With the 998 not due to visit our fog-bound shores until January, we had to go to Italy and get one, factory-fresh.
We took our own RSV-R with us to meet its rival under clear blue skies. At Ducati there’s just time to shake hands before a mechanic wheels the bike out to us.
Getting the Aprilia and the Ducati side-by-side instantly settled one thing. If you’re in the market for a litre-class twin and it has to be Italian, you’re going to buy one of these two. Yeah, it’s so close, that’s about as far as you can nail it down.
Choosing one over the other is going to be decided on personal preference, on availability and even such small matters as colours. Because both have strings to their respective bows, and each have sides to them you may not like or which equally may not bother you in the least.
Outright performance isn’t going to separate them for you. How they get there is the big difference. Wind both the bikes on hard and you won’t really find one getting the better of the other, but you will think you’re riding with totally different engine designs.
The Ducati gives you a big kick in the pants from tick-over, more or less. The bottom end on the 998 is far fuller than the 996 which precedes it. As soon as you start going for it hard, the bike lets you know it’ll happily send the front wheel up and forward in equal amounts in the time it takes for the huge pistons to turn a couple of times.
That’s not to say it’s a handful, but treat the throttle stupidly and it will most definitely bite back. The plus side is, there’s drive absolutely everywhere. One of the features of big V-twins, whether in the hands of the world’s greatest racers or Joe Public, is the need for fewer gear changes.
First gear isn’t ridiculously tall, but there’s enough between there and second to keep you going on the tighter mountain sections. Occasional forays into third keep you from feeling like a total wrecker, but it’s only when the road really opens up that you need to get into the higher gears. There’s pull from bottom to top in the rev range.
Conversely, that means you could also use the higher gears and ride at lower revs, but that just wouldn’t be playing the game, would it? And besides, the bike seems to enjoy being revved.
The Aprilia has that more " Japanese " feel. In fact it’s better - the fuel injection is an object lesson to everyone else (that means you Honda, and the SP-1) in how to make it smooth. From the bottom, the flow of power is much more measured. This will also provide big power wheelies if you want, it just won’t bite the reckless hand as hard.
In many ways it feels much more like the four-cylinder machines, with its power arriving more progressively, but there is a vital difference.
Like the Ducati, though to a lesser degree, the Aprilia pulls hard from the bottom, something a 750cc four can’t manage.
The Ducati’s power delivery goes more than ever with the overall feel of the bike. It’s as if there is a point on the design horizon, which the factory is aiming at, bringing the chassis in from one side, and the engine from the other. This is the closest the two aims have been, and it’s closer to the ready-to-race feel than earlier models have managed, as if the bikes that were being raced a few years ago have now reached the road.
The bike is far smaller than the Aprilia, or rather, it feels it. Parked next to each other they don’t appear radically different.
There is a point and squirt feel – aim it at a corner, get there hard on the brakes and crank it over, get it out the other side and fire it at the next one. The faster you make it go, the better it feels, as if the chassis needs to be under some stress before it’ll tighten up properly.
The gearbox loves this kind of behaviour too. Rush at a corner and it lets you lose gears fast. The clutch works effortlessly with the box, so there’s no hopping and skipping to unsettle the back end as you line up for the corner.
When you’re working the bike harder, everything seems to gel. Leave the brakes late, tip in late, get on the power early and it responds with sharp, accurate steering and a poise few bikes can rival.
While pushing it suits the Ducati, take it easy and it feels a bit lost. Approach a corner at a more relaxed pace, trail the brakes a little and tip in gently is not the way to do it. Like that, the 998 feels vague. It doesn’t want to hold it’s line, instead wanting to drop further in, making you put more counter-steering effort through the bars.
The Aprilia will handle the relaxed approach much more happily. Take a steady, wide line and it steers precisely where you want. Up the pace and it remains as accurate. Chase your hard riding mate on the Ducati and it’ll happily do that too. The downside is rather limited feedback.
Aprilia’s massive alloy beams look like trains couldn’t bend them, and that’s the sensation from the seat. The space frame gives something more to the rider, through feet, bum and hands, which the beam seems to cancel out.
Once you get going, however, the Aprilia doesn’t seem to suffer for that taller set up. You ride it in the same sort of position as the Ducati, though you may well be a little higher in the air, and if anything the Aprilia will flick in and out of turns faster than the Ducati.
The bikes share identical Brembo brake set-ups. These days it’s more about feel, and the Ducati wins that hands down. In the same way the Aprilia damps the feedback from its tyres, it makes it harder to judge exactly how well the front hoop is gripping. In the sort of cold conditions we experienced in Italy, the tyres were staying decidedly cool and that made it hard to really trust the front end with a big squeeze of the lever.
When we took the RSV to Assen as part of our 14-bike mega test earlier in the year, it was the highest placed V-twin, taking third overall behind Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 and 600. We noted then, that you need to develop a level of trust in the tyres simply because you can’t feel what they’re doing as well as on other bikes.
While the lightest touch will make it change line, the pay-off seems to be a blunted feel through the chassis. Despite that, it still placed comfortably ahead of the 996, thanks to its sheer performance and lap times it achieved even when the riders didn’t feel totally at home with the feedback.
Now the Ducati would run it much closer. Without doubt the new 998 is better all round than the 996. It does some things better than the Aprilia, isn’t as refined in other areas. For the road it does feel like a slightly sharper tool, but the differences are small. Whether it’ll tempt RSV-R owners to change brand … that’s going to be down to very personal choices.
There’s more on this test in MCN published on December 19
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