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?

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