When the Ducati 959 Panigale was announced late last year, I’ll be the first to admit to a healthy dose of cynicism. Here was Ducati’s ‘little’ sportsbike being upgraded to now less than 50cc off the size of a litre bike. But once you put a leg over the 959 Panigale, all that skepticism gets washed away. Not only is the 2016 Ducati 959 Panigale a wonderful bike, it could well be Ducati’s most practical sportsbike ever.
The reasoning for Ducati’s capacity bump comes thanks to Euro IV emission controls. Ducati was faced with the option of either maintaining the 899 cc capacity of the Panigale while reducing performance, or as it has done here, maintained performance while boosting total displacement. The third option would have been to spend a ton of money to maintain both performance and capacity as is, but given the volumes that the 899 Panigale sells at, that wasn’t an economically viable path to go down.
To pass Euro IV controls and maintain the performance of the 899, Ducati increased the piston stroke from 57.2 mm to 60.8 mm. To achieve the new stroke length, the crankshaft was redesigned to include a brand-new crank journal lubrication system – a first for a Superquadro engine. The engineers went back to the drawing board for completely new con-rods, too – to suit the increased stroke, while the compression ratio has not changed from 12.5:1.
Also added to the 959 is a slipper clutch, the rear sprocket has gone down by a tooth in size and there’s various visual tweaks here and there – though unless you know what you’re looking at you probably wouldn’t notice – save for the exhaust. If you live in Europe, you’ll unfortunately lose the underslung exhaust which is replaced by a more traditional twin can setup. Australians and Americans luckily don’t follow suit (for now). Probably the only other major change is the addition of new footpegs, replacing the previously incredibly slippery ones.
So what’s to like? Well, almost everything. Firstly, just look at it. The 959 Panigale (alongside its bigger brother) is in our opinion the best looking sportsbike on the market – if not the best looking bike period. Only the MV Agusta Dragster could dethrone it overall (again, in our humble opinion). The only negative one could make about its appearance compared to the 1299 Panigale is the double sided swing arm – which you’re not going to notice while you’re reading (or if you’re looking at the bike side on).
This is one of those bikes that even your typical non-motorcycle enthusiast will comment on and drool over. Red or white, it looks brilliant and really shows that the design department in Bologna is at the top of their game. Turn on the engine and twist the throttle and the love affair continues.
The 959 Panigale has that typical exotic Ducati roar. Like Aprilia and MV Agusta, Ducati knows how to make their bikes sound good. And while those engine changes were forced on Ducati to meet emission controls, they’ve also given the bike some wonderful new responsiveness down the bottom end.
The 899 was no slouch, but it did like to be revved high – not really in line with Ducati calling it a practical sportsbike. But with the changes the engineers made to the engine for the 959 – as well as modifications to fuel mapping – the bike now comes on strong no matter where in the rev range you’re at.
As you would expect, throttle response is perfect and linear and no matter how fast or slow you twist the throttle, it does exactly what you want. Powering out of corners is wonderful with the engine just giving more and more and more. The real star of the show however is the handling.
The 899 was already a wonderful machine to throw around corners – in fact, that was kind of the baby Panigale’s ethos. Being down on power in comparison to its larger counterpart and weighing slightly more too, it’s never going to win a straight drag race against either it or other bikes of similar displacement. But that’s because the idea behind this machine is more corner speed than straight line. And boy, does it do that well.
If you ever need to make yourself feel like a better rider than you really are, ride this bike. On public streets, you may find that the brakes aren’t necessary unless you’re coming to a complete stop because it grips the road so well. We went through a section of winding road with a speed limit of around 100 kph that we stuck to (*cough*) and despite various corners, switchbacks and hairpins, not only did we not brake once, we didn’t even lift off the throttle. You could almost mount an argument that the bike is boring because it’s so good.
When you do need to brake, the anchors are also brilliant and allow you to stop with wonderful confidence. There’s a variety of electronic aids at your disposal including traction control, ABS and riding modes but on the street you’ll probably not worry too much about these. Just stick it in street or race mode and go for it.
So far it sounds like the 959 is close to motorcycling perfection. There is one caveat that prevents it from reaching those near impossible heights – the heat. This bike is like a two wheeled oven. Hot motorcycles are par for the course in this category but the 959 definitely generates more heat that other bikes of similar size. Usually you tend to only notice this heat when in slow traffic or at a standstill, but the 959 cooks you no matter what you’re doing. Both your right foot (where the exhaust sits) and your bum will feel toasty warm. That might help lengthen your riding season if you’re in a cooler climate but in the summer with full leathers on, I can only imagine it will cause fatigue.
Ducati might like to class this bike as a ‘supermid’ or ‘bigmid’ but it really can no longer say that. It’s a mere 41 cc shy of being a litre bike and that’s what it should be compared to. Ducati shouldn’t shy away from that either because it gives those bikes a huge run for their money – at least on the street. Yes, it’s down on power in comparison and is probably more akin to a GSX-R750 or an F3 800 performance wise, but if you’re looking to buy a litre bike as your daily and/or occasional track day weapon, I cannot see why this wouldn’t at least be on your shortlist.
So how good ultimately is the 959 Panigale? One way I can answer that is this – whenever I test superbikes, I ask myself whether despite all the impracticalities that come with bikes like this, could I live with it as a daily? Do the positives of incredible speed and handling outweigh the negatives of discomfort and poor low speed maneuverability? Despite the heat generated by this bike, I’d have to answer yes – it is that good. I’ve never been one to care about numbers on a bike’s specification sheet because they only tell a small part of the story. And while 200 horsepower of motorcycle grunt is always welcome, you have to be realistic in the ability to use that on public roads.
The Ducati 959 Panigale is a wonderful motorcycle. Its handling is superb, its engine responsive and plenty powerful for the real world and it looks wonderful. A litre bike wannabee it may be, but it’s all the better for it.