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Italian Exotica - Aprilia RSV-R Mille, Benelli Tornado & Ducati 999

When it comes to style few can match the Italians. But is Ducati's 999, Benelli's Tornado and Aprilia's RSV-R's beauty only skin deep?

How many times have you heard the expression 'beauty is only skin deep'? It usually happens just after your missus catches you ogling one of the brolly dollies in their spray-on lycra suits who wander around the NEC show. Alright, it may very well be true, beauty could only be skin deep, but let's be truthful here - a trophy girlfriend is still a great thing to have. Even if after a while you find yourself wishing you had the old faithful back.

And that's what these Italian bikes are like. They aren't the fastest bikes around and the current crop of Japanese superbikes are a match for them when it comes to handling, but these three Italians have something that very few Jap bikes can muster. And that's a huge dollop of style, raw beauty and pure exotica.

Parking them in the pit lane of Albacete Circuit in Spain, they instantly draw a crowd in the way that few other bikes can. If Niall, Daryll and myself had rolled up on any of the new Japanese bikes no one would have given us a second glance, although Niall does have the habit of drawing a crowd on his own, usually from people he has scrounged a drink from in the past then cleared off when it was his turn at the bar. But when you pull up on a Ducati 999, Benelli Tornado and Aprilia RSV-R you instantly draw an audience.

Which isn't that surprising because seeing one of these, let alone all three together, at your local bike meet is about as likely as bumping into the Pope flicking through the blue movies in the local Blockbuster.

Ducati's 999 may be a bit of an old hand now but it still gets attention. It's one of those bikes that everyone has an opinion on when it comes to the styling. After the initial shock when it was launched it seems as though bikers are getting more used to its look. It has probably been helped by Neil Hodgson winning the WSB title this year as now instead of being a strange looking replacement to the stunning 916 silhouette the 999 is now a proven winner. The old comments still stick, most of them involving the rear end and the front lights, but it seems (like the Hayabusa before it) as though the 999 is becoming more accepted.

Unlike Ducati the Benelli and Aprilia don't really have the racing pedigree to back up their looks. Let's be truthful here, the Tornado was a flop when it came to WSB. It snuck into the top 10 a few times but that's about it. You get the feeling that the whole WSB effort was more of a huge, and very costly, publicity stunt to show people that the Benelli name was back after a few years in the wilderness.

But that doesn't really matter much, the Tornado really is nothing short of stunning to look at. It's amazing to think that the Tornado was first shown over four years ago, and it still doesn't look dated.

But surprisingly it was the Aprilia that was creating the most attention. The new designed RSV-R looks fantastic, even in matt black and against this kind of company. As well as the Starship Enterprise-style back end and SP-2ish front, the RSV-R has a new fairing, chassis, swingarm and just about everything else.

So I found myself following Niall on the Benelli and Daryll on the Aprilia down the pit lane and onto Albecete circuit.

Having not ridden the circuit before both Daryll and myself took the first session nice and steady. Niall, being Niall, had raced there before and did his usual trick of clearing off.

After a few laps I was smiling to myself at the choice of using the Duke to learn a new track. The 999 is designed to be used on the circuit - put it on one and it instantly feels at home and takes all the hard work out of riding for you. If you are used to riding inline fours the first few laps on a twin can feel a bit odd, but it soon becomes natural. Where inlines drop really quickly into corners the Ducati has a much more lazy approach. It takes more effort to turn the bike and get it from upright to leant over but once committed to the bend the Ducati is fantastically balanced. It takes a lot to upset a Ducati mid-corner and on a circuit where you aren't 100 per cent sure where the next corner is going this is a real bonus, as is the huge amount of ground clearance and the torquey motor.

If you get a corner slightly wrong on a Ducati there is no drama. If it tightens more than you were expecting then it's simply a case of lean it over a bit more. If it opens up then the engine has power all the way through the range. On the first few laps I was keeping the Ducati in the same gear and simply rolling on and off the throttle and only braking very gently into the corners. It's a very easy way to learn a twisty track such as Albacete as all you have to concentrate on is where the circuit goes, not which gear you are in. The Ducati's motor is perfect for doing this. From as low as 3000rpm the Duke just drives in a lovely smooth fashion, with chunks of torque everywhere. The fuel injection is spot on through the whole range and is hard to fault, except at very low revs when you are pulling away from a standstill.

With the session over I was really interested to see what Niall reckoned on the Benelli. It was the first time he had ever ridden a Tornado.

"It's really good, this thing," he said, sounding surprised. "I wasn't expecting to enjoy riding it at all. I don't know why, guess I just thought it would be a bit all show and no go, but it's really good. The chassis is ace and the motor has a great scream to it."

This was exactly the impression I had the first time I rode the Benelli, it feels like a  very expensive toy that's just brilliant fun to ride. The chassis really is superb and owes a lot to the failed WSB effort. Basically Benelli use the race team to develop the chassis in much the same way Ducati do. But the advantage the Tornado has over the Duke are its engine configurations. Where large V-twins can take a bit of effort to get turned, the Benelli, with its triple, flies into corners. The design team took the radical step of placing the radiator under the seat of the Tornado - hence the fans which suck air through the radiator to cool it - so they could get the engine as far forward in the chassis as possible. The Benelli handles like a 600. Give it a tight and twisty track and the Tornado will bring a huge smile to your face. Despite it being the most expensive bike here on test it was the one I was most comfortable riding fast on simply because you just never, ever, felt like it would ever do anything to surprise you. A feeling that owes a lot to the motor.

The triple motor is just a shade under 900cc but to be truthful feels more like a good 600 than a 900cc bike. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It may only make four or eight bhp more than a CBR600RR but it has around14ft/lb more torque which is delivered in a very smooth buildup and with a fantastic exhaust note.

The great thing about the Tornado's engine is that the power is just so silky smooth you can open the throttle while the bike is still leant over and power out of corners. Because it is low on power there is none of the inherent fear that you get when riding bikes such as the GSX-R1000 that a huge highside is just around the corner. With the Benelli it's a case of crack it open and listen to the engine. And it also has the added bonus of a slipper clutch, which is great fun to use. Line up a corner, slam down the gears, listen to the brief whine as the clutch slips then grips and everything is back to normal.

While we had been out in the opening session I had noticed that after a few laps Daryll had pulled in on the Aprilia. No dramas I guessed, probably just low on fuel or some thing. But when Niall and I walked over to him he was busy bouncing the rear of the Aprilia up and down and checking its tyre pressures.

"This handles like a bag of spanners, it's all over the place," reckoned the tiny one. "Every time you open the throttle the back end slips and slides and it just doesn't want to turn into corners at all. I'm gutted. Bertie said I would love this bike but it's horrible."

Although none of us had ridden the new Aprilia before we were all fairly convinced that this wasn't normal behaviour and there must be something wrong with the bike. Niall grabbed the keys, went out for a few laps and came back in describing exactly the same problems before grabbing a screwdriver and stiffening the rear shock. He reckoned it was more to do with the rear shock being too soft than the tyre.

A few turns here and there and Niall was back out, and back in again.

"No matter what I do the shock just feels the same," he said, bouncing the rear up and down again. With the finger of suspicion firmly pointed at the Sachs rear shock memories of the problems with the first few Milles in the UK came flooding back. Early in its life the RSV gained a bit of bad publicity as the first batch of the Sachs rear shocks were found to be duff. Later on these problems were sorted out and recent Aprilias have had no such problems

but it looked very much like the rear had thrown in the towel in this case. So out of the three bikes one was already consigned to the back of the van.

But an Italian bike test wouldn't be an Italian bike test if one or more of the bikes didn't go wrong. And true to form they all did, to varying degrees of seriousness. After a few sessions, during which it was a nightmare to start, the Ducati suddenly went down to one cylinder. After a quick wiggle of the plug caps, we went back out on track. Slightly better, it was now running intermittently on two cylinders. But we needed to get some photos done so I followed Daryll on the Benelli for the photographer. After about three laps the Duke suddenly let out a huge cough before clearing its throat and rocketing away, and from that moment onwards it ran sweet as a nut.

And the Benelli? Well, every now and then it would cut out at high revs. But to be fair this usually happened when it was lowish on fuel so I think it could be more to do with the design of the tank possibly trapping fuel away from the pickup than anything more serious.

Things weren't looking too good as it's hard to do a three bike comparison test with only two bikes really working. But luckily enough Aprilia had another RSV-R in the UK and we had Brands booked a few days after we got back in the UK. So from sunny Spain we ventured to sunny Brands Hatch with the same three bikes.

It didn't take Niall long to reach a verdict. After a session on the Aprilia chasing various race bikes he pulled into the pits.

"That's so much better. I can't really find any faults with it. The front suspension could be a bit stiffer but apart from that, nothing. It's miles better than the bike we had in Spain. It doesn't even really feel like a twin, there is none of the slightly lazy handling feeling you usually get with a twin and mid-corner it's brilliant."

The new Aprilia really is something special, as long as the rear shock is working. To sit on, it feels smaller and lower than the previous RSV-R. Aprilia has compacted the bike and got rid of the top-heavy feel of the old model, which always felt like you were dropping off the side of a cliff when you turned into a corner.

The riding position is more compact than the old RSV with the pegs feeling higher and the bars slightly further away but Aprilia has managed to keep the user friendliness of the bike. Where riding the Ducati on the road is a real trial of attrition with a seat made from what feels like solid plastic and a stretch to the bars, the Aprilia has a nicely padded seat and a more natural riding position. It's something that Aprilia has always engineered into the RSV and is what makes it much more than just a track bike. You wouldn't really fancy a 999 for touring or commuting on, but with the RSV it's a possibility. In fact a lot of people commute on RSVs because of their comfort and reliability. Commuting on a Benelli? Well, it's reasonably comfortable, but can you imagine the bill if you dropped it?

Another card the Aprilia has over the two other bikes is its engine. Where the Ducati's V-twin feels a bit lumpy and rough to ride the Aprilia's engine is much more like a Japanese V-twin. It doesn't thump like a Ducati but revs and tingles in a more refined way. The new RSV's engine has received a load of internal changes, as well as very flash magnesium covers over the old motor, and is much better for them. Compared to the Ducati it seems to rev a bit faster but doesn't quite have the mid-range punch. It's not lacking in torque, but the Ducati is slightly faster.

So after two retirements, one substitution and thankfully no fallers we tied up the test on these Italian bikes. It was a struggle but well worth it in the end. These three bikes are very special, and not only do they look great but they also go well. When they're working.

The new Aprilia has now just sneaked ahead of the Ducati as the best V-twin around, especially if you want to use it for more than just track riding. The 999 is a great bike, but now the Aprilia has caught up with current style its near £3000 difference in price over the base 999's £11,250 tag makes it a better buy, even more so when you consider the Öhlins-shod Factory RSV-R costs just under £1000 less than the base 999. The RSV-R will match the 999 on a track and although the motor has slightly less punch it turns faster than the Ducati and with a lot less effort.

Also the Aprilia, with its slightly less aggressive riding position and comfier seat, can be used as a day-to-day bike, and not just a plaything.

The Benelli really impressed us all. It really is a very good bike, handles beautifully and the triple motor has bags of character as well as a nice spread of power. The £11,500 price tag puts it in Ducati territory. If you have your heart set on a Duke then get one, but for standing out from the crowd the Benelli really is good and is the surprise of this test. But top honours this time have to go to the new Aprilia RSV-R. For £8499 you get a beautiful bike that can hold its head up high on track and also be used for the daily commute. Beauty can be more than just skin deep after all.