When I arrived at Sydney's impressive Ducati dealership to ride the new Panigale S superbike, there was a long line of freshly-traded 1098 models inside.
|AT A GLANCE|
|Engine: 1198cc liquid-cooled DOHC 8v fuel-injected 90-degree V-twin, 145kW (195bhp) at 10,750rpm and 132Nm of torque at 9000rpm.|
|Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, chain final drive.|
|Frame: Aluminium front sub- frame connects to single-sided alloy rear swingarm via engine, 43mm Ohlins NIX30 inverted forks with electronic damping adjustment and 120mm of travel, Ohlins TTX36 rear monoshock with electronic damping adjustment and 130mm of travel.|
|Hot: Never has so much performance been made so accessible. This bike will make you feel like a riding god, 24,000km service intervals, comfy riding position.|
|Not: Fairing design cooks legs with engine heat on hot days, 17-litre tank easily drained by enthusiastic use, access to faired-in sidestand a bit awkward.|
The new Panigale has none of these and its strongest connection to this lineage is that its name is that of the satellite suburb in Bologna, Italy, where you'll find the Ducati factory. My first impression of the new Pan was therefore one based subjectively on looks alone, and it wasn't completely favourable. To my eye, last year's model definitely wins the beauty contest.
Roughly one hour later, however, I understood that beauty, in the fullest sense of the term, is more than skin deep. An epiphany occurred as I began to measure the outer edges of the Panigale's performance envelope while climbing the Blue Mountains via the tortuously- twisty Bell's Line Rd. This historic backroad is as bumpy as a tar-sealed motocross track, with corner cambers that suddenly change from on to off, to catch out the unwary.
When the traffic cleared and I began to ride the Panigale S in a manner that would hopefully reveal its true purpose, the bike literally took my breath away. It carves like the 250cc Grand Prix bike its vital dimensions measure, the sophisticated electronically- managed suspension is unbelievably good and the engine ... there aren't words adequate enough to describe the explosive top-end punch that arrives at nine grand. Had I been able to breathe, I would have been able to yell expletives of adrenaline-charged joy into my helmet. The phrase "you freaking beauty" isn't entirely an accurate representation of my thoughts at that particular moment, but it will serve for now.
Thing is, there are bikes as fast, and just as enthusiastic to slice up corners, as the Panigale S, but none are as easy to ride. BMW's S1000RR is perhaps the best example, as it offers a similar level of ultimate power, (195bhp) comes with a suite of electronic riding aids almost as sophisticated, and the new HP4 version has similarly adaptive and just as easy-to-adjust-at-a-press-of-a-button electronic damping as the S-model Pan. Yet I find the BMW intimidating. One whiff of the way it suddenly whips forward when the engine hits five- figure speeds and I'm in need of open-heart surgery.
The Panigale builds to a similarly exciting climax with more progression and a richer reserve of mid-range torque smoothing the transition into the high-end ballistic zone. Coupled with a suspension package that is firmly tuned with an absolute resolution to keep the tyres in contact with the road, the more exploitable delivery of the Panigale's mighty V-twin makes it easy to relax and enjoy a seriously-quick ride. So I soon began to breathe again, relax the arms and revel in being on what is clearly the best superbike I've ever ridden.
The 50-kilometre stretch of the Bell's Line was consumed in what felt like 10 minutes, so a quick U-turn allowed me to experience the Ducati's descending abilities, which proved just as awe-inspiring as those on the ascent. The steep downhills leading into corners posted with 35kmh advisory speeds gave opportunities for the bike's braking abilities to come to the fore. If I ever have to stop like my life depended upon it, I want to be aboard this bike. It rivets the contact patches of the tyres to the road, the suspension maintaining the bike in a level attitude to maximise grip, and holds the sportily-calibrated ABS system of this particular model in reserve. Two further traverses of the Bell's Line and it was time to head back to the dealership before closing time. The clogged streets and motorways of Sydney's eastern suburbs on a 35-degree late afternoon gave an opportunity to evaluate the Panigale S not as some kind of a performance freak, but as an everyday motorcycle.
There's plenty to recommend it: A comfier riding position than any D-branded superbike since the original bevel-drive 900SS; and an wet-weather throttle mode that makes it more relaxing to trickle the over-achieving engine through grid-locked roads. However, heat management could be better on days like this and my legs began to cook inside my leathers.
The ultimate Ducati is also a bit loud, but then the music emerging from the pipes of the Panigale is utterly inspiring and magnificent. Bit like the rest of the bike really.
- © Fairfax NZ News