ITALY'S dominance as a spawning ground of great sports cars -- not necessarily the fastest, but regularly the most desirable -- is largely unchallenged.
Not always so with motorcycles, however: recent standouts like the BMW S1000RR from Germany and the Kawasaki ZX-10R Ninja from Japan have caught the attention of riders on the prowl for machines they perceived to be the most advanced.
The needle swung back, it seems, in 2012, with two of the year's most popular models on magazine covers coming from Aprilia and Ducati. The heritage-infused Italian brands each introduced new large-displacement machines -- the Tuono V4 and 1199 Panigale, respectively -- that boast impressive sporting credentials but have almost nothing else in common.
Well, there's this: each is a tradition-rattling departure from its maker's longstanding practice. In the case of the 1199 Panigale, the steel-tube trellis frame, long a signature Ducati trait that gave visual context to a buffet of finely detailed components, is gone. In fact, the entire notion of a conventional frame became the victim of an engineer's delete key, with its role assumed primarily by the engine's cases.
Over at Aprilia, the new edition of the Tuono turned its back on a decade of V-twin power in favor of the addictively engaging V-4 from the company's RSV4 racetrack-replica models. To be fair, that was but the first step in the Tuono's push to the forefront of so-called streetfighter bikes.
Though their personalities and appearances are far apart, the Tuono ($15,429 base price, $17,174 as tested) and Panigale ($24,890 for the S version, including delivery) have a number of similar features. Each has advanced electronic controls that offer multiple riding modes and save-you-from-yourself controls, and each is powerful enough to reach 60 miles an hour in less than three seconds. (The Ducati, at 182 m.p.h., holds an edge in top speed over the Aprilia's 166, according to Cycle World's testing.)
The Panigale is the more exotic of the two and perhaps the more predictable extension of its maker's product line. It carries forward the Ducati 90-degree V-twin design, including the desmodromic valvetrain (the cams both open and close the valves), but it is otherwise a total reworking of the existing engine. To make its rated 195 horsepower, the 1.2-liter engine is radically oversquare (the cylinder bore is much larger than the stroke), the camshafts are driven by chain and gear rather than by belt, and each cylinder gets two fuel injectors.
While Ducati also offers bikes in streetfighter, adventure touring and other configurations, the Panigale models are the company's full-throated superbikes. But don't be fooled by the racetrack-ready layout -- it is accommodating in ways that its predecessors never were. The design and placement of vital parts like the gas tank have been adjusted to make room to stretch out.
Designing the new model gave Ducati a chance to improve a quality known as mass centralization, concentrating the weight in the middle of the bike and as low as possible. This has consequences, mostly good (it helps sharpen the response to steering inputs) but not entirely.
The exhaust system is largely under the engine; its integration with the fairing panels is sleek. But the engine's delicious roar now exits under your feet rather than back at the rear axle. Combined with a very high sound level, it makes for a bike you won't want to ride without earplugs. (It also makes for hideous routing of the rear cylinder's plumbing and an awkward placement of the shock absorber. I'm not sure it's all worth the gains.)
Coming to terms with the Panigale took me some time, even though I have always preferred sport machines with the tucked-in riding position. My first exposure, in Friday night traffic approaching the Lincoln Tunnel, was memorable for heat coming from the rear cylinder that threatened to par-bake my left leg.
On a longer Sunday ride in the hilly farm country of western New Jersey, the Panigale and I could not come to terms. The engine always felt as if it wanted a lower gear; I did not find a rhythm, even on roads I know well.
The next time out -- a Monday, with far less traffic -- it all clicked. I held the lower gears, revved the engine higher and pushed harder; the Ducati and I quit fighting. Its stability and precision, even when pushed hard, inspired confidence. The clutch pull is light, and the brakes, as staggeringly powerful as the engine's urge, added to the feel of the Ducati's sky-high limits.
In the regular upheavals that roil the motorcycle market, one of the most significant was the 2009 release of the Aprilia RSV4, which introduced a new 1-liter 4-cylinder developed by the company to supplant a V-twin previously used in its sportbikes. For the Tuono, a streetfighter-style machine derived from the RSV4, that well-mannered 167-horsepower engine brings a total transformation.
In simplest terms, the streetfighter class is populated by bikes that started out as pure sport models but were later stripped of bodywork. The Tuono fits that description to some extent, but goes considerably further. It carries a small cowling and teensy windshield around the headlight -- almost unseen when you're on board -- and has a conventional low-rise handlebar rather than the racing style clip-ons of bikes like the Panigale and RSV4.
The sit-up riding position of the Tuono -- which I usually don't find comfortable -- made a world of difference for me. With its wide handlebars providing lots of leverage, the bike was delightfully easy to manage around town. But the seat is a small and hard perch, like the RSV4's, not ideal for me and, I'd imagine, punishing for a passenger.
If there is a single word to describe the Tuono, it would have to be "sudden." The throttle response is crackling, especially in the Sport setting of its three modes (the others are Road, which cuts power by 25 percent and slows the throttle action for riding in wet conditions, and a no-holds-barred Track selection). The ride-by-wire throttle also incorporates traction control, wheelie control and a quick-shift function, all of which can be dialed to the appropriate level on the fly using handlebar-mounted controls.
Aprilia's effort to mold its racetrack-style cycle into a street burner paid off smartly. The engine has been retuned for more power at lower r.p.m., and the gearing has likewise been fiddled with to make squirting through traffic around town effortless. But some downsides of the RSV4 package persist: neutral is annoyingly hard to find, especially if you're already at a stop, and in one long energetic tear over back roads, the transmission developed a lurch on gearshifts that felt like a protest from the slipper clutch. In calmer riding conditions, I never felt that problem.
After spending time with these bikes and finding much to like, I'd say that the focus of each is so clear that there will be very few riders wrangling to choose between the two. Anyone who has occasional track days in mind will know that the Ducati Panigale is a better fit (and that Aprilia has an equivalent entry in the RSV4); someone whose miles are logged in a city setting would find the Tuono V4 friendlier (or alternatively, a Ducati Streetfighter model). Either way, no losers here.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.