NEW DO-IT-ALL DUCATI v VFR800 v Z1000SX
We were beside ourselves with excitement leading up to the World launch of Ducati’s new Supersport in February. Had the famous Italian firm produced a ground-breaker? Was it going to be the real-world, everyday sportsbike we’d all hoped for?
It’s not Ducati’s fault it hammered it down on the day we rode the £12,995 S model around the Monteblanco circuit and the standard £11,495 version on the surrounding mountain roads. The conditions didn’t suit the new machine and failed to show it in its best light. In fact, the launch raised more questions than it answered.
On track its 113bhp 937cc L-twin was breathless at high revs, as an engine designed with a punchy midrange would be. On the road, the wet tarmac was so slippery we spent four hours tensed-up trying not to crash, despite the Supersport’s traction control, ABS and its softer power maps.
The launch was a bit of damp squib, but today, as you can see from the pictures, is different and we’re having a second stab at finding out what the new Ducati is all about.
It’s time to see where the bike fits in and answer the questions everyone’s asking. Is it a sports tourer, or a modern-day interpretation of the mighty Honda VFR800? And isn’t a supersport race-replica just as good on the road?
To find out we’re taking the new Supersport S, a VFR800, Kawasaki’s Z1000SX and Ducati’s 959 Panigale on a trip from Bologna, down the A14 to Forli and up over the mountains
to Florence, via the SS3 and the SS67 Passo del Muriglione. These are some of the best biking roads in the world.
Is it a sports tourer?
Kawasaki’s Z1000SX is the dictionary definition of a big-capacity sports tourer. Unlike the current breed of goanywhere adventure sports machines such as the BMW S1000XR, the SX is a conventionally-shaped motorcycle. It’s low, long, comfortable and smooth.
Updated for this year, the Z1000derived machine is a big-seller and has captured the imagination of those who want something sporty, but can manage big miles without breaking a sweat. It eats Autostradas for breakfast and its bulk actually helps to iron out bumps in its path. It will also roll up its sleeves and hoon through mountain roads with surprising speed and precision. The Kawasaki is also kind on your wallet, costing a quid under 10 grand, or just £95 a month on PCP.
The Supersport feels thin and exposed when you jump on it after riding the SX and it’s immediately clear the Ducati is not a sports tourer in the conventional sense. It has a three-litre smaller tank, so you can’t go as far without stopping and it’s physically smaller, so it’ll be a squeeze when you load up with luggage.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t cover big miles in comfort. The Supersport’s slim screen isn’t the last word in wind protection, but it does the job, the seat is snug, there’s decent legroom for tall riders and the bar position is natural. Riding tense on tricky wet roads back at the Supersport launch had fellow testers riding one-handed towards the end, shaking life back into their wrists. Today there’s no such problem.
Like on the Kawasaki you get ABS, traction control and riding modes, but the Supersport S makes life even simpler with a quickshifter and autoblipper you never thought you needed, but when you go back to the more analogue SX, realise you actually do.
Around town and on the motorway the Supersport’s twin-cylinder motor is punchy, unstressed and smooth, with an added dash of burbling Italian character. The ride-by-wire throttle response is perfect and you’re never left needing more go, despite being less powerful than the Kawasaki.
The only niggle is vibrating mirrors. They’re fine at town speeds, but it’s impossible to see behind when you go faster unless you pull the clutch in for a moment and wait for them to clear.
Is it Ducati’s answer to the Honda VFR800?
This is the comparison everyone’s talking about. The Ducati and Honda have a similar layout, an almost identical riding position and have separated-at-birth faces, but that’s where the similarities end. The Supersport is far
lighter, more agile and sportier. It’s Ducati Whippet v Honda Labrador.
Updated four years ago the Honda is still the dependable choice. It’s the original sports tourer and even plusher and more solid than the Kawasaki. It’s also the heaviest and least powerful here, but that doesn’t ruin it. It’s not slow and handles so well the cheery red beast is always there when you look back, even on the twistiest of roads.
Sure, it’s showing its age, with its low, non-adjustable screen, tacked-on traction control buttons and weighty feel, but it cossets you in a relaxing cocoon of easy speed. Although snatchy off a closed throttle the V4 is smooth at normal speeds and sounds like a firework factory when the VTEC allows all four valves to do their thing. There’s no step in power nowadays, just a transition from quiet to raucous.
You could say the Supersport is the bike the VFR would be if Honda had given it to the same development team who created the exciting new Blade. As it is, it’s still a class act and thoroughly dependable, but you’ll have more of a dolce vita on the sparking Ducati.
Shouldn’t I just get a proper sportsbike?
Ducati’s 959 Panigale is the ultimate evolution of the firm’s supersport race replica. It’s grown over the years from 748 through to 749, 848, 899 and now a machine that’s bigger than the iconic 916. It’s crammed full of speed, technology and handling reserves that remain untouched unless you visit a racetrack.
On the road it’s at the extreme end of the spectrum, with its rigid cast aluminium airbox frame, stiff suspension and wrist-heavy riding position. It’s particularly focused and machines like the Daytona 675 or new R6 are far plusher and forgiving.
The Panigale isn’t actually that uncomfortable on the motorway. Pegs are set further back than the Supersport’s but there’s still lots of legroom and the wide bars don’t hem you in. At higher speed speeds the wind cushions your upper body and takes the weight of your arms and hands.
But the Panigale quickly becomes the ‘booby prize’ bike in this company when we leave the Autostrada and head to the second to fourth gear twists and turns that make up the magnificent Passo del Muriglione.
You can’t deny the 959’s brilliance on a circuit (it was faster than the old Blade SP on track when we tested them together last year) and on the odd occasion you’re presented with a fast, smooth, empty curve on the road. Here in the real world you can’t begin to use a fraction of the performance. It’s clumsy, harsh and jars your wrists over bumps.
Life is easier on the Supersport S. Its chassis is more pliable, the Öhlins suspension plusher and the power delivery softer. You glide over rough terrain while you watch the Panigale bobbing in front, reacting to bumps and struggling to put its power down.
Despite its less powerful, old-tech motor and extra all-up weight, there are very few instances where Ducati’s Supersport can’t keep up with a Ducati supersport and only a racetrack would separate them. It has lots of usable, unthreatening grunt, superb brakes and precise, stable handling. The Ducati Supersport S is easier to ride for more of the time for more types of rider.
Ôyouõll have more of a dolce vita on the sparking new Ducatiõ
2017 HONDA VFR800F £10,699 104bhp, 242kg Given a thorough overhaul in 2014 with new styling, suspension, wheels, heated grips, self-cancelling indicators, height-adjustable rider seats, engine tweaks and a new exhaust. 2017 DUCATI SUPERSPORT S £12,995 113bhp, 210kg Launched in February it has a rejigged Hypermotard 939 motor, a Monsterderived chassis, rider aids and a manually adjustable screen. This S model has Öhlins suspension, a quickshifter/ blipper and seat cowl. 2017 DUCATI 959 PANIGALE £13,795 157bhp, 200kg The 899 grew into the 959 last year with a longer stroke engine and spawned those shotgun pipes to keep the white coats at Euro4 happy, as well as a slipper clutch, a lower swingarm pivot and styling tweaks.
Both Italians are gorgeous but the Supersport S (right) is the better road bike It’s hard to ignore the VFR’S bulk next to the Supersport S Old-school Zed is a properly capable contender 2017 KAWASAKI Z1000SX £9999 140bhp, 235kg Updated for 2017 the Z1000SX sports tourer gets the Euro4 exhaust, plus a new shock linkage to lower the rear, tweaked suspension, multi-function clocks and Imu-controlled, lean-sensitive traction control and ABS.
The Honda and Kawasaki are never far behind
It’s the VFR that’s boss of fuel capacity