KTm 790 Duke
Sharp as a scalpel! The 790 lives up to the hype
Reality seldom bears out advert spiel. That’s common experience. The KTM 790 Duke, which also marks the inception of a whole new middleweight platform for the Austrian marque, seems to be an exception, though; for we found that it did live up to the hype during our first ride in the hills of Gran Canaria
“the sharpest street weapon” “Maximise the thrill of the ride”
KTM’s marketing slogans seemed over-thetop when they were used earlier, during the press conference. After all, this new Duke is a mass-market, 105-PS naked middleweight, not some exotic sports bike dripping with lightweight parts.
But it’s hard to argue with claims of sharpness and thrills as I aim the 790 through another set of bends in the hills of Gran Canaria. On the straight sections the KTM has been making the most of those 105 horses, leaping forward with a brilliantly crisp power delivery, revving hard and smoothly through the box with the aid of its two-way quickshifter, and making a rorty twin-cylinder thrapping sound through its high-level pipe in the process.
And in the twisty bits it’s every bit as entertaining: steering sweetly in response to a nudge of its wide bars, staying very stable under both braking and acceleration, and finding plenty of grip as we crank through the seemingly never-ending strings of hairpins. We’re approaching the end of a day spent mostly with the throttle wound open, including a thrash at the Maspalomas circuit, and the 790 has done a good job of living up to the hype.
Serious marketing effort was only to be expected, because the 790 Duke is a hugely important bike for KTM — not just a new model but the start of a whole new middleweight platform. With its typically sharp-edged lines, it fills the large gap between the 690 Duke and 1290 Super Duke models in the Austrian firm’s street bike range, and will be the starting point not only for other KTMs, including an Adventure, but for sister brand Husqvarna, too.
KTM’s development team considered a mid-sized V-twin before deciding that a parallel twin, more compact and less expensive to produce, was a better bet. The 799-cc, DOHC eight-valve unit (which KTM call the “LC8c”, for Liquid-Cooled 8-valve, compact) has its crankpins offset by 75 degrees to give an irregular firing order. It is tuned as much for mid-range torque as top end. Although the 86 Nm maximum is generated at 8,000 revolutions per minute, it makes over 70 Nm from 3,000 rpm, and over 80 Nm from below 6,000 rpm.
The engine’s two balancer shafts allow it to be employed as a stressed member of the frame, which, in KTM tradition, is made from tubular steel. An aluminium rear sub-frame encloses the air-box, whose intakes are below the seat on either side. The WP suspension specification is basic, with non-adjustable 43-mm forks and a rear shock with adjustable preload (using a C-spanner rather than remote knob).
Where the 790 is definitely not basic is in its electronics, which set new standards for the middleweight class. The Duke follows KTM’s big V-twins in using a five-axis IMU to provide high-level traction control, plus independent anti-wheelie and cornering ABS braking as standard, along with four riding modes.
It also has a neat TFT display, operated by an updated and easier-to-use version of KTM’s familiar four-button switchgear on the left handlebar. A press of the “Up” button changes the digital display to allow selection from the four riding modes, one of them a Track setting that gives extra functionality, including on-the-fly adjustability of the traction control, and the option of turning off the anti-wheelie function.
For the morning’s road ride I stuck to Street and the slightly sharper Sport (there’s also Rain, which reduces power), both of which gave excellent throttle response. Just over 100 PS and a flat torque curve was always likely to be fun from a bike weighing just 174 kg wet, especially when aided by a superbly light gearbox and a shifter that made going both ways through the box a delight. (A couple of riders reported a few false neutrals, but the several bikes I rode changed flawlessly.)
It was no surprise to find the 790 feeling quick and instantly entertaining on the roads of Gran Canaria. Sure enough, it ripped to well over 150 km/h with minimal encouragement, on the way to a top speed of about 225 km/h. It pulled sweetly from 4,000 rpm or below, and was sufficiently smooth up near the 9,500-rpm red-line that vibration was never an issue. What came as a pleasant surprise was its slightly lumpy character and the off-beat note from the high-level silencer, both of which added to the entertainment.
My only real criticism of the powertrain is that the 790 didn’t particularly like slow-speed running at a constant throttle opening, tending to hunt slightly. This wasn’t remotely annoying when briefly riding through a few sleepy Spanish villages, but might be more so on a city commute. Back on the positives, the action of the power-assist clutch is very light, and there’s always the option of Rain mode for a generally softer delivery.
If my pre-ride doubts about the engine were mostly whether it would feel sufficiently exciting, my concern about the chassis was whether the basic suspension specification would allow the handling to be as sharp as it
Triumph’s Street Triples, BMW’s F 800 R, and Kawasaki’s Z900 are all capable bikes but they face a formidable rival in the 790 Duke
should be from such a short, light bike, especially given the generous travel of 140 mm front and 150 mm rear. The 790 put those to rest when slicing nonchalantly through the first set of bends, and spent the rest of the day confirming that KTM’s development team got their suspension calibration spot on.
There was one section of about 10 kilometres where the road surface suddenly deteriorated from gloriously smooth to rough, bumpy and occasionally loose. The lead rider barely slowed the pace, and the bike coped really well, passing on some jarring through the bars and seat but holding its line and refusing to lose its composure. A softly sprung adventure bike would have given a plusher ride, but the Duke’s balance between sharp steering, stability and comfort felt just about right.
On this stretch, especially, it was good to have the KTM’s high-class electronics in the background, meaning that braking or accelerating too hard on a gravelly patch would have resulted in the ABS or traction control taking over. The Maxxis Supermaxx ST tyres gripped very well for sports-touring rubber, too. As a four-finger braker, I also thought the front stopper’s blend of 300-mm discs and fourpiston radial calipers from J Juan gave excellent power and feel, although one rider (who brakes with only two fingers) reckoned the lever required too firm a squeeze.
The 790’s suspension, tyres and brakes all gave a very decent account of themselves on track, when we hit the Maspalomas circuit for a brief thrash after lunch. Sure, the ABS activated in a few places every lap as the tyre ran out of grip, and both ends felt slightly vague as the suspension and tyres approached their limits. (Some adjustability now would have been nice.) But the Duke could be ridden impressively hard without getting out of shape or threatening to do anything nasty, which for a relatively inexpensive middleweight was very impressive.
At the other extreme, it should also prove quite practical. Fuel consumption averaged only just over five litres/100 km despite plenty of throttle abuse, so the 14-litre tank would normally be good for about 250 km. The seat was beginning to feel slightly firm by the end of the day, but comfort seemed reasonable. For short riders there’s a 20-mm lower seat and a chassis kit that drops it by another 25 mm, to 780 mm. (Other extras include carbon-fibre front mudguard, adjustable rear-sets, seat hump and Akrapovic silencer.)
The handlebar can also be adjusted by reversing the mounts. Despite being tall I found the bike fairly roomy by middleweight standards. It’s also pretty well specified, with LED lights, useful mirrors, adjustable levers and an illuminated menu switch; though, curiously, not self-cancelling indicators. The fact that I’m resorting to criticising a naked middleweight for that emphasises how thoughtfully detailed it is.
Especially because it’s so competitively priced — on a financial par with Triumph’s Street Triples, BMW’s F 800 R and Kawasaki’s Z900, if not with Yamaha’s MT07. All are capable bikes but they face a formidable rival in the 790 Duke, which very much has the performance, style, character, ease of use and quality to be a contender — and to get KTM’s attack on the middleweight division off to a flying start.
All-new LC8c the first spawn of a new twin engine platform
Suspension calibration spot-on for tarmac and the rough stuff
Full-colour digital cluster packs all need-to-know information
Light action of the power-assist clutch appreciable for commutes
WP monoshock and Maxxis sporttouring rubber work well together