30 kilometers from the storied, picturesque, and hydrogeographically challenged environs of Venice, Italy, lies the town of Noale. It’s 15,000 residents occupy a picturesque place, classically Northern Italian, an easy drive from Padua and Treviso, with Gothic architecture and canals and all roads leading to an imposing and impressive medieval fortress. In certain esoteric musical circles, Noale is known as the home of the cult Italian death metal band Catarrhal Noise, who shred audiences with blistering sonic walls and lyrics sung in their native Venetian. But in most of the world, Noale is better known as home to a different kind of urgent, metallic wailing: Aprilia Motorcycles.
Sometime in February of this year, those same mechanical artisans in Noale put the final touches on a Tuono V4 1100 Factory model, gave it one last polish, and packed it in its wooden crate. It went by truck to the port of Venice, made its way by shipping container to Houston, Texas, was loaded onto a truck, and ultimately arrived at Reno’s Powersports in Kansas City, Missouri. And the fine folks at Reno’s were good enough to let me know it had arrived.
I’m not unfamiliar with the lure of Italian motorcycles. In the past decade, I’ve owned a half-dozen Ducati bikes, all but one at least a liter is size, from top-shelf Monsters (including two sublime S4RS versions) to “S” model superbikes (a 1098 and an 1198) to an ultra-high strung 1199 R Panigale that currently lives in my garage. I’ve also owned a charming and zippy Moto Guzzi v7 Racer that was the envy of every boulevard I rode it down. I’ve ogled MV Agustas at dealerships across the country, have lusted after forbidden-fruit Bimotas (“Please, Santa, a Tesi 3D”), gazed at Laverdas at collector gatherings with envy, and even once chased down a guy riding an older Bimota just to give him a thumbs up. My personal stable includes the aforementioned Panigale R and a pristine 2003 Ducati MH900e “Hailwood.” I also spent a glorious morning a couple of years back touring the Ducati factory in Bologna while visiting Tuscany. I dig Italian motorcycles.
I was also not unfamiliar with the proud history of Aprilia. A part of the Piaggio empire since 2004, Aprilia was founded as a bicycle company after WWII. The company began to motorize their bikes in the late sixties. They began first with mopeds and scooters, but began growing their lines in the seventies when they began making off-road and enduro bikes for the Italian and World motocross championships. Much success followed, especially when Aprilia entered Grand Prix racing in the 125cc and 250cc classes, which served as a training grounds for factory riders such as future legends Max Biaggi, Loris Capirossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and even Valentino “The Doctor” Rossi. In the late 2000s, Aprilia entered the premier roadracing series, the World Superbike Championship, with their first four-cylinder literbike with Max Biaggi at the controls. It’s on this bike the Tuono “Supernaked” is based. Of note is that in 2010, Aprilia surpassed fellow Italian marque MV Agusta to become the most successful motorcycle racing brand in history when it notched a record 276th victory. It continues to build on that record today.
The idea for the Tuono was pretty straightforward: Take the already stunning RSV4 superbike of WSB fame, replace the clip-on bars with a flat handlebar, soften the front-end geometry just a bit, and remove most of the full racing bike’s fairing. Done. Simple. But oh so effective.
The “Factory” model is the Tuono’s (and brother RSV4 Superbikes) top-shelf version and gets all the exotic bits. Swedish-built Ohlins all the way around; crazy-clamping Brembo brakes; super-sticky Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa radials; Aprilia’s most advanced electronics suite; and a host of other little touches that signify specialness. The particular bike at Reno’s was even outfitted with a full Akropovic race exhaust, the glossy carbon fiber exhaust can and soon-to-blue titanium pipes hanging from the most artful curve of carbon fiber and milled aluminum hanger I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of detail that separates Italian design, taking what could have been an afterthought of functionality and turning it into something lustworthy. Stunning.
Having spent so much time on Ducati twins, swinging my leg over the four-cylinder Aprilia and turning the key was met with a great deal of expectation and curiosity. Would a four-cylinder Italian bike have the same sterility of even the most tractable and roarty Japanese machines? I admire everything about a Honda CBR1000RR and respect a Suzuki GSX-R1000 like anyone who’s ever spent ten minutes watching the Isle of Man TT, but they’re not bikes for me. Too much like bumblebees; too high-strung, with no low-end grunt; too many punk kids riding wheelies on local interstates. Too…<snob alert!>…mass market.
The 472-lb (when full of fluids) Tuono Factory certainly doesn’t want for motivation. It’s 65-degree, 1,077cc V4 engine makes a class-leading 175hp at 11,000rpm and an impressive 89 lb-ft of torque at 9,000rpm, all kept slightly in check by the bike’s smooth ride-by-wire throttle. The bike fires up with a tense whine and settles into a comfortable idle that’s mellow and a bit throaty; more Barry White than Otis Redding. It’s an impressive sound, serious and purposeful and massively grin-inducing.
While styling is certainly subjective, it’s natural for me to compare the Tuono Factory with the other top-shelf racing bike in my garage, the Ducati Panigale R. Visually in animal terms, the Panigale R has an eagle’s stolidity, a regal, muscular grace; a lion’s comfortable ease in its burnished skin. The Tuono appears more eager, leaner, an athlete whose metabolism hasn’t begun to slow; a falcon perched on a branch, alert, watching. It’s a stunning bike and receives more thumbs-up from drivers and riders than virtually anything I’ve been on save a lovingly odd café racer or two. With its Aprilia Racing “Superpole” livery mimicking that of the current WSB competition machines and a bold “Aprilia” splayed across what passes for the front fairing onto the tank, along with polished red wheels, it passes the critical “not yet” visual test: You always want to turn and look at it again when you walk away. It’s a stunner.
A common observation about superbikes, ones I’ve owned and others that I’ve ridden, is that, while they are designed to be massively planted and stable at high speeds, they’re often not worth a damn around town. My Panigale R is a case in point. At speed, on the straights or in the twisties, the bike is pure superhero stuff, unflappable in all conditions and lean angles, fast as an untethered Sidewinder missile, with a sound like a Norse god with a bad head cold. It’s astounding. But slow-speed riding is a different thing. I live in the city so puttering to the outskirts is required, and the Ducati is one unhappy camper in that role. Almost unridable; a pissed off prize bull trapped in pen, looking to buck off and skewer an unwary rider. It only wants to stretch its legs.
The Tuono Factory, on the other hand, has the almost counterintuitive bonus trait of being quite easy to ride slow. Down low, it has plenty of controllable torque but it never feels like the engine will lug below 2000rpm; credit wonderful throttle programming. It’s stable and balanced and easy to maneuver, with great low-speed handling and a generally friendly disposition. Why hello, coffee shop, yes I would like to pull in for a cup.
But then you open the think up out on the road and its real personality shows up. Above 6000rpm, the V4 wails like nothing so much as a normally-aspirated Formula One engine from the eighties; it’s that sonorous and memorable, a metallic roar tinged with high-pitched lightning cracks punctuating the sonic wave of the exhaust with each modulation of the throttle. The torque present lower down builds in the mid-range and finally, above 6500rpm or so, becomes linear with revs, pushing greater gobs of velocity as the noise builds until…well, as I ride on public roads and don’t want my face on every patrol car computer screen, discretion in this description is probably warranted. But you get the idea.
The bike also changes gears in the most confident manner. Leaving aside the fun of hammering up the gear range with the automatic quickshifter that engages above 6000 rpm, the transmission itself is as precise as it is forgiving. All motorcycle transmissions have their own character. BMW superbikes shift as if their gears were fitted together by a Glashütte wristwatch master, which Ducatis feel like the gears were milled from a single piece of flawless alloy by espresso-fueled CNC machines. The Tuono Factory’s transmission, much like an earlier RSV4 I rode, felt like it was crafted and fitted together on a parts bench by an Italian artisan who’s been doing it for decades. It’s mechanical in the most confident and hand-made way, and is an utter delight. (Ducati, why can you make it possible to find Neutral like Aprilia has?).
The handling of the Tuono Factory is as neutral and confidence-inspiring as any bike I’ve ever ridden; a revelation in fact. Its comfortable and perceptive, with turn-in aided greatly by its flat handle bar. But once in a corner, the bike plants itself and responds almost intuitively to even the slightest weight shift or gesture. It’s stable and glued and gently responsive, and, to my riding style at least, strikes the perfect balance. It doesn’t hurt that the riding position is perfect for my frame and size (6’, 180 lbs), and the seat height lets me balance the bike with my feet not quite flat but slightly bent; just the right height and rake.
In the interest of being fair, there are a few niggles. The LCD display tends to wash out in the sunlight and has all the modernity of a Nintendo game from 1998. It’s not nearly as trick as the organic-looking TFT display used on modern Ducati’s (though the analog tachometer that wraps around the digital display is clear and simple and easy to read at a glance). The left-hand switchgear is spaced a bit too close together, so that the turn signal button is easily pushed when aiming for the function button; the tactile quality of the switchgear is also a bit Playschool. And the shifter, for my size-11 feet at least, is about an inch too short, so the addition of an adjustable shift lever would be delightful. But these are nits.
When I returned the Tuono to Reno’s Powersports after a long test ride, my amazement at what Aprilia has achieved was palpable. Steve Okenfuss, the genial General Manager of the dealership, practically beamed. “I knew you’d love it. I think it’s the single best motorcycle in the world right now.” And Steve would know, since he travels the world riding Ducatis, Aprilias, Moto Guzi, Yamahas, and all manner of exotic machines. I did pause sheepishly for a moment, though, when I remarked at how astoundingly comfortable the bike was to ride, especially for one of such overwhelming performance capabilities, muttering something about a man needing to be accustomed to his growing limitations. The aging teenager in me felt the insecure need to almost apologize for loving a bike that didn’t necessarily beat the crap out of me. Steve just grinned. “It’s the old guy’s superbike. It’s perfect for guys like us.” And that’s no faint praise in the slightest.
So how much did I like the Tuono V4 1100 Factory? Enough that I wrote Steve a fat check. The bike is parked in my garage right now. Time for a ride.