x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

MV motorcycles, old and new, still turn heads

MV's new Brutale 1090 RR offers riders a two-wheeled adrenaline rush but, finds David Booth, it comes at a price.

The MV Agusta Brutale 1090 RR's traditional handlebar results in a higher, more rearward centre of gravity, making it easy to lean forward and grip the motorcycle with your knees. Photo courtesy of Didier Constant
The MV Agusta Brutale 1090 RR's traditional handlebar results in a higher, more rearward centre of gravity, making it easy to lean forward and grip the motorcycle with your knees. Photo courtesy of Didier Constant

Proving that I am indeed one of those foolish cheapskates who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, I once passed on the purchase of a blood-red vintage MV Agusta 750.

It was in the show window of a tiny, remote Santa Barbara, California, bike repair shop, its exclusivity jarring in comparison to everything else on the showroom floor. As I remember, the price was barely in the five-digit range, about a fifth of what it would be worth today. Oh sure it was a little scruffy, but nothing a few dollops of polish and a fresh coat of paint would not fix. I have been, as you might imagine, kicking myself ever since.

Casual motorcyclists may not understand my consternation but, for those in the know, the stupidity of passing on a bargain-basement MV is only surpassed by ignoring rumours of a barn-find Brough Superior. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Italian marque was to grand prix motorcycling what Ferrari was to Formula 1, collecting championships like they were a birthright (including an astonishing 17 consecutive GP500 titles, many of them by the most successful GP racer of all time, Giacomo Agostini). And, just like Ferrari, MV was headed by a quixotic, dictatorial Italian, Count Domenico Agusta, who, like his four-wheeled counterpart, seemed only mildly interested in actually selling production vehicles to paying consumers. Alas, such eccentricity eventually led to bankruptcy and, for 15 years, blaring red Agustas were nothing but lore for us old-timers.

In 1992, however, MV was rescued by Ducati saviour, Claudio Castiglioni, who set about rebuilding the company's legacy with the thoroughly modern 750cc F4, all Italian style and whiplash exhaust note. The engine, a double overhead camshaft in-line four with trick, radially-disposed valves, was partially designed by Ferrari, further upping the mystique factor.

But being Italian, there were, of course the quirks; paint that was the very definition of fragile, electrics and fuel injection that occasionally didn't agree with the rider's definition of throttle response. Until, that is, they were bought by Harley-Davidson, who taught the Italians a thing or two about high-tech refinement (and yes, I realise that statement is rich in irony). Though Harley-Davidson has since sold off its interest in the Italian marque, the MV line-up is still bearing fruit from the tutelage. Which brings us to the 2012 Brutale 1090 RR.

The first thing to note about this latest MV is that the Italians tend towards the dramatic in naming their "naked" bikes, Monster being Ducati's appellation. The difference is that, while Ducati's Monsters are actually fairly mild-mannered motorcycles, MV's Brutale, at least this 1090 RR, is as wicked as the honorific suggests.

The Brutale's 1,078cc four, for instance, pumps out a very superbike-like 156 horsepower at a heady 11,900 rpm. Indeed, the first thing one notices about the big MV is the sheer power. Like all big displacement fours, there's a deep well of torque at low revs and then a potent mid-range punch that kicks in at about 5,000 rpm. But it's at 9,000, just when you think that the show is coming to a close, that the MV surprises with another monstrous surge of power, one that leaves you both holding on for dear life and grinning like an idiot. MV's have not always been long on sophistication, but they have never been short on power.

Of course, that much power in a naked bike, especially one as light as the Brutale raises its own issues. Unlike superbikes, with their low, clip-on handlebars that position the rider's weight over the front wheel, this MV's traditional handlebar results in a higher, more rearward centre of gravity which means, you guessed it, the RR wants to wheelie like some crazed Hollywood stunt driver with an overactive pituitary gland every time that last surge of power kicks in (it helps if you grip the sculpted tank very firmly with your knees and lean as far forward as possible). It's exhilarating, if thoroughly illegal, which, I suspect, will stop no one once they taste that incredible surge.

Even better news is that reports of balky fuel injection calibration have either been exaggerated or corrected. While obviously not docile, there was no surging or spitting from the fuelling system and the throttle, contrary to earlier criticism, was not overly sensitive to throttle inputs at low speeds. The MV was just fine for everyday motoring, as long as one respected the notion that it has enough power to flip you over backwards and squash you like a bug.

There are, however, two rider-selectable power modes. which essentially alter the fuel injection and ignition timing maps according to the desired effect. Rain, of course, is the more subdued of the two options with softer throttle response in the lower regions of the rev range. Of course, this being an Italian motorcycle, even in the rain setting, the top end rush seems unabated - MV's engineers obviously feeling that if you pinned the throttle wide open you must be Valentiono Rossi. Or think you are. The sport setting, meanwhile, produces maximum power everywhere and, while the response is not abrupt, power management does require a delicate wrist.

Helping tame all that power is a traction control system that prevents, or at least diminishes, rear wheel slippage under full power. Eight different settings are available with a full safety nannie mode available to stop virtually all wheelspin, while its most liberal is probably best suited to someone looking to add a number plate and strip the lights off. It's a fairly basic unit, monitoring crankshaft rotational speed for any spikes in rpm that might indicate the rear tyre is spinning. Nonetheless, it does the job and, no matter how much of a manly-man you claim to be, you really don't want this much power without some form of traction control.

The other pleasant surprise is that the Brutale's suspension, unlike so many Italian motorcycles, is actually quite plush. Like all European sport bikes, the emphasis is on control, so the damping is firmish, but the RR's suspension, front and rear, remains impressive in its compliance. The front Marzocchi upside-down forks separate rebound and compression damping into different legs, making adjustment a doddle. Altering the same settings on the rear Sachs shock requires only a little more fiddling. However, MV's standard settings were such that, other than a little fiddling to make sure there was a noticeable difference, I left things as standard.

Equally outstanding are the brakes, four-pot Brembos squeezing on each of its three discs. Though easily finessed, one finger's pull is enough to get the bike standing on its front wheel; use two fingers and they might be able to stop the earth's rotation.

Of course, the MV wouldn't be Italian if it didn't have a few foibles. Some are typical; the gauges aren't well lit in sunlight and accessing some of the electronic gizmos (such as the traction control settings) can be problematic. The mirrors are nigh on useless and there's still a fair amount of heat pouring back from the radiator. One unexpected oddity is that the rider's footpegs were slippery and having your boot slide off a peg when you're fully leaned over at speed is not a fun prospect. Italian engineers usually obsess about any detail related to fast riding, so I found it quite a surprise.

The main obstacle to Brutale ownership is price. Here, too, the MV does not disappoint, the RR retailing for a not inconsiderable C$19,995 (Dh75,000). It's not totally outrageous, however, and unlike MVs of years past, the foibles one has to put up with are greatly diminished. It is surely one of the great motorcycling advancements of the last decade that the European motorcycle, once fragile and idiosyncratic, is now all but as dependable as Japanese brands. And still a whole bunch more exotic.