KTM 690 Duke long-term update 4: A temporary upgRade

KTM 690 Duke long-term update 4: A temporary upgRade
Thoughts after two weeks on a 690 Duke R

RECENTLY I swapped my long term KTM 690 Duke for the R model while my bike got some lovin’ at KTM.

It was all in the name of research: at £9,149, the 690 Duke R costs £1,450 more than the stock bike and I wanted to find out whether it’s worth the extra monies and figure out whether I should have asked KTM for the R to start with.

As soon as I leave KTM’s office near Silverstone, I pull back on to the main road and pin the 690 Duke R through the first three gears. My first thought is that it feels faster than my stocker, but it shouldn’t do because my long-term 690 Duke weighs the same and makes the same power as the R.

A length of country lane later, I realise what’s up; the 690 Duke R is kitted out with adjustable WP suspension instead of the non-adjustable bouncy bits on the standard model. The R’s suspension is stiffer than the standard 690 Duke’s and it does a lot to make the R feel more taught and precise. When I tap the power on, the bike feels that bit more eager and poised.

The higher-spec suspension on the R is what really sets it apart from the standard 690 Duke in terms of how it feels – it focuses the Duke’s desire to carve up corners with deftness and precision. There are some other items on R’s spec list that also play a part in making it feel different to the stock bike - because of the different suspension, the R is 15mm taller and the seat height is 30mm higher; changes that make the R feel more poised and aggressive.

The R’s more combative bias is also present in the Brembo M50 monobloc front brake calliper and Brembo master cylinder and the 690 Duke R comes with a few more electronic tricks up its wizardly sleeve in the form of cornering ABS and lean angle-sensitive traction control.

Knowing all this, and not wanting to collect all my available penalty points on a weekend blast down my favourite roads, there was only one place to have a really good time with the 690 Duke R, so I took it to a track day at Lydden Hill. If you aren’t familiar with Lydden, it’s a circuit between Canterbury and Dover and at one mile long, it’s shortest track in the UK. Because of this, it’s physical, and well suited to what the 690 Duke R is all about.

The first corner after the start finish line is a big right-hander; driving through and out of it gives me a good chance to test the 690 Duke R’s party piece – lean angle-sensitive traction control. I’m probably bigging myself up a bit too much here - actually, it’s more of a chance for me to test my bottle as I try winding the power on sooner/harder each lap because of the safety net afford by the TC. I think of it as more of a gravity-enforcing device that should keep me from cackhandedly firing myself skywards.

The main test of the TC comes during the second session of the day, when the mist is still lingering and the track is still damp in places. With tyres warmed, I have an arse-clenching slide through turn one, but the benevolent TC duly cuts power enough to sort things out as my heart to skips a beat and I finish the rest of the session with a bit more caution.

That’s what I like about the extras on the 690 Duke R – I probably wasn’t making the TC light flicker so much that it could have been on my Christmas tree but knowing it was there helped me push a bit more and explore what I and the bike could do. On track, I ride knowing that if I’m not too much of a tit (a daily challenge), I probably won’t end up being catapulted into the Kent countryside.

The uprated Brembo front brake is also welcome on track because of the sharper initial bite and extra power, which is immediately obvious through the lever. It’s not earth shatteringly more powerful than the front brake on the standard 690 but it’s enough that I miss it once back on mine.

Then there’s the cornering ABS, which allows you to brake mid-corner without getting pushed wide. It’s a weird feeling, especially with the ABS chatter through the lever mid-corner, but it works – I called on it to save me from a couple of cocked up corners at Lydden and it could be the thing that saves you on the road one day.

During the whole time I’m on track, the suspension and chassis are flawless. Because it’s short, and lacks long straights, I spend each lap constantly working Duke round, getting it set for corners before turning in and punching out. It feels like a good proving ground for the suspension. The front feels firm and assured, and it doesn’t take me long to begin testing it more when it comes to getting slowed down and turned in – it’s bike that makes me feel confident to gradually push harder, safe in the knowledge that I know where I stand. Out of every turn, I always feel confident about what the rear tyre is doing under acceleration so I feel like I can push to go a bit faster.

So far, so positive, but the 690 Duke R is not without flaws on track and the frequency of false neutrals in the gearbox soon becomes a frustrating and embarrassingly frequent problem; it’s something I encounter at least a couple of times every session, usually going from fourth to fifth and from fourth to third. It happens on the road too, but less often because the gearbox only seems to prone faltering when the bike is being ridden hard. It’s not just the R that does it because pinning my long-termer can usually induce a missed gear on an enthusiastic ride. It’s the one chink in the 690’s armour – and inevitably it always happens in front of a crowd to make me look like a prize plum.

So is the 690 Duke R worth the extra money? It depends on what you want from the 690 Duke. It’s a bike that can appeal equally to new riders and commuters, as well as floating the boat of anyone that’s after a fierce middleweight naked. The standard model does all of the above really well – it’s sportier and better suspended than an MT-07 and makes the new SV650 seems pedestrian. The lower spec of the standard bike isn’t limiting, rather the 690 Duke R is a more concentrated distillation of all the stuff on the standard bike that makes it so capable of attacking sinuous B-road or technical set of corners – the electronics, suspension and brakes combine to create a more potent weapon, one that’ll happily schlep to work every day, but with a bit more in reserve for when the track and the fun way home beckons.

Having got my long-termer back, I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much – my standard 690 Duke is very capable; it’s an accomplished road bike and is pretty handy on track too, so I'm not dismayed at handing the keys to the R back to KTM, although I will miss the better looking orange frame and wheels, and the chrome graphics. If I was in the market for the 690 Duke, I’d try to stretch to the R because I’m partial to a track day or two and liked having the uprated electronics, suspension and brakes in my corner.