Bertrand Gahel travels to Imola to learn whether the all-new Ducati Panigale 899 is the real deal or a diluted version of its 1199 predecessor.
It is all but inevitable that the new-for-2014 Ducati 899 Panigale will be widely labeled as the accessible, affordable version of the flagship 1199 Panigale. That’s because, well, technically it is just that. At $15,995 (add $300 for matte white), it undercuts the bigger bike’s $20,995 price tag by a solid five grand while its factory-spec 148 horses are more easily managed than the 1199’s monster 195. Since cost cutting measures are mostly limited to a double-sided instead of a single-sided swingarm, a smaller rear wheel/tire and a few relatively minor bits, the 899 really does seem like a legitimate shortcut to Panigale ownership.
The big question then,
For years the Italian manufacturer has been offering smaller, cheaper versions of its flagship models. Smaller displacement Monsters, Hypermotards and Superbikes give fans of the brand the opportunity to get in on the action even if they don’t possess either the means or the appropriate experience to own the big displacement model.
But the smaller models almost invariably ended up feeling diluted, not like the real thing—and this has been one of my personal longtime pet peeves with the make. The look was there and the price was right, but the high-end feeling was gone, replaced by a very average general feel.
This time is different.
Actually, to be fair to Ducati, some of these smaller versions have been feeling much better lately. The predecessor to the 899, the 848, is a good example. The first version looked almost the same as the awesome 1098/1198, but once you got on it and pushed it around a track, the magic was gone. Brakes, suspension and engine all felt like they were built to a lower standard, which was somewhat of a disappointment.
But then the 848 Evo was introduced and, finally, it felt like the real thing.
Aside from performance obviously, the 899 feels every bit like the 1199 from the get-go. From the sophisticated electronics, which include multiple modes for traction control, power delivery and ABS, to the quality of suspension action and brake feel, the 899 never feels like it’s built from lesser calibre components than the 1199. Even the sound from the high-revving V-Twin is stirring.
One very good way to illustrate the Ducati Panigale 899’s nature is to note, as an example, how current 600s feel compared to 1000s: certainly not as fast, but equally high-tech and clearly more agile.
In terms of power, however, there is simply no comparison between the 899 and a 600. The thing generates just shy of 150 crank horsepower—an easy 20 hp advantage over the average inline-four Supersport—and it literally shames 600s in the torque department with 73 ft/lb. versus 50-ish.
As far as numbers are concerned, it’s really more like a GSX-R750. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone as the smaller member of Ducati’s Superbike family has grown from a 748 to an 848 to an 899, meaning we’re now talking about a near-litre bike.
Still, swing a leg over the Ducati Panigale 899 and head for the track—which is precisely what I did during the bike’s global press intro at the the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy—and one of the first things you notice is how delightfully light, narrow and flickable the “little” Panigale is. The 899 is actually five kilos heavier than the 1199 at 169 kg dry and 193 kg wet, but on the track, thanks to the reduced gyroscopic effect of its lighter internals, it truly feels 600-like during direction changes.
My time on the 899 was in horrible weather with cold temperatures and heavy rain making it all but impossible to truly push things on this circuit famous for stealing F1 driver Ayrton Senna’s life almost two decades ago. Fortunately, Pirelli rains were installed, which at least made it possible to ride at a fairly quick clip. Something positive did come from those ugly conditions as they allowed the 899 to display the efficiency of its electronics. ABS made it easy to brake harder than I would’ve never dared to with regular brakes, and Ducati Traction Control (DTC) took the fear out of opening the throttle wide exiting turns while still leaned over on a wet track. Finally, riding modes made it possible to deal with less horsepower with the 100-hp Wet setting, at least until I got comfortable and switched to Sport and Race modes, which brought back the entertainment of full power with their own specific activation levels of ABS, DTC, Ducati Quick Shifter (DQS) and Engine Brake Control (EBC). It’s worth mentioning that the rider can customize all these parameters.
As to how good and transparent those systems are, suffice to say that none of the over-fed, jet-lagged, cold and drenched motorcycle writers at the 899 Panigale press intro went down. Considering how egos sometimes transform these events into journo-GPs, that’s saying a lot about both the 899 and its gizmos.
By Bertrand Gahel