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- Written by Carole Nash Editor
- Created: 12 June 2008
A revolutionary step for the Aprilia factory, as the fabulous V-twin powered Mille is their first motorcycle featuring and in-house designed engine.
It looks and sounds amazing, with the added benefit of producing enough bhp to send the Mille to the naughty side of 160mph.
With its cylinders set at 60 degrees, featuring counterbalancers to minimise vibration, the RSV is a smooth running engine and also has the unusual feature of utilising two spark plugs per cylinder. An aluminium alloy chassis, upside down forks and multi adjustable monoshock rear suspension provide highly refined sportsbike handling too.
We’d known for some time that Aprilia were mighty serious about this superbike business, but even so their commitment came as a shock. Ten gleaming new RSV Milles were lined up in the pit garages of the superb Catalunya grand prix circuit near Barcelona. And alongside each one was a factory mechanic, spanners and screwdrivers at the ready, waiting to help each journalist get his bike set up perfectly to his liking. Press launches are not normally like this.
The opportunity to play at being a factory racer for the day was much appreciated, even if the Mille was so good straight out of the box that Carlo, my man with the red shirt and cool shades, didn´t have much work to do. Sure, I got him to tweak the rebound damping a bit here and back off the compression a touch there. But essentially the Mille is so good, so sorted, so obviously developed by people who are used to building motorbikes to compete at the highest level, that it requires a minimum of fine-tuning to be ridden very fast indeed.
That desire to help every tester find the perfect set-up sums up Aprilia´s approach to building the RSV Mille, and helps explain why the fast-growing Italian firm´s first superbike evolved the way it did. At the press conference the previous evening we´d been told that the reason for building the Mille is that Aprilia wants to compete in World Superbike’s and their eight GP titles in recent years suggest they don´t intend to be making up the numbers.
Considered in that light the RSV´s styling, which is rather ordinary apart from the unusual triple headlights, makes much more sense. The Mille looks a lot like Aprilia´s RS250 sportster, which in turn closely resembles the bike on which Max Biaggi won three world championships. And when you talk to Aprilia´s engineers, see the spirit of competition burning in their eyes, you realise that the RSV was designed that way because that´s what worked best and to hell with style for style’s sake.
This bike´s fairing and tailpiece are the shapes they are simply because Aprilia´s wind-tunnel testing told them this was the most aerodynamic solution. (They claim the drag coefficient of 0.301 is the lowest in the class.)
The beautifully finished alloy twin-beam frame and asymmetrical twin-sided swing-arm were designed by race department engineers not to look good, but to give maximum strength for minimum weight. The exhaust system ends in a huge can on the right side, rather than neater twin pipes under the seat, because that was the lightest, most compact way of achieving the necessary nine-litre volume.
There is a great deal of innovative engineering in the Mille, most notably in its 998cc, dohc V-twin powerplant. After considering a Ducati-style 90-degree V-twin on commencing the project four years ago, Aprilia decided instead to position their engine´s watercooled cylinders at 60 degrees apart, as this gives a considerably more compact unit. A 60-degree V-twin also produces more vibration, which is cancelled by twin balancer shafts, one in front of the crankshaft plus a smaller shaft inside the rear cylinder head.
Other notable engine features are the dry sump’s more compact than the normal wet sump’s and the ‘power clutch’, designed to prevent the rear wheel lifting under hard braking. In other respects the fuel-injected Mille engine is more conventional. At 97 x 67.5mm the 998cc unit has almost identical internal dimensions to its 90-degree rivals from Ducati, Honda and Suzuki. It has twin plugs and four valves per cylinder, with cams operated by a combination of gear and chains. Peak power is a claimed 128bhp at 9250rpm, with peak torque of 103N.m arriving at 7000rpm.
The rest of the bike is pretty much state-of-the-art superbike. Suspension comprises 43mm upside-down forks from Showa of Japan and a similarly multi-adjustable rear shock from Italian specialist Sachs. The 17-inch wheels (rear is a six-inch rim) and brakes are made by Brembo. At a claimed 189kg the Mille is fractionally lighter than a 916 SPS, let alone the Biposto version, but weighs more than the lightest of the Japanese opposition.
It certainly felt pretty light and racy as I slung a leg over the fairly tall seat in the Catalunya pit lane, got the all-clear from Carlo and fired up the engine with a slightly raspy, distinctly V-twin note from that big stainless steel silencer. Ahead of me was a low screen and the Aprilia´s high-tech instrument panel, which, as well as housing a big digital speedo and analogue tacho, holds a clock and can record up to 40 lap-times, set with the headlight flasher switch on the left bar.
I´d never ridden around the twisty Catalunya circuit and was expecting to take a fair time to learn my way around. But I got the hang of the three-mile track surprisingly quickly, mainly because the Aprilia felt so good and so easy to ride. Within a few laps I was happily throwing it hard on its side into the turns, confident that if I got the line wrong the RSV would be light, agile and flexible enough to bail me out.
The motor is a gem: strong at the top end, grunty in the midrange and with enough character to let you know you´re on a big V-twin. Revved hard on the track, it ripped towards the 10,000rpm limit through the excellent six-speed gearbox, a racer-style red light flickering on the dashboard to let me know when it was time to change up. It´s hard to say exactly how the RSV compares to its main rivals, but it felt distinctly stronger up top than a standard 916.
That top-end rush hasn´t been achieved at the expense of power lower down the scale, either. The Mille responded crisply from low engine speeds, lifting its front wheel effortlessly on the throttle, and simply getting stronger as the revs rose. On the track I often found myself exiting slower turns with as little as 6000rpm on the tacho, motor driving hard and with none of the low-rev jerkiness that injected bikes sometimes show on opening the throttle.
If the motor was brilliant the RSV´s chassis was just as impressive, combining rock-solid high speed stability (thanks partly to a steering damper tucked inside the fairing nose) with delightfully light, responsive steering. With 24.5 degrees of rake, 97mm of trail and a 1415mm wheelbase, the RSV has pretty typical race-replica dimensions, and its compact engine allows a usefully long swing-arm. Add to that a rigid frame and excellent suspension, and the result is a bike that will take some beating on road or racetrack.
Catalunya is highly technical circuit, with a variety of mainly fairly slow turns in each direction, some of them bumpy where the surface has been pushed up by cars. The way the RSV could be braked deep into a bend, cranked through with its suspension soaking up the bumps, then fired out again without a hint of protest from the rear shock was mighty impressive.
If the chassis had a less than outstanding aspect it was perhaps the brakes. Brembo´s blend of four-pot calipers (with pistons of different diameters) and 320mm discs, developed in conjunction with Aprilia, provided both power and feel. But when I hit the anchors just before the 200m board at the end of the start-finish straight, the Mille needed a firmer squeeze than Yamaha´s R1 would have done to slow for the third-gear chicane.
The RSV´s balance and manoeuvrability as it flicked from right to left, then almost immediately dived back again to sweep round the next long right-hander, was outstanding. Ground clearance was never an issue, either. And Pirelli´s new generation race-compound Dragon Corsas gripped superbly despite the heat, although perhaps the much-abused 180/55-section rear eventually let go slightly abruptly when it was past its best on the track late in the afternoon.
The Pirellis´ grip had been welcome earlier in the day, on some twisty mountain roads north of Barcelona. Round the many blind bends the Mille´s agility and engine flexibility were even more of an asset than they had been on the circuit. And on faster roads its ability to cruise reasonably comfortably at any speed between 70mph and well over 100mph suggested that it will make a good long-distance machine (although its typically racy riding position very soon became annoying in town) .
On a little-used motorway the Mille charged to an indicated 152mph with the wind behind, and was still accelerating when I had to slow for a car. The big digital speedo showed a best of 155mph against a strong headwind on the way back. Aprilia´s unofficial claim is that the RSV is good for 170mph, and in the right conditions it shouldn´t be far off. The balancer shafts did their job pretty efficiently, too, although my left thumb felt slightly numb after my final half-hour circuit thrash.
Whether the Mille matches the fastest of its opposition in a straight line or not, there´s no doubt that this bike is good enough to establish Aprilia as a major-league superbike manufacturer. Maybe the RSV Mille hasn´t got the visual appeal of the R1 or 916. But it´s beautifully engineered and, at £9724 on the road, is closer to the Japanese than to Ducati on price. More importantly, it has the all-round performance to compete with the very best, even for riders who don´t have a personal factory mechanic to help set it up.
In creating the RSV Mille, Aprilia had the advantage of starting with a clean sheet of paper. And when Giorgio Del Ton, head of the engine development team, holds a tracing of the firm´s 60-degree V-twin on top of a similar drawing of a prototype with a 90-degree engine, it´s clear why the more compact solution was chosen. ‘The 60-degree unit is 46mm shorter from front to back, so it can be located further forward in the chassis,’ says Del Ton. ‘This improves weight distribution and allows a longer swing-arm without adding to the wheelbase.’
A secondary advantage of the narrower angle is that it allows both cylinders´ intake manifolds to be made from a single casting, which is more rigid and efficient than the normal 90-degree set-up. One drawback, Del Ton admits, is the 60-degree unit´s extra height, which is partly why Aprilia used a shallower dry sump design. This also has the advantage of maintaining a reliable oil supply during wheelies and stoppies.
Unlike a 90-degree V-twin, a 60-degree motor does not have perfect primary balance. Aprilia´s engineers originally thought they could use a contra-rotating balancer shaft, as on a single-cylinder engine, but this was not sufficient due to the twin´s higher rev limit. The solution was the second balancer shaft, which is smaller and turns in the same direction as the crank, situated in the rear cylinder head and gear-driven by the camshafts.
Aprilia also balanced out the rocking torque set up by the horizontal distance between the two cylinders´ conrods, using two small machined washers connected to the crankshaft. But surely all these balancers must rob the engine of valuable power? ‘Forget the power loss,’ Del Ton replies firmly. ‘We use balancer shafts on our racing bikes, and the only power you lose is the friction on the bearings. We have tested a lot on the dyno and have not found any problem.’
The Mille´s other main technical innovation is its PPC or Pneumatic Power Clutch, intended to prevent the rear wheel locking up under hard deceleration. The system works by exploiting the variation in pressure that occurs in the intake ducts when the throttle is opened and closed.
By connecting the intake ducts to a chamber at the side of the clutch, the vacuum created when the throttle is closed is used to reduce the pressure exerted by the clutch springs. With the throttle open, the clutch resumes normal operation. The system also reduces the amount of handlebar lever pressure needed to operate the clutch at low revs.
Aprilia: Fast Rise and Big Future
The RSV Mille is the latest and most visible evidence of Aprilia´s phenomenal growth, which has taken the firm from Noale in north-eastern Italy from nowhere to become Europe´s second biggest motorcycle manufacturer (behind Piaggio) in just 25 years. When Ivano Beggio took control of the company in 1973 at the age of 29, following the death of his father, Aprilia employed 18 people and built only bicycles.
In 1996, by contrast, Aprilia sold 231,000 motorbikes, almost half of them outside Italy, and increased its turnover to 800 billion lire (£285 million), a 32 per cent increase on the previous year. Along the way Aprilia has humbled mighty Honda with a string of world titles in the 125 and 250cc GP classes, and with the Mille´s arrival has now become the only European motorcycle manufacturer to offer a complete range from scooters to superbikes.
The RSV Mille is merely the first salvo in Aprilia´s attack on the big bike market. Although rumours of a Sport Production version of the RSV were denied at the launch, a super-light, higher-powered Mille is likely to appear early next year. And Aprilia is also thought to be working on a cheaper, lower-specification V-twin sportster to compete with the likes of Ducati´s 900SS.
A naked roadster based around the Mille´s eight-valve engine and alloy frame is also likely in the future, but Aprilia´s more immediate task is to develop a 750cc version of the RSV, which will allow them to compete in Supersport racing. ‘We are starting work already, and it will be finished in a year´s time,’ said Technical Manager Mariano Roman. Chassis specification is likely to be identical to that of the Mille; power output of the roadster will be over 100bhp.
Meanwhile Aprilia´s World Superbike challenge is under way, with a factory-entered Mille set to compete in next year´s championship, although the debut season will be used for development. Veteran Italian rider Mauro Lucchiari is likely to race in a one-man factory team next season, and has already tested a race-spec RSV fitted with twin injectors, Ohlins suspension and a revised lubrication system to cope with its 160bhp-plus output.
Aprilia test rider Alessandro Antonello recently demonstrated the RSV Superbike´s potential by lapping the Mugello grand prix circuit at close to the pace of Troy Corser and Carl Fogarty, who were testing their works Ducati’s at the same time. ‘We don´t expect to be winning races in the first year,’ said Roman. ‘But in 2000 we will be aiming for the championship!’
Get Aprilia bike insurance for the aprilia the rsv mille.
|Engine||Liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin|
|Suspension||Front: 43mm inverted Showa, 120mm (4.7in) travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping. Rear: One Sachs damper, 135mm (5.3in) wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping|
|Brakes||Front: four-piston Brembo calipers, 320mm discs. Rear: Double-action Brembo caliper, 220mm disc|
|Wheels||Front: 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium. Rear: 6.00 x 17in; cast aluminium|
|Tyres||Front: 120/70 x 17in Pirelli Dragon MTR01A Corsa radial. Rear: 180/55 x 17in Pirelli Dragon MTR08 Corsa radial|
|Rake/trail||24.5 degrees/97mm (3.8in)|
|Seat height||825mm (32.5in)|
|Fuel capacity||20 litres (4.4 gal)|
|Dry weight||189kg (416lb)|