If Aprilia‘s RSV4 Factory is a little pricey the RSV4 R might just be the answer.
It shares the lean and compact look, the V-four superbike engine and it's different to the usual Japanese fare. Well, so is BMW‘s S 1000 RR, which could have you casting your eye to the far side of the Dolomite mountains, but we‘ll come to that.
The more immediate question is, while the R is going to save you £2500 in the UK, are you getting a bike which is going to feel that much less? The main differences between Factory and R begin with the suspension, the R wearing Showa forks and a Sachs rear shock in place of the inevitable Öhlins equipment of the Factory, and the steering damper on the R is Sachs replacing Öhlins too. The unsprung weight is up as the R features cast aluminium wheels instead of the Factory‘s forged ones, and you get fixed steering head angle and swingarm pivot position on the R - wow, that‘s really going to slow you down on those sinuous mountain back roads eh...
But that‘s the point. Aprilia reckons the Factory is aimed at the rider who‘ll be using it at least as much on the track as the road, and he‘ll be the kind of person too who will be tweaking even these more esoteric adjustments to see the effect on his lap times. The R rider wants a superbike but mostly for road use with maybe the occasional track day outing, which is most of us. And for that typical majority rider, it‘s pretty much given that losing the option to move the swingarm pivot and change the head angle isn‘t going to have him dithering over which bike to go for. What about the suspension and wheels though?
I doubt that either. In fact my own experience of Showa suspension is that it‘s every bit as good as Öhlins in most situations, the only real difference being that the Swedish items have a wider range of adjustability and finer increments. Okay, when you‘re really finding the limits of a bike‘s chassis, Öhlins maybe hangs on to its consistency better, but by that time my consistency has long gone awol anyway and it certainly wouldn‘t bother me. As for Sachs, until recently I‘d have said that could be more of an issue, but then I rode the S 1000 RR, the first superbike to come with Sachs forks, and it blew me away: Sachs knows how to make top quality suspension as well as the also-ran stuff it‘s better known for, if only the bike manufacturers would let it. And Aprilia has.
We rode the R at Portugal‘s old Estoril circuit, a place notorious among the bike press as the place where Honda had to deal with 18 CBR600RR press launch crashes in the course of three wet days a few years ago. Road tyres, wet weather and Estoril do not mix at all well. For our December outing (winter on this side of the planet) the weather looked friendly, with some thin sunshine and around 18 degrees, but the track was spattered with treacherous damp patches which affected confidence as much as grip. As it turned out, the Metzeler Racetec Interact-equipped RSV4 R was just the bike to be on...
That suspension is clearly designed for road use, at least on stock settings, and before you fiddle with it will have the bike pitching up and down at the rear when you start to wind the power on out of turns. The bike still holds a tight line, which is one of its real strengths, but the squirming action is unsettling. So just a few clicks of the adjusters mostly to firm up the rebound damping and the bike takes on an altogether tauter, sharper feel with the extraneous movement eliminated and even more feedback assaulting your senses. Sachs shocks rock, and Showa forks are just fine thank you, especially if they can knock that much money off a price.
With just this first attempt at suspension play, the RSV4 R was all that I could have asked for in these tricky conditions, beautifully stable under braking with the usual immense power and feedback we take for granted now from Brembo Monoblocs. The turn-in speed is breathtaking, consistently faster than you‘d expect until you eventually dial in to the electric response of the chassis, and the rear grip on the exit is immense. If there‘s a problem it‘s the ease with which the bike lifts the front wheel out of turns, not just getting flighty but drifting wide as it must when the front rubber loses contact with the bitumen. Keep rubber to road and the line stays as tight as you could hope for, but the stubby little missile is constantly seeking air.
That could be another issue for some riders: this bike is tiny, certainly the most compact in the class, and while taller pilots like 6'3" (1.92m) me can find the bars and footrests in the usual places, tucking in behind the screen is more about hope than reality, and there‘s no surplus space for relaxing your muscles.
The heart of the machine is the motor, and this is unchanged from the Factory‘s, another reason to question the need to pay more. The engine sounds glorious, with really surprising volume controlled electronically by a flap in the exhaust which seems to be especially obedient to noise emissions control regulations where they ask, then forget its job the rest of the time. Good on it, the RSV4 is gloriously loud!
The throttle is a full fly-by-wire system and generally it works beautifully, as well as any physically connected cables, although now and again there‘s just a hint of remoteness. I‘ve not tried the bike at traffic trickling speeds where fly-by-wire struggles the most to duplicate conventional systems‘ directness, but the signs are it should be pretty convincing. It also allows you to switch between three engine maps, Track, Sport and Road, with Track being the most aggressive and best for what the label says, while Road should really be prefixed by ‘wet‘ as the power is reduced as well as the delivery softened. Sport is the general all-round option, and it‘s plenty for most situations.
The engine is well endowed with torque, not just in the muscular mid-range but down low too, and will rescue wrong gear riding or as at Estoril, allow you to slip up a ratio and ride the torque in variable grip conditions without losing much from your lap times - this is a forgiving motor, as well as a very exciting one, and if the previous superbike I‘d ridden hadn‘t been the shockingly fast S 1000 RR would have completely wowed me. It‘ll take a direct comparison test (and what a test that‘s going to be!) to eke out the real differences as riding these bikes on different circuits in different conditions can only sow so much, but I‘m certain the BMW will have the top end legs of the Aprilia (and its other rivals too). The grunt is much harder to judge and the Italian bike might well pull back the disadvantage in the way it charges out of corners, as long as you can keep the front end in check, and that‘s despite its 52/48 front/rear weight distribution.
That BMW will haunt it though. The German bike is not only faster at the top end, its handling is even more natural and easy, and if you‘re going for the RSV4 R because it saves you money over the Factory, then why not save some more dollars again and go for the German bike, because you‘ll certainly not lose out in performance terms, and the base model at least is less than an R1 too.
Kevin's funeral was held on Thursday 28th February 2013 and was well attended by family, friends and colleagues.
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