Ducati 899 Panigale proves big isn't always better

By Marc Potter
marcpotter Tested every new bike since 1994, loves anything on two wheels, Bike Social boss, Potski to his mates. Recently discovered elbow-down riding - likely to end in tears.

Ducati 899 Panigale is a thing of beauty, even with our giant tester on board.
Few things will wake you up in the morning like a Ducati 899 Panigale. The beautiful little Ducati is enough to give anyone with even a drop of petrol in their veins a reason to get out of bed and that’s before you ride it.

Based on its bigger and crazier Panigale 1199 brother, the 899 Panigale is essentially a smaller 1199 with different forks, a smaller motor and a double-sided swingarm instead of the 1199’s single-sider. It’s no worse for any of that. In  fact, in most ways, it’s better.

The design is pure Italian sketchbook cool. The LED headlights, the exhaust cut away on the left hand side, the swingarm, the side-mounted shock. It’s a thing of beauty before you even ride it. But on full chat at 10,750rpm it’s glorious.

For such a cute-looking sports bike, it makes an incredible amount of noise from the standard exhausts. A harsh rumbling noise that billows out of the side-exiting exhaust, emitting a sound rarely heard outside of a race paddock. Revel in it, hook another gear using the quick shifter and immerse yourself in that V-twin emotion.

It’s hard to believe it passed any kind of noise tests, but it obviously did, and it’s so noisy that even at low revs in towns and villages people turn their heads and look at you in a scowling ‘I bet he’s speeding’ kind of way, even if you’re actually doing 29mph. If you don’t like attention – don’t ride one of these, especially in white with red wheels.
So it is slightly antisocial, yes, but the exhilaration from spinning the 898 (yes, 898, not  899 cc) V-twin to the rev-limiter, getting those red lights on the dash telling you to shift, clicking the quick shifter and engaging more V-twin growl is one of motorcycling’s finest pleasures.

It’s keen to pull from mid-revs but up top from 7000rpm is where it really comes alive. It accelerates hard but it’s never ultimately challenging like a 1000cc road bike, or its bigger 1199 Panigale brother. And that’s a good thing.

Sure it will pick the front wheel up in the first three gears if you want it to, but it’s not frightening, it’s more exhilarating, fast yes, uncontrollable, no way. You have to invite it into badness. The 899 is more of a North London hoodlum gently asking you for your wallet, the 1199 is more a Johannesburg gangster. It points a gun in your face and pulls the trigger, no questions asked.

With the £3,750 more expensive (£16,250 compared to £12,495 for the 899) big bad Panigale 1199 and its 195bhp, the whole experience will be something you remember forever, but, like the best horror films, it will leave a lasting memory of being ever so slightly scared any time you come near one.

195bhp is hilarious on any day, but now I’ve ridden the 899 Panigale extensively I’m going to say that on most days, most of the time I’d rather own the small bike. There, I said it. 148bhp versus 195bhp for the road in a package like the Panigale 899? I’ll take the little one, for the road at least.

It’s fast enough, topping out at an indicated 165mph, is around a second a lap slower on a track, and in the real world has more than enough speed, acceleration and mischief. It’s certainly not soft. Think back to an original 916 and they were making 104bhp, a Honda SP-2 was making a claimed 133bhp for instance. This is lighter and is making 148bhp.
The glamour of road testing... You can't keep an 899 Panigale dirty, even when riding it in dampest February.
Admittedly, you wouldn't use an 899 Panigale every day in February, but that's partly what this test was about. You can. Okay so it gets covered in grime, but doesn't anything in this weather? It may be one of the most exotic bikes you can buy, but in the real world, it can pootle around on the way to work and is happy enough sat in traffic without getting too hot. The fairing keeps the worst of the cold off you and the screen is high enough for sustained motorway riding, even with an overweight six-foot-four rider on board dressed in full winter kit. Even the mirrors work.

There’s a full electronics package including traction control, and when it’s wet and slippery you can ride it on the traction control, in a straight line at least. Force the rear wheel to try and break traction and you can feel the electronics kick-in to slow the spin so that the bike finds forward motion and grip rather than spin.

Like the ABS, the more important thing about the electronics package other than outright performance enhancement is that they both give you confidence when conditions are less than perfect.
The Ducati 899 Panigale in all its glory. The red one is nice, but we reckon the white with red wheels version here is hot.
The Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres are amazing in the dry, and come with dual compounds to make them last in the middle, and we know from experience they grip to elbow down lean angles in the dry. Sadly, the testing conditions meant I hardly got it off the centre of the tyre. But in theory this thing has the same basic chassis as the bigger bike, big piston Showa forks, Ohlins rear suspension, and the same geometry as the bigger bike. It can be hustled in the wet and damp, so God only knows how fast it would be point-to-point in the dry.

In the wet, slime and grease that we had the bike in most of the time, the traction control was very welcome. You can feel it cutting in, but it’s not intrusive. The lights on the dash flash, it cuts in and out a bit then finds grip, the revs increase and it clears off. Ultimately if you like it or don’t like it you can turn it up or down to suit your riding style.

At slower speeds it’s friendly enough. In town your bum still cooks a bit from the expanse of exhausts running under the seat, but other than the sports riding position which makes it feel like you’re heading down pit lane at low speed, it’s dead friendly to ride in town. The clutch is light, it doesn’t judder or shake at low revs like the 1199 can. There’s a lot of weight on your wrists, but this is an extreme sports bike, so don’t complain.

The bike can be made friendlier by adjusting the modes too. In Wet mode the power is cut and delivery softened to 110bhp. It also automatically adjusts the bike’s traction control, electronic engine braking and traction control too, to soften it for the required use.

Equally, if you engage Race mode, the traction control is cut to a minimum, the incredible ABS braking system allows a certain amount of rear wheel lift, and the engine braking adjusts for more aggressive corner entry. Ninety nine per cent of the time just leave it in Road and let the bike and its sophisticated electronics do the talking. It’s almost perfect on the road.

After two weeks with the bike I’m struggling to find any negative points about it. The fuel range is pretty poor, the bike averaged 29mpg when being ridden hard and the fuel light came on about 80 miles, but again, nobody buys an exotic sports bike for fuel economy.

If you want one of the fastest, most usable sports bikes ever made then step this way. The 899 Panigale is a bike that will stagger you with its ability to rip through country roads at high speed, and one that you just can’t stop looking at when you pull up, then the 899 Panigale is hard to beat, even by the 1199 Panigale, and that’s pretty special.

+ points: That noise, power, pose, handling, red wheels
-  points: Fuel economy. It’s not the big one, but who cares

Price: £12,495
Engine: 898cc four-stroke  V-twin
Power: 148bhp @10750rpm (claimed)
Torque: 73ft-lb@9000rpm
Top speed: 165mph (est)
Weight: 169kg
Seat height: 830mm
MPG: 29mpg (on test)
Fuel capacity: 17 litres