Motoring: Expensive, aggressive, but what a beautiful body: Roland Brown on a superbike with few rivals: the 916 Ducati

There is no doubt about which motorbike has been this year's most eagerly awaited model. Such was the reaction to Ducati's 916 when it was revealed at last autumn's Milan Show that the Italian firm immediately knew it had a success on its hands. Rave reviews after the press launch in January ensured that enthusiasts who had already put down a deposit on the pounds 12,100 V-twin congratulated themselves on their prescience as they waited eagerly for the bike to reach Britain.

They waited. And waited. Excuses from Ducati's base in Bologna veered from a fire in the paint shop to problems obtaining suitable left-dipping headlamps. There were rumours of financial problems at the parent company, Cagiva. But perhaps the most plausible reason for the delay is simply that the factory was swamped by unprecedented demand.

The 916 is here at last (though not all orders will be met this year), and it's every bit as good as it promised to be. A handful of rival superbikes are even faster than the 160mph Ducati, though only just. Few come close to handling as well. And there is surely no motorcycle that matches the 916's combination of speed, poise and looks - let alone one that adds the bonus of a V-twin motor's addictive character.

From its sharp and aerodynamic nose to the distinctive exhaust tailpipes poking from beneath its single seat, the scarlet 916 exudes high performance and Italian elegance. Beneath the new bodywork the bike is essentially an update of Ducati's previous flagship, the 888. An increase in capacity from 888 to 916cc advances the eight-valve motor's peak output to 114 horsepower.

The bike's frame, which retains Ducati's traditional tubular-steel construction rather than using the more conventional aluminium beams, has been redesigned to increase rigidity. The rear wheel wears the widest rear tyre yet seen on a road-going bike, and is held by a single-sided swing-arm that Ducati admits was specified more for style than for performance. The Japanese firm Showa has provided the suspension, which is sophisticated and multi-adjustable.

With its aggressive riding position - hands low to aid aerodynamics, feet high to boost cornering clearance - the 916 is a very single-minded sports bike. It is notably compact, feeling no bigger than most middleweights. And the Ducati is light, weighing 429lb, with a pleasant, low-pitched, unobtrusive exhaust note.

Fuel injection gives responsive power delivery, the merest flick of the throttle sending the bike surging forward. That combines with the V-twin engine's abundant mid-range power to allow effortless acceleration with minimal use of the six-speed gearbox. The only drawback is a rather jerky progress at very slow speeds: this is no bike for city traffic.

Recent chassis advances mean that almost all modern sports bikes handle well, but the 916 is one of the few that are truly inspiring. Its steering is effortlessly light, allowing instant changes of direction, yet the bike remains supremely stable even when ridden hard on a racetrack. The suspension gives a superbly well-controlled ride, and the Ducati's fat, ultra-sticky tyres provide seemingly inexhaustible levels of cornering grip.

If the bike has a weakness it is the front brake, which is a twin-disc system from the Italian firm Brembo. Although powerful, the brake requires rather too much lever travel at the handlebar. Another criticism concerns the sidestand (the only method of holding the bike up when parked), which is prone to spring up unexpectedly with potentially expensive consequences. But overall this is a superbly designed and very well-constructed motorcycle, the quality of its finish far advanced from that of Italian bikes of a decade ago.

Mild eccentricity is certainly no longer a prerequisite of Ducati ownership. These days, the only motorcyclists who fail to appreciate the 916 are likely to be those unsuited to its aggressive personality. This bike is strictly a single- seater plaything, best appreciated early on summer Sunday mornings when the roads are free of traffic. Owners who have belatedly taken delivery of their Ducatis must have resented missing so much of this year's good biking weather. But one ride on the 916, and all will have been forgiven.

(Photograph omitted)

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