First Ride

First Ride: KTM 125 Duke review

Every bit as good as we'd hoped...

It was a bit of an ugly scene at yesterday’s KTM 125 Duke launch.

A whinge of mainly middle-aged motorcycle journalists (yes, that’s the correct collective noun) were clearly going through some kind of dramatic mid life crisis.

I was guilty, too. All of us were seventeen again. It was pretty much a whole day of on-road naughtiness without actually breaking any speed limits. As a highlight to this day of twattishness (it wasn’t big or clever) we had an hour or two on a really nice, super-twisty kart track.

This video is the only legal on-road stuff I can share with you. I was on my own. If nothing else it shows how little 125s can still be fun, particularly when careful forward planning allows you to maintain critical momentum – like driving an HGV but with infinitely more payback in the fun stakes. And despite the fact that you’re absolutely flat-knacker flat-out, you’re still not exceeding the National speed limit. How cool is that?

The kart track served to highlight two very useful messages. One: Despite being fitted with super hard compound tyres, the KTM 125 Duke is pretty much un-crashable such are the levels of feedback and controllability. Two: despite all our best efforts it also appears to be un-burstable. And boy, did we try.

At the track, I was using a gearchange technique perfected many years ago on a proddy racing 250LC where you change up a gear without closing the throttle from its fully open position – just a dab of clutch is needed. Other people were using the clutchless technique for both up and down shifts. Either way the revs were always giddy, the throttle cable always fully tensioned, the red over-rev light always on. The fact that there were no bent valves, no rooted clutches or gearboxes and not a drop of oil or coolant on the track is testament to the unburstability of this smooth, refined little engine. It’s not like any of us were trying to be kind…

On the road, if you’ve just leapt off a 2011 Fireblade, the 125 Duke is slow. In 125 terms it doesn’t feel any slower or any faster than either the Rieju, the Honda or the Yamaha sports 125s that I’ve ridden (really) recently. My arse dyno (take it everywhere with me) indicated 14bhp. Sat bolt upright the little KTM would merrily sing its way to an indicated 65mph. It took a full crouch and maybe a slipstream to coax the last ten mph out of it – standard fare for a four-stroke 125.

But the balance-shafted, twin cam motor is super smooth, sounds nice (even when it’s being tortured) and fuels well. The clutch has masses of feel at the lever (useful for learners) and the gearbox as slick as anything from the best gearbox makers, (still) Suzuki.

Comparing the 125 Duke to its main competitors, the biggest difference is the riding position. You feel like you’re sitting inside it with the deeply scalloped seat, high tank and high, wide bars. Mega comfy - even if the footrests seem ever-so slightly too far rearward. This riding position makes looking over your shoulders (something that examiners still like to see) a doddle.

Adding to the comfort (and the road holding) is the remarkably adept suspension. The way it handled both the road and the track was impressive. Class-best suspension, I would say. The brakes are pretty good, too with plenty of feel and a refusal to fade even at the track. My fat farmer’s hands wanted to adjust the front lever for more reach but you’d struggle – there isn’t a span adjuster.

So the KTM gets more than just a clean bill of health, it’s a stonker. If I’d just bought one of the 350 coming to the country this year, the first thing I’d do is swap the tyres for something super sticky and that, pretty much, would be that. Can you think of anything cooler to taz around on L-plates?

No, me neither…

The price has been set at a fiver under £3,700 and there's inclusive third party insurance lurking within that price, too. Maybe the future is orange, after all.

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