Memorable Motorcycle: Aprilia SRV 850

June 19, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Intended to be a practical machine  the Aprilia SRV 850 delivers in many unexpected ways.
Intended to be a practical machine, the Aprilia SRV 850 delivers in many unexpected ways – but does practical apply to its $12,000 asking price?

If you read any appreciation of a motorcycle the key question you should ask the journalist who wrote the story is this: In the final analysis would you spend your own, personal money on purchasing the machine in question? Forget the technical accomplishment of the design; the aesthetics; the superb dealer network and even manufacturer hospitality during the post-launch party. Would you go down to your local dealer, write out a check and take home that bike?

In the case of the Aprilia SRV 850, with a $12,000 price tag which puts it right in the center of the mainstream motorcycle market, the question is a very pertinent one because you can buy an awful lot of conventional motorcycle for the same cost as this quite remarkable scooter.

The SRV is intended to be a practical machine but there is no question that it is a stunning sight sat outside Aprilia Merseyside’s showroom, sparkling in the early summer sun. Aprilia is keen to stress the links with Max Biaggi’s World Superbike machine in terms of styling cues and paintwork, and to also link the brand’s RSV4 flagship with its super scooter. These links are perhaps more in the imagination of Aprilia’s marketing department than they are reality, but the quality of the paintwork, build and fit and finish of the SRV are undeniable. $12,000 is a significant lump of money but the more time you spend studying the SRV the greater is the feeling that Aprilia have given you fair value.

The paintwork is stunning – quite literally show quality – but there is a myriad of other pleasing touches. The plastic moldings are exquisitely elegant, and fit perfectly, while everywhere you look there are lovely little examples of care and attention. Take the cast alloy handlebars or the courtesy light inside the underseat storage compartment – allegedly the same fitting as used by Ferrari in its glove box. Yes, Aprilia have really set out to put a marker in the sand for luxury scooters.

The Aprilia SRV 850 drew plenty of attention from people of all walks of life.
The Aprilia SRV 850 drew plenty gawkers. Even the dog was impressed with the Italian’s sleek lines.

Few other bikes I have had on test have caused such a stir when we stopped to take pictures. It would have been better to have a crowd control barrier round the bike so that my wife and pillion, Carol, could have got on with her job. Surprisingly, the interest came from right across the demographic spectrum – kids not old enough to ride, born again bikers, cruiser fans and even sportbike riders. Yes, the SRV was a real show stopper.

The word “scooter” doesn’t do the SRV justice. It is a scooter but with a lot of motorcycle influence – and I do mean a huge input from bikes. The roots of the SRV go back to Gilera’s 800cc maxi scooter – Gilera being another brand which is owned by Aprilia’s parent company Piaggio. The Gilera manifestation of the SRV was a mere 800cc and the key problem it faced in terms of sales was a very thin dealer network.

The Aprilia arm of the Piaggio family got hold of the SOHC, 90-degree, eight valve Gilera lump and increased the capacity to 839cc and in so doing added a further one horsepower to the original 75 hp which it whacked out for Gilera – as well as increasing the torque to a significant 56 lb-ft at 6000 rpm. Aprilia also grafted another, similar, version of the powerplant into its crossover Mana commuter/tourer machine.

In the real world, this means a scooter with similar, but not identical, performance to a mid-range motorcycle.

What is more important for Aprilia is that the engine is also Euro 4 compliant and will therefore be allowed into city centers. This key factor addresses the problem caused by the next fruitcake European city Mayor who decides to jump on the green bandwagon – usually after disembarking from his or her chauffeur driven limo – by imposing a ban on two-wheelers which are not environmentally squeaky clean.

A by-product of Euro 4 is that engines are being designed to run virtually on fresh air, so the SRV turns in a real world fuel consumption of around 50 mpg. In practical terms, this will give a conservative range of 150 miles between topping up the 18.5 liter (4.9 gallon) fuel tank. I say 150 miles because this is not a scooter you would want to be pushing a couple of miles to the next gas station.

On the interstate the SRV 850 performed well  providing enough power to pass easily at high speed.
On the interstate the SRV 850 performed well, providing enough power to pass easily at high speed.

Riders need not be concerned with Aprilia’s necessary obsession with lean running. Unlike the disaster which MV Agusta engineers inflicted on owners of its new F3, Aprilia’s R&D department deserves an A-plus for the fuelling on the SRV. It is not merely good – but absolutely perfect. Hitched to the CVT automatic transmission the pick up and performance is faultless all the way from tickover to full throttle. Honda may well have a more sophisticated automatic transmission but there is nothing better than Aprilia’s CVT, linked with the single bodied 34mm fuel injector and a twin Lambada sensor ECU.

I need to stress this point somewhat because one of the main objections which experienced and, dare I say it, skillful riders have to scooters is that they are too easy to ride. What’s the point in being able to ride well if there is nothing to make your efforts worthwhile?

By contrast, the SRV is a completely different animal from a normal scooter. For a start, it is a seriously frisky beast. Nail the throttle and it will leap off from a standing start with the rear wheel spinning. The corollary to this infantile behavior is that it is perfectly possible to end up under almost 600 pounds of scooter, that weight is with a full tank of fuel, looking silly and embarrassed. The very fact that something could go badly wrong provides the pleasure of ensuring that it doesn’t.

With some thought, the SRV will out drag 98% of vehicles in the urban environment – but note the caveat, “with some thought”. It takes a little bit of intelligence and effort to get the SRV to perform at its peak but the experience is very satisfying.

Although heavily muted  the SRV 850 has a pleasing engine note.
Although muted, the SRV 850 has a pleasing engine note.

The same applies to heavy traffic – a world which every SRV will come to know well. Here, a skillful rider can trickle along, feet up, at less than a slow walking pace. The scooter is beautifully balanced and the automatic transmission beyond impeccable with flawless clutch disengagement – thus avoiding creep in static traffic – and a silk smooth uptake on any throttle opening.

Even the engine note is pleasing. Although heavily muted, there is still a delightful – albeit heavily muffled – duff, duff, duff note between your legs and this brings a smile to any motorcyclist’s face.

So, you’ve walked round and admired the beautiful lines and impeccable paintwork but now you want to go for a ride. Here, things are a little different from a conventional bike. First, release the parking brake. This is a useful addendum for this scooter because the SRV is no anorexic 50cc urban scooter and will have a tendency to wander off on its own if parked on a slope. You wouldn’t want to leave this scooter without its brake on in San Francisco – no matter how cool it looked to the fashionisti of the Bay Area!

The SRV comes with center and side stands and these are excellent – strong and easy to use.

Once in the saddle, turn on the ignition and squeeze either brake lever hard. The motor will then fire through a conventional starter button and will instantly sit down to a quiet beat awaiting further orders.

The left-hand lever operates the rear brake – although there isn’t much of a brake to operate. The right hand lever follows standard practice controlling a pair of 300mm, two pad Brembos which do work. The front brakes should have ABS which is worthwhile in urban environments with dirty, slippery roads – especially when wet but don’t. Interestingly, the ECU is already programmed for ABS but at present Aprilia hasn’t fitted the mechanical bits on the disk to make it work. I think this is a pity for a machine which unashamedly claims to be setting new standards for super scooters.

Open the throttle and the SRV will either creep away as innocuously as a hunting owl, or really take off if you need to get into that rare empty space in the dense traffic.

The Aprilia SRV 850 has a low saddle height which makes it difficult to see over traffic.
The Aprilia SRV 850 has a low saddle height which makes it difficult to see over traffic.

Clearly, the SRV is superb in town. With a 62 inch wheelbase, it appears to be a big lump but the reality is much different. The SRV has a low saddle height, and is narrow, so it is no different from any other scooter. What I did find disconcerting is not being able to see over traffic. Custom cruiser riders will be used to being below car window height, but us AT riders have become addicted to being able to see over the top of everything.

On the open road, the SRV is just as impressive. There is plenty of space in the cabin and the saddle is comfortable and well-shaped. Directly behind the rider is a padded hump which is a real irritant because it intrudes into the base of one’s back. The pad is easily removable – but is there a reason for its existence? With the acceleration the SRV possesses, no gas tank to grip and an upright riding position, remaining stable is not a straightforward exercise: this is the reason for the hump. For me, I would still prefer to grip the ‘bars, and not have the irritant in my back, but equally I can see the logic behind the idea.

The SRV comes with a chassis which is much more motorcycle orientated than scooter. The frame is tubular, rather than a steel monocoque pressing, and the front fork stanchions are of bike diameter at 41mm – but with a trailing axle set up presumably for reasons of space and height. In this configuration, the axle lies behind the center line of the fork slider and is mounted some distance up the leg rather than being at the bottom.

The exposed  short chain drive will be whizzing around at high speeds during your drive from home to work.
An expsed chain drive? One of the not too scooterish quirks to be found on the Aprilia.

The swingarm is a very sexy all-alloy unit which would look good on a race bike and, interestingly, the chain adjustment is executed via two eccentric bushes – an idea put into mass production by BSA some 40 years ago. I’m not so sure about the exposed chain drive and 16-inch wheels. Even with the Regina “X Ring” sealed chain, those links are whizzing round at very high speed because the length is so short.

The Pirelli Diablo scooter tires are superb but, at 120/70 for the front, and 160/60 for the rear, are of a narrow width. These small tires will be asked to do an awful lot in terms of controlling a scooter of the SRV’s weight and speed in wet conditions.

However, on a dry, warm day the handling was outstanding – by scooter standards at least. On my favorite piece of freeway access road, the SRV swept round the long, compound left-hand curve at 80 mph quite effortlessly.

On the Interstate, the legal speed limit of 70 mph was a mere trifle, and there was plenty of power for effortless overtaking. Only the tiny screen, which looks so cute, was a disappointment providing inadequate wind protection. Where it was less happy is on minor roads. Here, the rear suspension in particular reached the limits of its performance.

The SRV is also somewhat less practical than it should be. Some elements of the design are superb – such as the stylish rear view mirrors which provide excellent vision. However, the underseat storage area – even with the benefit of a Ferrari courtesy light – is too small. To be honest, I put my Arai in the storage box by way of illustration for a picture but I wouldn’t take the chance of closing the seat on a $900 helmet – the fit is too tight.

Another part of the design which must have been done by Piaggio trainee designers was the speedometer. For Britain, the primary display comes in kilometers per hour – although we operate in miles per hour. The mph numbers use a tiny, dark red font on a dark grey background, so I ended up looking at the kph figures in white and then doing the standard mental calculations of dividing by eight and multiplying by five – this being a good approximation of converting kph to mph. Every British motorcyclist learns to do this quickly during his first European trip so it wasn’t a major chore.

While some of the design features were impeccable  others were not. The speedomoter was especially difficult to read if one wanted to know mph rather than km h.
While some of SRV design features are impeccable, others are not. The speedomoter is especially difficult to read for the mileage readers amongst us.

If American riders get the same speedometer, it will be just like going back to Elementary school for your times table tests, so maybe this is Aprilia’s contribution to getting us intellectually lazy Westerners back on a par with the Chinese.

Where things stop being quirky-humorous and start being seriously inadequate is when a pillion rider is added. The suspension, which was already feeling stressed on poor road surfaces with just the pilot on board, simply gives up and goes home with the addition of a 140-pound passenger.

You might be able to take your petite, elegant PA two miles from your Milan Office to the restaurant at lunch time but add a full sized, female photographer, complete with a loaded camera bag and wearing bike gear, and you will be in for a really unpleasant experience. Riding like this is just untenable – bordering on dangerous.

Female passengers also have another complaint. I’ll only provide the briefest outline and leave you to fill in the details. The width of the scooter beneath the pillion passenger’s legs means that she has to adopt a very uncompromising position – and one which is not normally seen in public except on internet sites of a certain kind…

This brings us full circle: would I write a check out for $12,000? The answer is yes and no. First the yes. If I wanted to ride recreationally, and be the center of attention wherever I went, then the SRV would be a strong candidate. In this respect, it sits in the same generic area as Harleys, Victory and the Japanese V-Twin clones. It’s also easier to ride and a generally more pleasant experience than most custom bikes. So, that’s one vote.

Should God decide to smite me and send me back to work in a city again, then I would be looking at the SRV as a practical means of defeating traffic jams and the usurious price of rail tickets. For a commuter machine, it is fun, practical and involving and would bring a smile to the drudgery of getting to and from work.

The engine in the SRV 850 is compliant with some of the strictest environmental quality regulations in Europe.
The engine in the SRV 850 is compliant with the strictest environmental quality regulations in Europe.

Away from these two areas, there are many other options to consider. For almost the same price as the SRV, Honda will sell you their incredibly fine CBF1000 which will do absolutely everything the Aprilia can achieve – but at least twice as well. Or you could have a Suzuki SV650 – and $6000 left in your bank account. And, right at the top of the tree, the same money as the Aprilia will buy you an all singing, all dancing Wee Strom – a bike which will bring joy to your life merely by looking at it.

Yes, I know that I am not comparing like with like but the big question for Aprilia dealers is how do you get customers, including riders like me, to part with their very hard earned $12K?