2022 MCN Sicilian Superbike Shootout

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We all know that superbikes have evolved massively over the past few years. It wasn’t that long ago they could be improved with time on a dyno, tweaked suspension, bigger brakes and stickier tyres.

But those days have gone, especially for these three apex predators. There’s nothing you could throw at the Aprilia RSV4 Factory, BMW M1000RR or Ducati Panigale V4 SP2 to make them faster, short of preparing them for full-on racing. Just add fuel and hang on by your fingernails.

Too good for mere mortals?

As a road tester, I’ve seen with my own eyes just how fast pros can pedal bog-standard superbikes at press launches. Alex Lowes got within a couple of seconds of his World Superbike time on a Yamaha R1 at Jerez a couple of years ago. MotoGP winner Jorge Martin did the same thing on the 2022 Ducati Panigale V4 S last December.

It proves superbikes have become way too fast and extreme (not to mention expensive) to be relevant for most of us and their tiny sales figures bear this out. For the majority, there’s more fun to be had, for more of the time, on an RS 660 than an RSV4 Factory…

But despite being more irrelevant than ever, superbikes are still in our DNA. We’ve grown up with them and they’re still objects of lust and desire – none more so than these three. Do we care which is best? No. Should we celebrate their wonderful existence? Hell, yeah! 

Aprilia: On the up

Aprilia are walking on water right now. They’ve become MotoGP podium regulars and finally won their first premier class race. They’ve also been busy churning out tasty new parallel twin 660s for the road and this latest RSV4 Factory has been tweaked to make it better than ever.

It’s been around for an astonishing 13 years, but came of age when it became an 1100 (1077cc) in 2019 and last year it took another step forward.

It has the same 214bhp as before, making it the most powerful superbike here, but the V4 has grown to 1099cc. Power is made 200rpm lower in the revs and it makes an extra 2lb.ft of torque – not that you’d notice such subtleties with acceleration that tries to rip your face off past 10,000rpm.

It’s facelifted, sports even bigger wings, a lighter and more rigid underbraced swingarm, LED lights, uprated electronic rider aids and colour dash.

Not entirely happy on the road…

It’s always been one of the most cramped superbikes, but it now has a 9mm lower seat and 10mm lower pegs. The new layout allows a bit more wiggle room, but it’s still a struggle to fit on if you’re tall. If you’re short it’s fine, but the seat is so high you’ll struggle to get your feet down.

In truth, the Aprilia’s straight-barred Tuono V4 sister is a better road bike for 90% of the time, but you don’t buy a superbike to be practical. Instead, you buy it for that other 10%, when you’ve got a wide, smooth empty piece of road to play on.

…but when it’s good

When the RSV4 Factory is on song it’s magical. Ride quality from the electronic Öhlins is plush, the steering is crisp and it guides you through corners at warp speed like Aleix himself. You could say it’s not a fair fight pitching the Aprilia against two rivals with carbon wheels, but this test isn’t about finding the last tenth around the track, it’s more about how they make you feel.

Lightweight wheels aren’t the be-all, and with the RSV4 Factory costing a huge chunk less than the BMW and Ducati (plus a current deal that knocks another grand off for trade-ins) the cost saving alone will make you smile.

You can’t tap out any of these bikes on the road (and it’s a job on the track, to be honest), so engine character is more important than outright power. The Aprilia’s V4 easily wins that race with its yowling exhaust note and gut-wrenching torque, but the power delivery can be prickly at low speed, especially around town, but that environment is best avoided on a superbike, anyway.

Best for the road

The Aprilia merely tolerates life on the street, unlike the BMW. The M1000RR, launched last year, may be a homologation special, but it’s hands-down the best road bike here. When you strip away the fancy bits it’s a conventional inline four-cylinder sportsbike, so feels instantly familiar and easy.

Where the Italians are unashamed racers with lights and often awkward at normal speeds, the BMW is the kindest on your wrists, knees and back over distance. Cruise control and heated grips add to its friendly nature, making it the exotic superbike you’d actually want to spend quality time on.

It’s race ready

Compared to the (£14,360 cheaper) S1000RR, the M makes 5bhp more (209bhp) and its engine has been turned inside-out and upside-down to make it stronger for race teams for when they come to tune it.

But despite its hunger for revs on track, the M’s power delivery is tractable and smoother at low speed than the Italians’, thanks to its clever ShiftCam variable valve timing. But despite the motor’s civility it sounds the most raucous when you have room to open the taps.

Chassis geometry is calmer than the S1000RR’s for extra stability, which is as much a benefit for the road as the track, but despite that the M’s steering is pin-sharp. Mechanically adjustable Marzocchi forks and shock are nicely supportive without being crashy, but you’d expect snazzier suspension for your £30K asking price – even if the BMW doesn’t actually need it.

As well as being very easy to ride very fast, the German machine has an air of specialness about it, thanks to its carbon wings and that M badge, even if it’s basically an S1000RR in a fancy frock. But it has to be said it lacks that sense of occasion you get riding the Aprilia and especially the latest, special-edition Ducati: the new-for-2022 Panigale V4 SP2.

Superbike exotica at its desirable best

Bologna’s feisty superbike has brutish looks and brain-pummelling power, but it could be a recalcitrant beast on the road and track. Ducati have calmed the Panigale V4 over the years, but for 2022 the base model and ‘S’ are now so composed, they’re almost unrecognisable.

It’s still essentially the same bike it’s always been, but refinements to the mapping, rider aids, steering geometry and aerodynamics have done wonders.

For 2022, all Panigale V4s, including this one, get a new oil pump and bigger tail pipes, adding an almost academic 2bhp (up to 213bhp). Dedicated gear-by-gear mapping and a taller first and second gear have taken the sting out of the volcanic eruption when you open the throttle. Top gear is longer for more top end whack, too, but it also helps for motorway cruising.  

There are new vents in the bellypan, reshaped and slotted wings and a one-litre bigger and reshaped fuel tank (up to 17 litres). The chassis has a 4mm higher swingarm pivot and new Öhlins semi-active gas forks with 5mm more travel.

Last year Ducati created the first Panigale V4 SP with lots of special parts and they’ve done the same to the 2022 model to spawn the SP2.

Goodies galore

Based on the V4 S and sharing the same engine, chassis and electronics the SP2 costs another £7700. For that you get carbon fibre wheels, wings and mudguard, uprated Brembo Stylema R calipers, a dry clutch, thinner 520 chain, billet ali footpegs and a stealthy satin black paint job and with exposed brushed ali tank.

It’s unapologetically expensive, but you’re getting the full factory WSB racer experience for the money.

It snarls, hisses and jangles. It’s arse-up, hands down with more braking power, grip, ground clearance and power than any normal human will ever know what to do with. But despite being Bautista’s doppelganger it’s bizarrely refined.

Muscle memory from previous hot Panigales tells you you’re going to be for a hard time, but the suspension manages to be plushest here and more refined than even the Aprilia’s. It also has the most legroom and thanks to its clever mapping is as gentle as an old Ducati Monster at low speed, although expect to slip the clutch lots around town with such a tall first gear.

You’d still choose the BMW for a long journey, but the Ducati is everything a dramatic, balls-to-the-wall superbike should be.

Irrelevant… but brilliant

If you’re ever fortunate to spend a day on any on these superbikes you’ll be ready to get off at the end. You’ll be slightly achy and your brain will be frazzled to a crisp. You’ll also be slightly disappointed that you haven’t scratched the surface of their brilliance.

You’d have more fun on the super-naked versions and be just as happy on the cheaper, lower-spec versions, but if you want the ultimate in irrelevant race rep decadence, the few golden moments you can steal riding one properly are enough to leave you wanting more.

Take it to the track

It’s impossible for a normal rider to find the limit with the any of these here on Sicily’s Racalmuto and Pergusa tracks. They can’t be separated by power because they all have so much it’s hard to even hang on at full throttle. Their speed through corners is only limited by the bravery of the rider.

They all have slick quickshifters, perfectly judged riding modes, useful anti-wheelie and slide/traction control systems you’ll only feel if you’re talented enough to unstick a tyre on purpose.

As on the road the BMW is the easiest to get the best out of straight away. It’s stable at high speed and under hard acceleration, has the most confidence-inspiring brakes and goes like absolute stink when you thrash it.

But with its smaller engine it feels flat compared to the others unless you’re squeezing every last rev out of it. It’s hugely impressive, but it’s been built to come alive as a race bike and in standard trim isn’t any better than a cheaper, S1000RR, so save yourself a packet and get one of those if you’re into your trackdays.

There’s no question the Aprilia is glorious as it bellows its way around a racetrack. Its grunt and steering precision are highlights, but even the smaller riders in our test limped away after a few laps crunching knees up to fit on high pegs. The rear wallows under hard acceleration, too. Whether that’s down to the shock being too soft, or actually so hard the movement is coming from the tyre, it’s hard to say.

Panigale V4s used to be angry on track, but not anymore. The SP2 is the friendliest yet. That’s relative, of course. A handful of laps is all you need for your muscles to cry enough under the brutish force of acceleration, braking and slick-shod cornering.

But the V4’s power delivery is calm in the lower gears, letting you use full throttle sooner than feels right. It’s roomy, too and you can get tucked right in behind its tall screen, which you can’t on the others. Not only is it the fastest on track every lap on the SP2 is a special occasion and every inch like a factory superbike.

Superbike of the year 2022: The verdict

Deciding which is best here is almost academic. To get anywhere near the best out of them you need to be young, ridiculously talented and have deep pockets.

For its V4 soundtrack alone the RSV4 Factory is worth the ticket price and it’s monstrously capable on the road and track, but still way too small physically. The Aprilia brings up the rear, but it is the least expensive by far. In second place is the M1000RR.

The best all-rounder here, it doesn’t feel as special as the Italians and has the smallest engine but it’s still less than a second behind the Ducati around the Racalmuto circuit. 

It takes huge skill to get the best out of the V4 SP2 but for the rest of the time it’s the friendliest road-going superbike Ducati have ever made, despite looking the gnarliest. It’s the one that stops you in your tracks, has the most tech, is the best built and the biggest occasion on track. It’s the best, money-no-object exotic superbike by far. 

Best superbikes of 2022

As well as the exotic superbike test above, we’ve also published a definitive video detailing precisely where each of the modern crop sit.