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Common Tread

2020 Ducati Superleggera V4 first ride review

Jul 22, 2020

Here in California, the sales tax alone on Ducati’s $100,000 Superleggera V4 is more than I’ve ever spent on a motorcycle. 

And the price tag is just one of several otherworldly figures swirling around this street-legal, ultra-exotic, V4 R-based superbike. The other stunners are the 350-pound weight and 234 horsepower. Both claimed, and both in need of interpretation.

Those 234 ponies are unleashed with the included Race Kit (that’s a complete titanium Akrapovic race exhaust and ECU reflash) and measured at the crankshaft, which isn’t useful unless you’re slotting this 998 cc Desmosedici Stradale R engine into a piece of direct-drive industrial equipment. In a motorcycle, power has to travel through the transmission (and a jack shaft in the V4, since the crank rotates “backwards”), plus the final drive. Rule of thumb is roughly 10 percent drivetrain losses, but even after you knock off 24 horsepower, the Superleggera is making well over 200 at the rear wheel at 15,250 rpm. Let that sink in.

The 2020 Superlegga V4 is the latest "super light" superbike. Production will be limited to 500 units. Ducati photo.

Meanwhile, that 350-pound claimed weight is “dry,” as in no gas, coolant, or other fluids. Why does Ducati list the weight of an unrideable machine when most other manufacturers have gone to wet (also called “curb”) weight? The same reason you stand up straight and suck in your gut for that class-reunion photo — it makes you look better. The fact is that filled with all critical fluids the SL will likely tip in at about 400 pounds. That’s what a Yamaha MT-07 — one of the smallest and most flickable naked middleweights — weighs.

The Superleggera's engine is a de-stroked version of the 1,103 cc motor that powers the Panigale V4s. Its bore and stroke dimensions of 81.0 mm x 48.4 mm are the same as Ducati’s MotoGP racer. Ducati photo.

So even with corrections for reality, the Superleggera V4 stats are extraordinary, and make the SL the lightest, most powerful, and most sophisticated motorcycle Ducati has ever produced. And on the topic of production, the final key figure is 500. As in that’s the total number of Superleggera V4s Ducati will make.

When it comes to such an expensive, exclusive motorcycle, there are a lot of questions. After spending time with Ducati North America personnel and wrangling a pre-production Supeleggera around Laguna Seca for a few laps, here’s my attempt to make sense of it all.

Why does it exist?

Limited-production models are a Ducati tradition, an exercise that dates back to the 888SPS of the late 1990s. Many models (including the V4 R the Superleggera is based on) were built for race homologation. In other words, performance-modified machines produced in sufficient numbers (typically 500 units in a year) to make them legal for production-based series like World Superbike.

Exploring the limits of design is what the Superleggera V4 are all about. Ducati photo.

Other limited-edition bikes have been built for commemoration, while some exist simply as a manifestation of Ducati’s passion for performance and pioneering. Such is the case with the Superleggera V4.

Ducati says this bike serves as a demonstration of what it is capable of. It’s Ducati swinging for the fences. The SL V4 project establishes a new engineering benchmark for Bologna and was the impetus for pursuing technical solutions and processes that increase the company’s know-how. That includes new techniques for working with carbon fiber and greater experience in aerodynamics and computational fluid dynamics, among other things.

It’s that type of dedication and ardor that wins over enthusiasts’ hearts and compels Ducatisti to get L-Twin tattoos. To a lot of people, this is exactly the sort of thing that makes Ducati, Ducati.

The biplane wings use strakes, winglets, louvers, and flaps to create downforce. This is aeronautical engineering, applied to motorcycles. Ducati photo.

Of course, the cynics among us may lambaste the Superleggera V4 as an overpriced marketing move. But even if you think the SL is nothing more than a flex, you can’t deny that it’s straining the sleeves on Ducati’s T-shirt.

What’s so special about it?

Superleggera is Italian for “super light,” a term and treatment Ducati previously applied to the 1199 Panigale in 2014. The recipe relies heavily on exotic materials like titanium and carbon fiber to reduce weight. So this bike is technically special because of its low mass and the extreme measures that were enacted to achieve it. Of course there’s the performance, as well as all the incredible technology and features that come on an ultra-premium superbike, and then there are the many intangibles that a creation like this represents.

Ducati brakes are always badass. These use Brembo's latest Stylema R calipers, which have coated and drilled pistons for reduced friction, reduced weight, and increased cooling. Ducati photo.

This latest Superleggera is based on the V4 R, the 998 cc homologation special introduced in 2019. Ducati then unfurled reams of carbon fiber and chucked up loads of aluminum and titanium to slash 35 pounds off the V4 R. That’s no small feat, given that the V4 R had already gone on a diet that made it 15 pounds lighter than the standard, 1,103 cc Panigale V4.

The SL has carbon fiber, well, everything. The front frame, subframe, and swingarm are all formed from carbon fiber, and when you hold the components in your hands it’s hard to believe that something so light and delicate is strong enough to harness the engine’s power. The chassis, such as it is, accounts for a seven-pound savings over the aluminum parts on the V4 R.

Each Superleggera will be individually numbered. The three bikes on site at Laguna were unnumbered pre-production machines. That means they're even more rare! Ducati photo.

Then there are the carbon wheels and bodywork, titanium sprocket nuts and axle nut, and shock spring. Yes, the shock spring on the Öhlins TTX36 shock is titanium, which has a totally different elastic modulus than steel and required a complete recalibration of the damping. Up front, the gas-charged NPX25/30 fork has lightened machined-aluminum bottoms. Machined-from-billet rearsets, triple clamp, and myriad other parts continue to cut ounces. Even the pistons in the new Brembo Stylema R calipers are drilled for lightness, as are the Desmodromic cam lobes and shift drum within the engine.

The motor, which already utilized magnesium side cases and titanium connecting rods and intake valves, is now held together using titanium and aluminum hardware, contributing to another six pounds saved. A Euro4-compliant Akrapovič exhaust slashes another 5.5 pounds, but slapping on the full Akro race exhaust that comes with each Superleggera means saving an additional eight pounds and unlocking an additional 25 horsepower.

Semi-precious metals abound on the SL. That's a titanium nut securing a carbon wheel to the carbon swingarm. Ducati photo.

Another thing that makes it special? Those massive biplace wings. As with the use of carbon fiber for structural components and the Desmosedici Stradale R engine as a whole, the SL’s wings are part of Ducati’s goal to push boundaries. Sure, you might think those are just the boundaries of good taste, but the wings contribute a great deal of stabilizing, speed-enhancing downforce at speed, and Ducati claims the design is more effective and efficient than the aerodynamics of last year’s MotoGP bike.  

Each Superleggera comes with a complimentary race kit that includes a full titanium exhaust, front and rear stands, and numerous other goodies. Ducati presentation photo.

Need more special? Each bike is inscribed with its number (out of 500) on the key and top triple clamp, and there’s a placard on the cylinder head with the name of the technician who set the Desmodromic valve clearances. Superleggera buyers also get the chance to fly to Europe and ride a WSBK-spec machine, and 30 customers have the opportunity to buy seat time on a real-deal MotoGP bike.

Many people say that owning a Ducati is all about the experience, and Bologna is really driving the point home with these special opportunities.

What’s a $100,000, 234-horsepower bike like to ride?

Anxiety. Apprehension. Excitement. Fear. These are just some of the feelings I had as I suited up to ride at Laguna. And I wasn’t even going out on the Superleggera yet! Ducati had us “warm up” on the standard 209-horsepower V4 R.

What's that old saying? Nothing focuses the mind quite like throwing a leg over a 350-pound, 234-horsepower motorcycle? Ducati photo.

The V4 R is, without a doubt, a spectacular machine. I’d ridden this model before, and it has one of the freest revving engines I’ve experienced this side of a YZF-R6 or a 125 cc two-stroke. Power builds like pressure within a tea kettle, and it pulls all the way to the 15,500-rpm redline. All that, and it comes with a two-year warranty and only calls for valve service every 15,000 miles. It’s kind of hard to believe.

The “Twin-Pulse” firing order of the 90-degree V-four groups the left and right cylinder banks, with a pause between the pairs, so it mimics the power signature (and thus traction and tractability) of a V-twin. The sound is reminiscent of a short-stroke Panigale V-twin, but with a slight offset to the beat that reminds me of the way a singer might stack vocals in the studio to give their voice more depth and texture. It’s an intoxicating and unique sound.

Oval, variable-height intake funnels help optimize power across the 15,500-rpm rev range. Ducati photo.

With six laps under my belt to reacquaint myself with Laguna, it was time for one of my two 15-minute sessions on the SL. Right away, the Akro exhaust makes itself known. While you could hear the dry clutch rattling on the R, that sound is drowned out by the roar of the open race pipe. The uninitiated would call it deafening, but I think it’s better described as delicious.

I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface of what the V4 R could do, but even so, the Superleggera presented as a distinctly different riding experience. I didn’t notice the power — that would be like identifying larger ice balls in a hail storm, and I only hit WOT in a few places anyway — but the Superleggera was easier to ride. The weight reduction is evident, most noticeably while braking, where the ultra-light SL simply slows down quicker and takes less muscle to manage while decelerating toward an apex.

Laguna's Turn 1. The dash is showing 167 mph at 14,500 rpm in fifth gear. You may think the SL's biplane wings look goofy, but at that speed you better believe they're doing work! Photo by Ari Henning.

The biggest difference, though, was in the bike’s high-speed stability and cornering feel. Turn 1 at Laguna is a slight bend over the crest of a hill, and it’s a curve you attack at over 150 mph. On the V4 R, even with its modest wings, the front end got light and wiggled, and the bike would dance and pump as I powered up the hill toward the Corkscrew. In both those sections of track, the SL was rock solid, encouraging me to apply more throttle, or at least not roll out. Chalk it up to those oversized biplane wings, which at the apex of Turn 1 are applying about 100 pounds of force on the front end, pinning it to the track surface. They may look goofy, but they’re functional.

It’s not just in the fast straight bits that the bike behaves differently. Oddly, the SL takes slightly higher effort to tip into turns, but then feels more planted once on the side of the tire. It’s more than the bike feeling glued to the ground. It actually feels externally stabilized. I imagine part of that is the aerodynamics (which would explain the higher turn-in effort, despite lighter wheels), but I’m tempted to attribute some of the cornering feel to the carbon chassis. Ducati said they took advantage of the carbon’s characteristics to tune the flex of the forward frame, which is a key factor in cornering feel and traction.

Ducati manipulated the rigidity of the SL's forward frame. It's actually less stiff laterally and torsionally, all in the pursuit of improved feedback and grip while cornering. Ducati photo.

Another interesting aspect of the chassis is that during maximum braking I could barely tell that the back end had gotten light or was skating, until of course I tipped into the corner and felt the rear tire gracefully swing around. It was a similar situation with power slides (which, admittedly, were few and far between, as well as very small, due to the insane grip of the massive Pirelli slick, mounted for the track in place of the stock, street-legal Diablo Supercorsa SP). They sort of snuck up on me, without much notice, but also no drama, either. I imagine the chassis was sending cues regarding all of this, but it’s all so refined and subtle that a pleb like me couldn’t pick up on it.

It would have been great to focus on those sensations more in order to better understand and appreciate the bike, but after every apex is an acceleration zone, and that’s when the Superleggera steals all of your attention.

High-speed stability and braking are where the Superleggera differs most from the standard V4 R. Ducati photo.

The rate of acceleration is astounding, but despite the lunatic thrust I didn’t experience many power wheelies. Perhaps I was just being timid with the throttle, but the longer (by 16 mm) swingarm likely helped, as would the downforce created by the wings, which is proportional to your speed. Whatever the factors, I was grateful for the limited distractions, because even as composed as it is, the Superleggera is a handful.

A degree more throttle or a quarter-second hesitation on the brakes has an exponential impact. This is a machine that demands precision, but the good news is that it’s keen to respond appropriately no matter the speed, lean angle, or scenario. It’s refined, responsive, and predictable. In short order, the SL had instilled enough confidence that, rather than grimacing in fear, I was grinning ear-to-ear in my helmet. It’s honestly an easy bike to ride, as long as your brain is quick enough to keep up. 

Installing the Race Kit unlocks RaceGP Dash Mode, which utilizes onboard GPS to track lap times and sector times based on preloaded track maps. Ducati presentation photo.

Mine barely was, but thankfully I had just enough bandwidth left to fully appreciate what I was doing — riding the latest and greatest Ducati superbike on one the world’s most iconic racetracks. When I saw the checkered flag signaling the end of my track time, I made sure to let it all soak in on my cooldown lap, relishing the feel of the engine, the bark of the autoblipper on downshifts, and the view from behind that custom-machined top triple clamp. It’s a ride I won’t soon forget.

It works great, but why is it so expensive?

The V4 R, which is what the Superleggera is based on, costs $40,000. And yet the SL is $60,000 more. That’s a huge delta.

I didn’t get the chance to dig into the topic of cost with Ducati personnel, but in the quick conversation I had with Ducati North America CEO Jason Chinnock, he explained that it boils down to production expenses and the massive investment in R&D, all of which will ultimately need to be spread out over just 500 production units.

Based on the V4 R "race homologation special," the Superleggera weighs a claimed 350 pounds (dry) due in large part to an all-carbon-fiber chassis and wheels. Ducati photo.

As far as production goes, the SL is made using a lot of pricey materials and utilizes production processes that are specialized and very expensive. While many performance motorcycle use cast aluminum for parts of their frames and wheels — a readily available industrial service using a technique that’s been around since, oh, about 4,000 BC — the Superlegerra’s chassis utilizes a material that first came on the scene in 1963. The carbon bits are then subjected to intensive inspection procedures that include X-rays and ultrasonic imaging. That’s a little more involved than checking for cracks and weld penetration.

The Superleggera’s lighter weight also called for a total recalibration of not just the suspension but the whole electronic rider-aid package, and track rentals and software engineers aren’t cheap. Then there’s the time in the wind tunnel, the cost of feeding a bunch of journalists a really good boxed lunch at Laguna Seca, and maybe even a little profit mixed in.

OK, so who is actually buying a $100,000 motorcycle?!

You won’t find a Superleggera V4 for sale in your local dealership. They’re special-order only, and Ducati offers them to existing SL owners and VIPs before letting just any shmo stroke a check for 100 grand.

A lap-time comparison of the LS V4 versus previous Superleggeras and the World Superbike machine. Two seconds off WSBK pace is no joke. Ducati presentation photo.

Many Superleggeras will go to collectors who are liable to drain them (heyo, now that dry weight figure makes sense!) and park them in their living rooms. If you’re like me, that makes you a little sad, because in my mind motorcycles, no matter how precious, are meant to be ridden. Thankfully, there’s at least one Superleggera V4 buyer who feels the same way.

That buyer is Ryan in Colorado. He’s a 45-year-old father of two who reached out via Instagram to ask about my experience at Laguna. He’s ordered his Superleggera — his first new-bike purchase since 2002 — and he’s understandably excited to get his hands on it.

Öhlins TTX36 rear shock uses a titanium spring. Combined with a gas-charged NPX25/30 fork with machined bottoms, the SL's suspension is 1.3 pounds lighter than the standard V4 kit. Ducati photo.

We linked up via phone and it turns out Ryan is like many of us, at least in the sense that he’s buying this bike because A) it stirs his soul, and B) he’s excited to ride it, and has no intention of parking it in his den.

Ryan heads up two successful companies, but he didn’t come from money and his first Ducati was a wrecked 748 that he rebuilt himself. He has a sizeable collection of rare Ducatis, including a track-only 748S, 916SPS, and 916 Corsa, among others, that he exercises at the 10 to 15 track days he attends every year. His street bikes include a 900SS, 996R, 998R, 1098R, and an 1199 Superleggera that he rescued from a collector’s living room with just 60 miles on the odometer. It has 2,000 miles on it now, which includes track laps.

“I’ve ridden all the brands,” says Ryan, “but they don’t excite me the way Ducatis do. It’s no accident that so many of my bikes are homologation specials. Those really speak to me. I can ride my bikes on Sunday and it gives me a sense of joy that lasts throughout the week.”

Fair enough. But why buy a $100,000 Superleggera V4, rather than the $40,000 V4 R that makes the same power and only weighs 35 pounds more?

The most unique feature of the Superleggera V4 is its all-carbon-fiber frame, snugly cradling the 998 cc Desmosedici Stradale V-four engine. Ducati photo.

“I rode the V4 R. It’s the best bike I’ve ever experienced. And it fits in with my other bikes in that it’s WSBK spec. But then there’s my 1199 SL, and what I really love about that is the weight. It feels so special. I worked out what it would cost me to get a V4 R’s weight close to the SL’s, and you’re not that far off financially. With the SL V4 there’s the weight, and then there’s enough about it that is super special, the carbon frame and bodywork. That’s what makes it worth it. I’m looking around and wondering what other bikes are out there that would add to my riding enjoyment? The SL V4 is it.”

And when all of his other bikes were purchased used, why would Ryan buy this one new? “If I wait two or three years I can save $30,000 buying used, but that’s two to three years that I can’t enjoy the bike. I’m 45 now, and tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody. In life you can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.” Amen man.

My father always told me the same thing.

It’s hard not to be envious of someone who can shell out $100,000 on something like a motorcycle, but I gotta say, I’m happy to know that a bike as special as the Superleggera V4 is going to a guy like Ryan.

The sales tax is pretty low in Colorado, too.

2020 Ducati Superleggera V4
Price (MSRP) $100,000
Engine Desmosedici Stradale 998 cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve, 90-degree V-four 
Transmission,
final drive
Six-speed, chain drive, with up and down Ducati Quick Shift
Claimed horsepower  209 @ 15,250 rpm stock, 234 @ 15,500 rpm with full racing exhaust
Claimed torque 85.6 foot-pounds @ 11,750 rpm stock, 87.7 foot-pounds @ 11,750 with full racing exhaust
Frame Carbon fiber
Front suspension Öhlins NPX25/30 43 mm fork, fully adjustable; 4.7 inches of travel
Rear suspension Öhlins TTX36 fully adjustable shock; 5.1 inches of travel
Front brake Dual Brembo Monoblock Stylema R four-piston calipers, 330 mm discs, cornering ABS
Rear brake Two-piston caliper, 245 mm disc, cornering ABS
Rake, trail 24.5 degrees, 3.94 inches
Wheelbase 58.3 inches
Seat height 32.9 inches
Fuel capacity 4.23 gallons
Tires Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP, 120/70ZR17 front, 200/60ZR17 rear
Claimed dry weight 350 pounds stock, 335.5 pounds with racing kit
Available Now
Warranty 24 months, unlimited mileage
More info www.ducati.com