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 scalpel”

“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

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