First Ride - 2010 Aprilia RSV4R - A Swifter Viffer?

. By Gabe Ets-Hokin
By Gabe Ets-Hokin

If you hear a high-pitched whining sound from a pack of Honda VFRs, chances are it's not coming from gear-driven cams, but from the unsatisfiable and highly vocal VFR owners themselves. Since Honda first introduced its first V-Four sportbike in 1983, this group has been demanding more power, better handling and less weight, while also clamoring for a low MSRP, comfort for rider and passenger, extended range and waffle-maker-like reliability. That's resulted in Honda's engineers creating a compromised—but often brilliant—machine that balances performance with comfort, power with reliability. In the end, the Honda's new 2010 VFR1200F is high tech, powerful, plush...and both expensive and heavy, much more sport-tourer than superbike. The dream, held by Viffer faithful since the days of Joey Dunlop and Freddie Spencer, is a light, affordable, hardcore V-Four sportbike.

Well, wait no more guys, because someone's finally built your ride. Pay no attention to the Aprilia logo on the tank, because this is the machine Honda's engineers would build if their board of directors let them. Aprilia announced the RSV4 to a surprised world in 2008, and it made a good showing for itself in World Superbike Racing, with one win and nine podium finishes: remarkable for an untested bike in its inaugural season.

The high-zoot Factory version got a flogging by the moto-press at its press launch last spring, but the intro for the plainer-Jane RSV4R was stillborn when a batch of bad con-rods grounded the European test fleet (Piaggio says this was due to one bad batch of parts). Bikes made it to showroom floors before I could get a test unit from parent company Piaggio, so I made the trip across the Bay to Moto Marin - a local Aprilia, along with Moto Guzzi, Vectrix, BMW and Vespa dealer (check them out online at ) braving near-freezing temperatures so I could get a turn on the first non-Honda V-Four mass-production sportbike in, well, ever.

No, the Desmosedici doesn't count, and Mr. VMAX isn't a sportbike, is he?

A shiny white RSV4R was parked out in front of Moto Marin's swanky new dealership, looking as small and angry as it does underneath Biaggi on the TeeVee. From first glance, it's pretty clear that Aprilia's engineers had to put in a few hours of overtime to stuff an amazing amount of technology into a very compact package. It's built around a “narrow-configuration” 65-degree dohc liquid-cooled V-Four that uses 78mm by 52.3mm bore and stroke to get 999.6cc of displacement: oversquare much? Compression ratio is a diesel-ish 13.0:1. Air goes into 48mm Weber-Marelli throttle bodies and mixes with fuel gushing from eight injectors, and sophisticated ride-by-wire technology controls each throttle valve independently for maximum precision in power metering. The rider can select three different maps—T (for full-on racetrack power), S (Sport mode, which limits torque in the first three gears) and R (and that stands for 'Road', not 'rain,' which Cary Littel, Moto Marin's principal, made certain to point out: it limits power to a mere 140 hp, still more than enough to highside yourself over the top of Mount Tam on a cold, slippery day)—to alter power delivery for his needs, but there is no traction control.

More techno-touches from the motor: It has a cassette-style gearbox, a slipper clutch, and a balance shaft to damp both primary and secondary vibes. The camchains turn only the intake cams. The exhaust cams are turned via gears, keeping the cylinder heads less than 10 inches wide. The end result is a short, narrow smooth-running package that redlines at 14,000 rpm and makes 180 hp at the crankshaft.

The polished aluminum chassis is stylish and substantive. It's welded together from cast and pressed aluminum components, with that hallmark Aprilia banana-shaped swingarm bolted to a fully-adjustable Sachs rear damper. Front suspension is by inverted 43mm Showa, also fully adjustable (with adjustments that actually do something) and brakes are those knockout four-pot Brembo monobloc race calipers and 320mm rotors. Wheelbase is a hair under 56 inches, and the claimed dry weight is 410 pounds.

Styling is proof that your superbike need not look either weird or Japanese (or weirdly Japanese) to be unique. Piaggio group's design director, Miguel Galluzzi (the big Argentine who famously penned Ducati's original Monster 900) wanted to show off the mechanicals with a minimal fairing while still keeping the bike recognizable as an Aprilia. Mission accomplished: the motor is on display, the stubby tail with its weird little stabilizing fins looks cool, and the front end looks totally bad-ass, like a snarling demon. A passenger seat and pegs, easily removable, comes with the bike. “Look honey! You can ride, too!”

Salesman (he calls himself “sportbike advocate”) James Johnson took a bunch of preload out of the shock, showed me how to change the engine mapping settings and sent me on my way. The seat is high, not as high as the pegs but not by much. The bars are low and angle down farther than I'm comfortable with. Not a touring bike. Not even a sportbike with street-oriented pretentions. If your first concern is comfort, you should be looking at something else. What the bike does is go, and fast, much faster than the 55 mph speed limit on 101 makes prudent. The motor is smooth, much smoother and refined than its raspy exhaust note—that same exhaust note Viffer geeks get all weepy over, except much louder than any stock VFR—would suggest. Gearing is very tall, and combined with the Sport mapping, makes it hard to get the front wheel up with the throttle: a good thing for riding in traffic on a 180-hp superbike.

I'm sooo colddd!

Photographer Bob and I wind our way up to Ridgecrest road on the west face of Mt. Tamalpais. The way is tight, twisty and covered with wet leaves and debris. Not a SBK racer's native habitat, but it does show me that a bike like this, for day-to-day riding, is killing-squirrels-with-a-shotgun overkill. The bike has six speeds, but first—14,000 rpm in first gear is probably somewhere around a buck-ten—is all I really need, second if I'm really daring. But even in third, at low speeds, the engine's flexibility and excellent fueling keep things smooth and jerk-free. Steering is quick (but oddly heavy-feeling, dialed out by adjusting preload and ride height later on) and the bike feels very light. I don't know how much heat the Metzler Racetec tires need to come up to temperature, so I take it easy on the cold, slippery roads. So between my timid right wrist, the hunched-over seating position, and front suspension that felt harsh on bumpy pavement, I was not in love with sportbikes in general after the photography session.

Back at the dealership, new CB contributor Rob Kong was waiting patiently for a chance on the new bike, but before we can take off, James is back with his toolkit, fettling with the front adjusters. He takes some preload out of the front fork to make sure the suspension is balanced evenly between the wheels to speed up steering. So I hop back on my old nail of a Ducati streetfighter (note the small “S”: this is my homemade hack fashioned from a 2000 750 Supersport), following Rob on the RSV4R as we head out to West Marin in search of some high-speed sweepers. By now, it's warmed up a little and our favorite roads are free of cops and cars.

After a while, Rob gets off the bike: he's bubbling with glee after his turn riding it. Getting back on, I snap the precise gearbox into first and ease out the light-feeling clutch (that lacks an adjustable lever, shame!) while feeding it gas with the lightly sprung throttle. Avanti! In the full Track mode, the bike leaps forward, getting into triple-digit territory in no time. I finally get to experience the meaty goodness of a V-Four: more tractable and torquey than a Four down low, with all the punch of a four-cylinder literbike on top as the ethereal exhaust note screams towards redline. James' adjustments make the bike much better on bumpy pavement, helping it hold its line in big triple-digit turns (in theory, CHP, in theory). When it's time to slow for a corner at the end of a long and demented blast down an innocent straightaway, the brakes have all the power you'd need, with however many fingers or whatever speed you're going, with less of the touchy drama the same calipers offer on Ducati's superbikes. Everything about the bike is sharp, precise, polished and far more capable than a former mid-pack club racer like me could ever appreciate.

This is a bike that's ready and waiting to race at the highest level of competition. Of course, if you're really serious, you can add $5000 to the RSV4R's $15,999 MSRP and step up to the RSV4 Factory, which will get you lightweight forged wheels, a slathering of carbon-fiber, Öhlins Racing suspension and a bewilderingly adjustable frame: with the proper parts on hand, (and a crusty old crew chief with an engineering degree living in your garage) you can adjust the steering-head angle, swingarm pivot point, ride height and even the engine's position in the frame. Because you need that.

So is this the bike Honda should have made? Honda actually did make such bikes: the RC30 and RC45, astronomically priced and available in tiny numbers. But those wouldn't have been able to touch the RSV4, which is faster, lighter and has electronics and engineering we could only dream of having back in the '90s. Honda has promised a whole line of V-Four models, including a focused sportbike (I assume), but it looks like a small brand from Italy beat Big Red to the punch.

Story: Gabe Ets-Hokin
Photos: Bob Stokstad

Click here to visit our forums to discuss this story