you but a dense ball of grip, power and poise. Like the new R1, the RSV’s textured, offbeat power delivery gives massive confidence: ease the bike upright; bring in the gruff, predictable throttle; take-off like a scalded cat. “Deceptively fast” runs the old V4 cliché, and so it is with the RSV4. Despite the speed with which waterlogged Italian landscape is scrolling past, the bike and I feel like we’re barely trying.

Click next to continue

cornering with ease

Flash under the bridge, close the throttle, reach for the brakes and steer clear of the super-slippery, rubber-encrusted conventional braking area. The power of the front Brembos is monumental – in the dry you’d surely have the thing up on its nose with any decent squeeze of the lever – but the brakes can do delicate too, provided you can. Meanwhile the slipper clutch and enormously complex fly-by-wire engine management system do a superb job of keeping the rear wheel in line. The clutch reduces the back-torque fed to the gearbox from the engine while the ECU keeps the throttle bodies partially open, reducing the amount of engine braking generated in the first place.

Into the first corner once again, a tight right-hander, and faltering knee meets streaming wet tarmac. Everything happens easily, without fear or confusion. The chassis asks for no settling time: no breather in which to sort out the transition from slowing to turning; do exactly what you want just as slowly or as quickly as you like.

Into the next left and the transition is 600-fast; as soon as you’ve moved your body the Aprilia’s changed trajectory. Back over for the long, double apex right and there’s a smile on my face that again just shouldn’t be there – driving hard with lean angle through standing water shouldn’t be fun but on the RSV4 its silly-easy. May the chequered flag never fall.

Click next to continue

V4 pride

When it does, it’s into a discussion with Aprila’s assembled engineers. Their pride in the RSV4 is palpable – all wear the kind of doe-eyed expressions of love usually found on the faces of parents with a newborn baby. The bike was designed around the engine but, like a MotoGP prototype, the V4’s creators weren’t allowed to forget their masterpiece had to fit in a competitive chassis.

Aprilia talk of how the same engine with 90° between the banks of cylinders would have been more powerful (because, with perfect balance, it could run without the RSV4’s power-sapping balance shaft) but knew that such a long engine would have corrupted the chassis. As a result the angle is 65° – wide enough to allow good-sized throttle bodies (48mm) in the space between the cylinder heads but narrow enough to keep the motor short.

The engine is also comically narrow; 220mm compared to 400mm for an inline four. Contributing to this is the valve train, which uses a chain up the side of the motor to drive the inlet camshafts (which are closer to the middle of the engine) but central gears to take that on to the exhaust camshafts (at the extreme ends of the engine). As a result the engine’s narrower at each end. At the front this helps it clear the spars of the frame and at the rear it helps make the bike slim between the riders legs. Firing order runs back-left, front-left, back-right, front-right as you sit on the bike, with intervals of 0°, 180°, 425° and 605°, giving the rear tyre a massive 245° of crank rotation in which to recover between the power stroke of the second and third cylinders.

With bore and stoke figures of 78mm and 52.3mm (Yamaha’s equally extreme R1 uses 78mm and 52.2mm) and vast, 48mm throttle bodies with two injectors per cylinder, Aprilia admit their engine would be something of an animal with a conventional cable throttle and no electronic trickery. As it is the engine management system means it’s always on best behaviour, perhaps wanting only for the carb-like smoothness the very best dual throttle butterfly systems can offer.

The R1 similarities don’t end at the bore and stroke measurements. Aprilia’s variable-length intake trumpets work in a similar way, with the top of the trumpets lifting clear at high revs to shorten the tracts for greater top-end power.

Click next to continue

tardis of tech

Traction control is conspicuous by its absence but in its place Aprilia have seen fit to equip the RSV4 with perhaps the best example yet of multiple engine modes. T (track) gives you everything she’s got with no foreplay or small talk – a claimed 180bhp at 12,500rpm and 85lb.ft at 10,000rpm. S (sport) reduces the power in the first three gears and softens the throttle response. R (road) drops peak power in any gear by around 25% but crucially the bike’s still a joy to ride, particularly in the wet. Yes R is noticeably weaker than T or S but it doesn’t feel broken, elevating the concept from pointless curio to genuinely useful function.

All of this tech-filth is packaged into a typically exquisite Aprilia frame. The young firm is well aware that, after the RS250 and RSV, an aluminium beam frame polished to a mirror finish is something of a brand trademark. As you’d expect the RSV4’s is a beautiful creation adjustable for headstock position and angle, engine height and swingarm pivot height. Though heavier than the RSV V twin’s frame and swingarm, Aprilia claim the RSV4’s chassis is stiffer, particularly longitudinally and torsionally, but with more lateral flex. Suspension is by fully adjustable Öhlins units at both ends while lightweight forged wheels to Aprilia’s own design link the V4 and the twin-cylinder RSV.

Back on the track and, bar the weather, there’s little to detract from what is proving a supremely manageable superbike. Yes the clutch lever’s cheap and unadjustable, the clocks remain a little baffling in time-honoured Aprilia style and the gearshift’s ponderous, proving accurate but oddly slow, but that’s pretty much it. Fans of early RSVs will miss that bike’s roomy riding position and man-sized dimensions – the RSV4 is a thoroughly contemporary superbike, and as such it’s tiny – but everyone else will be too busy having their socks blown off to care.

Click next to continue

overall and specifications

And so we’re back to that £14,999. Of course a base model will follow in September, priced at around £12,000 (since 2004 ‘Factory’ has denoted the top-spec bike in Aprilia language, with R the base model), probably with Öhlins forks, a Sachs shock and less carbon, but the RSV4 Factory is the ultimate incarnation of what right now might well be the ultimate superbike – only a back-to-back test in dry conditions will yield a definitive answer.

Impossibly exotic yet utterly usable, stuffed with accessible power yet 125-small and beautiful in a way too many current sportsbikes just aren’t, the RSV4 has huge appeal. Just six years ago, with Honda dominating MotoGP and Aprilia in trouble, you’d have guessed that if anyone would come out with an ultra-trick, mass-centralised V-configuration racer for the road in 2009, it’d be Honda. But Aprilia have done what Honda continue merely to promise, and the result is truly spectacular.

Second Opinion

Whit's take on the new Aprilia

“To me it feels even smaller than a 600 just because it’s so narrow, dead compact. It’s not particularly light – it feels like the weight is there – but it’s all in one place somehow. Even though Honda have been going on about mass centralistion for years, this feels like a different gig. Honda didn’t do the job like this. This feels like all the weight’s together.

“The brakes are fookin’ unbelievable, too good for these conditions (streaming wet) – it’s like they want to be backed off, but there’s feel to them. And there’s good feedback generally. The Aprilia lets you know well what it’s doing underneath you. Chassis-wise it’s difficult to tell without dry track time how it behaves on the edge but it’s easy to ride and compliant.

“Engine-wise it’s sweet as a nut. There’s nice induction roar and it does that V4 thing where you think it’s doing 8,000rpm but, when you look at the rev counter, it’s doing 11,000rpm.

“I played about with the gear lever to get it in the right position but even with the lever altered it’s not the quickest. It’s not clunky it just seems to take a long time to me – it’s begging for a quickshifter. Certainly it’s not as good as the slickest Japanese boxes. The slipper clutch works well and here, today, with the conditions we’ve got, you don’t half need it.

“The engine doesn’t feel 180bhp to me. It feels 155-160bhp. In these conditions, on any of the Japanese four-cylinder 1000s, you’d be shitting yourself by the end of the straight. On this you’re alright. But it could be deceptive because of the V4’s spread of power.”


Price: £14,999
Engine: 999.6cc 16-valve 65° V4
Power: 180bhp @ 12,500rpm
Torque: 85lb.ft @ 10,000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm USD Ohlins forks, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Ohlins monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: Radial 4-piston Brembo calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: 2-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Dry weight: 179kg
Seat height: 845mm
Fuel capacity: 17 litres
Top speed: 175mph (est)
Colours: Red/Black

Visordown rating: 5/5