Head to head: Aprilia RSV Mille vs Kawasaki ZX-9RC

The late 1990s were great years and the bikes were pretty spe­cial. It’s now nearly 20 years since Aprilia’s RSV Mille and Kawasaki’s ZX-9R ap­peared. Now they’re bal­lis­tic bar­gains

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Con­tents - WORDS SI­MON HAR­G­REAVES PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JA­SON CRITCHELL

Aprilia’s first big four-stroke V-twin takes on Kawasaki’s punchy four

FIRST WARM RIDE of the year, and anaprilia RSV Mille clears a small brow,v-twin pound­ing force­fully to­wards the first sticky(ish) cor­ner of the year, Mi­cron end can shout­ing the odds and scat­ter­ing a mur­der of crows. Be­hind, the tear­ing Blue Flame wail of the Kawasaki ZX-9R’S in­line four chases it down, the two op­po­site ex­haust notes min­gling to­gether in an opera of me­chan­i­cal har­mony – an Ital­ian basso pro­fundo in con­cert with the Ja­pa­nese bike’s high-pitched tenor.

Time for the singing to stop as the bend nears; the Mille’s pil­lar-box red Brembo four-pots bite, plug­ging a Pirelli into the tar­mac and com­press­ing 43mm Showas like a pair of very ex­pen­sive and well-damped bi­cy­cle pumps.at the back, a vac­uum-op­er­ated slip­per clutch stops the rear wheel chat­ter­ing.a quick look in the mir­rors to see where Jimmy, on the Kwack, is at... and the an­swer is he’s nowhere. Shit, he’s only bloody crashed the thing. I pull up and spin the Mille round – hmm... good steer­ing lock – but nope, Jimmy’s up­right, sit­ting on a very sta­tion­ary ZX-9R on the crest of the hill, wav­ing his arms. It’s run out of fuel, al­ready on re­serve. It’s a re­lief the bike’s in one piece, but I’ll have to shoot off, find a can, fill it and bring it back. Balls.

Only, it’s not quite that sim­ple.the Kawasaki’s fresh ig­ni­tion key fits snugly in its fresh bar­rel, but doesn’t fit the orig­i­nal filler cap so well.ah, dou­ble balls.a quick call to Scott at Fasttrack Mo­tor­cy­cles, the Le­ices­ter­shire dealer who’s loaned us both bikes, and another key ap­pears. Now that’s what you call ser­vice.

The late 1990s were dom­i­nated byyamaha’s R1, but of course it wasn’t the only big sports­bike game in town. Kawasaki’s ZX-9R C-model an­daprilia’s RSV Mille were both launched in the same year as theyam, both still have plenty to of­fer the prac­ti­cal sports­biker, and both without the R1’s scene tax.

In 1998Aprilia’s RSV Mille ar­rived af­ter a long ges­ta­tion.the de­sign dates from 1994, when anaprilia en­gi­neer called Mar­i­ano Fio­ra­vanzo was tasked with the tricky job of cre­at­ing an al­ter­na­tive Ital­ian road bike and World Su­per­bike con­tender to go up against Du­cati’s 916. Fio­ra­vanzo spent a year analysing the op­ti­mum en­gine po­si­tion and con­fig­u­ra­tion, and even­tu­ally se­lected a lay­out that mim­icked the Du­cati in one area – it was av-twin – but was oth­er­wise com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Fio­ra­vanzo’s mo­tor was a Ro­tax-built, fuel-in­jected 60-de­greev-twin with con­ven­tional valve-train, housed in a Ja­pane­ses­tyle alu­minium beam frame with an alu­minium swingarm.very dif­fer­ent to you-know-who.

The down­sides of a 60-de­greev-an­gle twin in­clude sig­nif­i­cant pri­mary vi­bra­tion from the un­bal­anced mo­tor re­quir­ing two, pow­er­sap­ping bal­ancer shafts to counter it (one run­ning off the crank, the other in the rear cylin­der head be­tween the cams).and there’s less room be­tween the cylin­ders for op­ti­mum in­duc­tion. But the up­sides are sig­nif­i­cant: the lay­out is more com­pact than a 90-de­greev, al­low­ing a shorter wheel­base, more cen­tralised mass, and more free­dom to place the en­gine close to the front wheel for op­ti­mum han­dling.

By 1996 the ru­mours of a bi­gaprilia

“Launched late in 1998, no one ex­pected Aprilia to get it so right first time out”

four-stroke sur­faced in the press, but the bike wasn’t un­veiled un­til the Mi­lan bike show in Septem­ber 1997 – where it was a big hit.the spec was im­pres­sive – 125bhp and 187kg dry weight was more and less than Du­cati’s 916. The bike was launched late in 1998 and no-one ex­pectedaprilia to get it so right, first time out.

But, with its short wheel­base, com­pact en­gine mass be­tween the rider’s knees and vast, pol­ished ally frame spars and swingarm, the RSV gained a rep­u­ta­tion as the Ja­pa­nese Ital­ianv-twin; it steered and han­dled more like a Honda than a Du­cati.

Stand­ing back and ad­mir­ing Fio­ra­vanzo’s hand­i­work in the mid­day murk of an over­cast Mon­day some 20 years later, it’s hard not to be im­pressed.the Mille – this one’s a 17-year-old with 16,500 miles on the clock – has ob­vi­ous in­flu­ences, from the 1950s-style rear lights to the faired-in twin ra­di­a­tors with spi­der­web fan guards, to the triple head­light and dou­ble row of raised eye­brow slats up front.the long weld seam run­ning the length of the ba­nana swingarm on both sides is ar­ti­sanal and the over­all de­sign still looks hand­some – it’s a proper clas­sic.

And it’s a clas­sic to ride too, in a good way. The rid­ing po­si­tion is rad­i­cal sports at first,

all clip-ons and folded feet – but on the move the chas­sis is beau­ti­fully poised. Con­trols are all good to go: brakes are light to the touch but freshly pow­er­ful, the clutch is firm, the switches and levers all feel tick­ety. Funny clocks though; I can never get used to boxes of dig­its ei­ther side of a square tacho or green num­bers.

A dash of choke, and thev-twin chor­tles into ac­tion im­me­di­ately, without the leisurely chuff­ing turnover of a Du­cati. Even at a stand­still, you can tell the diminu­tiveaprilia has more con­ven­tional weight dis­tri­bu­tion than a 90-de­greev. It feels shorter and stouter.and its mo­tor is smoother, neater and faster-revving too, per­fectly fu­elled and eas­ily con­trolled.

But not so eas­ily re­sisted.the Mille has a fan­tas­tic throt­tle-to-rear tyre con­nec­tion that some­how joins up the dots so the right wrist de­liv­ers the right trac­tion. If all bikes had the Aprilia’s sense of feel at the back, no-one would’ve needed to in­vent elec­tronic rider aids.

Jimmy and I blast off and head deeper into the Le­ices­ter­shire coun­try­side, rev­el­ling in this un­nat­u­rally warm late win­ter morn­ing. From be­hind theaprilia’s stumpy screen, chin rest­ing lightly in the shal­low re­cess in the top of the broad, flat tank, I can hear the howl of the in­line four be­hind me again.the Mille jinks to the right, then left, then right, piv­ot­ing neatly through the S-bends as its rear Pirelli Rosso Corsa wraps a stream of long-chain poly­mer mol­e­cules around the grains of tar­mac. Steer­ing is neu­trally weighted – not flappy or twitchy, and no ef­fort to turn.the Showa forks and Sachs shock – both fully ad­justable – are still full of life too; plenty of damp­ing, which never feels choppy and gets more sup­ple the more en­ergy goes into them.

And the mo­tor gives you plenty of en­ergy to work with.at low revs the Mille’s front wheel jerks vi­o­lently up­wards, fuel in­jec­tors slam­ming un­leaded with a force­ful ve­loc­ity into the Aprilia’s 51mm throt­tle bod­ies, with lit­tle fi­nesse. It’s not snatchy in that hor­ri­ble, mod­ern, lean-run­ning way; just supremely ur­gent at low revs. Fur­ther up the rev range the Mille calms down a bit, ul­ti­mately de­liv­er­ing some­thing around the same top end as a fit 1990’s sports 750. But the RSV is not re­ally for fan­ny­ing about on; it re­sponds best to a hint of self-be­lief, of­fer­ing en­cour­age­ment rather than haughty dis­dain. The aprilia helps you be­come a bet­ter rider.and bet­ter at wheel­ies, too – it loves to pop the front up.

We pull over. “I’m into this,” I shout across to Jimmy. “It might have a few pur­ple an­odised bolts, but it’s ba­si­cally sorted.” Jimmy looks less than im­pressed with the ZX-9R though.

“Nice en­gine, but the chas­sis feels like it’s held to­gether by elas­tic.”

Funny, I have good mem­o­ries of the 1998 ZX-9R C model. It was Kawasaki’s sec­ond go at the 899cc; the first was the slightly tubby ZZ-R/ZXR mash-up ZX-9R B of 1994. Five years later the all-new C ar­rived with the same bore and stroke, but every­thing else was new, and lighter (weight re­duced from 218kg to 183kg): pis­tons, rods, crank, cases, swingarm, frame, val­ve­train, elec­tri­cal sys­tem, body­work, wheels and sus­pen­sion all re­designed for less weight. this was, af­ter all, Kawasaki’s some­what be­lated re­sponse to the 1992 Fire­blade. Just bad tim­ing to get up­staged by the R1.

And yet, as I sling a leg over the ZX-9R’S wide seat and set­tle into what can only be de­scribed as an in­nately comfy sports-tour­ing rid­ing po­si­tion, I strug­gle to see why no-one

“If all bikes had the Aprilia’s sense of feel, there’d be no need for elec­tronic rider aids”

makes sports­bikes like this any more.the Kawasaki is phys­i­cally larger than the mini-mille – the rider is perched higher, and is more spread across the bike. there’s more leg-room, more arm-room, more bum-room, and less stress on hips, shoul­ders and wrists. This is a prop­erly prac­ti­cal sports­bike. It tow­ers over the aprilia when it’s along­side.

It’s also bloody rapid. with over 125bhp at your dis­posal, sir, the Kawasaki has the mea­sure of the RSV as soon as we’re out of first gear.the in­line four has no bal­ancer shafts, but gets round those buzzy sec­ondary vi­bra­tions with rub­ber footrests (al­ways thought they were an odd choice) and mas­sive ’bar-ends (although not on this bike).

But blimey, has it got some poke. turn on the taps and the mo­tor growls with that typ­i­cal Kawasaki tem­per, build­ing speed smoothly with the in­evitable tur­moil of a gath­er­ing hur­ri­cane – and only slightly more con­trol. It’s not al­ways en­tirely clear who’s in charge; you or the en­gine. there’s none of the clin­i­cal feed­back of the Mille – in­stead you point the ZX-9R in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of de­sired travel, pin it, and hang on.

And this ZX-9R is a rolling ad­vert for what you shouldn’t bolt onto a sports­bike if you want to ride it without peo­ple point­ing and laugh­ing at you.the huge, irid­ium dou­ble bub­ble would be the first in the bin, fol­lowed by the mini-in­di­ca­tors, car­bon top yoke cover, tank pad, crash bungs and rear hug­ger. I’d prob­a­bly put the end can on ebay too, and find a stock item.and look for an orig­i­nal top fair­ing, with sym­met­ri­cal de­cals – and in the right shade of blue too.

Sounds a lot, but it’s all cos­metic stuff and eas­ily swapped back to stock.and in that re­spect the Kawasaki is an easy first restora­tion project-in-wait­ing – a deep clean wouldn’t go amiss ei­ther.the only prob­lem dy­nam­i­cally with this 9R is the brakes – the early six-pot calipers suf­fer from hav­ing one sin­gle pad per side, mean­ing any in­di­vid­ual stick­ing pis­ton (which they all do, sooner rather than later) has a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on brak­ing per­for­mance. Tricky to bleed prop­erly, too. And the Kawasaki’s KYB forks and shock were never great, even in 1998, and their chop­pi­ness over rough stuff hasn’t im­proved with age.

The 9R isn’t as taut or con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing as the Mille – you’d not take this one on track just yet – but they’re all like that, and it’s play­ing a dif­fer­ent game to the aprilia. The Kawasaki is a crack­ing sports tourer need­ing a lit­tle love and at­ten­tion; the Mille is a crack­ing sports­bike cry­ing out for a track day.

Thanks

Scott at Fasttrack Mo­tor­cy­cles (0116 262 3099, www.fast­track­mo­tor­cy­cles.co.uk)

Matt Oates for ZX-9R ’bar-ends!

Big, sim­ple ma­chines heavy on raw sen­sa­tions

ZX-9R went well (with some fuel in it)

Mille’s very dis­tinc­tive rear easy to spot Bold styling, tidy ex­e­cu­tion, strong en­gine Fully ad­justable rear shock too Fully ad­justable front forks Early digi/ana­logue clock combo

“And you can ac­tu­ally ad­just these, see...”

Please can I have a go on the RSV. Please?

Aprilia shows its age much less than the ZX-9R in the turns

ZX-9R more likely to visit the hedge than RSV

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