The new KTM 790 Duke is a vital machine. Its engine will form the basis of a whole range of new models for years to come. So how does it ride?
KTM is Europe’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. It sold 203,423 bikes sold in 2016. But until now the only multi-cylinder motorcycles the Austrian company has made have been 75º V-twins based on the LC8 engine.
From the 2003 950 Adventure to the current 1290 Super Duke, that same V-twin platform has provided 15 years of power. It has essentially fueled KTM’s growth to be Europe’s No.1 on-road, to go alongside its undisputed world crown as the king of the off-road sector.
KTM 790 Duke: development
But that’s all going to change next month with the marketplace debut of the KTM 790 Duke at the EICMA Milan Show on November 7. The 2018 model is powered by an-all new 800cc parallel-twin motor designated the LC8c; the ‘c’ stands for ‘compact’. KTM has been working on this for the past three years. It will initially power two distinct variants, the 790 Duke and the multi-purpose 790 Adventure. In future expect a range of different models using the same engine, becoming KTM’s best-selling on-road offerings. That’s the expectation of KTM AG board member Gerald Kiska, whose Salzburg-based Kiska Design company has been responsible for designing every single KTM model since 1992.
Kiska’s work includes the unpainted black 790 Duke prototype awaiting me at the KTM Technologies building, across the road from Kiska Design. I was summoned to Salzburg for an exclusive first look at this significant new model in KTM’s history – including a brief getting-to-know-you debut ride on this well-used development bike
“We think we have a good offering in the entry level and lower capacity onroad sectors with our smaller singles made in India by our Bajaj partners,” says Kiska. “And for sure we have a super competitive product at the top end with the different Adventure models and the 1290 Super Duke, including the GT. We get our customers started on riding bikes with the 125 and 200 Dukes, then we take them to the next stage with the 390 or 690 singles – but after that we lose them to another manufacturer, because we don’t have a middleweight model to offer them. OK, maybe we get them back again later on – but not necessarily, so that’s about to change with this bike you’re riding, which we think is the answer to that hole in our range.”
Kiska continues: “However, it’s even more important to have an offering in this sector than simply filling a gap in the cradle to grave progression through the KTM range.
“The middleweight sector for bikes from 750-900cc has become super-competitive, with 11 different manufacturers contesting a segment that has become a very significant one in terms of sales numbers. It’s a kind of crossroads of customers, which caters to former newbies on their way up the capacity scale, as well as returnees who don’t want to jump straight away onto a litre-plus bike, and Super Duke owners who are maybe getting older and want a quieter life! Then there are women, too – they’re becoming an ever more important segment of KTM customers, and we have to offer them something that’s got more performance than our singles. So all of this together made a case for this new family of bikes kicking off next March, when production will begin of the 790 Duke.”
KTM 790 Duke: engine
“We looked at doing that, of course,” says KTM R&D’s LC8c project leader Jürgen Hager, “but always in comparison with the other way of doing it, with a parallel-twin design. We were aware that our existing KTM customers would be coming to the bike from a single-cylinder model, so we wanted to make it look not so different to what they were already riding. Then to go with our Ready to Race philosophy we wanted to establish a visual link with our Motocross bikes, so all of this together meant that the parallel-twin concept won out. The fact that it also centralises the mass of the engine, which allowed us to design a more compact, easier-handling motorcycle, was also a key factor.”
There were important dynamic reasons too. LC8c Product Marketing manager Adriaan Sinke, has been responsible for tying together the different strands in development of the 790 platform between engineering, styling, production and the marketing department. He said: “We wanted to make a bike that’s intuitive to ride, that’s light and responsive with the extra performance of a twin, but without sacrificing the agility of a single. That definitely told in favour of a parallel-twin – so that’s what we chose to take forward.”
A compact, lightweight, liquid-cooled dohc eight-valve engine is the result. It’s got a 270º crank to deliver good traction, and twin counter-balancers to eliminate vibration. One’s in the cylinder head, the other driven off the crankshaft. There’s chain drive to the camshafts, offset to the right of the cylinders, while the six-speed gearbox allows clutchless quick-shifting both up and down the ratios. It’s matched to a PAS/Power Assisted Slipper oil-bath clutch, cable-operated for ease of maintenance and to save weight.
KTM 790 Duke: chassis
KTM won’t quote a weight for the bike yet. It’s still work in progress. But given KTM’s past focus on saving kilos, it has the potential to be a class leader. “All components on the bike have been reduced to the essential according to KTM’s purity brand values,” says Simke. “But customers should rest assured that this bike will be amongst the best-equipped in the middleweight segment. We call it ‘The Scalpel’ – a precise, lightweight, focused bike with one task in mind – slicing through the street, and leaving others behind. It will be the sharpest street weapon in our range – and we hope in the entire sector, as well.”
The engine is a fully load-bearing component in the tubular steel trellis frame. Its stiffness tuned to deliver sharp, precise handling with a sporty feel. Hager explained: “We have aimed to produce a good balance between agility and stability in turns, as well as good straight line stability.”
There’s a cast aluminium subframe with air intakes running beneath the seat to the airbox. Simke says KTM has aimed the seat height to as wide a range of statures as possible. High end componentry includes radial brakes, with Bosch ABS, and fully adjustable WP suspension. There’s an upside down fork and a direct-action cantilever rear shock operated directly off the cast aluminium swingarm, plus a WP steering damper. 10-spoke lightweight cast aluminium wheels are standard. There’s a very distinctive fluted silencer to the 2-1 stainless steel exhaust system with the hefty box under the swingarm pivot containing the three-way catalyst. All the lights are LED, although black tape hid the distinctive headlight design on the prototype. On board, there’s a full colour TFT dash similar to the one on the 690 Duke, and illuminated menu switches.
The 790 Duke’s extensive array of rider aids includes three riding modes – Sport, Street and Rain. Add multi-stage MTC traction-control, Bosch lean-angle-sensitive cornering ABS, and KTM’s established MSR/Motor Slip Regulation to mitigate engine braking. The package is likely to be a benchmark for the middleweight class. The two-way powershifter includes launch control and spin adjuster. The anti-wheelie is switchable for those who want to stunt their way to the next traffic light. At the other end of the marketplace, there will also be an A2 licence-friendly reduced performance version.
KTM 790 Duke: riding it
I was anxious to find out if the 790 Duke was what I thought it might be; a modern equivalent of the unique Over-developed semi-works parallel-twin TriXie Yamaha I raced for Yamaha Europe, winning the 1996 Daytona Formula 1 ProTwins race, as well as the 1997 Sound of Thunder World Series.
Well, TriXie lives again, but in an Austrian dirndl dress rather than a Japanese kimono. It’s immediately evident the moment you climb aboard and hit the starter. Like its Yamaha antecedent, the KTM has a 270º crank. It delivers an offbeat lilt to the distinctive flat, droning exhaust.
With copious rider aids that the Yamaha never had, the KTM was totally at home in the slippery conditions, though you had to take care not to get too enthusiastic with the front Maxxis Supermaxx ST tyre. They seemed to heat up well in the foggy, dampish conditions, the well dialled-in WP fork giving good feedback.
The 790 Duke has quite an upright stance, more streetrod than streetfighter. It’s a purpose-made, sharp-steering package in its own right, not a superbike with the bodywork stripped away. At a projected price of around Euro 9,000, the KTM will be up against the Harley-Davidson 750 Street Rod. This market sector is getting crowded. And that’s before the projected Husqvarna 790 Café Racer using the same motor joins its KTM cousin in the lineup.
But the 790 Duke is a very different package than the Harley with its flawed riding position. Instead, the Austrian parallel-twin is a twin that thinks it’s a single, rather than half a four. You have trouble actually seeing that the 790 Duke indeed has two cylinders, not just one. That visual conundrum is duplicated when you hop aboard and start riding it hard. It feels so light and agile to flick from side to side climbing twisty mountain roads. While others, like MV’s F3 800, use a reverse-rotating crank to reduce gyroscopic forces, the KTM has a conventional design. It should make the steering heavier, but it’s not noticeable and the design saves weight and complexity.
The 180/55ZR17 Maxxis rear tyre will be another factor in the nimble handling, too. KTM has resisted going large there, and heavying up the steering as a result. The WP steering damper makes me wonder if the chassis geometry is actually quite radical, delivering that nimble, agile steering?
The flat-set handlebar gives great leverage and the KTM is practically intuitive in the way it steers into a turn. KTM hasn’t announced its weight, but it feels like its under 150kg. That will be a factor in the way the 790 Duke accelerates so well. The engine is a true flexible friend, with heaps of personality just like TRiXie.
It pulls wide open in top gear from just 3,000 rpm, all the way to the 10,800 rpm limiter. There’s a slight moment of roughness around 7,000 rpm but at all other revs it’s willing and torquey. There’s just enough vibration to make you feel you’re riding a motorcycle, not a sewing machine. Same thing with the settings for the slipper clutch; just enough engine braking dialed-in to help you stop for a second-gear hairpin from high speed, without chattering the rear wheel on the overrun. “We did this deliberately to add some personality,” admits Simke, “but the problem was knowing how much to leave in! I’m glad you like it.”
That I do. The radial brakes work well and the auto-blipper’s clutchless downshifts mean you barely have to use them on a pass like this. Just backshift a couple of times for a slow bend. The residual engine braking invariably takes care of slowing the bike in normal use. OK, start going for it and you’ll need to work the lever, but not otherwise. The clutch action is super light and positive when you do have to use it. This won’t cramp up your left hand riding the 790 Duke to work each morning,
This is such a good motorcycle I can’t wait to ride it for much longer and, presuming dry roads, harder. This is a very good motorcycle. It sets the bar higher for its rivals in that crowded middleweight category, and it’s in every way a true KTM, as well as a modern reincarnation of TRiXie Yamaha two decades down the line.
Photos: Heiko Mandl