Aprilia RSV4 RR vs. Ducati 959 Panigale vs. Kawasaki ZX-10R vs. Yamaha YZF-R1 – COMPARISON TEST

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Bodies start to ache at around 4:30 in the afternoon, our early-morning enthu­siasm replaced by muscle spasms in extremities we’ve neglected for far too long now. We should be relieved the track goes cold at 5 p.m. Excited even by the thought of rest.

superbike motorcycles on-track action

And yet we aren’t. Fuel still sloshes about their containers, tires have life left in them, and we collectively want more—more laps around the track, more time on each bike, and more of everything that comes with riding a sportbike full tilt around a fast, flowing racetrack like Buttonwillow Raceway. Good motor­cycles make you feel as if no trackday is long enough or no destination far enough away. With us are four truly exceptional motorcycles.

Associate Editors Bradley Adams and Sean MacDonald run through the pluses and minuses of each bike participating in Cycle World’s 2016 Superbike test…and pick a winner.

There’s a semblance of similarity between the bikes we’ve brought with us to Buttonwillow, with only Ducati’s 2016 959 Panigale suggesting something is at odds. The rest—Aprilia’s RSV4 RR, Kawasaki’s all-new ZX-10R, and Yamaha’s YZF-R1—are all built with the intention of winning races, shattering lap records, filling podiums the world over, and pulling on the heartstrings of the power-hungry enthusiast. Consider this test then an opportunity to see which pulls the hardest, how the latest literbikes from Aprilia and Kawasaki stack up to a derivative of last year’s superbike shootout winner, the R1M, and how Ducati’s largest-ever “middleweight” compares to the (not-all-that-much) bigger competition.

Consider it also something no amount of muscle spasms could convince us to cut short. Body aches and sunsets be damned; we have throttles to twist.

2016 Ducati 959 Panigale

Of all the bikes, Ducati’s 959 Panigale plays the nicest with our battered bodies. At 420 pounds, it’s not the lightest bike here and actually weighs 4 pounds more than the lightest bike of the lot, Yamaha’s R1. It flicks from side to side with the prepotency of a middleweight though, its lightweight handling and lower power output making longer stints at the track feel like less a burden. Unlike its bigger brother, you ride it. It doesn’t ride you. A lot of people will appreciate that. After a full day spent in the saddle of bikes that find joy in plucking your arms from their sockets, we certainly do.

The “chassis” is still unique in regard to feel and feedback, but with the suspension set up as desired you can push the bike harder, playing up its strengths by flicking it from one side to the next in rapid succession. More than once, a 959-mounted test rider would roll up on the Kawasaki ZX-10R or Yamaha R1 in Buttonwillow’s tight esses section and win back every inch he’d lost on the long back straight.

2016 Ducati 959 Panigale on-track action

2016 Ducati 959 Panigale.

Conversely, getting chased by a literbike reminds you that the 959 is more middleweight than literbike. You tuck in as tightly as possible to limit drag, brake later, and make the most of every available rev, subsequently working the shifter more in an attempt to keep the engine in its happy place. Maybe it’s through probability that we ended up with the most false neutrals on the Ducati—and if not, then a transmission that’s just a touch less seamless.

As a package, the 959 would benefit from brakes with more initial bite, an on/off throttle transition that doesn’t almost immediately relegate you to the medium engine power delivery setting, and something that better shields you from engine heat. Those negatives aside, the bike delivers on its promise to be something more exciting than a middleweight and at the same time something more user-friendly than a literbike. For the canyon rider or trackday enthusiast who’s happy keeping his arms in their sockets, it’s a truly legitimate option.

2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Jumping from Ducati’s 959 Panigale to Kawasaki’s ZX-10R requires a mental recalibration of sorts. The throttle is still on the right, the clutch on your left, and footpegs up to just about your derrière. But this isn’t the same motorcycle. It’s wider at its hips, longer, and you sit in it versus on it. In a category now dominated by narrow waistlines, crossplane cranks, V-4s, and V-twins, the Kawasaki is now, in a way, the misfit.

Compared to its predecessor, it’s also better. More refined. As if Kawasaki perfectly isolated each and every wrinkle in that bike’s previously imperfect canvas and ironed it out. Guest tester Sean MacDonald says, “I couldn’t get the previous ZX-10R to steer, but this one I can.” Credit the updated crank and suspension here, the former being a change we didn’t expect anyone but Tom Sykes or Jonathan Rea to feel but did.

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R on-track action

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R.

The Showa Balance Free Fork is one of the best production forks we’ve yet tested and likely adds to the confidence, with great support at corner entry but no midcorner harshness. Together with a rock-solid chassis and Brembo M50 Monoblock brake calipers, it allows you to run deep into a corner and yet always get slowed, turned, and back on the gas.

Unfortunately the bike is still a bit of a workout, each of the test riders commenting that, of the four bikes here, it was the one that took the biggest toll on their body.

sportbikes front action view

Which superbike had us wishing our ride would never come to an end?

A lack of midrange power doesn’t help matters, the Kawasaki lacking grunt and feeling the least aggressive of the literbikes off a corner. In the 10R’s defense, power builds evenly from 6,500 rpm, and power delivery is smooth. Suspiciously smooth even, especially when compared to the bikes we first rode in Malaysia.

That smoothness runs deep in the Kawasaki’s makeup, and for the rider who wants the, errr, uniqueness of a Japanese-made inline-four screamer engine with the electronic rider aids not available on the Honda or Suzuki, it’ll be a tough motorcycle to overlook. A quick glance at the price tag of the non-ABS model tested here only makes ignoring its presence all the more challenging too

2016 Aprilia RSV4 RR

Opposite the smooth and almost seamless Kawasaki is Aprilia’s RSV4 RR, which has always been, and continues to be, a motorcycle that you connect with on more of an emotional level—one that, with every tap of the starter and every blip of the throttle, you fall a little more in love with. It evokes happiness, as a motorcycle should. Smitten by the Panigale’s looks, Sean MacDonald argues that it isn’t special enough, but every other tester argues he’s crazy.

The RSV4 is not one of those bikes you fall out of love with the second a road tightens up either, or the instant a commute turns longer than expected. It’s comfortable for taller and shorter riders alike, the repositioned-for-2016 clip-ons set up in a way that makes them easy to reach, and the rock-hard seat shaped so that it enables you to rack miles up in relative comfort, especially when compared to the saddle on the R1.

2016 Aprilia RSV4 RR on-track action

2016 Aprilia RSV4 RR.

That well-rounded design is put to the test most by the suspension, which feels imbalanced front to rear and is a little more of a challenge to set up. There’s also (and maybe even as a result) a lack of ground clearance, with Road Test Editor Don Canet noting that, “The chassis movement is what I call seesaw. I was surprised that cornering clearance is limited on the right too, with the fairing lower and muffler shroud touching down. Worse yet, the butterfly valve pivot of the exhaust also touched down.”

The electronics package is admirable but falls slightly behind, the traction control system not providing the same level of confidence as the R1’s system, even if the quickshifter is on par and much better than the Kawasaki’s, which has the most aggressive cut of the units here. We’re thankful traction control is there, mind you. Because 171.9 hp…

Of the bunch, the Aprilia pulls the hardest, building the biggest head of steam off a corner and into Buttonwillow’s esses. Fortunately, it also sports Brembo’s truly phenomenal M50 calipers and sheds speed with ease. That, along with the RSV4’s chassis, which provides more front-end feel than anything in the category and allows for late-corner trail-braking, makes for a bike that does an impressive job of running nose to tail with the competition.

2016 Yamaha YZF-R1

The Aprilia’s biggest competition comes in the form of Yamaha’s R1, a bike that, in this test, instilled the most confidence in everyone from self-proclaimed track-riding rookies to seasoned experts. It makes good power but not in an alarming manner. It steers quickly but isn’t twitchy. And its electronics step in but are careful not to neuter the experience.

A long list of attributes conspire to make the bike so confidence inspiring, starting with the chassis, which is balanced and offers exceptional feedback at full lean. Brakes are strong as well, and while the system offers slightly less feel when compared to the M50 setup on the Kawasaki and Aprilia, there’s little lost as you slip past trackside brake markers. Meanwhile, the suspension is easy to dial in, with the stock settings being so good that few to no setting adjustments are required before going out and turning quick laps at the track.

2016 Yamaha YZF-R1 on-track action

2016 Yamaha YZF-R1.

The same settings make the bike feel stiff and a little less friendly in street-riding situations, and the aggressive throttle response in Power Mode 1 doesn’t help. Whatever the bike loses in terms of around-town rideability, it makes up for when you get into the canyons though. And here, it was the only bike that truly made us smile. You hit the lines you want, with less midcorner corrections, because you’re confident. You’ve got this. The bike’s got this.

Back on the track, its electronics prove the best of the bunch, if not because of how smooth the intervention is then because of how predictable the systems are. Every lap, at the same exact section of track, the rear of the bike steps out the exact same amount. It’s predictable; you feed the throttle on already knowing what the bike is going to do. It’s riding nirvana. Riding a Yamaha R1 is nirvana.

riders discussing the merits of each superbike

The bickering about which bike was best never stopped, even when we were on track.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the test, conversation turns back to “special,” and testers agree that the R1 is special enough. Some base that on looks, others on bark, and the rest on sheer performance. They’ve all agreed it has its own faults, but it is the best bike of the lot and all for different reasons.

superbikes on the track

Group shot from Buttonwillow Raceway.

The rest of the bikes have advantages of their own. The Kawasaki, for example, has that screamer of an engine that’s fun in its own way and would likely make for a great racebike. The Ducati, meanwhile, would be perfect for that guy who wants something more than a 600 but less than a 1000, and the Aprilia for those who want their ride to be slightly more of an emotional experience.

You could fall in love with any; we’ve just fallen in love harder with the R1—an exceptional motorcycle that truly makes you wish your ride would never come to an end.

Which is why it’s now 4:55 p.m. and we’re heading out for one last session!

superbikes riding on the track at sunset

Heading out for one last session.

BUTTONWILLOW RACEWAY PARK, WEST LOOP

LAP TIME DATA – 1.83 MILES

Buttonwillow Raceway track illustration

Buttonwillow West Loop – Lap Analysis

Bike Lap Time Split 1 Split 2 Split 3 Peak Speed 1 Peak Speed 2 Riverside Avg. Speed Sunset Avg. Speed
Aprilia RSV4 RR 1:09.57 22.11 19.37 28.08 141.8 134.4 88.5 60.9
Ducati 959 Panigale 1:11.33 22.53 19.88 28.92 133.8 130.5 88.1 58.3
Kawasaki ZX-10R 1:10.11 22.31 19.56 28.24 139.5 134.3 89.1 62.3
Yamaha YZF-R1 1:08.82 21.56 19.40 27.77 143.9 136.2 92.1 61.5
2016 Aprilia RSV4 RR studio side view

2016 Aprilia RSV4 RR

THE NUMBERS
PRICE $16,499
DRY WEIGHT 435 lb.
WHEELBASE 56.6 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.7 in.
FUEL MILEAGE 34 mpg
1/4 MILE 10.00 sec. @ 148.51 mph
0-60 MPH 2.7 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 3.1 sec.
60-80 MPH 2.9 sec.
HORSEPOWER 171.9 @ 13,550 rpm
TORQUE 75.4 lb.-ft. @ 10,360 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 30 ft.
60-0 MPH 125 ft.
2016 Ducati 959 Panigale studio side view

2016 Ducati 959 Panigale

THE NUMBERS
PRICE $14,995
DRY WEIGHT 420 lb.
WHEELBASE 56.4 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.7 in.
FUEL MILEAGE 37 mpg
1/4 MILE 10.34 sec. @ 138.41 mph
0-60 MPH 2.8 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 3.6 sec.
60-80 MPH 3.3 sec.
HORSEPOWER 136.3 @ 11,040 rpm
TORQUE 69.3 lb.-ft. @ 9020 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 31 ft.
60-0 MPH 126 ft.
 2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R studio side view

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R

THE NUMBERS
PRICE $15,299
DRY WEIGHT 424 lb.
WHEELBASE 56.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.3 in.
FUEL MILEAGE 33 mpg
1/4 MILE 10.07 sec. @ 147.10 mph
0-60 MPH 2.8 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 3.4 sec.
60-80 MPH 2.9 sec.
HORSEPOWER 167.0 @ 11,020 rpm
TORQUE 76.0 lb.-ft. @ 11,200 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 31 ft.
60-0 MPH 124 ft.

2016 Yamaha YZF-R1 studio side view

2016 Yamaha YZF-R1

THE NUMBERS
PRICE $16,990
DRY WEIGHT 416 lb.
WHEELBASE 55.6 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.8 in.
FUEL MILEAGE 35 mpg
1/4 MILE 10.11 sec. @ 146.62 mph
0-60 MPH 2.9 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 3.0 sec.
60-80 MPH 3.0 sec.
HORSEPOWER 162.4 @ 12,720 rpm
TORQUE 73.2 lb.-ft. @ 8790 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 32 ft.
60-0 MPH 126 ft.

Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC

Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC motorcycle tires

A last-minute attempt to get each of the four bikes in this comparison test on comparable race rubber led us to Pirelli and the experienced staff at its West Coast distributor, CT Racing, who was able to outfit each bike with Diablo Supercorsa SC1 rubber, in a 200/55-17 rear for each of the 1,000cc bikes and stock 180/60-17 size for the 959 Panigale. Completely accommodating, CT Racing even helped with install, only balking at the Yamaha R1, which would benefit greatly from 90-degree valve stems.

Developed for the World Supersport and Superstock Championships, the tires feature a profile designed to maximize the width and length of the contact area, as well as an optimized carcass for improved stability on the brakes.

Over the course of the day, the tires provided exceptional grip and feel. Late-afternoon slides were smooth and predictable but also few and far between, with the tires still having plenty of usable rubber after a full day of riding and providing great drive grip. They truly are nothing short of spectacular and well worth a try.

If you’re on the West Coast, be sure to contact CT Racing (ctracetires.com, 831/419-9680) for more information on how to get a set of your own, or search pirelli.com for Eastern US and Canada distributor information.

(cycleworld.com, http://goo.gl/qIxH3L)

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