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Cash Machines - MV Agusta F4 312RR, Ducati 1198S, KTM RC8R, Aprilia RSV4 Factory

Expensive, exclusive, esoteric and bordering on erotic, the latest quartet of exotic Europeans are only for a select few

Over the past 25 years I’ve learned that riding the most expensive two-wheeled machinery doesn’t always equate to the best biking experience. That’s why, when I first got wind of this job, I tried hard not to make any pre-test conclusions before we gave all four a good seeing to on road, track and proving ground. I was glad that I hadn’t even sniffed three of them before.

However I had spent two days with the Ducati 1198S so I was very interested to see if anything could get close to what I consider to be Ducati’s best ever sportsbike. What did become clear was that, unlike the four Japanese 1000cc superbikes, each of our exotic toys had incredibly individual characters that told the rider what it wanted to do and where it wanted to do it.

One is clearly a full-on racer with lights while another is the ultimate trackday tool. Then there’s the stunt hoodlum and finally the stunning object of desire best suited to a glass case in one’s trophy room. If you think you already know which one’s which, then read on – you might just be surprised.

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MV Agusta F4 312RR

An object of desire and bloody fast, the finicky nature of the MV Agusta means it’s hard work in this company, Niall reckons

In pictures this bike is beautiful. In the flesh it’s stunning. Hit the starter button and the raucous motor growls into life sounding far raspier and racier than any Japanese four-cylinder road bike ever built to date.

And boy is it fast. Maybe not quite the claimed 312kph the seat unit sticker boasts of, but there’s still masses of power and acceleration to compliment the awesome engine roar from those almost symphonic quad tailpipes.

So far so good, but I’m sorry to say, for me at least, this was where the pleasure ground to a halt. At first sight it’s impossible to dislike this bike but after I spent time on board my enthusiasm rapidly deteriorated.

For starters, MV must have used diminutive Italian MotoGP rider Loris Capirossi as the development rider. I found the cramped riding position and hard seat soon gave me sore wrists and a numb bum.

I may have been able to deal with that but other niggles test you, like still having to move your thumbs to avoid trapping them every time you need full lock or the constantly illuminated green light on the dash that keeps telling your brain that you’re in neutral, when quite clearly you’re deep in fourth gear – annoying.

The dash itself looks cool, and quirky touches like the one-touch starter button, the flashing mirror rims that let you know you’re indicating and one of the neatest steering damper adjusters known to man are all brilliant, but they still aren’t enough to balance out the many imperfections. The flashy mirrors give a perfect view of your arms by the way – not good on something this quick.

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The MV theme of beauty continues with the lovely Nissin brake and clutch master cylinders, but adding Brembo calipers down below gives a wooden feel compared to the stopping power of the other three. The brakes are matched to a suspension mish-mash of Marzocchi forks and a Sachs rear shock. The rigid handling package isn’t bad and certainly isn’t unsafe but, as with the brakes, the rider receives very little in the way of feedback. You just have to trust the thing.

The MV’s saving grace is that engine. And it nearly is brilliant except (and our dyno runs confirm this) the power curve is far from ideal. Pottering around is fine but when you begin accelerating hard in the lower gears a spike of power sends the front end skywards. Grabbing the next ratio only brings the lightweight Marchesini crashing back down to earth before the process starts all over again. From fourth gear upwards things become smoother, so at least fast riding is enjoyable through sweeping bends on both roads and circuits.

It may sound and look beautiful but, for this amount of cash, this level of comfort, handling and braking is not acceptable. A winner on looks but, for everything else, sadly, it’s a bit of a loser.

Second Opinion

James Whitham

On the road this bike is hard work. In fact, it’s bloody awful. The riding position is cramped, the fueling is terrible, the suspension’s solid, the mirrors are useless (unless you want to look at your own armpits) and the clutch is the worst I’ve ever come across. It’s a bike that makes every rider, no matter how experienced, look like an incompetent oaf. Just to set off from the lights without the clutch grabbing and firing you off the back was a challenge in itself.

On the track it is a lot better though. It steers, turns and stops well, and although the suspension feels rock hard, you can put up with it. Even the shitty fueling isn’t so much of a problem so long as you keep the needle above 8500rpm to avoid a big hole in the delivery when the injection system clears its throat and belches out a huge, uncontrollable lump of power. It was still a bugger to get off the line but impressively fast with more top end than the rest by miles.

The MV was a disappointment, which is a pity because it looks lovely.

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Ducati 1198S

The oldest bike here remains as fresh and as exciting as ever. Niall’s love affair with Ducati’s superbikes continues unabated

Like Ferraris, most folks agree that Ducatis should be red. But I have to say the 1198S looks every bit as classy in black. Since the launch of the 1098, I’ve tried my best to find a fault with this bike’s looks but so far I’ve failed. The bodywork, dash, wheels, brakes and exhausts are all pretty damn pleasing and I haven’t yet met anyone who disagrees.

When the 1198S was launched I feared it would be little more than a re-badged 1098R, which I found exciting but also very raw and entirely impractical for everyday use. Thankfully the 1198 has the improved performance but with most of the rough edges smoothed out, giving the rider the best of both worlds.

The riding position remains the same as the 1098’s, putting it nicely between the compact Aprilia RSV4 and the roomier KTM RC8-R. The Ducati looks and feels long, which translates into superb high-speed stability. However, there seems no trade off as the front end feels planted in slower corners, too. The Aprilia does have sharper handling but it’s also more nervous – I think the secure feeling the Ducati offers will appeal to the majority of riders.

High quality Öhlins suspension and Brembo brakes (two items that would transform the MV) give great feedback at all times. And once again I needn’t bang on about it, as when it says Öhlins or Brembo on the outside it is highly unlikely you will be disappointed with the performance.

What I will go on about though is the motor. Riding a fairly mint 999 recently made me realise just how much better the motors are these days. There are no rattles and none of the lumpy roughness I used to associate with big Ducati twins, just smooth, pulsing power from standstill until you hit the rev limiter.

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The Aprilia and the MV may have two extra cylinders, but the Ducati feels an altogether more refined package. Serving my time racing two-strokes and high-revving, four cylinder superbikes, I always found twins to have an annoyingly limited range of power but this is certainly not the case with the 1198S. The motor delivers a beautiful spread of torque, picking the front wheel up smoothly in the first four gears, happily holding it there until your bottle runs out. Even in the lower

gears I never once hit the rev-limiter which, to me, is a sign of a well-designed engine telling the rider how it wants to be ridden. On track I found the gearbox faultless, but while cruising on the road (and probably daydreaming) I frequently found false neutrals. I can only put this down to being too relaxed on the road and not being positive enough changing up through the gears.

The 1198S has traction control (DTC in Ducati speak) but I’ve yet to decide if I like it or not. I tried it on most of the eight settings but never felt more than the odd misfire over bumps or damp patches, so I’ll reserve judgement until we can perform a conclusive test. On the launch last year at Portimao I was shown data from my bike that suggested the DTC was helping me on many corners over a lap, so I have no doubt it works, but I couldn’t tell then and I still can’t now.

Make no mistake - the Ducati is as good to ride as it is to look at. And it’s great to look at – 1198 is so pretty I believe that even the most honest, law abiding citizen might try to take one of these home should they stumble over one that’s been left unattended. If you happen to be a lucky owner, be careful and get the big locks out.

Second Opinion

James Whitham

I expected the 1198S to be much like the 1098R; awesome but raw and a little bit impractical for your average Joe. Well, it isn’t. It’s lovely and loads more refined than its more expensive, homologation seeking older brother.

The 1198S is ultra-stable at speed and confidence-inspiring in the slower turns without feeling harsh. It’s not quite as nimble as the RSV4 but, in my opinion, chassis-wise Ducati have struck exactly the right balance between performance, comfort and practicality.

And the motor is just as impressive; smooth, with loads of torque and a faultlessly linear power delivery. On the road you feel like you can use so much more of its potential than you can on either he Aprilia or the MV. It really is hard to see how Ducati manage to get so much out of a twin.

Of the four the 1198S was the bike I felt at home on the quickest. I’m convinced it’d get the best out of most riders, and that goes to prove that, in this company, being a wonderful thing to ride goes a little deeper than just having a fancy engine configuration or a posh name on the fuel tank. There’s real thought in the 1198, and it shows.

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KTM RC8R

He was involved in the development of the original bike, but James Whitham isn’t convinced the chassis on this R-model is too special

The first thing you notice when you jump on the RC8-R after you’ve been on any of the other bikes on test is the riding position. There’s way more room on this bike than on any of the others. The handlebars are higher in relation to the seat and it has more legroom, with the footpegs further forward. This, together with the torquey motor and narrow overall dimensions, help make the KTM the easiest of the lot to ride on the road.

On any road, in any weather, the KTM is an absolute doddle to get on with. The suspension is as firm as it needs to be for the bike to feel sharp yet compliant enough not to be uncomfortable or unforgiving. To be honest it’s a breath of fresh air if you’ve just been riding the RSV4 Factory or especially the MV Agusta for any length of time. The KTM’s also the only one of the four with mirrors that actually work and a screen that keeps at least some of the wind off you.

On the track the KTM felt less happy. Don’t get me wrong; for most riders it’d be perfectly adequate and rewarding to take on trackdays, but when pushed it felt like it lacked about 10bhp and was harder work to hustle through the twistier stuff. Even though I spent ten minutes changing the suspension settings from “road” to “track”, following the instructions on the underside of the seat, the rear still felt a bit under-sprung.

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Although you’re unlikely to miss it on the road, I’m surprised a machine fitted with this level of equipment doesn’t have a slipper clutch. To stop rear lock-up under heavy braking on the track, you have to change down a fair bit later than you’d like. In most other respects the KTM is stable, predictable and feels, for want of a better expression, “safe”.

Of the four bikes on test here, the KTM would be by far the easiest to live with day-to-day, being the comfiest all rounder. I really enjoyed riding it on the road; indeed, even slicing through rushhour traffic on the M1 was good fun. The problem for me is that it’s such an easy bike to play about on within five miles of setting off I’m acting like a hooligan and showing off in a it’snot- my-fault-the-bike-made-me-do-it-officer kind of way. The other problem is that at fifteen grand it’s not day to day kind of money. When you look at what you could have for the same or less dosh it does look a tad dear.

Second Opinion

Niall MacKenzie

The roomy riding position will fit anyone and the free-revving motor has all the flexibility you could ever ask for from a big twin. Like the standard RC8 it is quite snatchy at low rpm but elsewhere the fuelling is spot-on. The snatchiness combined with a tall first gear makes it quite tricky in town or negotiating slow corners without dipping the clutch, but this is one of the very few downsides to an otherwise brilliant bike.

I was pleased to find the gremlins from last year’s RC8 gearbox have been removed and I didn’t miss one gear. Out of the four this would easily be the best everyday bike providing you’re happy with its radical looks. While very capable on the track it’s off-road heritage is very much in evidence as it constantly encourages naughtiness in the form of wheelies and stoppies. The KTM’s off-road roots were also apparent on fast bumpy B-roads as the excellent WP suspension coped brilliantly no matter how hard I pushed. The radical dash is a little too complicated but at least it will give every owner something to do when winter comes.

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Aprilia RSV4 Factory

With some serious saddle-time on the Aprilia, James finds himself amazed and a little bit in awe. Is this bike too much for most people?

I went to the launch of this bike a few weeks ago but got very little feel for what it was all about thanks to a downpour that made the Misano circuit as slippery as a labour politician doing his expenses. This time we got to see what all the fuss is about.

To look at, the RSV4 is almost perfect for me, like a little jewel, and so purposeful from any angle. Every component seems to fit seamlessly with the next with no wasted space whatsoever. Even when you remove the seat or one of the lovely carbon fibre side panels there’s no room underneath. It’s like all the bits required to build a modern sportsbike have been fitted into the smallest possible space. And it feels small when you climb aboard, too. Not small and light like a 250 two-stroke, but small, muscular and compact.

The riding position is pure race; sat up fairly high and pegs high and rearward, with a lot of weight on your arms. Not so bad for weedy little midgets like Mackenzie and I, but I’m not so sure your larger rider would be too comfortable on it.

Everything else about the Aprilia is just as uncompromising. The geometry is razor sharp, the suspension ultra-firm and the power delivery almost brutal. Because of all this I found this demonic little race bike utterly rewarding, but hard work on the road. It behaves itself until the tacho needle hits about 8000rpm, then the thing goes stark raving mad. The front wheel comes up so quick in first and second you need to be ready for it. Fair enough, you could dial in one of the other two engine maps to reduce the power, but then if you’re going to do that, what’s the point in having it in the first place? You might as well go and buy a 600 and save yourself eight grand.

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When you get it onto a circuit, the RSV4 really comes into its own. It steers and changes direction as well as most race bikes I’ve been on, and is also as nervous. All that aggressive power that’s almost too much for the road becomes usable and fun in this more controlled environment. It’s as though Aprilia has made a racing machine and then bolted a road kit onto it, instead of the other way round.

On track there’s not much to fault about this bike. Everything about it is as good as most riders will ever be able to use, and that for me is the main issue. Yes, it’s a gem-like work of art with unrivalled track credentials, but apart from the pleasure of simply owning something as aesthetically pleasing as this, I’m not sure what the average road rider would get from it unless he or she was doing three trackdays a week. Niall said it felt like a two-stroke GP bike and loved it, but then he’s really not your average rider.

Second Opinion

Niall Mackenzie

Now that the dust has settled over the 2009 Yamaha R1, the Aprilia RSV4 is the bike I’ve been desperate to ride for a very long time. We all know it started life as a full-blown World Superbike racer but none of us really knew what to expect when it hit the streets. I for one am not disappointed, but make no mistake this bike is much closer to a homologation special than an everyday road bike. It is the RC30 of its time and in my opinion the best of that exclusive breed we’ve seen to date.

To buy this bike purely for road use would be fine but also something of a crying shame. For a start, the severe styling might not be 1198S beautiful but it is equally appealing. It has a compact but comfortable riding position very much like the old 500GP bikes which, contrary to what many people think, would be fine for 100-mile rides. It has a very useable (if aggressive) spread of power and it’s Öhlins suspension and Brembo brakes keep you secure providing you ride within your capabilities.

The problem is that if you only ride this bike on the road you will never get close to exploring its potential and, to me, that seems like a waste. I include myself when I say that if road riders start to emulate Max or Shinya on the Cat and Fiddle the RSV4 will bite back. On the road it should be treated with respect at all times but at its natural home, the racetrack, it’s a very different story. The sharp handling and quick-revving motor come into their own, almost forcing you to hit apexes with accuracy while joining up corners faster than you have before. The thing is more racer than any other road bike available.

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Verdict

The old adage goes something along the lines of “you get what you pay for”. If anything this test has proved that’s not strictly true. £16,799 is a lot of money in anyone’s book or, for the lucky few, in your bank account. To spend that kind of money on a motorbike, said bike would need to tick a lot of boxes. Sadly, that’s something the MV Agusta F4 312RR doesn’t manage by quite a long chalk. It looks nice, but that’s about where it ends. Visually and aurally stunning, the beautiful Italian fails to impress with uncompromising suspension, wooden brakes and a badly-fuelled motor complete with a grabby clutch. Frankly, if I’d just bought an MV and then got a go on virtually anything else, I’d be absolutely gutted. It’s a shining example of beauty being far more than skin deep.

The top three is much tighter. The KTM RC8R is the kind of bike that you could happily use everyday. It’s got a decent mix of comfort, performance and handling but, unlike the Ducati and the Aprilia, there’s not quite the same sense of grandeur and, while the RC8R is fairly slick, it lacks the personality of the Aprilia and the elegance of the Ducati. If it were two grand cheaper it might just have an edge but, as it is, it isn’t quite special enough in this company. Not for that kind of money.

Which just leaves the Aprilia and the Ducati. Make no mistake, the Aprilia is a very, very special motorcycle. While none of us doubted that the RSV4 would be beautiful, no-one could have expected the Noale factory to have come up with such an incredible V4 motor at its first attempt. It’s got some rough edges, but that’s all part of its charm and the engineering is there to be applauded and the technology admired. But the bike’s just that little bit too focused for the vast majority of riders to enjoy and to exploit to the fullest. It’s extreme but so, so rewarding.

And so, once again, we have to doff our collective hats to Ducati. No sooner had they wrapped up yet another World Superbike championship than they released yet another stunning road bike. The 1198S really is the do-it-all sportsbike that we never quite expected from the Bolognese factory. It works brilliantly on the road, it works brilliantly on the track and the bells and whistles aren’t just for show – they really are beneficial to anyone lucky enough to cock a leg over one. Years of refinement on the engine, chassis and suspension have made the Ducati gloriously smooth, powerful and usable. And it’s still as utterly desirable as it ever was. Incredibly, it’s also the least expensive bike on the test.