Three very special 200bhp-plus superbikes require an equally special stage, so we’ve brought them to Sicily. It’s a chance to let these incredible machines off their leashes, where there’s less traffic trying to get you – replaced with just one very angry, active volcano.
MCN’s 2018 superbike shootout-winning Ducati Panigale V4 S is the bike to beat. It faces stiff competition in the shape of Aprilia’s new RSV4 1100 Factory and the long-awaited new BMW S1000RR. The BMW may ‘only’ be 999cc compared to the 1100 Italians, but has a few tricks up its sleeve...
With no significant updates from the Japanese alternatives, we’ve left them in Blighty, while we ride Etna and pummel the twisty motorway from Catania then west to Targa Florio country.
Heading back east we’ll tackle the SS120 with its mixture of blissful curves, scary jumps and bumps. It’s a little longer than our normal MCN250 UK test route, at a shade under 300 miles, but we got a bit carried away.
To keep things on a level playing field we’re fitting Pirelli control tyres: Diablo Rosso Corsa II for the road, Diablo Supercorsa SP for mucking around at Pergusa and SC1 compound slicks for lap times.
But right now, we’re heading from our Giarre start point, up steep, cobbled climbs and the narrow streets that sit at Etna’s feet.
Aprilia RSV4 1100 Factory
Crawling along in a cacophony of revs and clutch slip, 5mph behind a dawdling coach, it’s not the best environment for the RSV4 1100 Factory – a superbike so single-minded its riding modes are marked Sport, Track and Race. It’s like having a volume knob that goes all the way up to 11...
For 2019 the Noale factory have shoehorned the 1078cc V4 motor from the epic Tuono into the RSV4’s polished aluminium frame rails (the lower spec RR still has the old litre engine). With 214bhp and 90ftlb of torque it’s tuned it to produce the kind of earth-moving wallop that would make this old volcano proud.
Aprilia have also fitted MotoGP wings, internal swingarm bracing, 5mm more fork travel, a lithium battery, titanium Akrapovic end can, Stylema Brembos and tweaked the already superb electronics. None of these things you’ll notice anywhere other than at the limit on a circuit – or when this damn coach moves out of the way.
For a six-foot rider like me, the track-stiff Aprilia is too small and tough on the wrists and is especially uncomfortable coming back down the mountain. But all is forgiven any time you can get that big V4 motor spinning.
There isn’t much going on right at the bottom of the revs, but power quickly builds with a gut-wrenching, velvety midrange punch, searing top-end and one of the angriest howls this side of a MotoGP fence.
Despite the drama spilling from one of most formidable road bike engines ever produced, the RSV4 1100 Factory is also smooth, perfectly fuelled and docile, purring through the bustling Sicilian streets, in amongst the sun-dried Fiat Pandas and helmetless scooter boys – all hair gel, skinny jeans and designer shades.
Show the Aprilia an empty curve and it dives in, guided by the might of Brembo, Öhlins and Pirelli. In isolation the Aprilia is a thrill-seeker’s dream. But then you jump on the all-new S1000RR and realise that all this performance doesn’t have to come the price of being an awkward road bike.
BMW have poured a decade of racing experience into their flagship superbike to create the new S1000RR. It’s taken its time to arrive in dealers and the waiting list is still painfully long for some, but boy, it’s worth the wait.
It sports a new chassis, electronics, bodywork and every nut and bolt in-between. The new, variable valve timing ‘ShiftCam’ engine alone weighs 4kg less than before. And with its carbon wheels and lithium battery, this ‘M Package’ model tips the scales at a class-leading 193.3kg. And despite its sky-high spec it’s also the cheapest superbike here.
Even on the nastiest, bumpiest sections of the SS120, where the road even turns to dust in places, the BMW isn’t flustered. While the Italians buck, weave and kick you out of their seats on anything other than billiard-smooth Tarmac, the S1000RR almost levitates, thanks to its waif-like weight, perfect electronic suspension control, fingertip-light steering and sticky Pirellis. Own branded brakes are more than a match for Brembos on the road and then there’s the clever ShiftCam engine.
It still sounds like the gruff, BMW in-line four we all know and love, but it acts like more like a big V4 in the midrange before seamlessly exploding with the ferocity of blue-printed race engine as the revs click past 9000rpm when mild intake cams are swapped for angry ones.
With its perfect fuelling, an impossibly light throttle, clutch and a slick quickshifter, you couldn’t ask for friendlier superbike at low speed – or one that’s so easy to ride fast.
BMW have moved the superbike game along again, just a year after Ducati did the same with their magnificent Panigale V4 S in 2018.
Ducati Panigale V4 S
Unchanged for this year, the Bologna bullet has a pounding V4 that started its life in Ducati’s 2014 Desmosedici MotoGP racer, is packed full of advanced rider aids and is bejewelled in Öhlins, Marchesini and Brembo.
This is the new V4 S Corse version with its retina-burning, satin finished, lumo orange ‘Dovi’ paintjob and race seat, which costs an extra £1500.
Thin, narrow, wristy, stiff and uncompromising, the Ducati feels like a stripped-out race bike after the more road-biased Beemer, but thankfully it doesn’t require the same level of rider contortion of the Aprilia. Like the RSV4 the Panigale V4 S sticks two fingers up at convention with its big torque-filled 1100cc engine. Why limit yourself a 1000 for the road?
It won’t have escaped your notice that the 998cc Ducati Panigale V4 R is doing rather well in World and British Superbike racing right now and you can taste those race-winning credentials on the V4 S.
The Panigale isn’t an easy bike to jump on and enjoy straight off the bat compared with the easy-going BMW, but then it isn’t supposed to be. The Ducati is brilliantly spikey, guttural and involving. It’s a slow burner that feels almost agricultural at first, but it gets better the longer you spend with it.
Sounding more like a V-twin on steroids, the Ducati doesn’t have the RSV4’s creamy spread of power or iconic V4 soundtrack and even with the electronic suspension softened right off, the Ducati’s chassis is so stiff it hates going slow, especially when you throw
a few Sicilian bumps into the mix. It can be clumsy, hard to steer and a wrist-crusher one minute, but it comes alive in your hands the next when you can’t get enough of the way it surges into corners at seemingly impossible speeds with brain-bashing midrange thrust.
Which bike is the winner?
Each of these machines serves to seduce and it’s impossible to use a fraction of their capabilities on the road, even here where traffic happily parts like the Red Sea to let our superbike convoy flash through.
The Beemer is faster, crisper handling and an easier, more complete road bike than ever making it our clear favourite. It’s closely followed by the beautiful, brutish Ducati, with the Aprilia bringing up the rear with its incredible new engine. For the road at least that magical V4 is much better off in the fantastic Tuono V4 1100 Factory.
BMW have again bought something fresh to the superbike party, just like they did in 2010. It might give away cubes to its Italian rivals, but its ShiftCam motor gives the RR the ability to be more flexible on the road without sacrificing speed on track.
Barging through manic Sicilian villages, cruising Autostradas, or scratching Etna’s back, the BMW is light, refined and glides over the roughest terrain. Easier to ride, road and track it’s also the cheapest here.
Ducati’s Panigale V4 S Corse comes a close second. Unapologetically stiff raw and track-focussed compared to the BMW, it’s glorious on fast, smooth Tarmac, but through town and on slow bumpy roads is aggressive, hot and hard on bum and wrists. Unutterably gorgeous, its superb build quality and designer labels go a long way to justify its juicy price tag.
Aprilia’s uncompromising RSV4 is a superbike for the more compact rider. It’s non-electronic Öhlins is stiff on the road, but, like the Ducati, is magical when the going is smooth. Its motor is a masterpiece of grunt and it’s a formidable track machine, but it feels outdated now compared to the fresh new BMW and Ducati.
Best superbikes of 2019
- BMW S1000RR
- Ducati Panigale V4S Corse
- Aprilia RSV4 1100 Factory
More from MCN