First ride: KTM 1290 Super Duke R review

I've ridden KTM's new Super Duke and lived to tell the tale. Is it as mental as KTM make it out to be?

Posted: 20 October 2013
by Ben Cope
In. Your. FACE! Traditional subtle KTM paintjob pictured here, stealthy one shown down below
The view most riders will get of the new Super Duke etc.
1,301cc isn't an engine, it's an assault weapon
This shows the power mode maps. Sport and Street are very similar but look at the percentage of engine you get given compared to the percentage you ask for
KTM and I play 'scare the photographer'

KTM’S 1290 Super Duke R is the most intimidating-looking motorcycle I’ve seen in a decade.

It’s angular, sharp, stocky and chiselled. It’s bright orange. It boasts a 1,301cc V-twin engine and 180hp. As if that wasn’t enough; it’s a KTM. Remind me of the last boring KTM you rode? Exactly.

When they were building this motorcycle, KTM dubbed it ‘The Beast’. Jeremy McWilliams, who has been deeply involved with the project, said it had more torque than any bike he’d ever ridden. The press introduction uses words like extreme, endless power, radical and razor sharp. You just know that there’s no messing around with this one.

Sat in the press conference, listening to the detail on the new Super Duke R, it conjured up memories of a time at a house party, with a bunch of mates, where things had become a bit rowdy, everyone was having a good time and then one bloke passed out. We stitched him up, drew stuff on his face, emptied a can of shaving foam down his trousers, gaffa taped his hands to a chair and the bedside table. But then, amid the chaos, someone came along with a razor and shaved his eyesbrows off. The laughter stopped. Everyone knew that was a step too far but you’re all in it now and there’s no going back. Well, KTM’s 990 Super Duke R feels like that rowdy party; everything’s a bit lively but it’s just about under control. Then the SD1290 bursts in the room with a mad grin on its face, wielding a Gillette Mach3.

Now c’mon. Is that really neccessary?

The original Super Duke, released in 2005 was powered by a 999cc V-twin engine, producing 120 bhp. No-one ever said it was bland. No-one. Now this one delivers 180bhp. Surely that’s just silly, isn’t it?

Although it’s an all-new design, the SD1290 is familiar territory, it’s unmistakably Super Duke in shape, no other motorcycle has the same hunched-forward, muscular poise.

The SD1290’s engine is built around the RC8R’s 1,195cc engine. The bore has been increased from 105mm to 108mm and the stroke has been increased from 69mm to 71mm. KTM claim the new motor produces more torque at 2,000rpm than the old Super Duke did at maximum output.

Cue anxious looks around the press conference.

This isn’t just a case of boring out the RC8R engine, the SD1290’s pistons are almost 10% lighter than those in the RC8R. The oscillating weight of the conrods is 30% lower than the SD990. Despite the larger pistons, it’s set to rev faster and harder than KTM’s flagship superbike.

Of course, a new bike wouldn’t be a new bike without a deluge of electronics and the SD1290 is no different. It features Ride by Wire throttle, three different power modes, SPORT, STREET and RAIN. There’s traction control, which can be switched off, anti-wheelie, which, while you’ve got the TC on, can’t be switched off but with TC off, the bike will wheelie. More of that, later. There’s also ABS, which can also be switched off but one of the best features is Supermoto mode, which retains the front ABS but allows you to lock the rear and therefore back it in. As you do.

Everything else about the bike is the usual high quality specification we’ve come to expect from KTM: WP suspension front and rear, Brembo monobloc brakes, a slipper clutch and WP steering damper.

You’d think, with a 40% larger engine, the SD1290 would be larger, but KTM have squeezed a lot more into a chassis that’s no bigger. The bike is compact and carries its weight well.

As I tickled the bike out of the car park, I felt more like I was sat on a bison, holding onto its horns, knowing that any second it was going to have KTM stamped on its arse with a red hot poker.

I was holding that poker.

But someone had forgotten to leave it in the fire for long enough.

I expected the cold rear Dunlop Sportsmart2 to smear itself along the motorway sliproad and the clocks to leap up and try and headbutt me the moment the rear Dunlop had found some grip but the SD1290 ploughed forward like a tsunami when I was expecting an volcanic eruption.

I was in STREET mode. That explains it. So I switched to SPORT mode an tried again but although the bike surged forward with a little extra vigour, there were no huge explosions, no spitting columns of molten lava. I was still alive.

Alive and slightly puzzled.

Doesn’t this thing produce more torque at 2,000rpm than the moon? What happened to the endless power, the radical, the extreme? Where is The Beast?

No doubt, it’s quick but not in the savage way I had expected. The way the promo videos, press releases and marketing hype had told me it would be.

Sure, you have to take any manufacturer's pre-launch hype with a tablespoon of salt but there’s no denying that potent 1,301cc engine, is there?

Well, in some ways, there is.

So my first taste of the SD1290 wasn’t quite as I had expected, mainly because I’m here writing this when I thought it might have finished me off.

The Bosch MTC traction control is on in every riding mode and wheelie control is also woven in. The front will lift in 1st, 2nd and 3rd. If you happen to run over anything larger than a particularly chubby ant, the front will come up in 4th, too. But Mr Bosch will see to it that your wheelie is computer controlled and safer than mowing the lawn. That's no fun.

Now the guys from KTM defend this and probably rightly so. Afterall, I’m a journo, a bit of an idiot and in the bike world, we’re the 1% and this is for the 99%. Of course I like to hoist the front when I can, I don’t have to pay for clutch plates or headrace bearings, so not being able to switch the anti-wheelie off is only a big deal to me, not to you, the buyer.

While I see KTM’s point of view, I don’t think it’s strictly true. But this isn’t just about anti-wheelie it's about feeling that you're being told what you can have, rather than having what you want. What you ask the throttle to do and what it actually does are two different things. If you dial in 40% of twist, you get just over 20% of bang. Open it up to 60% and you get 40%, at 80% you get 65%. Fortunately, at 100% open you get 100% throttle but the journey to 100% feels a bit ‘Diet Coke’ when you were after the real thing.

Jeremy McWilliams said that on a 1 to 1 ratio, the bike was almost unrideable (not his exact words, I hasten to add) and I understand that, for some people, launching a 1,301cc V-twin off the line might result in them left standing where they were, watching their SD1290 cartwheel down the road. So that makes me wonder why they bothered with a 1,301cc engine in the first place?

There probably isn’t a modern bike out there, especially those with Ride by Wire, where, when it comes to power delivery, you get exactly what you ask for but on the SD1290, it feels a bit like I’ve been shortchanged.

You can turn off the MTC and you’ll get your wheelies back but it doesn’t change the power deliver and you won’t have any traction control. Not that you need it, really, you don’t. I spent half of my time on the bike without the traction control on and never once thought I’d be responsible for my own electronically unassisted suicide. Well ok, maybe once but you know what? That’s half the fun.

The chassis is brilliant. The SD1290 has THE BEST riding position of any naked bike I’ve ridden. KTM might have designed it to fit me and not told anyone else but I doubt it. It's just right.

The bars are wide without being ‘washing line’, the seat is comfortable but what really hits you in the face is the lack of wind blast. 100mph cruising, sat upright? Easy. I honestly don’t know how they’ve managed it because the headlight looks like an air-plough but doesn’t act like one.

Our suspension settings were left as standard and I wouldn’t change them for regular road riding. On the face of it, the SD1290 looks like it’ll be a bone-breaker but the feel and feedback is firm but lavish, you and the bike are as one. For faster road ridng I’d want a touch more weight over the front and a tiny bit more height on the rear. The bike isn’t long, the steering isn’t lazy and the standard rake and trail aren’t extreme, so a sliver of extra flickability is there for the taking. The WP damper may get worked a bit harder, but you won’t give it a headache.

All I need to say about the brakes is that they’re Brembo M50 radial Monobloc. You will not require anything else.

I had a few issues when changing power modes, where the buttons would get slightly caught in the housing and a couple of times I swear the traction control turned itself back on halfway through a ride when I’d asked for it to be off, but those are minor niggles that KTM will no doubt iron out before production starts. At least I hope they do.

You don't buy a £14,000 naked bike and worry about the cost of petrol or perhaps you do. By my rough estimate, I got 30-35mpg on a fairly frantic run. That's about 135 miles until you've run the 18-litre tank down to fumes, 150 if you tickle it. Which you won't.

What I find ironic about the 1290 Super Duke R is that it is the best-fuelled, most tractable, usable naked KTM I’ve ever ridden. They just forgot to talk about that because they were seemingly too busy uploading videos of it racing an S1000RR and producing marathon-length rolling burnouts and when they weren’t doing that, KTM were spreading rumours of it breaking into old ladies’ houses, not tipping the waiter and generally being a menace to society.

It is an unbelievably good road bike that doesn’t need the endless amounts of ‘nasty boy’ hype. KTMs in the past have suffered from twitchy throttle response, sub-par gearboxes and an all-or-nothing power delivery. The SD1290 doesn't have any of these issues and yet KTM didn't think to shout about that. Odd.

The SD1290 has power delivery that’s less intense than I was expecting but it’s not snatchy or hard to get balanced. It feels like KTM were worried about breeding a full-on 1,301cc delirious animal and then letting the public take it out for a stroll, so halfway through the project, they had second thoughts, brought in the electronics bods and calmed the whole thing down.

Part of me thinks 'I'll be the judge what's enough and what's too much, thank you very much' but at the same time, I can forgive the fact that throttle inputs are diluted because that’s easy to get your head around and makes for an easier bike to ride. A jerky or snatchy throttle is almost impossible to work with and at best a pain in the arse, at worse, downright dangerous. I'll take control over outright power, every day of the week.

It isn’t just the most usable road bike KTM have produced, it’s one of the most usable naked bikes that I’ve ever ridden. Underneath furlongs of electronics it’s packed full of character and despite the electronics, most of that character shines on through.

It’s not the animal I wanted it to be but secretly, I’m glad it’s not completely mental. If you want to pull wheelies everywhere and still have active traction control, buy a Ducati Hypermotard SP or an Aprilia Tuono V4R but with those two you'd be missing out on some of the depth of this engine. It's a shame the SD1290 doesn't have a RACE mode, to go with the SPORT, STREET and RAIN modes. I'd like to see a RACE mode with with a more aggressive map, last-chance traction control, anti-wheelie turned off and the ABS set to Supermoto mode. Then you'd be able to unleash The Beast KTM were talking about.

If wheelies and being a hooligan aren't your thing, then this is a bike you'll seriously enjoy pushing towards your limit. If you like wheelies but don't want to switch the traction control off, then you'll constantly hit the electronic buffers and that'll be frustrating for you. Despite the clear intention to intimidate, it’s more usable than a 990 Super Duke R and the best KTM road bike I've ridden.

It's superbly fast but it's not intimidating. I really didn’t think I’d be saying that.

Model tested: KTM 1290 Super Duke R

Price: £13,999

Availability: December 2013

Contact: / 01280 709500

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Discuss this story

I'm interested and as I'm up for a new bike next year it will be on the list of bikes to have a look at. Which I hope is better in the flesh than in the pictures, because it does not appear to be quite right. Can't put my finger on what isn't good about the looks - maybe the ladder sized trellis subframe?

Posted: 21/10/2013 at 01:46

14000 squid ! no thanks ill take a z1000

Posted: 21/10/2013 at 14:14

I feel better after reading that - think I will stick with my nice raw Tuono V4

Posted: 21/10/2013 at 18:44

If the standard version is 14k I hate to think what the RR will cost!

Posted: 22/10/2013 at 09:07

Quote: "This isn’t just a case of boring out the RC8R engine, the SD1290’s pistons are almost 10% lighter than those in the RC8R.... it’s set to rev faster and harder than KTM’s flagship superbike."

I think KTM regard this model as their flagship. Don't let the lack of a fairing fool you. Just as the GS is really BM's flagship, not the S1000R. These guys aren't Honda or Ducati.

Hence the price tag £14k and upwards. They don't plan to outsell Tuonos or Z1000s. Think high margin, low volume flagship. Max exclusivity = max kudos for the brand that lifts the desirability of every other bike in the range. Which mfr lead the recent rush into youth-oriented, smaller capacity bikes? Oh yeah...

Posted: 22/10/2013 at 13:59

14k are they avin a laugh, ride by wire is shit, electronics are shit, if you need them buy a car! rant over :)

Posted: 22/10/2013 at 18:31

Attributes of the bike aside, great writing.

Posted: 25/10/2013 at 02:34

> The SD1290 has THE BEST riding position of any naked bike I’ve ridden.

Ben, how tall are you?

Posted: 25/10/2013 at 12:14

Great review. Regarding the traction control / anti-wheelie I felt EXACTLY the same way following a test ride on the 150 HP 1190 Adventure earlier this year. A great bike but access to which is frustrated beyond measure by overly intrusive electronics. On very powerful machines I believe TC is very desirable, especially a RAIN mode. But as said in the article, a RACE mode is what is needed.

Now, I'm a bit a wuss when it comes to larking about on bikes - I am resolutely NOT in the 1% but I do like to make the most of an opportunity when a window arises (safely). So Ben, I can assure that it's not just you.

Evidently, in many respects the 1290 Super Duke is a fantastic accomplishment by KTM (like the 1190 Adventure), but it does beg the question of how we measure progress in motorcycle design the 21st century. Not just by bolting a fire-breathing engine into a very capable chassis with good ergonomics and great brakes, by the sound it.

Horses for courses I guess, but I can't pull wheelies in my car. Bikes, however - well, they should be different, shouldn't they?

Posted: 25/10/2013 at 21:18

Clearly false advertising. We all expected a beast that would scare us mere mortals to shit and put more hair on your chest than chuck fuckin norris. What we got was something my gran could ride. Progress? Probably. Making 180 bhp feel like 130? What's the point?

Posted: 25/10/2013 at 23:22

i would think someone like tune boy will create a "race" mode for this bike. hope they add cruise control in like they did for the diavel. till then ill get one of these and have a blast.

Posted: 26/10/2013 at 03:43

If you all want the full raw power just turn off all the electronics you fookin pansies!!!!

Posted: 27/10/2013 at 22:52

I am 5'7". Will SD 1290 be comfortable for my height?

Posted: 09/11/2013 at 08:04

Thanks for the blurb Ben... for me, all i needed to know... don't wanna get boring about it, i've spent 30+ years on bikes, most makes you can think of, sporty, traily, naked, cruisy, toury, and mostly 'blades for the last 18 years... i occasionally get a bit excited about a new bike launch but usually restrain myself... but this time, the 1290?? ...practically wettin' myself :) ...dunno how yet, but one of these bad boys is gonna find it's way into my garage... f**k me it's gorgeous!

Posted: 11/11/2013 at 22:39

I really wanted to like this bike. I've been riding a big bore GSXR Spondon for over 13 years now and that's 168.7bhp at the rear wheel and 182kg on the road and fuelled to go. My Spondon is a real beast and I so hoped the KTM would be in the same ball park. On paper it is but unfortunately the electronics package stop me from considering this bike. I can loft the front on the Spondon whenever I want, do rolling stoppies and light up the rear whenever I choose. Are we now going in to an era of manufacturers designing bikes with an eye on lawyers sueing them when the rider does something stupid? That would just mean bike performance sprinting backwards and manufacturers killing any excitement that biking can supply.

Posted: 24/12/2013 at 21:36

I bought one just yesterday (expensive but exclusive for now), the first time I hit 4000 rpm I nearly crapped my pants and I have been riding a 1000cc fireblade for the last 2 years!!

I took it out today and stopped off at a local bikers haunt, the bike does get a lot of attention, not sure if that is good or bad, but at least I got to chat to lots of people who seemed to approve!!

It's still running in and with new tyres and brakes so I am being a bit cautious ATM.

I'll try it with the traction control switched off once I have had the first service done and grow a pair big enough to push the button


Posted: 18/04/2014 at 17:20

@manoj Reddy ...unless you have a 32.9 inch inseam, no.

Posted: 14/07/2014 at 14:56

You're talking absolute crap. I'm 5ft 7 with a 29 in seam and i have no problems what so ever with my 1290r. Before i get the fatty comments i'm only 76kg. I've had plenty of V twins including the lardy Diavel carbon red, the Tuono V4, and the 1290 is better to ride than all of them. Light as a feather and so much power it's mental. Turn the electrics off and ride it properly and if you still think it's boring then best get a moto GP bike. How people can slag a bike off without even riding it is a joke. The bike tries to pull your arms off, loop the loop and virtually any speed, I had the front lift at 128 and didn't come down until i tapped the rear brake just over 150 and it goes round bends like it's on rails.

Posted: 13/10/2014 at 23:31

I agree with the few positive comments about this bike's power and handling. I learned how to ride 32 years ago and have been riding streetbikes for 24. I've ridden mostly cruisers, with the occasional sportbike thrown in for fun. I've totaled two motorcycles well above highway speed and was riding again before I was completely healed. I don't "loop" bikes, I ride my bike's to their limit and sometimes, I get burned. At any rate, I traded my '98 Super Hawk in on a '14 1290, because as much as I loved my Hawk, it just wasn't comfy anymore. I'm a V-twin guy - always have been - so I wanted a big bore vee, that was sporty, yet comfortable to ride all day long. I brought my 1290 home in December and since I'm in Wisconsin (USA), could do nothing more than stare at it for roughly two months. In the two weeks I've been riding it, I've almost managed to hit the first service, despite temps only being in the upper 30s and very low 40s (at 70 mph, 40 might as well be 18). I have to say, the first time I "let 'er rip," I was scared to death of dying a fiery death. However, I found the electronics kept things nice and sane, while allowing me to have a blast on my $18,000 toy. I *LOVE* this bike! It's smooth as silk, handles well and charges ahead like a steam train when you grab a handful of throttle. Even in STREET mode, I've pulled small wheelies coming out of a round-about. I've had the bike in SPORT mode and not noticed a huge difference in the way the power comes on, but I usually keep everything the way KTM intended me to - mostly because it's a pain in the butt to toggle through all the settings every time you start or restart the bike. Once it gets warmer out and I've got more than a couple hundred miles under my belt, I will definitely turn everything off and try riding this thing without any help. Until then, 12" power wheelies in 3rd gear are just fine with me. I've found the bike to be uber-powerful, but completely controllable, if not a little "twitchy" in the faster corners.

A squid bike?! Nah. The guys that buy their Gixxers and R1s based on their ability to wheelie are the squids. I wanted something with some character and something original. I wanted a Super Duke 1290 R! Besides, anyone that knows anything about anything would rather drool over a 1290 R than ride a Gixxer anyway!

Posted: 22/03/2015 at 18:12

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