Back in 2015 KTM teased us with the drop dead gorgeous 790 Duke Prototype. Three years later it’s finally here – but is the ‘Scalpel’ sharp enough to cut down its naked middleweight rivals?
It’s been a long time coming, but KTM has been pretty busy since it whetted our taste buds with the prospect of a class defining mid-capacity hooligan. Building ground up bikes always takes a while and thanks to KTM’s methodical approach – that has seen the 790 kitted with more new features than you can shake an orange stick at – it’s easy to see where the time’s gone.
Ditching the single cylinder lump of old, the Austrian marque has added another chamber into the Duke’s mix. And thanks to a succinct design and some snazzy components such as forged pistons, dual balancer shafts, a painstakingly honed cylinder head and precise valve timing, the compact and lightweight twin-pot’s delivery dwarfs the still available 690’s output with a claimed 105bhp and impressive 64lb-ft of pulling torque.
Even if you’re one of those die-hard KTM single cylinder fans and are struggling to digest this change in small-bike powerhouse direction, you’ll hopefully be able to take comfort in knowing the brand has maintained that raucous deep Barry White-esque tone that we’ve come to love and expect from Dukes. This is thanks to a 75˚ crank offset and 435˚ firing order, mimicking the bark and brilliance of the big bad 1290 Duke. KTM has even angled the exhaust system to deliver the engine note to your ear with more vigour.
On the subject of exhausts, I know a lot of people are disappointed with the pipe’s location (the prototype had a jaw-dropping MotoGP under-seat style when it was unveiled to the world in 2016) but while the production-approved can doesn’t match up to the prototype’s visual draw, its positioning does permit space under the seat for the bike’s electronic nerve centre and airbox. Everything about the KTM is built with purpose at heart, from the way it’s styled to the way it handles, the way it makes its power to the way it makes you want to wind its throttle to the limiter.
Yep, it’s a pretty calculated machine and the same goes for its stressed member steel chassis and load bearing rear sub-frame. With handling and agility being so vital to a middleweight, KTM has gifted the 790 high quality suspension in the shape of WP forks, which, although they aren’t adjustable, have a pre-defined setting that is claimed to suit every type of riding (and a broad range of rider weights), coupled with a WP preload-adjustable shock and hidden KYB damper to save you from tank slapping your way to infinity and beyond. To keep you sunny-side-up, another first for KTM is its decision to head down the Maxxis tyre route. Sports-touring Maxxis Supermaxx ST rubber has been developed specifically for the bike.
On top of all the mechanical goodness, the 790 comes with an impressive set of electronics that has, essentially, been taken from the flagship Super Duke. Fully adjustable traction control, a power assisted slipper clutch, ride-by-wire throttle, adjustable cornering ABS, plus a quickshifter and blipper lead the technological charge, with four different rider modes offering different pre-defined levels of power and throttle response (Track, Sport, Road, Rain) all changeable at the flick of a finger. There’s wheelie control too, plus a launch control system.
Having made my way out to a sweltering Gran Canaria for the model’s glitzy launch, the time eventually came to cock a leg and kick off the inevitable joyride. A short and slow jaunt was the first order of the day, but not before I’d had the chance to take in the bike’s low seat height (it’s even lower than the 390 Duke’s) and its low weight feel – at just 169kg wet it’s definitely no lookalike sportster.
The supermoto-esque toy made my hobbit-like frame feel immediately
at home and I was pleased to see a decent size seat, some tall mounted handlebars and low(ish) pegs. With the motor booming and the 790’s dash lit up like a Christmas tree, I scrolled through the rider modes and slotted it into ‘Street’ mode.
The motor’s initial throttle pick up still felt sharp and punchy through the bike’s slick operating ride-bywire system. It may have only been a half-hour trek down a highway and through villages but I instantly got a feel for the 790 Duke, which proved playful on demand and containable when tootling. Hitting the motorway was my first real chance to perform a speed test, so I got the motor singing and found the bike’s straight line speed and stability to my liking.
Getting back on some smaller roads, we hit a load of slow stop-start sections, which weren’t to the KTM’s liking. Dawdling along, the motor did feel a bit lumpy, with the only cure being to throw more revs into the mix and run a gear lower than you’d expect. Switching to Rain mode improved matters somewhat.
The 790 Duke might have shone while being well behaved, but being ragged was where it was happiest – as I soon grasped having knocked mine into Sport mode just in time for a 70-mile stint on dazzlingly twisty roads no wider than a kart track. This was where the Duke’s sublime chassis came into its own, offering the kind of change-of-direction rate that you would expect from a shopping trolley.
The bike was carving corners with minimal effort. You could really feel the benefits of the 111,111 man hours (yes, that many) that’ve gone into building this bike and, as we swept effortlessly through third gear flowing twisties there wasn’t any soft wallowing or head shaking nastiness to write home about, not even when we hit one section that was riddled with hairpins and short straights.
It was here that I really got a taste for the engine delivering what it does at its best. The throttle instantly picked up and the torque just catapulted me out of bends. I soon learned that as fast as I could throw gears through the slick operating ’shifter, the Duke’s motor was more than eager to consume them and throw revs and pace back my way.
In general, the whole bike was performing very well on the roads, including its four-pot
“I found the 790 the perfect tonic to my desires for more – more power, more agility, more fun. It sure ticked all my boxes.”
stoppers that were doing a good job of hauling the 790 up on demand, although if you’re going to be fussy the initial bite could’ve been a little bit sharper.
I am also a fan of the slipper clutch and autoblipper, which performed in tandem like troopers as I stamped down three or four gears at a time, encouraging the best kind of pops from the can on tap. Fair play to KTM, it hasn’t just bolted on electronics, the factory has given the 790 a considered armoury, which in turn feeds a huge amount of confidence to the rider.
To step things up a level, KTM had organised a track workshop at Circuit De Maspalomas. It was here that I got the chance to unleash Track mode. No matter how good a bike is on the road, the track will usually weed out any issues, yet as soon as I got out and gave it some stick, the 790 Duke felt staggeringly good.
I’d been looking forward to this but I secretly had two standard reservations about the spec of the bike: the non-adjustable forks and the Maxxis rubber. Happily, those fears were unjustified. Not only did the tyres perform a treat, offering great grip, feedback and agility, but the suspension offered impressive stability through the faster bends and offering loads of feel and confidence at full lean in the corners.
But it wasn’t just the handling characteristics that grabbed my fancy; the motor won me over too. This bike’s not stupidly powerful, but the way it delivers its torque and linear power is addictive.
I always found the KTM to have the power I desired on tap, and to be easily accessed too – even with the traction control turned off. The power would surge through from 3000rpm and keep pulling up to its 10,000rpm limiter.
I was having a lot of fun on the bike and the pleasure continued when we switched the race track for the Japanese-style Motogymkhana course, where the sheer agility of the package was brought to the fore. The course was marked out in an insanely tight manner, but it was nothing the Duke couldn’t handle.
It’s incredible just how nimble the 790 is even with the long wheelbase, which is mainly down to having a steering head angle of 66˚ and 98mm of trail – a clever move from the Austrian brand to have an agile bike without compromising stability.
This might sound like tosh but it’s mightily impressive considering the Duke is actually 65mm longer than the Street Triple, yet is one of the easiest bikes I’ve ever ridden to get from side to side. Clever stuff.
Of course, a bike will always have compromises, yet KTM has done an absolutely cracking job of creating an impressive and fun package. For under £8500 you get a ridiculous amount of bang for your buck, but how would it stack up against the competition? Does the ‘Scalpel’ genuinely cut the Street Triple from the middleweight throne?
Is it user-friendly enough to lure new riders away from the likes of an MT-07? Is it really that much better than the 690 Duke? They’re all tough questions to answer, but what I will say is that with the 790 you get a unique experience. It will suit some riders a treat, while others will hate it.
But for me, I’m definitely one of the former. Having spent last year blitzing around on the 390 Duke, I found the 790 the perfect tonic to my desires for more – more power, more agility, more fun. It sure ticked all my boxes.