First Ride: 2012 KTM Duke 690 review

The Duke of Hurl

I am part of a small percentage of bikers that likes four stroke singles. I like the way you can lay the power down hard and early in a corner with superb feel for what the back tyre is doing. Or more importantly, about to do. I like the direct involvement between every power stroke and the throttle cable. I like the noise they make.

I am however, a bit simple. I must be as it's the single's simplicity that I admire the most.

In the past, single ownership didn't come without its pains. Vibration is an obvious headache. Within living memory, two singles (a Spondon Rotax racer and a Bimota Supermono) have set fire to themselves because of vibration-induced fractures. Luckily I had a full bladder at the time.

For the single-owner, vibration is a killer of not only the human circulatory system (dead hands), but brittle alloys, non-nyloc fasteners and any chance of rearward vision in wing mirrors. 

Then there's chain life. Without inter-balanced firing intervals from other cylinders the bang-bang-bang power delivery stretches a chain's sideplates, loosens rollers and hooks sprocket teeth in the blink of a double-vision-eye.

To make a single fast and reliable is even harder. To make it fast, yet quiet enough to pass Euro 5, is nigh on impossible. I know, I spent three race seasons just trying to beat the ACU noise test. 

It's for the above reasons that the new KTM Duke 690 amazes me. What they've done to this latest LC4 engine is incredible. If 72bhp and 70Nm of torque wasn't amazing enough from just one 690cc cylinder, then its puppy-dog manners and 10,000km service intervals seal the deal.

Here is a single that thinks its a twin. A single that, all of a sudden, doesn't have to be just for the people who expect a single to be a bit shit in many areas of its performance range. A 72bhp single that doesn't shake itself to bits at any point in it's 8,000rpm rev range. A high performance single that doesn't spit flames, back-fire, fart or sneeze in the compromised area of its camshaft profiles and valve timing. A single that doesn't falter under full throttle loadings from tickover. In a high gear.

Manners aside, this engine is the most powerful production single ever offered. Powerful enough to win races yet friendly enough for a learner to ride. 

Swing a leg over the 690 Duke (as we did in Spain the day before yesterday) and several things immediately strike you. It's really, really light and very narrow. It's comfy. You sit in it on a flat, soft seat that's wide at the back and narrow at the front. The stretch to the bars is short. 

If you're going to boss a bike the above are perfect credentials.

Fire the 690 up on the 'leccy start and it quickly settles to a gentle idle. The balance shaft cleary works. It's really quiet, too. That under-engine silencer (the Duke Box?) does a good job. Throttle response is snappy, the engine responding quickly and revs dropping fast, as you'd expect from a high compression ratio and minimal flywheel weight. The exhaust note may be quiet but the induction noise and eager throttle response adds their own angry music.

Obviously the whole engine and exhaust system play a bit part in the 690's incredible performance scope but there are two key areas that add to its  civility and its tractability, namely the fly-by-wire throttle and separately mapped twin plugs. 

The throttle plays a big part. Ask the wrong thing of the twist grip and it won't let you. Instead, it'll give you what's best for it and, quite possibly, what's best for you. This electronic compensation is one of three switchable maps (the adjuster is under the pillion seat), think of it as the nose-wiping mode. At the opposite end of the mapping is the bail-out option. This is for the foolhardy know-it-all and, in between, is a gentle compromise for Liberal Democrats. There was no time to try all the map settings and, to be honest, the nose wiping setting was so good I didn't feel the need to try.

Two spark plugs - one smaller than the other - can do exactly what the Keihin ECU and sensors tell it. Independently of each other, as well. This way the engine management programmers can retard and advance either plug depending on load, revs and throttle position. Think of it as precise flame management.

It only takes you the first fifty metres to feel the effect of this technology. Weighing only 160kg fully fuelled and kicking out 72bhp, it's very very lively. That's a foregone conclusion. The initial surprise is just how damned civilized it is, pulling cleanly and smoothly from tickover in every gear. Even full throttle in a high gear doesn't faze it at all. 

You can, however, make it behave like a single of old by using too high-a gear where it'll still snatch at the chain like it's trying to kill it, but you have to be pretty savagely stupid or utterly unfeeling to do it accidentally.

So we blatted round a few sandy, slippery roundabouts for three or four miles. Nobody in our group fell off, which was telling. Then we hit the Spanish motorways where we cruised for twenty minutes at what they might have described as 'a bright turn of speed' in the olden days. Even at three figure cruising, the 690 doesn't fill your rattlings out. I could even see behind me in the mirrors. Well, one of them. It's even, dare I say it, comfortable at these speeds and felt like it could have done it all day.

But you don't buy a bike like this to batter the motorways do you? So we turned off into the mountains. It was a good call.

How you ride a road you don't know is very different from riding something familiar. Being able to use one gear for wide stretches is often useful, so too is good on-off-throttle response and behaviour. Light weight is a boon, too. It lets you chuck and change, hurl and heft without popping a 'roid.

We had the perfect tool for a slippery, twisty mountain pass with varying radius, blind turns and bumps bigger than Jordan's. And random pine cones the size of your head.

Brake deep into a tightening corner and the Duke doesn't sit up or try to run wide. Crack the gas on early and hard enough to get the back tyre moving and the tyre talks to you (quite loudly) about its problems. It doesn't steer quickly, in fact it can actually be quite hard to make rapid direction changes at high speeds, but it is easy to dominate because of the riding position and low centre of gravity. 

High speed stability is impressive. Even in a sixth-gear tuck with nothing left available on the rev counter (201kmh) the Duke is stable - even when you try to provoke a wobble or a shimmy by wobbling the bars. A 1466mm wheelbase - longer than any superbike on the market - may be the reason for this uncanny high speed stability.

In all, we had blast in the Andalucian mountains. The one ride I had on my own (not in a group) was one of those rides you never forget. Even though I was hanging it out at times, I never had one heart-in-mouth moment. The Duke really does flatter your riding and it's fast enough to deliver a real buzz.

But it's the fact that a learner could hop on this KTM 690 Duke and find it as easy to ride as a CB500 Honda that gets me. 

How the hell did they manage that?

UK Price: £6,595 inc VAT and ABS