I always love riding a completely new bike. No matter if it’s a 125 scooter, a 1,600cc custom cruiser, or a 215bhp superbike, I’m like a kid, keen to find out what the tech is, how it goes, what they’ve done that’s new, cool and froody. And when said new bike also comes with an all-new engine, the excitement ramps up another notch. Okay, it’s nice to see new chassis tech, novel brake systems, suspension, rider aids blah blah blah. But for me, the engine is the biggest thing, and almost always the defining characteristic.
So riding the new KTM 790 Duke was always going to be a big deal. Even more so, since I’d read a load of reviews on it already from the international press launch earlier this year. All the folk whose opinions I respect said good things about it – the engine, chassis and equipment all getting the thumbs up from the good guys worldwide. Now, due to some weird snafu at head office, our name had slipped off the invite list, but the nice folks at KTM UK had promised us an early spin on one here in Blighty (even though they could probably sell every one they can build right now). Yay.
I couldn’t get on it straight away though. Due to yet another schlepp away on a new bike launch, our Laura had to collect it from KTM UK, and she had the pleasure of its company for the first week or so. I landed back from Croatia after a Harley launch, and met up the day after to swap my GSX-S750 for the 790. Anticipation mounted as I grabbed the KTM key off La Thomson, and headed north back up the A3.
There was a mild sense of anticlimax though at first. The new mittel-Duke is a fairly spartan affair from the rider’s seat, and on the flat, featureless plains of the A3 through Sussex and Surrey, there wasn’t much going on. Sure, the engine felt strong enough, and rattling up to a nice 80-85mph cruise was rapid. But you’re stuck up in the wind, with little or no protection, on a rather plank-like seat. I while away the 45 mins or so back to SW London by working through all the options on the LCD screen. It’s a pretty sorted setup actually, the buttons on the lefthand switchgear make navigation easy once you work it out, and I soon went through the riding mode options (four of them, street, track, sport and rain). Turning off the traction control/anti-wheelie is also simple enough (although it’s annoyingly insistent on turning itself back on again the bugger – more on this later). The fuel consumption seems to be good as well, with well over an indicated 50mpg possible on a gentle motorway throttle, and you can turn the quickshifter off should you wish (I don’t, it’s really really good both up and down the gearbox).
I pull into my house then, and park the 790 up out back for a quick look at the thing. She’s no beauty I think it’s fair to say, though I’ve enjoyed worse over the years (we bet you have – Ed), and while the design is very purposeful, there are a few weird bits – random hoses and wires, and big hunks of black plastic here and there, hiding the ride-by-wire mechanism and other essential bits, from the look of it.
On the chassis side, there’s nothing that stands out massively to mark this bike as anything radical. The suspension is decent WP stuff, but without much in the way of extreme adjustability or wildly high quality. Indeed the front forks are unadjustable even for preload, which is all the shock has. Brakes have the KTM logo, but are from some Spanish outfit called J Juan (who I’ve not heard of before), the steel tube frame seems super simple, and I’m a bit perturbed by the Maxxis tyres fitted as stock. I’m generally wary of rubber from anyone outside the big four or five firms, and together with the cheap suspension and Aldi-style own-brand brake calipers, I’m worried there’s been some weird cost-cutting that will let the job down.
The aluminium swingarm catches the eye though, those cast-in strengthening ribs showing their workings to the outside world. Someone like Honda would make this with the ribs on the inner face of the arms I reckon, with a plain-jane outer face – but KTM’s more industrial design lets it all hang out.
You might have gathered that at this point, I wasn’t going nuts over the 790. But that was all to change over the next few days, as I got to ride the KTM on more suitable roads and in more interesting conditions. Firstly, I jumped on it next morning, heading to Wokingham for a dyno run at Big CC Racing. Now, the first part of that journey is textbook boredom again – A3, M25, M3. But when you come off the M3, there’s a much more interesting selection of roads. Starting at the A322 dual carriageway towards Bracknell, there are some fast bends, big roundabouts and long straights away from traffic lights. Then, we turn off onto the narrower B3430 round the back of Wokingham which takes us to Big CC, via more bends, whoops, humpback bridges and general danger zones.
This is a route I ride a lot, and the Duke is much closer to its element. The engine punches deliciously out of bends, or away from lights, and the Maxxis rubber is doing a lot better than I expected, with plenty of grip and feedback on the dry Tarmac. The only thing letting us down so far is the brakes, which feel short on power, bite and feel. They go under the microscope a bit from now on, and I end up thinking there’s something wrong with the pads on this bike. Those components here should do the job well – 300mm floating discs, radial master cylinder, braided hoses and four-piston calipers. But they’re not working at all like they should – as if someone has glazed the pads, or they’ve been contaminated by some polish, wax or oil. Hmmm.
At Big CC, we get some quality dyno time, with impressive results (covered here and here). The little lump makes around 100bhp at the tyre, which is good from a 799cc twin – the same as my long-term GSX-S750, and with 10ft-lbs more torque too. We also research the power modes, discovering that they make the same peak power at 100 per cent throttle, but get there in very different ways, with the rain mode giving a lot less actual throttle valve opening than what your right wrist asks for at smaller openings.
I don’t use it, but the rain mode would be spot-on for the journey home. The heavens have opened, and I get properly drenched on the way back to London. What I do learn though, is that the Maxxis tyres are pretty good in these conditions too. The roads are awash, but I feel confident about braking and getting onto the gas, and am happy to lean the Duke over a fair way. Good stuff.
Next day, though, I have a horrid schedule. Some bad planning on my part means a schlepp to Shoreditch for a meeting at The Bike Shed club at lunchtime, then home again, then a trip to Greenwich at 8pm. These aren’t long hauls, but they go right across London, through some of the busiest, most snarled-up roads around. I’m not at all looking forward to it, but the Duke perks me up straight away as we head up the A3 and into the maelstrom. Now, it really starts to shine, and feels like it’s in its natural environment. The skinny frame and upright riding position is perfect for splitting traffic, and the instant urge from the motor lets you make any gap. I’m in Sport mode, which is a little less snatchy than Track, and it’s spot-on here. I’ve turned the traction off too, so there’s plenty of chances to save on front tyre wear… It simply urges you to go quicker, harder, nastier, all the way through town, and by the time I arrive at Shoreditch High Street, I’m breathless with the adrenaline rush of it all. My meeting is pleasant enough, but I can’t wait for it to finish so I can get back on the 790 for the blast back home.
I stop to fill up on the A3, and realise that while the range is decent-but-not-amazing, the consumption is ace. The tank only holds 14 litres, so the 140-150 miles estimated range is a big chunk more than you’d expect. Not a big deal on a bike like this, but impressive nonetheless.
Round two of my urban battle takes place that evening, and the good news continues. I decide that the light weight of the Duke is another big factor in its hilarity. Even just moving it about to park up at the bike meet in Greenwich Market, you feel just how anorexic the thing is. It’s got that ‘dirt bike for the street’ feel that KTM does so well – slightly tall, skinny, feather-light – and utterly violent when it comes to punch from the engine.
The last day out is next morning, when we go out to the countryside for some pics and video. Snapper Tom suggests a north-of-London venue, in Hertfordshire, so once again I start the day a bit bored by a stack of motorway miles round the M25 and up the A1M. Duh. Tom knows what he’s doing though, and the road we’re working on is a corker. Huge variety of bends, elevation changes, knee-down twisty sections, short straights for wheelies – it has ‘em all. And the 790 shows that it’s not just a city kid, allergic to the delights of an English country hooning road. It’s quick to turn on its ear, agile yet stable, has more ground clearance than you’ll know what to do with, yet, is simplicity itself to ride quickly on twisty roads. From wheelying out of a bend, to knee-down through the next one, then straight on the back wheel down the next little straight, it’s laugh-a-minute stuff.
Riding back and forth for pics, I turn the traction control off, but can’t work out how it’s come on again later. Turns out that even just hitting the killswitch resets the safety net – which is a bit of a faff. I can understand resetting if the ignition is turned off, but even stalling the bike at lights, or putting the stand down in gear will now turn all the boredom programmes back on – tiresome.
I can’t get angry at the Duke for too long though. Even the brakes (which are still ropey) can’t lower the mood. Fact is, this is one of the most fun two-wheelers I’ve ever ridden, and carries the KTM banner into a whole new sector. In the same way as the old 950/990 SM (another bike I loved), it provides a heap of performance, that’s easy to access, and masses of fun to use. Keep it away from motorways and dual carriageways, learn how to turn the traction off really quickly, upgrade the brakes and fit some sportier rubber, then prepare for the time of your life…
Engine: 8v DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel-twin, 799cc
Bore x stroke: 88 x 65.7mm
Compression ratio: 12.7:1
Max power: 99.65bhp@9,2750rpm (measured at tyre)
Max torque: 60.72ft lb@7,750rpm (measured at tyre)
Transmission: six speed, chain drive
Frame: steel tube
Front suspension: WP 43mm USD forks
Rear suspension: WP preload-adjustable monoshock
Brakes: twin 300mm discs, four-piston radial caliper (front), single 240mm disc, dual-piston caliper (rear), cornering ABS.
Wheels/tyres: aluminium/Maxxis, 120/70 17 front, 180/55 17 rear
Dry weight (claimed): 169kg
Fuel capacity: 14 litres