I know this isn’t going to a popular opinion, but I think the new Ducati 959 Panigale is my favorite sportbike on the market. If I were buying a sportbike today for daily use/canyon carving/trackday riding, I’d buy it over anything else on the market today. Full stop and cue the haters. Here’s why.
(Full Disclosure: Ducati wanted me to ride the 959 Panigale so badly they flew me to Spain, where wine and cured meats were consumed while trays of shellfish filled paella were passed in front of my face.)
That doesn’t mean that the Ducati isn’t without its faults, or that I think it will or should actually sell better than other current offerings.
Ducati set out to make a bike that was the perfect balance of racing and street riding, with a blend of performance, power, and thrills mixed with usability, safety, and control.
The 959 actually isn’t all that different from the 899 Panigale it replaces, with Ducati giving it a slightly more “evolved” engine, a slightly updated design, and a few finishing touches.
The Specs That Matter
As we intimated when we first heard news of the bike, the “little” Panigale grew not out of the traditional need for more power, but because Ducati is updating their lineup to meet Euro 4 emissions standards and the Italian brand refused to launch a “new” motorcycle that made less power.
The 955 cc 90-degree V-twin Superquadro engine now makes 157 horsepower and 79 pound-feet of torque, a six and eight percent bump over the 899. It gets new head and case covers, as well as a new timing chain, gears, and guides so it can meet Euro 4 emissions and sound requirements.
The extra displacement comes from an increase in stroke which, while it normally adds top end power on most bikes, actually contributes to beefening the low and middle range thanks to the addition of “showerhead” style fuel injectors. It also gets a slipper clutch, high-flow filter, and the exhaust system from the 1299 which increases to 60 mm in diameter.
Though this change hasn’t produced massive gains (thankfully if you ask me), the added torque is placed well and, what’s even better, is smoother than that of the 899. Look closely at the graph above and note where the torque curve of the 899 actually drops off. Not so with the 959.
You might not notice many of the design changes unless you’re a Ducatisti or looking at pictures of the two side by side. The face has been widened at the brow slightly and the front intakes have grown. The mirror stalks are slightly shorter, while the windscreen is a smidge higher.
The side fairings are new, both for the Euro 4 version with those ugly shotgun cans and for ours with the beautiful underbelly exhaust. The intention was to make it look more 1299-ish in nature and, whether you’re extremely familiar with the previous iteration or not, the achieved their goal. This is one sexy motorcycle.
The final touches were to improve the handling and control of the motorcycle. The swingarm pivot was lowered by 4 mm which increases the wheelbase by 5 mm, the main benefit being added mechanical grip on corner exit (and just a skosh of straight line/high speed stability). They’ve also finally ditched those stupid, slippery footpegs for machined ones that you can keep your feet on.
The Euro 4 model comes in at 388 pounds dry, while our U.S. model will weigh 377 pounds.
It’s still the 899, it’s just got a hint more power, an iota more style, and a tinge more control. It’s available for the same price as the outgoing 899, at $14,995 for the red and $15,295 for the white.
We Rode The Damn Thing
Ahh, Valencia. There are few things like race tracks in Spain, but even then Valencia is something utterly different and entirely special. Spain loves them some motorcycle racing and, where most tracks are covered in the images of our caged brethren, Valencia’s walls are adorned with the all too familiar faces of Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, and Marquez.
Maybe it was that we’ve just finished so much MotoGP news, maybe it was that I spent the flight editing Lindsay’s incredible MotoGP 2016 Rule Updates piece, or maybe it was because we, the moto community, collectively woke to watch the GP finale which took place at Valencia.
Regardless, there was something holy about setting foot on those grounds. I was taken back to being a kid in the Golden State Warriors locker room as we entered the paddock, and I felt like I much more was on the line as we suited up.
We were to get four sessions on the track, and I spent the first trying to figure out which way was up, where the track was heading next, and wondering if someone was out there moving corners around on me. As we came back in, I’m embarrassed to admit the only impression I’d gotten was that it must take a fucking superhero to pilot a bike with 100 more horsepower than mine on this track. Lorenzo has definitely earned that gawdy crib of his.
Sessions two and three convinced me it wasn’t time to toss in the towel on this motorcycling thing, despite a very flat track where everything looks the exact same. This, my friends, is where the bike really began to shine.
I’ve described the KTM Duke 690 as a scalpel, and claimed that it’s almost telepathic in its turn initiation. A sportbike will never be quite as nimble as the wee Duke, but bless the 959’s heart for doing a great impression of it. I’m a solid rider, but only my mother and grandmother would call me talented and riding on a track is rarely something I do with grace and style.
The Panigale fixes all that, and not just because it looks like pure Italian sex while parked. I know we make a big deal about the R1 handling like a 600 cc class supersport, but that’s qualified with “for a literbike.” The 959 puts your knee on the deck long before you expect it, and is happy as a clam parked on its side at any speed you can throw at it.
Upright, it’s equally as sorted as pin the throttle and bang through gears. If you aren’t used to riding Ducati sportbikes, the fairly low 11,500 rpm rev limit can feel a bit awkward. However, with all that torque coming on strong at 7,000 rpm or so and pulling up through 10,500 rpm, the bike takes kindly to being short shift a bit.
By session four, I was in love. I’d hit my groove and figured out the flow of the track and was able to get to the business of going fast. The 959 was an able and willing participant and, with the help of the lovely Pirelli Supercorsa SP2 tires, we were off to the races.
Turn one feels like you need to really rub off some speed but it’s actually a really fast turn once you get used to the idea of entering it at speed without an exit marker. Two is a lovely hairpin, where the nimble Panigale really shines as it dives to the floor and remains planted as you slightly decrease but hold lean angle through three. The 959 is actually about the perfect bike for this track, where it’s able to show off its tight turn prowess and love for getting up to speed.
What We’d Change
If I were buying the 959 Panigale, there is very little I would change. The shape of the tank felt great in the turns, but I had a hard time bracing myself against it under the heavy braking required coming into turn one and I’d probably add some grip pads to the sides of the tank if I were going to track it often.
Not that this is something the owner can change, but I would like to see Ducati update their ABS system a bit. We spent the first session of the day with TC and ABS enabled and the ABS system interpreted the bumps going into turn one as the front wheel locking and threw the pads off the calipers dramatically. The system isn’t nearly as refined as others we’ve tested, and I’d love to see the babygale get some more advanced binders.
The quickshifter is nice, but the 959 really needs a better version that goes both up and down and has an auto-blip function. Seems like a massive oversight to claim something is designed for track/race use and not include something like that on a bike with this much prowess.
Race mode brought some of the normal fueling twitchyness, and a power commander would be well worth the money if this were in my garage permanently.
You Wanted To Know
I posted a pic of the bike on my social media, and asked what your questions were about the bike so I could help tailor the review to what you wanted to know. If you aren’t following me on Instagram or Twitter, you really should be. I try and keep the food and cat pics to a minimum.
- Lots of you asked about the bike’s streetability, which is a totally fair question given that they promote this bike as being great for both. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to ride it on the street (although that’s a great reason for me to borrow one). Unfortunately, I can’t tell you if it will cook your manly bits or legs at stoplights, but I can tell you that the powerband and the bike’s love for being shortshift will make it more streetable than most. It’s also far more nimble than almost any other sportbike I’ve ridden, including a lot of 600s, which is my biggest complaint about most sportbikes in town.
- You also wanted to know how it compares to the 899. It does feel a lot like the 899, just with a few nice touches and a better torque curve. If you bought an 899, there definitely isn’t enough of a reason to upgrade.
- You asked me to keep the nonsensical squidlami pontific dribble to a minimum. I tried.
- Ergonomically, I fit great on the bike. I’m 6’0” tall and 155 pounds or so in winter, and the bike was comfy for me except for the under full brake pressure.
- No, it doesn’t feel like a literbike. Yes, the engine is close to 1000 ccs, but it simply doesn’t make the power or have the power delivery of literbikes. It feels more like a Suzuki GSX-R750 than anything else (my other favorite sportbike) and it’s much less ugly.
- The throttle response, as has happened with many of the Ducati’s lately, has improved. We spent the first session is “sport” mode, where it was incredibly smooth. Once we moved to “race,” things got a little abrupt between on and off throttle. It was manageable given that the added torque allows you a little more freedom with gear choice, but (as with almost all bikes released today) it would still benefit from a power commander.
- No you can’t add a sissy bar. Yes, it wheelies. Yes, I’m an idiot and left my helmet in the hotel and had to borrow one. Yes, it is heaps fast and shit. No, the engine is not turned the wrong way (I have too many friends who love Guzzi’s).
Why You Should Care
As we flew to Spain, I told Ducati’s PR guy that I was really bummed about the 959. I’d gotten to spend some time on the 899 and thought it was a great bike. Bringing the displacement even closer to full liter-bike status just meant less of a differentiation between it and the 1299 Panigale.
After riding the bike, I can tell you that riding the 959 Panigale is a lot like riding the 899 Panigale, and I mean that as an incredible compliment. Most of the sportbikes on the market are designed to fit racing classes, and that’s fine and all, but the 959 Panigale was designed to actually be fun to ride on the track and street and it’s far better at that than most.
You don’t wait for the power to hit like on a 600. But it also doesn’t taunt you like the literbikes of today do most riders. It doesn’t say “Are you sure you want to do that? I wouldn’t if I were you. I might bite you. You probably can’t handle this.”
Instead it says “Ride me a little harder, I have more in me but you can do it.”
I’m not the fastest guy on a sportbike, so I asked some of the fastest guys I know and they agreed. The babygale is plenty to have the time of your life on, but has the wisdom to realize that can doesn’t mean should. It isn’t as fast as it could be, it’s as fast as it should be.
Photos: Ducati, Sean MacDonald