King of the Twins - Aprilia RSV Mille

In 1998 Aprilia launched the fast and affordable RSV Mille. Now the V-twin has handed over its flagship status to the new RSV4, so we celebrate a decade of the UK’s favourite V-twin sportsbike

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There aren’t many things capable of dragging me out of bed at 6.30am, but a low-mileage 2002 RSV-R is one of them. On hand to provide a secondhand, previous generation counterpoint to our box-fresh 2009 RSV-R, the yellow bike’s brand new Pirellis need scrubbing-in and, following the shift to British summertime, there’s sunshine on the Aprilia’s sparkling yellow paint as I slip the key into the ignition and prod the big twin into life. As early starts go, I’ve known worse. With a hint of protestation the starter motor gets to work and that distinctive 60° twin hammers into life, loud through the standard exhaust at this ungodly hour.

The bike’s size is shocking but welcome. I’m 6ft tall and not since BMW’s similarly generous R12000S boxer has a sportsbike been so immediately welcoming. As the idle speed soars with a little engine heat, I thumb the choke closed, switch on the lights (remember that?) and clunk into first. The heavy-ish hydraulic clutch pulses in my left hand. And we’re off.

The fuelling is beautifully smooth in town, taking up the slack between a trailing and positive throttle imperceptibly. The gearbox shifts slickly and finds neutral quickly when you need it. But the RSV-R lives for open back roads and, when we reach them, it’s easy to see why. The engine, though woefully underpowered (115bhp is typical) in this 2009 of KTM RC8Rs and Ducati 1198Ss, doesn’t feel slow in isolation, perhaps because this 2002 bike has a more linear (albeit ultimately less powerful) delivery than the later bikes.

The grunt is there almost regardless of gear choice, shoving the big bike forward with a strong, insistent surge that’s the sensible side of silly. Where today’s V-twins demand you tip-toe around their incendiary engines, taking up their hair-trigger throttles with kid gloves, the RSV lets you get stuck in, bringing in the power early and hard, grinning as you drop your head low to the big throttle bodies beneath the broad, buttercup-yellow plastic tank.

By the time I rendezvous with hired gun Jon Urry on the 2009 RSV-R, the 2002 bike and I have bonded, blasting off B-road crests with a careless abandon and sticking the Aprilia’s utterly trustworthy front end into big, dry roundabouts like we’re on a Troy Corser Superpole lap.

Swapping onto the new bike and, while much is familiar, a great deal isn’t. The new bike feels half the size and noticeably less easy-going in its ergonomics. The more demanding character is carried over to the engine, too. Together with the new look, the move to the third generation bike also saw the engine evolve with a switch to twin exhausts and single-plug cylinder heads (earlier bikes use two plugs per cylinder), different camshafts, bigger throttle bodies and a totally revised fuel injection system. Rear-wheel power rose by around 10bhp and the delivery gained a noticeable top end surge between 7000rpm and the 12,000rpm red line. Though largely an issue of perception, the result is that on the new bike there feels like a right gear and wrong gear for any occasion.

The handling too is more focused, being stiffer and less happy trundling around on rough B-roads. The suspension’s class shines through but the fact remains that the newer bike is only really happy getting stuck into fast, dry corners. Perhaps perversely, the bike that never raced feels like the one built for racetracks.

On both bikes the suspension’s composure is uncanny. Hugely cynical of sticker engineering after too many disappointments on various tricked up ‘specials’, I was fully prepared to banish the

Öhlins cooing as vanity. But on the road the advantages are palpable, not least when nature throws a dirty great bump your way, perhaps in the awkward transition from braking to turning. In a corner I know well, over a bump that’s soiled my pants in the past, both bikes are imperious, the lump barely registering as we float over to full lean, happy that healthy contact is being maintained between rubber and tarmac.

But there’s more to the RSV’s appeal than performance – Ducati 999s and Honda SP-2s also ride pretty well. Outstanding value helps. Back in 2002 the pretty trick RSV-R cost just £9999, less than £1000 more than a bog-standard Honda Fireblade. Now, in 2009, if you’re on a budget you can buy a clean, early Mille (which boasts the gruntiest engine of all the variants) for as little as £2000. £3500 buys you a 2002 RSV-R (like the yellow bike in these pictures) and a little more the even more desirable Haga or Edwards special editions. And if you want to buy new, the current RSV-R sells for £7500, or £2500 less than an R1 and half the price of a Ducati 1198S.

From 1998 to 2003 the Mille was the only comfortable sports V-twin. Where the Honda SP-1/SP-2 and Ducati 998/999 punish in different ways – small and rock-solid in the case of the Hondas, painfully wrist-heavy in the case of the Ducatis – the Aprilia is big and roomy. The tall seat means the high pegs don’t bend your legs double while the vast seat pad, nicely set bars and a huge fairing mean you’re as likely to see a Mille punting through the hot scrublands of Mediterranean France as you are at a Donington trackday.

The clocks show everything, from the time to battery health, you can get a lock, chain and waterproof trousers under the seat, the pillion seat’s comfortable and the mirrors not only work but also swing out of the way when you’re trying to get through the side gate. The thing wants only for a bigger fuel tank – it may hold 18 litres but the engine can bring the fuel light on in well under 120 miles.

Aprilia insist the current RSV-R will soldier on alongside the new RSV4 and for that I’m grateful. For while the power headlines may have gone elsewhere long ago, Noale’s V-twins remain awesome road-going devices, regardless of vintage.

A brief history of the RSV

RSV Mille and RSV-R, 1998 to 2000

Aluminium beam frame, gorgeous RS250-style banana swingarm and a 998cc 60° V-twin designed by Austrian engine gurus Rotax. Praise was heaped upon the new machine, and in tests against Ducati’s 996 it generally won. 115bhp and more torque than any subsequent RSV. RSV-R had carbon hugger and front mudguard, Öhlins suspension and OZ wheels.

RSV Sport Production, 1999

The homologation special: 150 built, short-stroke, Cosworth-developed motor (100mm x 63.4mm instead of the standard bike’s 97mm x 67.5mm), 22bhp claimed power hike over standard, re-shaped combustion chambers, different pistons, all-new frame with adjustable headstock and adjustable swingarm pivot, Öhlins forks, carbon fairings and titanium exhausts. Cost over £20,000.

RSV Mille and RSV-R, 2001 to 2002

Second version was thoroughly revised with a resin fuel tank, new bodywork and engine tweaks that included 2mm bigger inlet valves. Power marginally up but tuning releases more than it did on early bikes. Again the RSV-R boasts a smattering of carbon, Öhlins suspension and blue forged wheels.

RSV-R, 2003

First production bike with radial front calipers. Other tweaks include lighter wheels, a dedicated single-seat tail unit and flashier Öhlins forks. Wheels now gold instead of blue.

RSV-R Haga and Edwards Editions

Edwards rep used some of the parts that would go on to feature in the facelift model, including 57mm throttle bodies and four-spray injectors.

RSV-R and RSV-R Factory, 2004 to 2005

Virtually an all-new machine with new bodywork (more Japanese, less protective) a new frame and swingarm and power-boosting engine tweaks (including an oval exhaust ports) for around 124bhp at the back wheel. R now denotes base model. Factory takes over where the R version of the old bike left off with Öhlins suspension, OZ wheels and carbon.

RSV-R and RSV-R Factory, 2006 to 2009

Base model gains Öhlins forks but sticks to a Sachs shock. Factory gets gold frame. Engine tweaks produce marginally less power. RSV-R will be sold alongside the new RSV4 Factory. The flagship RSV-R Factory will be phased out.