Aprilia Caponord first ride

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As the biking audience matures, demand continues to increase for adventure bikes.

Early last year Triumph launched its new Explorer which took the coveted MCN road test class crown in 2012. But since then Ducati has launched its new ‘skyhook’ Multistrada, the first to come with true semi-active suspension, while both KTM and BMW have introduced new models which have grabbed the MCN headlines.

KTM’s all-new Adventure comes in two guises – a standard, 19-inch front wheel model and the more off-road biased ‘R’ with a 21-inch front wheel.

BMW, meanwhile, has also launched a new R1200GS – its most important bike in recent years, they admit – which also comes with semi-active suspension amongst a host of updates. Even Triumph has another newcomer with a tweaked Tiger Sport.

All the while, there’s been one more newcomer in the background. Until now, Aprilia’s new Caponord has gone almost unnoticed – which is a mystery considering its impressive spec.

On paper it appears formidable, capable of being the leading bike in this segment, especially when we consider price. The full spec ‘Travel Pack’ version, which includes the ADD, Aprilia Dynamic Damping (semi-active suspension), is £3000 less than the Ducati equivalent and also cheaper than a comparable BMW GS.

Not only that, but the Aprilia’s suspension is more advanced than both the Ducati and BMW, and our short test ride showed it’s very impressive, especially when ridden two-up. I’m really taken aback by how good the new semi-active suspension is. Even in cold, very wet conditions, the suspension changes were noticeable. Unlike the Ducati and BMW systems, Aprilia’s semi-active suspension, ADD, adjusts pre-load on the rear automatically. If you add a pillion into the mix the system measures the extra weight, then calculates and compensates by adding pre-load. It’s so clever it will actually reduce the pre-load as weight is reduced when you burn fuel from the large 24-litre petrol tank. If your other half loves shopping for shoes and sneaks a few pairs into the panniers without you noticing, the Caponord will detect the extra weight, recalculate and add more pre-load if required. How clever is that?

Like the BMW and Ducati, the Aprilia system also adjusts compression and rebound damping on the move to improve comfort. However, if you start riding aggressively the system changes the suspension to compensate and to make the ride sportier. It knows you are riding aggressively by the amount of torque requested, throttle position, speed, rpm, wheel speed, and gear. It’s all very clever - and it works. This is no gimmick.

Unfortunately, we had very poor weather during our test in Sardinia including torrential rain with rivers running across the road in places (see video on here). The result of that is that I can’t tell you how the Aprilia suspension will perform in the dry, riding aggressively with big lean angles.

However, in the wet the ride quality was very impressive. The comfort is excellent – it’s more like a luxury touring model than a ‘Street Enduro’ as Aprilia likes to call its new bike. Speed humps, road imperfections and small potholes almost disappear, to the point that it’s almost surreal. Even deliberately hitting potholes at speed didn’t jolt the suspension or cause any discomfort.

Around town, small speed humps were taken at 30mph and were hardly noticeable with the active suspension working overtime. This was amplified further with a pillion – gliding over small speed humps and potholes as if they weren’t there. There would be a slight jolt through the bars in very extreme cases, but then the rear would follow and simply glide over. There was no jolting, no bucking, it was very smooth, level and stable.

In short, the Caponord is one of the most impressive bikes I’ve ever ridden in terms of comfort and ride quality. It feels like the rear is on a magic carpet of smoothness. Even slowly dropping off a kerb didn’t cause any discomfort. You’ll never have a pillion complain again – well, maybe not. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to push the limits of the suspension in the dry.

The front 43mm Sachs forks are also semi-active – constantly changing the compression and rebound damping but not pre-load, which is conventionally pre-set by the rider. The amount of adjustment compared to the standard model is huge. The ADD system can have more than seven times more adjustment in compression and rebound and, remember, it only takes a fraction of a second to change from maximum to minimum.

Again, it was a shame the conditions were so poor because we couldn’t really test the front suspension to the maximum. You can feel the front react to road imperfections like the rear, but it doesn’t have that magic carpet feel – you still get a small jolt in extreme circumstances. However, it remains mightily impressive.

In many ways it feels like BMW’s Telelever system as it lacks dive compared to conventional forks, which in turn means it lacks a little feel. But like the BMW system it’s all about trusting the front end and tyre contact. Personally, in the tricky conditions, tip-toeing around for grip, I’d prefer a little more dive and feel. It will be interesting to see how the rear suspension performs in the dry.

The incessant rain also meant I didn’t get a chance to let the new Caponord stretch its legs. At low speeds the big V-twin was a little snatchy below 3000rpm – such as around town in second gear.

In higher gears, or as the revs increase above 3000, it does smooth out. Aprilia are quoting 125bhp from the 1197cc, liquid-cooled V-twin, and the spread of torque is lovely. It also sounds good from the single, side-mounted exhaust, which can be raised when you remove the panniers to increase ground clearance.

There are three different engine maps: Touring, Sport and Rain, which can be changed on the move via the start button and come as standard. Rain mode limits power to 100bhp which is more than enough to have fun, and in the tricky conditions was still enough to get the traction control working if you’re brutal enough with the throttle.

The traction control system also comes as standard. There are three different traction control modes but they can’t be changed on the move, which is a little annoying. As the road dries out you have to pull over and select neutral before changing the level of electronic intervention.

Thankfully, unlike other systems, when you turn off the key it does save your last setting which I prefer rather than going back to a safe mode. You can switch the traction off entirely and a small symbol illuminates on the dash to warn you. Don’t forget: if you switch off the traction control and turn off the key, it will still be switched off when you return to the bike and start riding once again.

Mode Three is the most intrusive (ideal for the rain), Two is less intrusive, and Mode One is for perfect sunny days with lots of grip. And on the subject of grip, an ABS system also comes as standard, and is excellent, not too intrusive - and can also be switched off.

An adjustable screen is standard, although it can’t be changed on the move. Cruise control is standard on the Travel Pack version and a welcome addition although once the speed is set you can’t increase or decrease your speed with the touch of a button like you can with the BMW system.

If you opt for the Travel Pack you also get colour-coded panniers which are easy and idiot-proof to open and remove. Thankfully, there isn’t any ugly framework holding them on, so the Caponord looks just as good with the panniers removed as it does with them on. You also get a centre-stand with the Travel Pack, but not on the standard model.

Handguards come as standard and not only add to the styling but help keep your hands warm and dry. It’s just a shame the heated grips are only an optional extra, considering the cold conditions we encountered on test in Sardinia.

The adjustable screen isn’t half bad at taking windblast away from your head and upper body. You’re very much sitting in the bike rather than on it, which should mean great wind protection on longer journeys but does mean the distance between the seat and pegs is shorter than expected. I didn’t find it cramped (I’m 5’7”), but taller riders may suffer. We’ll test the comfort more thoroughly in our long distance group test in the coming weeks.

Switchgear is standard Aprilia stuff: including an indicator switch that lacks any feel and a mode button that feels toy-like. However, the clocks are functional, easy to read, and boast a gear indicator. The mode button allows you to scroll through the menu, mpg, trip, clock, etc. The starter button changes the fuel mapping and two buttons on the actual clocks allow you to change the traction, ABS and suspension settings, but remember, only while stationary.

Everything is reasonably easy to use and straightforward after some simple instructions. Just remember: the symbol R means rain not race, and T means touring not track.

I’m still undecided on the looks and appearance. One colleague has described it as “looking like it’s been driven through the ugly forest and hit every tree on the way” which, to my mind, is a little harsh but it’s not the best looking bike to come from the Aprilia factory. 

It’s a shame the weather was so poor because it prevented me evaluating the new Caponord fully. But I can say the ride quality and comfort from the ADD suspension is class-leading.

Over bumps and imperfections it’s so good it’s almost alien-like. I’m really taken by how good the suspension is – especially the rear over bumps and potholes. Considering the bike’s sporting potential, the active suspension is one of the best setups I’ve ever experienced in terms of comfort and ride quality.

Yes, the clever suspension is grabbing the headlines – but that’s not the full story. The ABS is excellent, so is the traction control and the different fuel maps via the fly-by-wire are a nice touch and all come as standard.

The 1200 V-twin feels strong, the dash and switchgear is straightforward and although it’s not the prettiest bike it certainly isn’t the ugly duckling of the adventure market. 

I’m looking forward to testing the Aprilia in the dry so I can confirm how the semi-active suspension will perform when you’re attacking corners with peg-scraping angles of lean. The Brembo setup looks strong – but we couldn’t test the brakes to their full potential in the wet.

And the engine feels muscular – but I only passed 100mph once or maybe twice in a 90-mile ride because the road conditions were so bad. We need more dry miles to give you a full verdict.

But our wet ride does highlight many strong points, the main being the amazing active suspension. And, more importantly in many ways, the Caponord is considerably cheaper than its competition.

Aprilia has thrown a very interesting bike into the mix. If I were BMW or, even more so, Ducati, I would be concerned about the new Caponord. I can’t wait for our exclusive group test to find out which bike comes out on top.

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Adam Child

By Adam Child

Former MCN Road Tester with 15 years road testing experience on all kinds of bikes