2009 KTM RC8R review

KTM’s first superbike hit the mark last year with a blend of awesome performance and comfort. Now the R is upon us, is the RC8 a match for Ducati’s mighty 1198?

Click to read: KTM RC8R owners reviews, KTM RC8R specs and to see the KTM RC8R image gallery.

Perhaps because KTM are best known for producing some of the best off-road competition machines of recent times, when the RC8 arrived a year ago many people expected KTM’s first attempt at a pure sports bike to be filling half of every superstock race grid by the end of the 2008 season.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Some customers experienced gearbox problems, others complained of poor fuelling characteristics at low revs, and all the time a lack of outright power compared to the Japanese in-line fours ruled the bike out as the weapon of choice for most superstock competitors.

If you ask me, the RC8 is a brilliant first effort by KTM, a firm entering this most competitive sector of the bike market with no previous experience. The issues it has had with the bike are teething problems, nothing more. All of which I know is scant compensation if you spent the best part of £11,000, only to find yourself on a bike that won’t stay in gear. KTM has addressed - and for the most part sorted - all the RC8’s initial gripes, as well as adding a host of trick bits and tweaks that should make it a real contender, both on the road and on the track.

The bores have been taken out 2mm, shoving capacity up from 1148cc to 1195cc. The compression ratio has also been raised to 13.5:1, and with altered valve timing and engine mapping to suit, the R model feels a lot more gutsy than the stock bike.

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RC8R 2

Thanks to lighter wheels and bodywork the bike’s overall weight has been trimmed to a fairly light 188kg with oil. The wheels are beautiful, forged Marchesinis, which are both light and strong. As well as looking the bollocks, which is important, KTM has also cut down the revolving mass, reducing gyroscopic inertia and helping the bike to turn more easily. In fact, although the RC8R has more trail than the standard bike, it actually steers more quickly thanks to the lighter wheels.

The WP suspension also gets a makeover front and rear, although I found the units on the stock RC8 as good as any original-fitment suspension on the market. The R still uses WP stuff but they’re much higher spec, real high-end stuff, and when you ride the bike you can tell.

The brakes are the same monoblock Brembos as the standard bike, but mated to slightly thicker 320mm discs to reduce temperature fluctuation under heavy use. Both the power and the feel of the anchors was as good as anything I’ve ever used previously, with the exception of carbon systems, which are far too temperamental to setup for a street bike anyway.

The gearbox has had a complete re-design with particular attention paid to the selector mechanism and gear dogs. Louis Genser, the head of engine development, believes the problem with the standard box was that the selector mechanism was the same system KTM use for its off-road bikes. On the dirt, with the bike moving around all over the place and with the rider wearing heavy boots, the gear lever has to take an inadvertent knock without the bike jumping out of gear. On a road bike, especially if it’s ridden on track, accidental knocks are less of a problem - it’s more important that the gears shift very quickly. If they don’t the dogs soon get worn and the bike then jumps out of gear. Although for me it’s still not quite as idiot-proof as the best Japanese boxes, it’s now as good as it needs to be. I only missed two gears all day and one of those was my fault.

Each and every one of the changes from the standard machine conspire to make the RC8R not only a better road bike but also a much more track-focused device. There’s no doubt that KTM has designed this thing to be taken on track.

The RC8R turned out to be the ideal bike to have my first look around the world’s newest international race circuit, the Portimao track on Portugal’s Algarve coast. I went down there during the course of my weekend job, doing the commentary for Eurosport, at the final round of last year’s World Superbike championship and all the riders were raving about the place - I’ve felt a bit left-out. The aptly named Park Algarve circuit didn’t disappoint, and for the most part neither did the RC8R.

The first couple of track sessions took place in torrential rain but even in these conditions I felt at home on the bike right from the off. The motor pulls smoothly from pretty much any revs but it’s undoubtedly at its best above about 6000rpm, and from there the rush doesn’t stop until the shift light on the dash starts flashing and the digital tacho hits the 10,500rpm rev limiter. Steering and front-end confidence in the wet were superb - the only thing that needed careful management on the slick surface was tapping the gas on right in the middle of the corner. If you weren’t accurate with throttle position it was easy to put too much power to the rear wheel when the tyre didn’t have the grip to cope.

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RC8R 3

It’s an issue KTM had anticipated, and its solution is as brilliant as it is simple. The bike comes supplied with a second twistgrip tube with a different ramp shape to the part where the cable sits. With this road tube (their words) fitted (which takes five minutes), the first 15% of the throttle movement is 50% less sensitive than the race tube. They are then identical for subsequent 85% of the throttle’s movement. Did I lose anyone with all the percentages there? Basically it’s like having a slow-action and a quick-action throttle rolled into one. And when grip levels were low it works really well.

In these days of different maps and switches on the dash to change power settings, it’s easy to forget how effective a simple but well thought-out engineering solution can be.

It beats me why the bike would come with the more aggressive throttle tube fitted and the softer one in the bag with the owners manual and not the other way round - it’s like taking the restrictors off your child’s quad before they’ve even been out on it. KTM say it’s simply following the company’s “Ready to race” motto and the dealer can easily fit the softer tube before delivery if the customer so wishes. I preferred the race throttle in all but the slickest of conditions.

As the surface dried out, the track and the bike kept getting better. The power delivery was smooth and linear. It’s not so important that you’re in the right gear or crucial fraction of the rev-range. Two of the tighter corners would definitely have been first gear turns on most four cylinder bikes but on this, a steady second was the way forward.

Front-end feel was mint. Even if you got into a turn a little bit fast you could trail some front brake to steady yourself without the bike trying to sit up. Once into the corner the steering was very neutral and, although it’s second nature, many bikes need pressure on one bar or the other to stay on the required line. On the RC8R it felt like if you let go of the bars completely it would just keep going round - a very reassuring feeling. Straight-line stability was good too. I never like to run more steering damper than needed and the lightest setting on the piggyback-type WP damper was good in any condition.

The super-light wheels, narrow dimensions and minimalist bodywork all help the bike feel really light to change direction and generally flick about. The only downside to all this was that it was difficult to get really tucked in down the long start/finish straight. The engineers told me they’ve spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel tweaking the shape of the front end to make it more aerodynamically efficient, but I bet that was with the rider in the prone position. I reckon it’d be difficult to keep yourself out of the wind on the motorway, especially for riders of a more ample size.

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RC8R Overall

Towards the end of the day, as I was pushing on to try and find the edge of the bike’s envelope, the only problem was a tendency to lock the rear wheel under heavy breaking. I can’t believe a £15,000 bike with this level equipment doesn’t have a slipper clutch, but to be fair on the road you’d never go hard enough for it to be a problem.

The rear suspension can also feel a bit soft when you really start to push on. Under heavy acceleration this could make the front go light, especially over some of Park Algarve’s many awesome crests. A couple of clicks of rebound damping on the front and a couple of clicks of compression damping on the rear and the problem was sorted. And that’s the point - KTM expects you to experiment with the settings to find out what suits you. Pretty much everything is easily adjustable. As long as you remember to note down the factory settings, you’ll be able to play about and see what you like.

KTM is keen to stress that the RC8R is not just a capable road bike but also a credible track day and amateur race bike, though they don’t go as far as to make unrealistic claims about winning next year’s World Superbike championship. I talked with Hubert Trunkenpolz, the “T” in KTM and the firm’s marketing director. He explained that after the decision to jump into the MotoGP deep end a few years ago, and the ensuing egg that found its way onto their corporate face, KTM doesn’t want to make any bold predictions about world road racing domination just yet. However, they will contest the IDM this year, the German superbike championship, and see how it goes. Incidentally, the bike looks stunning in its KTM orange and Red Bull livery. If the superbike proves a winner there, he didn’t rule out a move to the British Superbike or even World Superbike championships.

KTM is so confident the bike is a match for the road-going equipment of any manufacturer they are running a series of track days throughout Europe this summer, including dates at Cadwell Park and Oulton Park. The idea is that you ride the bike to work through the week and then on the weekend, head for your local circuit where, after 10 minutes removing the rear light, indicators, mirrors and tweaking the suspension settings, you have your ideal track bike without having to spend your hard-earned on aftermarket goodies.

If your pimp tendencies grow too strong and the compulsion for shiny things becomes irresistible, KTM is producing a club kit for the RC8R. This includes a beautiful Akrapovic exhaust system, a thinner head gasket to raise the compression further and another map for the ECU that can be downloaded and installed by your local dealer. All this should give you another 300rpm, an additional 10bhp and a lot more noise. The price is yet to be decided but they say it’ll be about £2,000, most of which goes into the Akrapovic titanium work of art.

All in all, I was impressed with KTM’s new flagship. In many ways it’s the bike the original RC8 should have been. All the gripes that were levelled at the standard bike have been sorted out and, apart from the lack of a slipper clutch, there’s not much left to whinge about. I reckon it would get the best out of most riders, either on the road or on the track, without intimidating them. It’s a bike you feel at home with very quickly. I have to say though, it didn’t feel like it had the claimed 170bhp. Don’t get me wrong, it has more than enough power for anything the vast majority of riders would ever want to do with it, but it just didn’t feel as brutally powerful as the Japanese 1000cc fours. For most people this is a good thing but if you’re going take a bike racing you really need to be keeping up down the straight bits.


Price: £14,995
Engine: Liquid cooled, 8 valve, V-twin, 1195cc
Power: 168bhp @ 10,250rpm Torque: 91 ft.lb @ 8000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm USD fork, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 320mm discs, four piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 220mm disc, two piston caliper
Dry weight: 182kg
Seat height: 805/825mm
Fuel capacity: 16.5 Litres
Top speed: 165mph
Colours: Black/Orange/White

Visordown: 4/5