We rode the KTM 790 Duke prototype

Published: 21 October 2017

Watch out Street Triple –KTM’s new 790 Duke will give you a run for your money. MCN were given exclusive access to one of KTM’s prototypes during the final stages of testing in the Berchtesgaden Alps on the Germany/Austria border ahead of its launch in February 2018.

Featuring a new 799cc parallel twin– a first for KTM – and claims that the bike is among the lightest in its class ,it promises impressive performance. With proper lean-sensitive traction control, cornering ABS, launch control, a slipper clutch and an autoblipper/quickshifter, it brings unseen levels of riding aids to the class.

The motor has been developed to power a range of middleweights and is incredibly compact. From the side, it looks no bigger than a 450cc dirtbike engine – yet KTM say it packs over 100bhp and what feels like a wonderfully flat torque curve. The diminutive dimensions allow KTM’s designers to place the engine in the optimum position for handling and stability.

The middleweight naked market is one of the best-selling in Europe and KTM want a piece of the pie – the current single-cylinder 690 Duke is too niche and the 790 will be better equipped to go up against machines like Yamaha’s MT family, Triumph’s Street Triple range and four-cylinder machines such as the Kawasaki Z900. With such an array of bikes to compete against, it’s vital that the 790 is all things to all men (and women). But as Europe’s biggest bike manufacturer with over 200,000 bikes sold last year, KTM have the financial firepower to make it happen.

Meet the new kid

The venue for our chance to sample the Duke is Rossfeld Panoramastrasse, Germany’s tallest mountain pass. A serpentine route that twists, turns and cuts through the rock, the roads are edged by sheer drops and the Alpine views stretch into Austria. The weather has made it treacherous – the peaks are shrouded in low cloud, while damp patches line corners. It’s scary, but also a great place to test the manners and composure of a road bike – if a machine can give you what you need in conditions like these, it’s sorted.

Our prototype bike wears the careworn scars of thousands of miles of intensive road testing: there are warning stickers over the new TFT dash and the front light is a taped-up 390 Duke item, but the finish on the cases, the welding on the frame and the neat cast rear subframe/tail unit look production ready. There are lots of neat touches too – the monocoque subframe/seat unit is clever and the internally-braced swingarm looks quality. The swinger is long enough to incorporate the catalytic converter, which is integrated into the centre of the bike.

The 790 looks narrow, well thought out and sharp. The wide, flat seat will be low enough for smaller riders and as soon as you get on the Duke it feels light, just like a 690 Duke. The TFT dash is clear and simple, but tells you everything you need.

Impressive drive

The KTM starts into a content idle, quickly smoothing out as it warms. With a 270-degree crank, it apes aV-twin in firing order and sound. Pull in the light cable-operated clutch, down into first through the positive gearbox and away. Low-speed fuelling is good – small movements are met with instant, but not unreasonable response.

Open the throttle and you’re met with excellent drive – there is strong low-down power, but the twin likes to rev right to the 9500rpm redline and the more you spin it, the faster it feels. Snick up a gear with the accurate, smooth quickshifter and drive continues, muscular and fluent, but with a controllability that will reassure inexperienced riders. There will be more to come when we ride the bike at normal altitude, too. The thin air of our 5000ft elevation for this test means a loss of around 15% power.

Parallel twins can struggle with vibes, but the 790 is silky smooth, driving from low-rpm/high-load with little in the way of shakes. But what passes to the rider makes you feel involved – unlike recent Triumph parallel twins, which feel so over-damped and anodyne you sometimes even wonder if they’re switched on.

Sweet handling

The handling is impressive. KTM’s chaperone is riding a 1290 Adventure, knows the road and is quick – I’m having to work hard to keep up with him, but the 790 Duke is your friend. With those wide, tapered bars, the Duke turns quickly but has a measured feel to it that breeds confidence.

From the first corner, it feels like it’s on your side – just like a Street Triple, but maybe lighter and more nimble. This is a consequence of KTM being able to place the compact motor in the right place – it’s a beautifully balanced motorcycle. At around 185kg fuelled-up, the Duke is lighter than its opposition and feels it too. Time to up the pace.

The 790 tracks accurately in quick turns, telegraphing comforting feedback as we cut between the pines and flick into slow corners. Maxxis tyres (the Taiwanese firm have worked with KTM to develop bespoke rubber) have never felt so good. The ride quality is reassuring, too.

Project leader Jürgen Hager says that a bike that works well over broken surfaces was one of the main aims, but although the machine is softish, it’s well-balanced front and rear – and there is a lovely, fluid feel to the damping. But, it could do with more adjustment– the forks are non-adjustable and the rear is adjustable for preload only. If I could, I’d wind in a little more rebound damping at the rear to help control my 14-stone bulk.

Top-class dynamics

The pace you can ride on slightly damp roads is surprising. This is the first middleweight with an inertial measurement unit, meaning that the TC can adjust power according to lean angle rather than just react to a slide. In Sport (there are three modes – Sport, Street and Rain), it seems hard to unstick the rear, yet you never feel the electronics holding you back, either.

When it does react, it does it with sophistication – over a filthy woodland entrance the rear momentarily spins, but is gathered up quickly and drives hard as soon as grip comes back. The brakes are decent, but not outstanding. This is a price-sensitive class so KTM have their own-branded two-piece radial calipers and a certain amount of softness has been engineered into the initial bite for new riders. But it’s about right for the wide range of people who will sample the Duke and KTM are considering more aggressive pads as an option.

Can the Duke cut it?

Our time with the KTM is nearly over and it’s been an interesting experience. On first impressions, and if the final production bikes feel as good as this prototype, it seems that the 790 Duke will sit towards the top of the class. It looks great and has plenty of lovely touches that will make ownership a pleasure.

The chassis is outstanding, both in the confidence that it gives you and its nimbleness. The engine, while not quite being in the same league as an MT-09 or Street Triple RS (though it may match the ‘lower’ Street Triples) when it to comes outright power, is usable, grunty and full of character. And when it comes to electronics, it has more toys than anyone else.

If KTM can price the Duke competitively, they’re going to have a bike that can battle with the very best Europe and Japan can offer in one of motorcycling’s most important classes. It’ll be fascinating to see how it fares.

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