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
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.
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