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Test ride review: The fun, fast, fierce and friendly KTM 790 Duke

Back in 2015 KTM teased us with the drop dead gorgeous 790 Duke prototype. Three years later it’s finally here – but is the ‘Scalpel’ sharp enough to cut down its naked middleweight rivals?

The KTM 790 Duke

It’s been a long time coming, but KTM have been pretty busy bunnies since they whetted our taste buds with the prospect of a class defining mid-capacity hooligan. Building ground up bikes always takes a good chunk of time, and thanks to KTM’s methodical approach – that’s seen the 790 kitted with more new features than a plastic surgeon’s plaything – it’s easy to see where the time’s gone. In essence, the whole bike’s new, and the same goes for the engine. Ditching the single-cylinder notion of old, the Austrian marque’s whacked another chamber into the Duke’s mix and introduced a whole host of new qualities with its parallel universe. Thanks to a succinct design and some snazzy components such as forged pistons, dual balancer shafts, a painstakingly honed cylinder head and precise valve timing, the compact and lightweight twin-pot’s delivery dwarfs the (still available) 690’s output with a claimed 103bhp and impressive 86Nm of tractor-pulling torque.

Words by Carl Stevens

Images by Sebas Romero & Marco Campelli

That’s good news for all. Even if you’re one of those die-hard KTM single-cylinder fans and are struggling to digest this change in persuasion, you’ll hopefully be able to take comfort in knowing the brand’s worked its derriere off to maintain that raucous deep Barry White-esque tone that we’ve come to love and expect from Dukes. This is thanks to a 75º crank offset and 435º firing order, mimicking the bark and brilliance of the big bad 1290 Super Duke. And to make sure your eardrums get the full whammy from this loud-mouthed marvel, KTM’s even gone to the extent of angling the exhaust system to deliver the engine note to your ear with more vigour than a ghetto blaster. While we’re on the subject of exhausts, I know a lot of people are disappointed with the pipe and its location (the prototype had a naughty MotoGP under-seat job). I get that, I was too, but while the production-approved can on the 790 doesn’t match up to the prototype’s sexualness, it does permit space under the seat for the bike’s all important electronic nerve centre, and equally essential airbox. Everything about the Katoom is built with purpose at heart, from the way it’s styled to the way it handles, the way it makes its power to the way it makes you want to wind its throttle to the limiter and rejoice in its aural goodness.

Yep, it’s a pretty calculated machine and the same goes for its stressed member steel chassis and load bearing rear sub-frame. With handling and agility being such an important weapon in a middleweight’s armoury, KTM have gifted the 790 high quality suspension in the shape of WP forks, which, although they aren’t adjustable, have a pre-defined setting that is claimed to suit every type of riding (and a broad range of rider weights), coupled with a WP preload-adjustable shock and hidden KYB damper to save you from tank slapping your way to infinity and beyond. To keep you sunny-side-up, another first for KTM is their decision to head down the Maxxis tyre route. They’ve specifically developed some sports-touring Maxxis Supermaxx ST rubber for the steed.

The technical goodies

It’s not just mechanical goodness KTM have been cooking up with the 790 either, as it comes with an incredibly impressive armoury of electronics which have been essentially stolen from the flagship Super Duke (ain’t nothing wrong with that). Fully adjustable traction control, a power assisted slipper clutch, ride-by-wire throttle, adjustable cornering ABS, plus a quickshifter and blipper ultimately lead the technological charge, with four different rider modes offering different pre-defined levels of power and throttle response (Track, Sport, Road, Rain) that are all changeable at the flick of a finger while you ride. And to keep you budding hooligans safe while you’re exploring your vertical take-off abilities, wheelie control’s also been added to the mix, alongside a traffic light-destroying launch control system.

 

Easy peasy

Having made my way out to a sweltering Gran Canaria for the model’s glitzy launch (where I spent most of the morning drooling over the 790’s intimate bits), the time eventually came to cock a leg and kick off the inevitable joy ride. A short and slow jaunt was the first order of the day, but not before I’d had chance to take in the bike’s low seat height (it’s even lower than the 390 Duke’s) and its low weight feel – at just 178kg wet it’s definitely no lard arse.

The supermoto-esque toy made my hobbit-like frame feel immediately at home, and although I was ultimately wanting this bike to be a head-turning, all-out apex killer, I’ll admit another thing that pleasingly caught my attention was the generously comfortable stance, that was headed up by a decent size seat, some tall mounted ’bars and low(ish) pegs. With the motor booming and the 790’s dash lit up like a Christmas tree, I got a quick chance to scroll through the numerous rider modes and fire the Duke into ‘Street’ mode in a bid to restrain myself from going full nutter from the off.

KTM

As castrated as I’d made it, the motor’s initial throttle pick up still felt incredibly sharp and punchy through the bike’s slick operating ride-by-wire system. It may have only been a half hour trek down a highway and through villages but I instantly got a feel for the 790 Duke, which proved playful on demanded, and containable when tootling. Hitting a motorway was my first real chance to perform a speed test, so I got the motor singing and found the bike’s straight line speed and stability to my liking; it felt more secure than the moths in Bruce’s wallet. Getting back on some smaller roads, we hit a load of slow paced stop-start sections, which weren’t to the liking of the KTM. As is typically expected from punchy twins and singles when dawdling along, the motor did feel a bit lumpy, with the only cure being to throw more revs into the mix and run a gear lower. Switching to Rain mode did make the stuttering less annoying, but the reduced rate of welly did my head in to the point where I had to switch the selection up a few notches to stop me from riding the thing off the nearest cliff.

Home sweet home

The 790 Duke might’ve shone while being well behaved, but being ragged was where it was happiest – as I soon grasped having knocked mine into Sport mode just in time for a 70-mile (112km) stint on utterly dazzling twisty roads that were no wider than a kart track. This was where the Duke’s sublime chassis came into its own, offering the kind of flickability you’d expect from a pimped up shopping trolley.

The thing was mullering corners with less effort than an arm-wrestle with a toddler. You could really feel the benefits of the 1,11,111 man hours (yes, that many) that’d gone into building this bike as we swept effortlessly through third gear flowing twisties, wringing the motor to its limit while grasping the genius of the bike’s sexual chassis and confidence-inspiring WP bouncy bits. To my surprise there wasn’t any soft wallowing or head shaking nastiness to write home about, not even when we hit one section riddled with hairpins and short straights; a place where every characteristic was taken to the max and not found wanting.

It was in areas like this that I really got to taste that fruity engine at its best, as the throttle instantly picked up and the torque just catapulted me out of bends with the accompaniment of the 790’s ASBO inducing soundtrack. I soon learned that as fast as I could throw gears through the slick operating ’shifter, the Duke’s motor was more than eager to consume my offering and throw revs and pace back my way; culling any thoughts that the twin wouldn’t be the potent weapon I hoped it would be. I know it’s not a big thou’, but my god it felt fast for its class, or at least in a road riding context.

In general, the whole bike was performing like a good ’un on the roads, including its four-pot stoppers that were doing a good job of hauling the 790 up on demand, although if you’re going to be fussy the initial bite could’ve been a little bit sharper. I was also a fan of the slipper clutch and autoblipper, which performed in tandem like troopers as I stamped down three or four gears at a time, encouraging the best kind of pops and farts from the can on tap. Fair play to KTM, they haven’t just bolted on electronics for bragging rights, they’ve given the 790 a considered armoury, which in turn feeds an unholy amount of confidence to the rider. My first question had been well and truly answered; this was the ideal tool for road-going craziness.

The track mode

To step things up a level, KTM had organised a tasty little track workshop at Circuit De Maspalomas. It was here that I got the chance to unleash the goodness of Track mode, and give the Duke some unadulterated spankings, before taking on a tricky gymkhana-style parkour course to test agility. No matter how good a bike is on the road, the track will usually weed out any issues, yet as soon as I got out and gave it some stick the 790 Duke felt staggeringly good on the oversized kart circuit. I’d been looking forward to this chance all day, even though I secretly had two standard reservations about the spec of the bike. We all know the physical demands of track riding are a damn sight harsher than those of the roads, which got me worrying that the non-adjustable forks were going to show a few signs of weakness. And I had the same kind of worries for the Maxxis rubber, which I was expecting to throw in the towel once big lean angle, and a few handfuls of throttle were brought into the mix. But as with most things in life, they were unjustified concerns.

 

Not only did the tyres perform a treat, offering great grip, feedback and agility, but the suspension was absolutely mint. The little 790 was proving to be a right hustler, being impressively stable through the faster bends and offering loads of feel and confidence at full lean in the corners. But it wasn’t just the handling characteristics that were taking my fancy; that motor won me over big time. Look, this bike’s not stupidly powerful, but the way it delivers its torque and linear power is nothing short of addictive. I always found the KTM to have the power I desired on tap, and to be easily utilised too – even with the traction control turned off. The power would surge through from as low as 3,000rpm and keep pulling up to its sweet sounding limiter, which I found irresistible to my eardrums. Man, I had a lot of fun on that bike, and the pleasure continued when we switched the race track for the Japanese-style gymkhana, where the sheer agility of the package was brought to the fore. The course was marked out in an insanely tight manner, but it was nothing  the Duke couldn’t handle. It’s incredible just how nimble the 790 is even with the long wheelbase, which is mainly down to having a steering head angle of 66º and 98mm of trail – a clever move from the Austrian brand to have an agile bike without compromising stability. This might sound like tosh but it’s mightily impressive considering the Duke is actually 65mm longer than the Street Triple, yet is one of the easiest bikes I’ve ever ridden to get from side to side. A real master of all trades, you could say.

Of course, a bike will always have compromises, yet KTM have done an absolutely cracking job of creating an impressive and fun package. With the 790 you get a completely unique experience. It will suit some riders a treat, and others will hate it. But as for me, I’m definitely one for the former of those groupings. It sure ticked all my boxes.

How much does it cost?

For under Rs 8 lakh (excluding Indian taxes and duties) you get a ridiculous amount of bang for your buck, but how would it stack up against the competition? Does the ‘Scalpel’ genuinely cut the Street Triple from the middleweight throne? That’s a tough one to answer yet. The good news is that the 790 is lined up for an Indian debut. At least that intent was confirmed by KTM at the EICMA. With the final decision yet to be taken, we of course are hanging on to the edge of our seats and can’t wait to get a leg over this machine.

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