Ducati retires its beloved Superbike L-Twin platform in favor of a race-winning V-Four. Will it succeed?
Eleven years ago, Ducati took a stab at a mass-produced, V-Four street bike with the beautiful, exclusive, and eye-wateringly expensive Desmosedici D16RR. If the 70-some-thousand dollar asking price didn’t break you, its maintenance costs certainly would. After all, Ducati didn’t expect folks to ride it as much as they did! Today an all-new MotoGP derived, 1103cc V-Four replaces the Bologna brand’s classic L-Twin Superbike with the 2018 Panigale V4. And the best part? It’s a fraction of the original D16RR, starting at $21,195.
Like always, Ducati bragged about the performance of its latest masterpiece. Following a sunshine-filled day wearing down knee pucks at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain, we’re pleased to say that the Panigale V4 S not only walks the walk, but it changes the perception of what a modern Superbike can and should be.
Bologna Muscle, Times Two
Eager to capitalize on its MotoGP research and development efforts, the four-cylinder Panigale is propelled by a 90-degree water-cooled mill dubbed the Desmosedici Stradale. The 81mm cylinder bore is identical to GP specification and has a 53.4mm stroke. Ducati’s proprietary Desmodromic valvetrain ensures precise valve movement for each of the 16-valves at the V4’s lofty rpm ceiling – the engine’s redline is rated at 14,500. For now, displacement is above the 999cc threshold for competition, but a racing legal version is in the works.
Although nearly two inches wider, the engine is shorter and more compact from front to rear. This allowed engineers to rotate the engine backwards 42 degrees for a more effective center of gravity. Weight distribution has shifted forward – with a greater emphasis on handling and front-end grip. A shorter engine block also usually means there’s more room for a swingarm, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Ducati’s sound like nothing else on the road, and that growl is more unmistakable with the V4’s “Twin Pulse” firing order. Engineered for smooth, Pirelli-friendly torque, the engine fires like a conventional V-Twin, only twice. Silky smooth with a lion-like purr, the engine’s roar rises in ferocious fervor in a bat of the eyelid. It boasts a thick powerband and generates balls-out acceleration from as low as 7,500 rpm. Hold on tight though, as things get really crazy north of 9,000 revs. From here to its nearly 15,000 rpm rev limiter, the engine pumps out a vision-blurring wrath in the same hard-hitting vein of the top dog of ‘em all – BMW’s S1000RR.
Ducati claims that the V4 is good for 214 crank horsepower, 17 more than its already extreme predecessor. It feels every bit as quick as this claim. Expect rear wheel horsepower numbers in the low-190s – territory that only a handful of superbikes are capable of in stock trim. Those that desire more power will be pleased to know that an Akrapovic titanium race pipe is available that boosts power to 226 hp.
Speaking of the bike’s unhinged power, combined and adjustable engine/throttle maps permit you to tweak the powerband to your own riding specifications. Of all the options available, we love the near perfect and direct calibration of the ‘Race’ setting. It affords crisp throttle response that puts you in harmony with the gummy footprint of the new 200/60-series Diablo Supercorsa SP V3 rubber. Developed exclusively for the Panigale, Pirelli states that these new tires will become a commercially available option next year.
Traction, slide, and wheelie control are both standard and vastly more useable. Where the old electronics were, well, kind of erratic, the new package is more trustworthy. It now rivals the best rider aids from Yamaha and Ducati’s northern Italian and German neighbors.
A bright five-inch color display offers crisp fonts, bright hues, and easy menu navigation – something that previous Ducati’s have lacked. We just wish it was a touchscreen. Larger switchgear and buttons afford easier adjustment, with each setting netting a noticeable difference. The adjustment range is wide, yet finite, so you can get things just right.
An electronic quick-shifter ensures immediate and pause-free acceleration upshifts. The setup continues to include auto-blip functionality, so you feel like a pro during downshifts too. No need to use the clutch, just tap down on the gear shifter and let the machine do the work for you.
As with the 1299 Panigale, the electronics are further complemented by three-level adjustable engine brake control (EBC), with the higher the number equaling less compression brake effect. The setting is linked to each of the three riding modes – Street, Sport and Race. We favored Level 3’s free-wheeling, momentum-carrying setting. After all, the Panigale’s brakes and Ohlins EC 2.0 electronic front suspension are as good as it gets.
An Impeccable Chassis - Agile, Stable and Rich in Feel
Ducati bet the farm on the original Panigale’s monocoque frame. While certainly innovative, the technology didn’t deliver the ideal rigidity and balance most sport riders need to go fast. For the new bike, engineers learned from the gaffe and returned to the drawing board to create a fresh design that combines the best features of a conventional twin-spar setup and that of the previous exercise.
Resembling a shorter version of a twin-spar alloy frame, Ducati dubs this component a “front frame”. It mates the headstock to the engine’s front cylinders and the top of the rears, where it forms an integral structural piece of the chassis. This aluminum frame gave engineers the ability to tune torsional forces for more natural handling, and ever so precious rider feel.
A cast aluminum subframe attaches to the back of the motor where it provides support for the rider and tail piece. The rear suspension operates through a more standard vertical configuration similar to the MotoGP prototype’s. It’s complemented by a longer, pavement-gripping swingarm that stretches wheelbase three inches to 57.8 in.
Despite the longer wheelbase, and the fact that it gained about ten pounds, the 430-pound V4S feels far nimbler than the 1299 Panigale S it replaces. Steering is lighter than an 1103cc bike should be yet offers a natural and rewarding feel at the controls. It’s planted in turns and provides the type of favorable flex that we’ve missed since the steel-trellis frame days of the 1098/1198.
This breeds confidence with the machine – it rewards deep lean angles and deliberate throttle application. Of course, some of the credit goes to the grippy DSC tires, but we’re happy to report the Panigale V4 has the handling pedigree of a true thoroughbred.
Stability in deep braking zones was equally striking, helping you get the most out of the always-powerful Brembo brakes. The hardware also benefits from the latest “EVO” generation ABS programming, with cornering function and an interesting “Slide by Brake” mode (ABS Level 2). This lets you apply – or even stand on – the brake pedal for a more controlled skid. The feature is a tad gimmicky, but we still appreciate the direction Ducati is heading here.
The nicely concealed, Euro 4 compliant 4-2-1-2 exhaust, deep 4.23-gallon under-seat fuel cell, and a tiny lithium battery mounted forward of the fuel tank certainly help with nimbleness. What really pays off though is the counter-rotating crankshaft.
It’s the same sort of tech employed in MotoGP prototypes and MV Agusta’s super agile F3 675/800 sportbikes, where the crankshaft spins in the opposite direction of the five-spoke forged alloy wheels (standard on the ’S’ model. The base model gets cast rims). This counteracts the gyroscopic forces of a big heavy crank and wheels, making the motorcycle more limber and ready for direction change. It also reduces the tendency of power wheelies and rear wheel lift during three or four-finger brake lever squeezes.
To be fair, the engine produces so much power that it’ll readily wheelie in the lower three gears, even with its now finely calibrated DWC (Ducati Wheelie Control). Level 2 was our favorite, as it allowed big, fun, but still controllable power wheelies off turns.
Physically, the Panigale V4 remains a well-proportioned sportbike. Neither too small nor too big, it didn’t feel overly compact for my six-foot frame. There is adequate seat room, thus allowing the rider to tuck in comfortably beneath the windscreen at speed. The foot controls are 0.4-in higher, but the cockpit isn’t too tight, even for someone with stiff knees. Although the machined foot pegs have a grippy knurled surface, our Supertech R boots slipped off them on more than one occasion. Besides that small gripe, there isn’t much to complain about ergonomically.
The ’S’ model we tested – a $6300 up-charge – was fitted with Ohlins top-notch EC 2.0 semi-active electronic suspension, replacing the base model’s fixed damping suspenders from Showa and Sachs. When set in ‘dynamic’ mode, the gold bits rely on real-time operating data to adjust damping based on road conditions and vehicle dynamics. Each setting is tied into a global riding mode so the ‘Street’ setup will generally be softer than ‘Sport’ and ‘Race’. The operator can further modify the programming via specific events using the dashboard’s super slick interface.
Want less fork dive during braking? Bump up the ‘Brake Support’ setting. Want the chassis to sack out more mid-corner? dial back the ‘Mid Corner’. Desire less weight transfer to the back tire when shooting out of a turn? Increase the ‘Acceleration’ number. Each category has 11 levels of adjustment – minus-five to plus-five – with the higher number equaling more damping control.
Those that prefer setting up their bike the old-fashioned way, with fixed compression and rebound selections, still can Electronically of course. However, at Valencia, you’ll be hard pressed to develop a better setting than what the machine can do automatically. We were equally impressed by the suspension’s wide adjustment range and how it transforms from a soft and squishy street bike to firm and supportive track steed with a simple swipe of a button.
A True Home Run
With the arrival of the Panigale V4 this spring, Ducati puts the superbike segment on notice. The new V4 is a knock it out of the park home run for the Italian brand. It’s a substantially more competent track weapon that remains true to Ducati’s wild and charismatic history. Still insanely powerful, but with a more thoughtful chassis and intelligent electronics package, the 2018 Panigale provides an experience that’s equally as exhilarating as it is polished. Well done, Ducati!
Rider: Adam Waheed
Height: 6 feet
Physical build: Need to hit the gym to be able to ride this Panigale V4 longer!
Experience: A life-long motorcyclist, the only thing Adam loves more than being in the saddle is inspiring others to do the same.
Helmet: Arai Corsair-X Spencer
Leather Suit: Alpinestars GP Tech V2
Gloves: Alpinestars GP Pro R2
Boots: Alpinestars Supertech R
Summaries and Quick Thoughts
A: The Panigale V4’s chassis finally offers the rich chassis feel we’ve missed since the steel-trellis days of the 1098/1198.
B: Despite gaining nearly 10 pounds, the Panigale V4 steers more nimbly with greater precision. We love the way it handles.
C: Ergonomically, the Panigale V4 is well-proportioned and will be appreciated by taller and shorter riders alike.
D: The Gen 2 Ohlins EC suspension is a game changer for the Panigale offering a wide, yet precise range of adjustment.
E: Finally! Wheelie control that actually works. We were most impressed with DWC in Level 2 allowing full throttle acceleration off turns without the need to lift.
F: If 214 hp isn’t enough, Ducati offers a Akrapovic race exhaust that bumps up the volume to the tune of 226 hp.
G: The Panigale uses a twin-spar like front frame that combines the best features of the previous monocoque design and that of a conventional alloy setup.
H: As you can see the Panigale V4 offers ultra-tight packaging with a focus on low center of gravity. The best part? It works.
I: The Panigale V4 has a more muscular stance with full LED lighting.
J: Some might gripe that the styling is too original Panigale-like. Our answer? Why mess with a good thing.
K: Slim and trim - Ducati certainly did its homework with the Panigale V4. It’s a far superior machine than the bike it replaces and will be a true competitor in the superbike segment.
L: She’s certainly a looker.
M: Bold, crisp, and beautiful — the all-digital instrumentation is as easy to manipulate as it is to look at.
N: The Ohlins EC 2.0 suspension operates though a completely redesigned linkage that operates vertically opposed to the previous horizontal design.
O: A nearly three-inch longer swingarm adds stability and provides more bite off turns. The Panigale V4 also gets shod with an even more grippy V3 Supercorsa SP tire from Pirelli.