Last week at EICMA, KTM unveiled the new 790 Duke but a few weeks before that our European Road Test Editor Alan Cathcart got a chance to take a spin on one not far from its birthplace in Austria. Officially a prototype, the bike Alan rode will be very similar to the one you’ll see on the showroom floor in the not-so-distant future.
KTM is Europe’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, with 203,423 bikes sold under its KTM and Husqvarna brand labels in 2016. But until now, the only multi-cylinder motorcycles the Austrian company has made have all been 75º V-twins based on the LC8 engine designed in-house powering the 950R works racer with which Fabrizio Meoni won the 2002 Paris-Dakar Rally. This duly reached production the following year in the 950 Adventure, and various derivatives of it up to and including the mega-motor powering the current 1290 Super Duke, have all been based on that same V-twin platform. As such, over the past 15 years the 75º V-twin format has essentially fuelled KTM’s growth to be Europe’s number-one on-road, to go alongside its undisputed world crown as the king of the off-road sector, gained by its Read to Race single-cylinder products.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY HEIKO MANDL
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But that’s all changed with the debut of the 790 Duke at the EICMA Milan Show last week. It’s powered by an-all new 800cc parallel-twin motor designated the LC8c—as in “compact.” KTM engineers led by Philipp Habsburg, the company’s Vice President of R&D, have been working on this for the past three years, and while it will initially power two distinct variants, the Duke streetrod and the multi-purpose 790 Adventure, expect a range of different models using the same engine which will in time together represent KTM’s best-selling on-road segment. That’s the expectation of KTM AG board member Gerald Kiska, whose Salzburg-based Kiska Design company has been responsible for designing every single KTM model since 1992, when KTM’s current president Stefan Pierer took over the company. That includes the unpainted black 790 Duke prototype I found awaiting me at the KTM Technologies building across the road from Kiska Design, when I was summoned to Salzburg for an exclusive first look at this significant new model in KTM’s history—including a brief getting-to-know-you debut ride on this well-used development bike.
“We think we have a good offering in the entry level and lower capacity on-road sectors with our smaller singles made in India by our Bajaj partners,” says Kiska. “We get our customers started on riding bikes with the 125 and 200 Dukes, then we take them to the next stage with the 390 or 690 singles—but after that we lose them to another manufacturer, because we don’t have a middleweight model to offer them. Okay, maybe we get them back again later on—but not necessarily, so that’s about to change with this bike you’re riding, which we think is the answer to that hole in our range.”
The 790 features a compact, lightweight, liquid-cooled DOHC eight-valve engine with a 270º crank to deliver good traction, fitted with twin counterbalancers to eliminate vibration—one in the cylinder head, the other driven off the crankshaft. There’s chain drive to the camshafts offset to the right of the cylinders, while the six-speed gearbox allows clutchless quickshifting both up and down the ratios, and is matched to a PAS/Power Assisted Slipper oil-bath clutch which is cable-operated for ease of maintenance, and to save weight.
“All components on the bike have been reduced to the essential according to KTM’s purity brand values,” says Simke. “But customers should rest assured that this bike will be amongst the best-equipped in the middleweight segment. We call it ‘The Scalpel’—a precise, lightweight, focused bike with one task in mind—slicing through the street, and leaving others behind. It will be the sharpest street weapon in our range—and we hope in the entire sector, as well.”
KTM’s new parallel-twin engine is installed as a fully load-bearing component in a tubular steel trellis frame, whose stiffness has been tuned to deliver sharp, precise handling with a sporty feel, says Hager.
“We have aimed to produce a good balance between agility and stability in turns, as well as good straight line stability,” he says.
There’s a cast aluminum subframe which incorporates air intakes running beneath the seat to the airbox, and Simke says KTM has aimed to target the seat height to as wide a range of statures as possible. High end componentry on the 790 Duke includes radial brakes, obviously with Bosch ABS as standard to meet Euro 4 homologation, and fully adjustable WP suspension with an upside down fork and a direct-action cantilever rear shock operated directly off the cast aluminum swingarm, and a WP steering damper.
Ten-spoke lightweight cast aluminum wheels are standard. There’s a very distinctive fluted silencer to the 2-1 stainless steel exhaust system with the hefty box under the swingarm pivot containing the three-way catalyst. All the lights front and rear are LED, and there’s a full color TFT dash similar to the one on the 690 Duke, plus there are illuminated menu switches.
The 790 Duke’s extensive array of rider aids includes three riding modes—Sport, Street and Rain—plus multi-stage MTC traction control, Bosch Cornering ABS that’s also lean angle sensitive, as well as KTM’s established MSR/Motor Slip Regulation entailing targeted intervention by the Keihin ECU to mitigate engine braking’s effect on the rear wheel. The electronics package is likely to be a benchmark for the middleweight class. The two-way powershifter also includes launch control and spin adjuster, as well as making the anti-wheelie program switchable for those who want to stunt their way to the next traffic light.
The chance to try all this out for myself came in a brief 20-minute ride in semi-wet conditions aboard the Duke, which has a 270º crank that delivers an offbeat lilt to the ultra-distinctive flat, droning exhaust. What’s more, equipped with copious rider aids including TC. I had to take care not to get too enthusiastic because of the pair of Maxxis Supermaxx ST tires KTM had fitted to the bike. I’d never ridden on these before, but they seemed to heat up well in the foggy, dampish conditions, and there was good feedback from the front one via the well dialed-in WP fork.
The 790 Duke has quite an upright stance, more streetrod than streetfighter in the sense that it’s not a superbike with the bodywork stripped away, but rather a specifically tailored, sharp-steering package in its own right.
The Austrian parallel-twin is indeed a twin that thinks it’s a single, whereas another of its key rivals, the BMW F800R that’s also a parallel-twin, is much more half a four. You have trouble actually seeing that the 790 Duke indeed has two cylinders, not just one, and that visual conundrum is duplicated when you hop aboard and start riding it hard. For it feels so light and agile to flick from side to side climbing twisty mountain roads.
The flat-set handlebar gives great leverage for carving corners from side to side, and the KTM is indeed practically intuitive—yes, it’s the right word—in the way it steers into a turn. The engine is a true flexible friend, with heaps of personality—it pulls wide open in top gear from just 3000 rpm, all the way to the 10,800 rpm limiter. There’s a slight moment of roughness around 7000 rpm which I wouldn’t really characterize as vibration, but at all other revs it’s willing and torquey, with just enough vibration left in via the dual counterbalancers to make you feel you’re riding a motorcycle, not a sewing machine. Same thing with the settings for the slipper clutch, which has just enough engine braking left dialed in to help you stop for a second-gear hairpin from high speed, without chattering the rear wheel on the overrun. “We did this deliberately to add some personality,” admits Simke, “but the problem was knowing how much to leave in!”
Although the radial brakes work well enough, the settings for the clutchless autoblipper are so ideally chosen that you hardly have to use them climbing a twisty mountain pass like this one—just backshift a couple of times for a slow bend, and the residual engine braking invariably takes care of slowing the bike in normal use—okay, start going for it, and you’ll need to work the lever, but not otherwise. The clutch action is super light and positive when you do have to use it, as I imagine you’d have to riding in town. This won’t cramp up your left hand riding the 790 Duke to work each morning.
So far, this is a very good motorcycle that sets the bar higher for its rivals in that crowded middleweight category, and it’s in every way a true KTM. CN