First Ride: 2008 KTM RC8

Five years in the making and it’s finally here. A test of the most eagerly-awaited V-twin superbike since the Ducati 916

Click to read: KTM RC8 owners reviews, KTM RC8 specs and to see the KTM RC8 image gallery.

I shouldn’t be here. We have the demonically fast Niall Mackenzie and James Whitham on the test team and instead you get me. Sorry.

The thing is, I’ve wanted to ride the RC8 since I first saw it, like you did, back in 2003. A ground-up, all-new, blank piece of paper superbike comes around once every decade, if that. So I pulled editor’s rights and grabbed the test-ticket. We went into huge detail on the story behind the RC8 in the February issue of TWO, so I’m not going to cover old ground here. We know how radical it looks from seeing it at the show, we know it’s a high-revving 1,148cc 75° V-twin, and we know KTM make mad, mental motorcycles and paint them bright orange. What I want to know right now is how well it goes.

KTM chose the extraordinary Ascari circuit in Ronda, Spain for the launch of their new Road/Competition-8 superbike. It’s privately owned by a Dutch millionaire and rented out to race teams and the well-heeled for test-days like this. Set into a natural amphitheatre of granite valleys and lined by orange groves, it’s impossibly posh and the perfect place for a launch of this importance. The track is fast, flowing and very technical, and KTM took the unprecedented step (in launch terms) of allocating every journalist their own bike for the day. This stroke of genius meant that we all got at least 3 hours uninterrupted riding on first road and then track. At least, those of us that managed not to fall off like great big girls did…

There’s a stark simplicity to the RC8. The frame is old-fashioned steel, very basic and only weighs 7.5kg. The rear shock linkage is a work of art and there’s easy access to everything. Apparently it takes just two minutes to change the rear ride height, and a rear wheel can be swapped out in half that time. “It looks like something is missing, but nothing is missing,” says the RC8’s creator, Wolfgang Felber. And the RC8 has been built to go racing. “We will go World Superbike racing, there is no question,” continues Wolfgang. “This is a steep learning curve for us as we are new in the superbike racing business and we don’t know where we will finish. But we will learn.” Superstock kit parts will be available for the RC8 immediately after its release here, a mark of how serious KTM are about their racing and, more importantly, the RC8, its first superbike.

There’s something refreshingly honest about both the staff at KTM and their new bike. The row of 40 RC8s all parked up look impressive enough, and I’d forgotten how great the bike looks. In white, it’s a work of art. In orange, less so. The angular plastics, sky-high seat unit and imposing lines of the bike make the RC8 stand out a mile from the often silly, plasticky looks of a Japanese superbike. Sit on the RC8 and you get a further reminder of its European origins – it’s big. You’re not locked into position as you might be with an oriental sportsbike and you don’t look ridiculous if you’re 6ft or over, it’s a proper man-sized motorbike. Hit the starter and the motor snatches into life before settling into a steady warm-up. It’s a deep, throaty burble, but most of the noise comes from the airbox as the underslung exhaust is a distant rumble away. Can’t wait to hear an RC8 fitted with the open Akrapovic racepipe they supply as part of the PowerParts kit.

I elected to ride the RC8 on the road first and the track later. The bikes were tight – mine only had 100 miles on the odo – and therefore the powercurve was flatter than even KTM intended. From three grand all the way up to the 10,000rpm redline the RC8 pulls strongly and without any noticeable dips in the powercurve, just a solid torrent of horsepower that only stops when the change-up light blazes in your face and you feed in the next gear. Shit, that was fun. Think I’ll do that again. And thus off we headed into the mountains just west of Ronda, me all over the front of the RC8 feeding in massive handfuls of throttle, the KTM tearing off enormous sections of Spanish road as we went. Look at the speedo, I’m doing 256km/h. What’s that in real money? 160mph, bloody hell. Best slow down a bit. V-twins always catch you out, you never feel like you’re going quick when you are, but the 150bhp RC8 has taken this stealth speed thing to new levels.

On fast point-and-squirt roads, the RC8 is demon. Much of this is down to the exemplary chassis and suspension package, and the near-perfect balance of the KTM. Physically it’s a big bike, but it stops and turns like a GSX-R750. The roomy ride position means the RC8 is simplicity itself to throw around beneath you, and the quality of the WP forks and rear shock are beyond question. They’ve got that highly-damped squish that you only get with top-end suspension units, with loads of feedback from either end. In road set-up the RC8 isn’t especially quick-steering, but it’s incredibly neutral and just a gentle shove on the bars will have it dropping into, and then holding, any line you choose to take. You’re right over the front of the RC8 and it feels direct and plugged-in to the rider. Through a series of fast corners the KTM allows you to scythe through without any fear of tankslappers or skittishness. Just keep your eyes pinned on where you want to go, wind the throttle in hard and early and the RC8 blasts into the next bend.

But here’s the kicker: on the road it really doesn’t feel that fast to ride. There’s no doubt that the tight motors weren’t helping, and the smooth power delivery does a fantastic job of disguising the speed, but for riders looking for that brutal, yee-har V-twin power surge, it’s surprisingly clinical. I was expecting the RC8 to be the superbike version of KTM’s lunatic 990SM, a rough, rampant beast of a thing. But while it will wheelie (no problem and all the way through into 4th gear if you want) it’s not the beserker you might expect. The RC8 is far more sophisticated than that.

It’s on the track that the KTM really comes alive. Maybe it was because the track bikes were looser and more run-in, but around Ascari’s curves the RC8 was fantastic. With the motor singing between 6-10,000rpm, the bike is properly, properly fast. There’s a flat bark from the pipe as the RC8 hustles around the track, the stepless powercurve allowing you to feed in the throttle as early as you dare exiting corners. For the circuit the KTM techs raised the rear ride-height by two mil’ and now the RC8 dived into corners with indecent haste. I had to seriously up my game to stay with the bike - what a bloody weapon. Body position is far more crucial on the track than it is on the road, and the roominess of the RC8 (and everything is fully adjustable) means you can just clamber from one side to the other with complete freedom, pulling the bike down on top of you in corners and feel, oh just feel the grip. The Brembo brakes are massive, mashing the front tyre into the tarmac on the way into corners and allowing you to leave your braking point as late as your ride ability allows. However late you brake, trust me, the RC8 can brake later.

The view from the cockpit while you ride is excellent, the ingeniously-designed dash giving you all the information you’ll ever need just a glance away. There are two modes – road and race – giving you everything from fuel range and tyre pressures to data acquisition and lap times. It’s comprehensive and very clever. But this is a mere aside when you’re riding the RC8 on a track, all you’ll be concentrating on is riding faster and harder, lap after lap. Clipping apexes becomes a mere formality and the RC8 works with you rather than you having to worry about a steep power step, or brakes that aren’t good enough, or suspension that needs more adjusting. All the while that glorious muted V-twin boom echoes from under the bike and those laps on that track were the best fun I’ve had on a superbike in God knows how long.

There is, however, a blot on the landscape. The gearbox, specifically between 1st and 2nd, is a bit, how shall I put this? Temperamental. To the point whereby it dropped out of gear three times on the road and on the track I had to keep my toe under the gearlever coming out of Ascari’s 1st gear hairpin just to keep it in. Like all new sportsbikes the RC8 is geared to the moon, pulling an easy 75mph in first, and when that puppy jumps out under full throttle it doesn’t half make you jump. Nearly every journalist on the launch had this problem and KTM admit it’s an issue (see interview boxouts). It was tackled head-on by the staff at the launch with an unerring honesty, but using the 990 gearbox in this new engine was always going to be a big ask. I just heard that KTM have pushed final production back a few weeks so here’s hoping they’ve got a quick fix up their sleeves.

In summing up, it’s fair to say the RC8 represents a massive step forward for KTM. It’s a huge gamble for the Austrian firm, unknown as they are for sportsbikes of this nature, but it’s a gamble that’s paid off. It would have been so easy for them to produce some mental, lunatic wheelie machine that would have appealed to a mental, lunatic rider and nobody else. A bike like this would have had a limited shelf life and become a curiosity, “another crazy orange bike from those off-road blokes.” But the RC8 is a hugely sophisticated superbike with many different model variants to come and a long future ahead of it. When the Ducati 916 first came out in 1994 it made just over 100bhp. When it was finally replaced in 2002, it made 125bhp, there had been 12 different models and countless Limited Editions. So it is with the RC8. KTM has got huge plans for this bike, from racing in World Superbike to an S-model next year and a super-expensive homologation R-model slated for 2010. To come out with the most explosive and exclusive version of their RC8 for this first model wouldn’t leave KTM anywhere to take it over the next decade.

The wait has been worth it. The new generation of road-rider who demands high performance combined with user-friendliness gets everything he wants, while the committed headbanger will be leading the fast group of his trackday and ripping up A-roads on the best-looking bike out there. The KTM combines modern technology with a thrilling seat-of-the-pants ride. So say hello to the RC8. I’m very glad you could make it.

KTM RC8 Specs

Price: £10,695
Engine: 1,148cc, liquid-cooled, dOHC, 8-valve V-twin
Power: 151.5bhp @ 10,500rpm
Torque: 88.5lb.ft @ 8,000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm WP USD, FULLY-adjustable
Rear suspension: WP Monoshock, FULLY adjustable
Front brake: 320mm disc, four-piston calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc, two-piston caliper
Dry weight: 188kg (claimed)
Seat height:  805mm
Fuel capacity: 16.5l
Top speed: 160mph (est)
Colours: Orange, white