Aprilia RSV-R Factory - Bravissima!
Time was when the only difference between sports bike and street bike was the seating and silencing - or lack thereof. Today's top-of-the-range sports machines are far more focused; at their best revving hard on good tar with plenty of grip, preferably at illegal speeds.
Aprilia's RSV-R Factory is one such; it's an uneasy commuter and an uncomfortable tourer but few road bikes - no matter their ancestry - will stay with it through fast curves. It combines top-drawer suspension and brakes with the best V-twin in the business to create an extraordinarily competent sports package.
Ironic, then, that I did most of my test in heavy traffic or in the dark, in sheeting rain and gales. Yet the bike never missed a beat, overheated or fouled its plugs.
On two afternoons, however, I got out on my favourite roads in sunshine and discovered what this amazing Italian is all about.
The Rotax-built, 997cc RSV engine was radically overhauled for 2004 with new cylinder heads, each housing a single spark plug rather than the earlier twin-plug set-up, new valves and cam shafts and stronger conrods to allow the big V-twin to spin safely to 11 000rpm, 500 more than the previous model.
57mm Siemens-VDO throttle bodies have replaced 51mm Denso units and the compression ratio has been raised from11.4 to 11.8:1.
The result is another seven kiloWatts; the Factory and its less exotic sibling the R now produce 104kW at 9750rpm. However, it's the way this huge grunt is delivered that makes the difference.
In place of the explosive bottom end and almost irritably quick response of the Mille, the Factory's power delivery is linear, more predictable and easier to modulate. There's some power-thudding, especially under acceleration, until 3500rpm, then the big V-twin runs like an electric motor to 6800rpm.
This is where most people will ride the bike; it pulls strongly and evenly and it doesn't sound too threatening. It's not slow - 6800rpm on this bike translates to a thoroughly naughty 184km/h.
But it's above 7000 that the bike's true character comes out; it begins to vibrate quite harshly and the intake roar takes on a hard, angry note with a distinctly nasty edge. The bike accelerates much harder - unexpectedly so - and the steering gets lighter; wheelies are a given.
The throttle becomes more sensitive and the bike is more difficult to ride and steer accurately. Suddenly you have to really concentrate on what you're doing.
Find a long straight
The motor will rev to 10 500rpm before the power drops off but there's nothing to gain in revving to the rather sudden rev-limiter at 11 200rpm. Find yourself a long straight and the Factory will pull to 277km/h with the rev-counter a needle's width over 10 000rpm, just inside the red line.
At that point the bike's input is almost overpoweringly intense - the noise, harsh vibration and the buffeting of the slipstream over the minimal fairing make it an uncomfortable experience but the Factory doesn't shimmy or wander.
The power is fed through a superbly progressive clutch (one of the bike's strong points) and a new six-speed gearbox with ratios closer than before. Top remains the same so the lower five have all been pushed up; that gives the bike an uncomfortably tall first gear but, thanks to the magnificent clutch, it was never a problem.
The gearshift is short but heavy and a little notchy; a firm foot is needed to be sure it goes in every time. Upshifts are better without the clutch and the harder you rev the better it works
Neutral is a little elusive; the box is sometimes reluctant to shift if the bike is standing still. A lot of 1980s Italian bikes were like that, however, and you soon learn to pop the bike into neutral while it's still rolling.
It's a superbly engineered drivetrain with easily accessible mid-range and an intense top-end rush which give it all-round usability. It started at the first press of the button every time despite standing outside in the worst weather of the year and refused to overheat in heavy traffic.
The frame has also been extensively revised, not least to make space for the central air intake that leads straight past the steering head into a bigger air-box. The geometry is subtly different and the swing-arm pivots have been moved.
The swing-arm itself is new - purely for cosmetic reasons. Popular perceptions of a V-twin demand a tailpipe on each side so the swing-arm is now banana-shaped to accept the symmetrical exhaust system.
It's a beautiful fabrication of mixed castings and sheet aluminium pressings - and the drive chain still goes through a special channel.
The suspension is Ohlins Racing's best - 43mm titanium nitride-coated upside-downies adjustable for everything including ride height in front and a fully tuneable, nitrogen-charged monoshock at the back that's adjusted for ride height by varying the rod length.
They confer astonishing stability; precision steering, superb roadholding and a level of feedback that will spoil you for any other bike.
The factory settings for the suspension on the Factory are on the harsh side; the bike is, after all, intended primarily for track use. The first few centimetres of travel on the forks, however, are supple enough to take the bite out their action but the rear monoshock, possibly because it has to deal with the engine's output as well as the vagaries of the road surface, is just plain stiff.
It patters a little under hard acceleration on a bad road but the bike always stays neatly under control.
Thanks to the superb front end I found myself braking deeper into bends than I would dare on anything else and turning the power on earlier. Lean angle is practically unlimited thanks to the narrow engine and gearbox; the bike will carry intimidatingly high mid-corner speeds.
The brakes are also straight out of the top drawer, radially mount Brembo four-piston callipers as fitted to all MotoGP machines, with a radial master cylinder by the same maker and braided stainless-steel hoses.
They work like an arrester hook - that's to be expected - but more than that, there's no play before the master cylinder takes up and the braking effort is absolutely linear. Not only can you hold the front brake right on the point of locking, even in rain, its modulation is so accurate you can steer this big (185kg) V-twin into long curves on the brakes, using the attitude of the front wheel to change the bike's direction.
I've often marvelled, watching top racers do that - now I know how it's done.
The rear brake is underpowered and wooden; it works, but it takes some effort and it lacks the fantastic control of the front stoppers. Just as well few sports bike riders use them.
The bike's seating position is pretty radical; it's easy (and very nearly true) to say it only works properly when the rider is crouched but you can sit well forward, arms almost straight, and only your neck will take strain.
The Aprilia is no tourer but I spent two long afternoons in the saddle and as long as I kept the speedo above 90km/h I had no problems.
The new instrument pod has all the functions of the previous unit (including an analogue rev-counter) but at about half the size and weight. It's easy to read and manipulate, even with gloves.
The switchgear is neat and logical - except that the positions of the hooter button and indicator switch are reversed from their accepted positions to put the indicator rocker at the bottom of the left handlebar unit, on the premise that a good rider indicates a lot more often than he uses his hooter.
The fit and finish of the body panels is magnificent; even the carbon fibre panels (the real thing) are neatly edged. The brackets are firm and the panels solidly mounted - the main fairing bracket is also the ram air duct and instrument mount and is made of composite material for combined stiffness and light weight.
The usual sports bike niggles are there: the screen is too low to be much use unless you lie on the tank(though thanks to some clever wind-tunnel work the flow doesn't buffet your head), the mirrors give you a great view of your own elbows and little else and the pillion is intended only for small, supple persons.
Attention to detail
The attention to detail is impressive; possibly because Italian bikes have a reputation for poor electrics, every connection and plug on the Aprilia has its own rubber cover and the central loom works on a CAN bus that uses only two main wires to control all the bike's systems.
It's a narrowly focused sports bike but its chassis is exemplary and the motor will go from mild mid-range to really nasty top-end at the twist of a wrist and back again without missing a beat.
It's a vastly more finished motorcycle than the norm from Italy but hasn't sacrificed the passion for performance that we are used to in pasta-powered machinery. Bravissima!
Price:: R145 000, but some 2004 models are going for R135 000.