Gunning for both the Ducati 916 and WSB glory, the RSV Mille fell short on both counts. But it’s still a fantastic chunk of Italian exotica that can be yours for under £2000.
ith three WSB titles in five years, plus a range of litre bikes including the fabulous RSV4 Tuono and Caponord, it’s easy to forget that less than 20 years ago upstart Italian firm Aprilia had never built a bike bigger than a 650 single.
That all changed with 1998’s RSV Mille.
In the late 1990s, under the direction of Ivano Beggio, son of founder Alberto, Aprilia was the most ambitious and dynamic of all the European motorcycle manufacturers.
Riding high following the success of 1995’s RS250 and successive 250GP world championships, Aprilia next targeted the superbike category. The result, the RSV Mille, unveiled in 1998, was instantly considered a worthy rival to Ducati’s then World Superbike-dominating 916. The brash newcomer not only had 128bhp on tap compared to the Ducati’s then 109bhp, but was held in a glorious aluminium twin-spar frame and boasted the latest and best in motorcycle parts and equipment.
It didn’t end there. The following year, two additional variants of the Mille were launched: an SP homologation special to enter WSB and an R version which occupied the middle ground between the Mille and SP. In 2000, a full factory Aprilia team debuted the SP in WSB, ridden by 1996 champion Troy Corser. He promptly grabbed pole position at the first round before going on to claim five wins and third place in the series. No mean feat for a brand new machine. A dynasty looked set to be born. Except... it never quite worked out like that.
Despite a huge effort the RSV never did claim the WSB crown. In that debut year, Aprilia’s thunder was stolen by the similar debut of Honda’s all-new SP-1, which claimed the title for itself and repeated the feat in SP-2 guise in 2002. Aprilia, meanwhile, in Corser and then Noriyuki Haga’s hands, posted successive fourths in the series before pulling out altogether in 2003.
Similarly, on the street, Aprilia’s new superbike never quite reached the heights intended for it. Although in many ways better than its Ducati rival, sales were hampered by a poorer supply chain, dealer network and aftersales. Further new models, such as 2000’s sport-tourer SL1000 Falco, 2001’s Futura tourer and the adventure Caponord, also failed to meet sales expectations despite good reviews. Meanwhile, 2000’s ambitious purchase of Moto Guzzi and Laverda for a reported $65million might’ve cemented Aprilia as Europe’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, but it also stretched its finances to the limit.
It couldn’t last. In 2004 the banks forced Beggio to sell to Piaggio and today, although the brands and bikes live on, the dynamism and ambition exemplified by that first RSV aren’t quite the same.
What is, however, is the RSV itself. That first Mille remains an over-engineered, fabulously-equipped, real-world-relevant and bargain-priced piece of true Italian exotica. Good, low mileage examples can still be found for under £2000 – which is an absolute steal when any remotely comparable Ducati goes for at least twice that.
The bike that deserved better
The RSV Mille was always going to be a big deal – not just for Aprilia but for the world of motorcycling as a whole.
Developed over just four years, Aprilia set out not just to challenge its main established Italian rival – Ducati – but the superbike might of the Japanese ‘Big Four’. What’s more, the Mille was intended from the outset to be the start of a whole new chapter in Aprilia’s history. By offering a 1000cc superbike, as well as its 650 singles, 250 two-stroke and varied scooter range, Aprilia would boast that it was the only European manufacturer with a complete range of two-wheelers.
At the RSV’s heart was an all-new V-twin powerplant, developed by Aprilia’s engine partner Rotax. This was not unusual: Aprilia had a long association with the Austrian firm with the Pegaso, for example, using its single-cylinder units. More surprising was the decision to go for a 60-degree layout to keep the unit as compact as possible. That in itself ended up causing problems of its own. Where Ducati’s more familiar 90-degree ‘L-twin’ benefitted from intrinsic natural balance, the Rotax motor required not one but two anti-vibration countershafts, one large item in front of the crankshaft with a second, smaller countershaft in the rear cylinder head. Further innovations included the use of a dry sump which again allowed the engine to be as compact as possible, as well as an early type of slipper clutch that Aprilia called a ‘Pneumatic Power Clutch’.
But everywhere you looked the RSV was advanced. On the induction side, the Mille was one of the first superbikes to use fuel injection controlled by an electronic management system. On the exhaust, meanwhile, it employed a 100 per cent stainless steel two-into-one system which, though large (to achieve the necessary emissions without recourse to a catalytic converter) was still claimed to be lighter than any comparable two-into-two.
And if the engine could lay claim to being state-of-the-art, the new Mille’s chassis went further in being not just cutting edge but a work of art in its own right.
Developed using Aprilia’s extensive racing experience, the RSV’s frame was a glorious twin-beam structure crafted out of shimmering aluminium. Just as spectacular, meanwhile, was the swingarm, also crafted out of pressed aluminium and welded to a cast central section.
The cycle parts were no less special. Although not the very best available (that would have to wait for the Öhlins-equipped SP and R versions the following year), the multi-adjustable, 43mm inverted Showa forks and equally adjustable Sachs rear monoshock were certainly a step up from the more run-of-the-mill suspension offered by the Japanese.
But the biggest surprise of all was the Mille’s price. At around £9600 the new Aprilia, despite its high spec, not only undercut the Ducati 916 by a whopping £2000 but was also on a par with the best Japanese superbikes. Suddenly Italian exotica was no longer restricted to the privileged few.
It didn’t stop there, either. Three years later the RSV received a major update, both technically and aesthetically. A new resin tank lowered the bike’s profile and centre of gravity and, being shorter, allowed the rider more room for movement. Hand-in-hand with that was the revised styling which incorporated a more aerodynamic fairing and updated headlamp and indicators. Thorough engine revisions including new cams, valves and mapping helped slightly boost both power and torque, while also reducing noise and vibration further still. In addition to all that, there were also changes to the frame, suspension and brakes.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. Although the latest RSV was a brilliant sporting roadster that was fabulous value, Aprilia under Beggio had over-stretched itself and the banks demanded the company’s sale. Had the RSV and its siblings sold better things might have been different, but if Beggio’s Aprilia failed in its grand ambition to become Europe’s number one bike manufacturer, it would be a mistake to blame the bikes themselves – least of all the RSV. The ‘Italian alternative’ is fabulously built, impressively powered and mouth-wateringly equipped – and all at a price that makes a mockery of comparable Japanese and Italian fare. Better still, all of that is just as true today. The Mille’s worn well, and is still useful, potent and relevant. At under £2000 for a good one, it’s also more of a bargain than ever.
Your RSV Mille fact-fest
The Rotax-developed V-twin is generally reliable and fairly bomb-proof – more so than the equivalent Ducati of the same era – and as a result can clock up high miles without issues. Instead, most faults are concerned with the ancillaries. Bear in mind that the RSV’s performance requires new chain/sprockets every 15,000 miles or so, Aprilia’s dealer network is less comprehensive than most and parts supply is notoriously slow.
That aluminium twin-spar frame and swingarm may be gorgeous but they’re pricey to replace if there’s damage. Check the swingarm under the exhausts and behind the rearsets as in a tip-off these often get pushed into the chassis, causing dents. Also look for any dings on the frame plus any signs of damage around the front fairing bracket or radiators. Insurance companies will often write off bikes with damage here, meaning owners usually didn’t claim.
Generally fine on the standard Mille but the Öhlins items on the R version have been known to pop seals prematurely or start to leak when grit gets into the seals. Pump the front end, then check carefully for seepage.
Pretty good on the whole, both on standard and R versions, although discs have been known to warp if heavily abused, particularly on track bikes. The rear disc set-up can fade over time, the best cure being frequent cleaning, braided hoses and different pads.
The first 1998/’99 bikes are particularly durable and bear up well today. That said, scratched seat units are common.
The battery must be in top condition or the ECU won’t let the twin plugs spark during starting, which can lead to sprag clutch failure. Early RSVs also benefit from having the 40A starter solenoid replaced with the later model 150A unit.
Starting must be done without any throttle and with a fully-charged battery. A weak battery can fail to turn over the engine properly, damaging the sprag clutch (about £500 to repair). Listen for any slipping sound when the starter is pushed. The starter relay has also been known to fail.
There have been some reports of ‘popped’ oil pressure sensors although this is mostly on overly stressed track bikes, so look in the right-hand side of the fairing for leaks.
The original Milles had steel tanks, with which there’s no problem. From 2001, however, a reshaped resin or plastic tank was used, which carried the fuel lower in the frame and gave the RSV a slightly lower profile. As a result, there have been some reports of fuel leaks.
Again, a possible weak spot: plates can be short-lived and the seal on the slave unit can sometimes fail. This is commonly replaced with an aftermarket unit.
The Mille RSV’s a performance superbike so the top-rated performance tyres are all popular, particularly the Pirelli Diablo Corsa. Those happy with more general all-round use, however, tend to go for either standard Pirelli Diablos, Michelin Pilot Powers or Bridgestone BT016s.
The Aprilia RSV Mille is modern superbiking’s best kept secret. I’d forgotten how good they are and, going by the silly prices you can still get them for, it’s clear that I’m not the only one.
Those controversial bulbous curves haven’t helped, of course. The original Mille was never a knockout looker like its closest rival, the Ducati 916, was. But look beyond that external veneer and it’s quickly apparent what a class act the Noale V-twin truly is.
In the flesh the thoroughness of the design and quality of equipment is truly outstanding, and something we’d associate more with a manufacturer like MV Agusta today. Take, for example, the way that stainless exhaust is seamlessly incorporated into the fairing lowers. Or the level of adjustability – not just of the usual things like the ’bars and levers, but even of the brake pedal and gear lever.
Then there’s that shimmering, sculpted aluminium frame and swingarm, the comprehensive clocks, the colour-coded mirrors and the sheer quality of the cycle parts – Brembo brakes and wheels, multi-adjustable suspension front and rear, and more. Back in the day these things were £2000 cheaper than 916s – and can be had for under £2000 today.
And all of that was before I’d even got on board. It’s been said a dozen times before but the Mille was always a ‘man-sized’ superbike, and that suits 6ft 3in me just fine. Tall and roomy, the Mille doesn’t feel big and baggy to me – instead it’s just right when 916s and the like are cramped and compromised. The RSV’s not heavy or bulky, but slim, light
It’s also efficient and focused. With a touch of ’bar-mounted fast idle but no throttle as instructed, the Rotax twin fires instantly, even robotically, with an almost wooden, Japanese bark from its big exhaust. There’s little 916-style charisma here.
With knees naturally slotting into the tank and the view ahead over the black top yoke (complete with Aprilia logo), Honda-style switchgear and past that bank of futuristic, classy LCD displays, the RSV just gets going. There’s no acclimatisation necessary, no idiosyncracies to adjust to, just the merest twist of throttle and dip of light clutch and we’re away.
On the open road the Mille is surprisingly neutral and intuitive. Most Italian bikes I can remember require excuses to be made, quirks to be gotten used to and extreme riding positions to adjust to. Not here. Within half a mile I’m at one with the Aprilia, snicking through its easy gearbox, revelling in the instant, progressive drive, glorying in the dry bark of the Austrian vee and targeting the horizon. Nothing more, nothing less, no messing. This is what enjoying an Italian superbike should be all about.
Our test bike’s had its overall gearing shortened a tad which means that give the Mille its head and it gobbles up gears as quickly as your toes can tap through them. But it still never outpaces its chassis. The 120-odd bhp may now be a bit old school compared to the latest generation of 160bhp twins, but it remains more than enough to deliver sufficient thrills on the road.
Approach any significant corner and the RSV is stable and reassuring as you line it
up before hitting the anchors. Grab a few fingers’ worth of front Brembos and they respond as only Brembos of this era can: slightly lacking in feel and bite but more than compensating for with power. Stab down a gear or two, edge over whichever side of the big saddle is appropriate and caaaaaarrrrve before getting back on the gas and away again. I did this loads for the photos you see on these pages on what was probably one of the last sun-soaked days of 2015, and I had such a blast that I found myself seriously contemplating buying one of these things.
The Mille’s that good.
But overall it’s the blend of characteristics that shines through with the RSV. It doesn’t have the sharpness, booming motor or exquisite style of the 916 and it does without the proven reliability and back-up of some Japanese rivals, but what it does have truly makes sense to both head and heart.
I think I’m right in saying that Ivano Beggio once said Aprilia was aiming to be ‘Italy’s Honda’ – it’s no accident the subsequent Futura sports-tourer so deliberately targeted Honda’s VFR – and with the Mille that goal was best made metal.
If the Mille lacks a little charisma and style, it more than makes up for it with quality and effectiveness – not that it’s in any way bland. If it’s missing a touch in outright track sharpness (and that’s not by much either) it compensates by being all the better for it on the road where it’s ‘properly proportioned’, has real world ergonomics, crisp response and delivery, and all the classy comforts you could want. And if it wants for any exotic touches (and once again, it’s by very little) you could always go for the R version and treat yourself to as much bargain-priced Öhlins and OZ as you want – and plenty do.
But that’s the point: the appeal of the RSV was never just a matter of the heart: it was the ‘thinking man’s Italian superbike’, one that, if you looked past the racing headlines and poster photos, was the connoisseur’s choice – especially for taller or larger riders like me. The RSV is not just a great performer: it’s well built, well-spec’d, more than invigorating enough for most and at the prices it can still be had for, an absolute steal. In fact, I’ve just spotted one on eBay for just £1600. I’m seriously tempted...
Words: Phil West Photography: Simon Hipperson