The thrilling RSV Mille superbike will shoot Aprilia into the big time. By Roland Brown
THEY HAVE sponsored a Spice Girls world tour and produced a wacky bike created by star designer Philippe Starck.

But despite this, a string of racing world championships and an HQ near Venice, Italy's second largest motorcycle manufacturer is relatively little- known. But that should change with the arrival of Aprilia's first superbike - the RSV Mille.

In contrast to the small bikes and scooters on which Aprilia's growth was based, the Mille is a sleek, powerful sports machine powered by a 998cc V-twin engine. It has been built to compete, in showrooms and on the track, with Ducati, for whom Britain's Carl Fogerty recently won his third World Superbike championship.

So determined is Aprilia to make the RSV a success that the launch was delayed for over a year to ensure that it would be competitive. That single- minded approach is clear from a glance at the RSV.

Apart from its innovative triple-headlamp arrangement, the bike looks rather ordinary. Unusually for the Italians, style was very much a secondary consideration to performance.

Aprilia followed Ducati's trademark V-twin engine layout, but differed in angling the eight-valve motor's cylinders at 60 degrees instead of 90. This allows the bike to be shorter but necessitates the use of a pair of "balancer shafts" to counter the extra vibration. With a claimed peak output of 128bhp, the RSV matches the most powerful twin-cylinder sports bikes, if not Yamaha's fearsome four-cylinder YZF-R1.

Chassis design follows that of Aprilia's hugely successful grand prix bikes (the firm has dominated the 250cc world championship again this year), being based around a neatly curved twin-beam aluminium frame. Suspension and brakes are conventional, but the Mille has an innovative electronic dashboard complete with lap-timer and clock. There is even a light that flashes, in Grand Prix racebike style, when it's time to change up through the six-speed gearbox.

The Mille certainly feels racy as you lean forward to the low handlebars, although the riding position is less extreme than that of Ducati's rival 996. The feeling when you wind open the throttle is much the same, though: thrilling acceleration that hurls the bike towards a top speed of almost 170mph.

More than speed, it's the engine's flexibility that is most impressive. The fuel-injection system gives a superbly crisp response at low engine speeds, making this an easy bike to ride. So seamless is the power delivery and so slick the gearchange that it's easy to forget this is Aprilia's first large-capacity engine.

Given a price of pounds 9,724, the Mille bodes well for Aprilia's future as a superbike manufacturer. Never mind sponsoring the Spice Girls, Aprilia has hit the big time at last.