Slowish steering combined with greater mass than four-cylinder machines and the racer-style ergos makes both bikes feel a bit cumbersome in the city, but that changes once in a canyon playground.
These bikes, perhaps more than any others, call out for the squiggliest lines on a map. But unless you're really lucky, the twisty roads that are their calling aren't exactly in your backyard. So we put this Italian duo through the gamut of street riding, from running down to the 7-11 for a quart of milk to lolloping down the freeway to our favorite canyons. They are, after all, streetbikes.
The Aprilia quickly became our favorite for navigating the environment filled with traffic lights, SUVs and cops. It has a reasonably comfortable riding position with a shorter reach to the bars than the Duck. And its broad and comfy seat makes you wonder why Ducati chose to upholster a brick for its saddle.
Both bikes require fiddling with a fuel-enrichener lever on cold startups, despite being fuel injected. The 998 settles into its smooth buh-duh-buh-duh-buh-duh idle produced by its 90-degree configuration of its V-Twin engine, while the Mille counters with a staccatto cadence. Frustratingly, the Ducati can't be run with its sidestand down, making warmups while donning helmet and gloves an unneeded hassle.
Rolling off, we noticed the reduced pull at the lever of the Aprilia's hydraulic clutch for 2002. But the clutch engages only at the end of its travel and its friction zone is a bit vague. A wheezy, whiny airbox at part throttle sonically disappoints at first, but that wimpy sound transforms to a booming intake bellow when the throttle is cracked, accompanied by a delicious basso profundo V-Twin exhaust note. Power builds from down low, with revs gathering quickly to the 10,500-rpm redline. Power is easy to access from anywhere above 4000 rpm, and second-gear clutch wheelies proved to be endlessly entertaining.
While the Mille gets through the tight stuff a bit quicker, the 998 comes into its own in fast sweepers. Its lack of nimbleness pays off with high-speed stability, and the Duc carves into corners like its front wheel is following an ordained path.
To explore the limits of these superbikes, we took them to a Pacific Track Time track day at the Streets of Willow. In our experience, PTT (877/809-2170) puts on a first-class track day; look for an article on PTT in the coming weeks. The Streets track in the high desert of Southern California is a tightish circuit that is well-suited to testing streetbikes, with a top speed on the main straight of "only" 130 mph.
We spent the morning riding on the stock tires, getting familiar with the track and the bikes. Later, we spooned on two sets of Metzeler's track-focused Rennsports. Props need to be given to racers Amir Khoyi and Oliver Chami who were exceedingly gracious by lending tools and helping hands when changing tires. The duo is behind the clever hand-cleaning product Wood-Ease, a clever hand-cleaning product made from a unique wood powder blend. (Short evaluation: The stuff works.)
With the Rennsports, 998 steered with far greater linearity than on the stock Pirelli Dragon Evo MTR21/22s, and the Mille lost its reluctance on turn-in. The new buns offered loads of grip, even over broken pavement, and they still looked relatively fresh after several hours of track thrashing. Highly recommended for those who mix in occasional track days with regular street riding. The only caveat we'd offer is that the lack of tread on the side of the tire won't offer much water evacuation in the rain. Metzeler's, new, more street-focused Sportec M-1 may be a better choice for some riders, and we'll be testing them in the coming months.
Although we know the Ducati makes about five peak horsepower more than the Aprilia, it was difficult to feel it in the seats of our leathers. Both bikes pulled hard running up the main straight, and the similar acceleration can be attributed to the Mille's shorter gearing and about 10 pounds less weight to carry than the 998.
The use of fuel-injection on motorcycles is becoming more prevalent each year. It offers a reduction in exhaust emissions, greater adaptability to varying temperatures and altitudes, and a theoretical improvement in fuel economy. But a chronic complaint about its use on many injected bikes is a sudden lurch when reapplying the throttle, which can be upsetting to a chassis when the bike is at an extreme lean angle. Both the 998 and the Mille exhibit this characteristic, though the Aprilia can be ridden through this condition if the twistgrip is carefully finessed. The 998 also has a bit of abruptness when coming back on throttle, though a quick dip of the clutch works around it.