Ducati enthusiasts, or Ducatisti, often describe the Italian marque’s “character” or “soul” when comparing their bikes to other brands. Many will mention the similarities between Ducati in the bike world and Ferrari in the car world.
I often dismissed the idea of Ducati character as an excuse for buying pricey, fragile and temperamental machinery over the more conventional offerings available. After all, there was a time when the front-running Ducati race teams could not finish a Daytona 200 without throwing a chain and cracking open the gearbox, or stalling on the start line (okay, maybe that was rider error), and Ducatis were well known for their uncommonly short Desmo valve adjustment intervals.
Well, time, specifically seat time, has changed my mind about the Italian bikes, and I think I now understand better what the Ducati character nonsense is all about. The 2019 Panigale V4 S is the motorcycle that has me drinking the Ducati Kool-Aid, and it tastes wonderful.
So what’s it about then?
After nearly half a century of putting V-twin engines in its top production models, Ducati released the V4 lineup in 2018; they followed the path of the Desmosedici GP race bikes that had sported four cylinders since their MotoGP debut in 2003. The four-cylinder range of Panigale motorcycles represents the pinnacle of Ducati’s Superbike lineup: there’s the base V4 ($24,495), V4 S tested here ($31,595), V4 Speciale ($47,995), and V4 R ($47,995).
One could write a book on the V4 motor alone, but the basic specs are a 90-degree layout, fuel injection, 1,103cc displacement, 214 hp at 13,000 RPM, 91.5 lb-ft at 10,000 RPM, Desmodromic valve actuation, and a rearward rotating crankshaft. The V4 Speciale makes 226 hp with a racing kit, and the V4 R uses a smaller 998cc displacement that’s legal for the World Superbike Championship, and makes up to 234 hp with an optional Akrapovic exhaust system.
The earlier V-twin iterations of the Panigale utilized a truncated monocoque frame attached to the top of the cylinder heads, but the V4 Panigale uses a more conventional aluminum perimeter that cradles the engine more, reaching down at the front and farther back. The swingarm pivot is cast into the rear of the gearbox and nestles right up against the countershaft sprocket, and the swingarm is longer than the unit on the previous V-twin Panigale. As such, the V4 still does not use a full frame in the traditional sense, where the steering head and swingarm pivot are joined together directly, as found with the BMW S1000RR, Honda CBR1000RR, Kawasaki ZX-10R, Suzuki GSX-R1000RR and Yamaha YZF-R1.
The base V4 uses Showa suspension at the front and Sachs in the rear, but the V4 S we tested comes with electronically adjustable Öhlins on both ends, including an Öhlins steering damper to replace the conventional Sachs unit. The S also features Marchesini forged aluminum wheels and a lightweight lithium-ion battery.
All V4 models come with Ducati up/down Quick Shift (DQS), riding modes, power modes, Bosch cornering ABS, Ducati Traction Control (DTC), Ducati Wheelie Control (DWC), Ducati Slide Control, Engine Brake Control (EBC), Ducati Power Launch (DPL), Bluetooth connectivity, and auto tire calibration. This is all displayed via a bright TFT display with multiple display configurations, and controlled via two sets of buttons on the left switch pod, with a separate button on the right switch pod to access the launch control menu.
Is it as pretty as people say it is?
If the spec sheet looks impressive, the bike is eyeball-popping in the flesh. Ducati has made some beautiful bikes (851 and 916), and some polarizing (999, Supermono), but always unique and never boring. The Panigale V4 S is sublime, simple but sophisticated, bathed in nothing but red and better for it. [You really did drink the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? –Ed.]
Deep triangular eye sockets in the nose house air ducts, LED running lights and headlights. The tail section (sorry, no passengers) has tunnels that allow airflow from front to back – a seemingly unnecessary feature since the rider’s butt will block any significant airflow in this area, but it looks unique, and I find it provides an aesthetic homage to the twin undertail exhaust of the 916 (itself inspired by the exhaust design on the Honda NR750). The stunning looks of the V4 S is where the Ducati/Ferrari comparison holds up: the beauty from Bologna matches the runway prowess of the maidens from Maranello. [I need a cigarette. –Ed.]
Is it comfortable?
My first ride on the V4 S was very brief, about a 250 metre trip around the corner from my house to take pictures along with a BMW S1000RR I was testing at the same time. My immediate impression of the bike was one word: raw. The bike took a few extra revolutions of the starter motor to come to life, then idled rough and loud as if the guy programming the fuel map decided to take a cappuccino break instead of worrying about such pedestrian things as smooth idling.
At low speeds in first gear, the bike chugged and lurched and shook in disgust at having to move so slowly. The steering felt heavy, the riding position racy. There was a lot of lever travel before the brakes bit, giving the impression of not enough power.
My second ride on the bike was a cool morning commute, and the rear cylinder head started cooking my left thigh almost immediately. On hotter days, the exhaust plumbing on the right side joined the thigh cooking party. Angling the knees outward allowed for some cool air flow and relief from the heat, but that was uncomfortable in itself for any length of time. The bike runs hot in general, with the fan running almost constantly once the engine warms up, and taking a while to shut down once the engine is off. Making power also makes heat, and the V4 S is testament to that.
With the advent of electronics, sport bike riders have begun to be spoiled by such frills as cruise control and heated grips, two features that are not difficult for a manufacturer to add, and are great to have once you’ve tried them. The only heated feature on the V4 S is the seat, which has only one setting (HOT!), and can’t be turned off. No toasty hands on cold mornings, no reprieve from gripping the throttle on long trips, not even a fuel gauge to speak of – this motorcycle’s sole purpose is speed.
So how does it ride?
And speed it has, in huge abundance. The “cheater” motor, 100cc more displacement than its rivals, bends time and space with violence and aural savagery. [You want a refill on that Kool-Aid? –Ed.] There is not much to speak of low down or even part way through the mid-range, but above that, there is an explosion of horses pressing internal organs rearward.
Grab the brakes, and what seemed like a lack of power at low speeds now felt more than adequate, with decent feel and modulation. Bend the bike into a long, fast corner, and what felt like slow steering in the neighbourhood now felt rock solid and planted, with the giant 200 section rear tire providing far more grip than any street rider has a right to ask for.
In the past, a monster such as this would toss riders on their heads left and right at random, but with modern electronics, power that was formerly only controllable by Schwantz and Rossi is now reasonably safe in the hands of us mere mortals. The wheelie control keeps the front wheel from rocketing skyward at every twitch of the throttle; the launch control takes the guesswork out of fast getaways.
RACE, SPORT, and STREET riding modes are easily accessible, and each is customizable through the TFT display and switches on the left handlebar. As is often the case these days, the menus take a bit of learning to get used to, but once the initial settings are entered, switching between modes is easy, and can be done on the fly as long as the rider has the opportunity to close the throttle.
How does it compare to the competition?
The much less expensive 2020 BMW S1000RR may be one of the closest rivals to the V4 S, with similarities such as electronic suspension, upgraded wheels (optional carbon fibre for the BMW), a suite of electronic riding aids, and prodigious power. Yet these bikes could not be more different from the saddle.
The BMW is the model of refinement and smoothness, with decent pull at any RPM, and enough comfort for the odd road trip or commute. It can be as docile as a puppy or as wild as a grizzly, depending on the rider’s mood. The Ducati, on the other hand, is always unruly, never relaxed, perpetually ready to pounce. The BMW is noticeably down on power to the Duck, but has a much wider spread of oomph available, and is no slouch compared to almost any other bike. The upper reaches of the rev band of the V4 S are virtually unusable for street riding in any remotely legal sense. This is not David and Goliath, more like Goliath and an even bigger, crazier Goliath.
So what’s with the ‘character’?
Which brings us back to Ducati character. The V4 S is an unruly brute, uncomfortable, expensive, and not really at home on the street at all. It chugs gas, runs hot, and has too much power up top and not really enough down low. But when you drive a Ferrari F40 (yes, I am comparing the V4 S to the F40, and I see no problem with that), it’s loud, the pedal box is insanely tight, the gated shifter is recalcitrant, and the seats are too tight even for thin people, and yet it is still the greatest car ever made.
The V4 S is about theatre, and riding a race bike on the street, and not caring about burned thighs or fuel gauges, because it is an insanely fast, beautiful Italian beast, and there is nothing else like it from any other manufacturer. It has undeniable character and soul, and you have to ride it in order to truly experience it. If you ever get the chance, drink the Kool-Aid and tell me it’s not the best drink you’ve ever had.