Agent Provocateur: MV Agusta F4S Full Test

MV Agusta's sultry F4 Strada finally materializes...was it worth the wait?

It's somewhat ironic that right around the time we first heard mutterings of the MV Agusta (labeled a Cagiva then), another Italian machine, Ducati's 916, was making its debut at the Milan show. And now, as the 916/996 era comes to a close with a replacement bike imminent, the MV Agusta F4--designed by Massimo Tamburini, the man behind the 916--finally becomes a production reality. We've been tantalized, teased and titillated with pictures and riding impressions for almost seven years. Does the everyman Strada version live up to the expectations? Definitely. And then some.

History Lesson

Our first glimpse of the radial valve Cagiva four-cylinder motor, originally designed with help from Ferrari, was in early 1995. With the demise of the Cagiva 500 GP team (which apparently was a difficult decision, but necessary in order for the MV project to succeed) development of the engine moved in house to the Varese factory's Experimental Department. The rest of the bike, renamed to reflect Cagiva's acquisition of the MV Agusta name, was designed and styled at the Centro Ricerche Cagiva (CRC) by former Bimota and former Ducati man Tamburini. The final product in Serie d'Oro form (see sidebar, page 46) was unveiled at the 1997 Milan show, in Italy. The Strada model was released one year later.

At first glance, the MV engine appears to be a standard transverse four, with somewhat dated technology. For example, the cams are driven from the center of the crank--most sportbikes now have their cam drives at one end, eliminating a bearing. Moreover, a bulky alternator resides behind the cylinders, whereas current rare-earth magnet technology has this item driven directly on the end of the crankshaft on most bikes.

But inside the F4's fuel injected motor lurk some interesting details not seen on other sportbikes. Radially arranged valves are directly actuated by camshafts machined with a slight taper. And below-decks, a removable cassette transmission (with available alternate ratios) indicates the F4's racetrack intent.

The engine hangs from a two-piece frame fabricated from steel tubes and aluminum castings. The forward section is a steel trellis design, reminiscent of Tamburini's earlier work, and this is bolted to cast aluminum swingarm plates. The steering head angle is adjustable through the use of eccentrics, and a steering damper nestles behind the top triple clamp. A gigantic 49mm Showa inverted fork--with quick-release axle clamps--serves front suspension duty, and a Sachs shock with a linkage adjustable for ride height resides out back.

The fit and finish on this bike is extraordinary. Quarter turn fasteners are used to mount the fairing sides and lowers, and once the seat is unlocked and flipped up, remove two small pins and the entire unit comes off. Just two Allen screws need to be unbolted to remove the front fairing--it locates on two pins--and electrical contacts eliminate the need for wiring connectors. One more bolt and two quick-release fuel fittings and the gas tank comes off, two screws for the airbox, another one for each air duct, and the bike is bare in minutes. Hmm, probably not a good idea to be leaving your MV unattended for too long.

With CRC designers paying close attention to engine width and compactness, the overall machine is quite svelte--15mm narrower than a Ducati V-twin. Hop aboard, and the slim tank and bodywork are immediately noticeable, as is the lowish seat height. With chassis design and styling by the same man responsible for the Ducati 996, it's not a surprise that the seating position and ergos are virtually identical to the Bologna twin. Start the MV--it always starts on the first try and immediately settles into a low idle--and the sound of the 4-into-2-into-1-into-2-into-4 pipe organ exhaust, the styling of which is patented, is nothing short of musical. High-pitched, raspy yet subdued at idle, the sound is unlike any other four-cylinder, and with individual silencers there's even a hint of a two-stroke's tone.

Let's Ride!

Once in the twisty sections, however, everything begins to make sense. The narrow tank and seat make the whole bike seem small and light (and the MV is a bit of a porker by present standards at 480 pounds fully fueled), and the riding position seems natural. Steering is heavy, what you'd expect from 104mm of trail--our bike's steering geometry was set to its most conservative position--but with appropriate effort the compact F4 will change direction quite quickly. The upside is exceptional stability; even in fast and bumpy switchbacks the MV Agusta would not deviate from its line. Suspension action is decidedly on the stiff side, and with a gigantic fork and stiff swingarm you definitely have the sensation of feeling every bump and rut in the road.

With its racer-esque ergos, riding the F4 around town is a frustrating affair. Its low clip-ons and hard seat will have your arms, hands and butt crying only minutes into a ride. You'll notice immediately that the bike's stylish mirrors--which incorporate the turn signals--show mostly your arms and have a limited adjustment range. And turning the bars too far to one side is like placing your thumb in a vise as it gets caught between the clip-on and air duct--a tank slapper would not be a pleasant thing. Saving grace in the city is the engine and drivetrain, which work flawlessly at low speeds. The fuel injection is slightly fluffy at low revs, but otherwise throttle response is crisp and smooth enough that you'd swear a bank of carbs sits under the tank. Clutch action is excellent, as is the short-throw transmission; the engine is remarkably smooth and vibration-free, and there aren't any surges or troughs in power delivery. On the highway, the wind eases pressure on your hands and arms to an almost bearable level, but the sharp-edged sides of the seat leave the backs of your thighs in agony after less than a half hour in the saddle.

The valvole radiali mill builds power smoothly and somewhat deceptively from 5000 rpm right up until the shift light blinks on around 12,500 rpm; the rev limiter cuts in shortly after. The torque curve more closely resembles that of a V-twin rather than a four, and, like riding a twin, it's possible to make good time on a twisty road without using a pile of revs. Keeping the tach needle in its upper reaches pays off though, not only with more jam, but also because you'll love hearing the four screaming exhausts. The fuel injection is for the most part flawless. Only a tiny hesitation is evident when you roll on the throttle exiting a turn, and the twistgrip is extremely stiff in that initial transition--almost like engine vacuum is holding the butterflies closed. A steady hand is essential on bumpy corner exits.

At moderate speeds and lean angles, the F4 has a fairly severe tendency to fall into turns, with substantial pressure on the clip-ons necessary to keep the bike on-line. Up the pace to a more aggressive level, and this characteristic diminishes, to the point where--due also to the bike's stability--steering is extremely neutral and precise once you're banked into a turn. Also, the stiff suspension uses more of its stroke and the ride actually smooths out as you up the pace. Add in the joy of spinning the engine to redline at every straight, and it's easy to get sucked in to riding the bike harder and quicker. The more assertive you are (and the MV practically begs you to ride it that way), the better the engine, handling and suspension are as a package; the more reserved you are, the more intimidating the bike feels.

A paradox

And this presents the quandary of the beautiful MV Agusta F4. Owners of this work of art would be entirely justified in not wanting to ride it aggressively, and as such, could potentially be less than happy with its performance. Not many will ride this bike as Tamburini and company intended, but those who do (and the cost of an error is harsh, in terms of dollars and peer pressure) will appreciate the F4 even more. We took our test bike to the racetrack (oh, the sacrilege!) only to find the brake lever coming to the bar after a few laps of action. A quick purge by forcing the pads back in the calipers had the six-piston binders working perfectly as usual, but for only two laps. We suspect boiled brake fluid to be the culprit, but after changing the fluid we haven't been back to the racetrack to confirm our suspicions.

As something to put in your garage (or even living room) and lust over, the F4 is a desirable piece, and if availability continues to be limited, exclusivity is assured. Ironically, to appreciate its finer qualities it is necessary to put these thoughts aside and ride the MV as you would, well...just another bike. While in terms of performance the MV's time may well have come and gone, there's no denying it is an extremely capable motorcycle. Own the MV as a showpiece, or explore its capabilities; either way, you won't be disappointed.

**Suspension Settings: **MV AGUSTA F4 STRADA

Front: Preload: 4 lines showing; Rebound damping: 4 clicks out from full stiff; Compression damping: 5 clicks out from full stiff.
Rear: Preload: 18mm thread showing; Rebound damping: 3 clicks out from full stiff; Compression damping: 14 clicks out from full stiff; Ride height: 13mm link showing.

F4 vs. GSX-R750

Apples and oranges? More like Cellini sculptures and hammer drills

How do you compare the MV Agusta F4 and Suzuki's GSX-R750? In terms of outright performance, the 2000 model Gixxer stomps all over the F4. More power (eight horses) and less weight (50 pounds!) give the Gixxer a huge advantage in the quarter-mile (.2 seconds and 7.5 mph) and at top speed (10.0 mph). Handling-wise, the Suzuki's lighter weight and friendlier ergonomics make it easier to ride at a moderate clip. Up the pace, however, and the MV will hold its own thanks to quick steering, high-quality suspension and razor sharp feedback.Remember, the MV was initially designed in the mid-nineties, and the F4 is a brilliant performer compared to, say, the previous generation of GSX-Rs. But while Cagiva was busy with takeovers, restructuring and bringing the MV to market in typical Italian fashion, Suzuki (and other manufacturers) raised the bar significantly, leaving the MV Agusta with a slight performance disadvantage against the current roadburners.

But with its stunning styling, howling exhaust note and colorful brand history, hard numbers and comparisons are a secondary consideration. Whereas the MV is an object of lustful art, the Suzuki is a tool used to get the job done. Out on a weekend ride, our boys--aboard a Ducati 748, a new GSX-R, Kawasaki ZX-9R and the MV--stop at the local watering hole for a break. Immediately a crowd gathers around the MV Agusta while the Suzuki, Kawasaki and even the Ducati garner barely a glance. These intangibles are what make this Italian machine so desirable and worth its price tag of exactly double the Suzuki's. The fact that it works almost as well as the Gixxer is a bonus.

**Test Notes: **MV AGUSTA F4 STRADA

+ Seductive styling
+ Chassis by Massimo Tamburini
+ You won't see yourself coming the other way
- Could use some more power
- Your butt will hate you
- Potential for broken thumbs
x Begs to be ridden hard--but dare you?

F4 Serie d'Oro

Plain Jane F4-S not fancy enough for you? Try this...

We can see it now: A few years down the road, the Strada MV will be in the dime-a-dozen Ducati 996 category, with nary an eyebrow raised when you pull into your favorite hangout. Best get your hands on the limited edition (300 units, each numbered, with 30 coming to the U.S.) Oro model right away, then. The most noticeable feature of this $32,000 gold version is the replacement of those heavy aluminum castings (wheels, swingarm and rear frame, bottom triple clamp, engine covers) with magnesium--the gold colored parts giving the bike its name. Lightweight carbon fiber bodywork is used as opposed to the Strada's ABS plastic parts, and the gas tank is made from the black stuff also. Aluminum brake disc carriers are used (vs. the Strada's steel parts), bringing the total weight savings to approximately 20 pounds.

The Oro's chassis sprouts additional adjustability, in the form of a movable swingarm pivot, a choice of two rear shock linkage rates (by relocating the rocker arm's pivot point) and rearsets with eccentric footrest adjusters. Other than the magnesium covers, the Oro MV's motor remains the same as the garden variety Strada's.

If you haven't ordered yours already, it's too late; the Oro bikes were all spoken for more than two years ago. Owners include 13-time MV-mounted World Champion Giacomo Agostini, King Juan Carlos of Spain, country singer Lyle Lovett and The Tonight Show host Jay Leno.

Sport Rider opinions

From the moment I first saw a picture of the MV's design five years ago, I thought the bike possessed the perfect embodiment of form mated with function. Here was "motorcycle" as more than functional; it ascended to an object of worship.

Alas, my first ride of Tamburini's craftwork left me somewhat perplexed. What motorcycle manufacturer sells a bike that has no clearance between the bar and the tank at full steering lock? Get into a tank slapper on this bike, and you'll quickly discover why dogs carry things around in their mouths. Nothing sets off my pose-o-meter like carbon fiber-look plastic. Need I mention the split fuel line incidents? My Bike of the Gods fell from its pedestal.

For a hand-crafted motorcycle, the MV stands out. As an object of techno-lust, it has no peer. (How often do you see a bike that has patented clutch and brake reservoir shapes?) Riding the F4 around town is worth the torturous riding position because of all the stares and pointed fingers. But aim the MV toward a twisty road and it shines. Case-in-point, this morning I decided to take a jaunt with the MV on my way to work. I arrived an hour and a half later than planned. I kept thinking, "Just one more corner, and I'll turn around."So what if the MV wasn't created by divinity? Tamburini penned one fine machine. And that's more than enough.--E.B.

Had this bike come out five years ago, we would've been raving about its standard-setting performance, and styling that left all the other bikes--Tamburini's own 916 included--looking like yesteryear's leftovers. Of course, the price tag would've been just as hefty, but so what? Something that impressive would probably have been worth it.

But this is now, and 750 performance has increased tenfold. We've got 750s with performance that rivals the best open-class sportbikes, while weighing less than most 600s. And you could buy two of them for the price of an MV. Now the F4S is about nine horsepower short and 55 pounds overweight. Time waits for no motorcycle, especially a sportbike.

However, the MV's styling isn't dated by any stretch of the imagination. Tamburini has proven once again that he is the master designer without peer (imagine the task of Ducati's Pierre Terblanche, who must design the new generation 916/996), and the MV is bristling with innovative features that are as tasteful to the engineering mind as they are to the eye. And despite its power and weight disadvantages, the MV's handling is right up there with the best.

Would I buy one? If I had the necessary income, I'd be putting down a deposit on the upcoming hot-rod F140 version that is said to be 20 kilos lighter and 10 horsepower quicker. -Kent Kunitsugu

It took me a long time to appreciate the MV; the niggling problems our bike has had--the split fuel line when it was Motorcyclist's, and the fading brakes--are always in the back of my mind, leaving me a bit hesitant to ride it very hard. When I can put those thoughts aside though, and just ride, the MV Agusta is a ton of fun. I can't get over how small and compact the bike is, and how it handles better the faster you go. But there's no way I could ignore those worrying thoughts if it were my own bike--I'd have much more fun on something a little less exotic.

I think the fact that it's such a beautiful machine would be the true enjoyment of owning an MV Agusta. Not so much to parade at the local hot spots, but to own as you would a work of art. From that perspective the Strada is a bargain compared to other exotica, and therein would lie--for me--the satisfaction of owning one.--Andrew Trevitt

Specifications: MV Agusta F4 Strada

**Suggested retail price: **$18,895

ENGINE

Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse, inline, 4-stroke four
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 4 radial valves/cyl.
Displacement: 749cc
Bore x stroke: 73.8 x 43.8
Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Carburetion: Weber-Marelli multipoint fuel injection, 46mm throttle bodies
Transmission: 6-speed

CHASSIS

Front suspension: 49mm inverted cartridge fork, 4.4 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Single shock absorber, 4.7 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload, compression and rebound damping, ride height
Front brake: 2, six-piston calipers, 310mm discs
Rear brake: Four-piston caliper, 210mm disc
Front wheel: 3.50 x 17 in.; cast-alloy
Rear wheel: 6.0 x 17 in.; cast-alloy
Front tire: 120/65-ZR17 Pirelli Dragon EVO
Rear tire: 190/50-ZR17 Pirelli Dragon EVO
Rake/trail: 24.5 deg./4.1 in. (104mm)
Wheelbase: 55.6 in. (1412mm)
Seat height: 31.1 in. (790mm)
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal. (22L)
Weight: 480 lb. (218 kg) wet; 445 lb. (202 kg) dry
Instruments: LCD speedometer, tachometer, LCD odometer/dual tripmeter/clock, LCD coolant temperature gauge, lights for neutral, headlight, high beam, turn signals, low oil pressure, sidestand, battery, low fuel, shift point
PERFORMANCE **
**Fuel consumption:
29 to 40 mpg, 33 mpg avg.
Top speed: 162.0 mph
Quarter-mile: 11.09 sec. @ 128.0 mph (corrected)
Roll-ons: 60-80mph/4.86 sec., 80-100mph/3.58 sec.