Some bikes take a while to grow on you, to properly understand how to get the best out of them. Where the sweet spot of the engine lies, the better shift points, body positions, those sort of things. With others you just jump on and they feel familiar to what you’ve ridden before so you can benchmark them easily.
The KTM 790 Duke fell into a third category for me. It wasn’t familiar at all. But within minutes I had fallen for the drivetrain, and within an hour my opinions on electronics were forever changed. This thing is a cracker of a bike. But it’s also a bit of a contradiction.
While the 790 Duke is a doddle to jump on and ride – it’s not an easy thing to master punting it hard, simply because its capabilities are so high. Even now after spending the best part of a week and a half on it, my head is still trying to trying to come up to speed.
I deliberately didn’t do any fresh research before picking up the bike. Besides, Trev has covered the 790 Duke specs in great detail after attending the world launch in Gran Canaria (Link).
I just wanted to ride the bike and share how it felt to ride. So throwing the leg over didn’t immediately feel natural for me compared to what I’m used to day to day (a Tiger 800xc I’ve done close to a bazillion kays on).
The ergos felt OK, being really low, almost scooter low, really narrow, with the feeling of being almost perched over the front wheel. And the seat felt like it was made of several different individual sections and angles. Am I supposed to sit forward or back? One of those, ‘That’s weird but I’m sure it’ll make more sense on the go’ moments.
Pulling away from standstill, the clutch take-up was nice and smooth and the engine happily crawled along the sidewalk in Elizabeth street Melbourne among foot traffic, while dragging a bit of clutch meant no sign of chugging, as some twins will. The low speed stability from the overall geometry is really, really impressive. It feels even lighter than it is – and slow walking pace among pedestrians was done with the feet on the pegs and absolute confidence straight away.
So then I pulled out onto the road and opened it up… only to be left thinking, ‘Are you sure this is a 790cc? There’s way more shove than any 800cc twin has right to have off the bottom’. The bike feels plenty stronger than the quoted 105hp and is punchy but smooth right through the rev range. That engine is a gem. The fueling is mint. Amazing actually. Especially in Street mode which is almost impossibly smooth for a twin.
The last mid-size twin I rode was an 848 Duc and while I did like that engine quite a lot, it fades into obsolescence compared with the 790. This one feels closer to the older 990cc KTM V-Twins in terms of output which is no bad thing. The big difference however is the fuelling in the 790 which is just so spot on – helped no doubt by some fairly masterful electrowizardry.
Historically I’ve not been a fan of electronic intrusion, but this bike has utterly changed my mind on that front. In no way does it intrude, on the contrary, that smoothness from this new Austrian lump is quite likely only possible because of the digital smarts built into the fuelling, engine management, quick shifter and traction control systems.
It actually wasn’t until the first stop for fuel that I played around with the superb TFT dash to see what modes were available (Street, Sport, Rain and Track), what was turned on and what wasn’t. And it was then that I realised that it hadn’t been me alone perfectly matching revs on downshifts, but that I was getting some assistance, and surprisingly to me at least – it’s all the better for it. Far better.
It makes you want to explore the bike even more. Speaking of the dash… What a thing of beauty it is. The ex-designer in me loves the clarity and simplicity of the layout as well as the function of the controls. The redline is orange, of course – another nice bit of branding. And it has a day-time (white background) and night-time (black background) display that switches over automagically based on ambient light I’m guessing. Nifty.
While its a bit of a gripe that the ride mode reverts to Street every time you turn it off, at least the riding modes can be changed on the go. Just be aware of what’s behind you, as you have to close the throttle for five-seconds to do it.
Other little niggles? I’m not quite sure why the indicator light on the dash can’t show you which indicator is on, and the indicator switch itself feels slightly fragile. While I’m on switch gear – the toggle switch for high beam requires a left hand grip adjustment for me to use it each time. Not sure that’s a good thing. But they’re minor niggles really, when taking the brilliance of the rest of the bike into account.
On the road the gearbox shift is light and at first, felt almost overly sensitive in its eagerness to shift gears at the slightest touch. Occasionally, even a few days after picking up the bike, I’d shift up a little earlier than anticipated. After the first stop I was playing around with clutchless shifts in both directions, which it soaks up effortlessly.
Auto rev matching brings revs up to match the new ratio while the slipper clutch further calms things down if the revs are wildly out in either direction. Have I mentioned this thing is smooth? Remarkable. First gear isn’t overly tall and the engine pulls really strongly even at highway speeds in top gear. I’m not talking big bore strong, and it does taper off above standard highway speeds, but it’s far stronger than I had expected. Stronger than anyone would need 99 per cent of the time.
Brakes are nice and strong with plenty of initial bite, without being so strong that they’d be intimidating for less experienced riders. There’s plenty of stop and confidence to trail brake deep into turns without any issues. They just work.
The exhaust note was another nice surprise for a stock pipe too. Its rorty and bubbly on over-run, and loud enough under power without being obnoxious. I’m not sure you’d need a slip on to be honest. But it couldn’t hurt, could it…?
Styling-wise it’s typical of the current crop of KTMs and has some neat touches, as well as some things that will no doubt polarise punters. Personally I like it, but I reckon the 1290 Super Duke is a better looker, but that’s subjective. The extreme looking headlight makes more sense when you’re on the bike than off it, as its tucked away so low that basically you don’t see anything other than the dash beyond the bars.
The only other gripe from me was the thin plastic strip wrapping around the rear of the fuel tank that can be flexed with a gentle wobble. Just seems a bit cheap for what is otherwise an obviously really, really well put together bike.
Suspension is quite firm without being overly harsh. Trev called it a Tardis and I agree, in that it’s a bit of a mystery how something so small can have as much room. I got off after some decent stints in the saddle and didn’t feel the slightest bit stiff. Its epic in traffic too, filtering through like a hot knife through butter and yet is happy to cruise along on the highway.
That odd feeling seat makes more sense as soon as you point it at a corner, because as great as the driveline is, it’s the handling of the 790 that stands out for me. The little Duke tips in faster than thought speed, feels natural on its side and will change lines as soon as you can look at a new line. Any wonder they’re calling it a scalpel.
That work they’ve obviously done to keep the physical dimensions of the engine so small combined with the overall low weight makes this a nimble bike to tip in, but it never feels overly flighty or unstable, just super agile.
Just how fast does it steer? After over a thousand kilometres, I was still finding myself having to sit the bike up occasionally mid corner to ease the line out a little. The thing just wants to turn. I actually started to ask myself if it’s possible to make a bike steer too fast.. And I haven’t decided yet. It really is a bit of an engineering marvel on the road – how they’ve managed to design a bike to steer so well, and yet not want to shake its head at all, is amazing.
Riding my Tiger 800xc back to back only highlighted the diminutive physical dimensions of the bike. The Tiger isn’t a massive bike, but by comparison, the 790 Duke engine feels about half of the width of the 800cc triple. And the wheelbase ‘feels’ about 2/3rds of the Tiger. Obviously it’s not THAT short, but it really does feel short. Not having a visible headlight cluster swinging in the breeze in front of the bars only accentuates the impression.
The little Duke just urges you to have some fun and ride it hard. And you’re probably going to be punting it along at a quicker pace than you think, as the grunty twin doesn’t need to have its neck wrung to get the best out of it. Several times I looked down at the speedo and was a little surprised at the number staring back at me..
Make no mistake, the 790 Duke is so light and agile that it demands full focus to punt along anywhere near its limits, which I genuinely don’t think I approached all that often on the roads between Melbourne and Apollo Bay over a couple of weeks. Not that it shakes its head or does anything untoward, it’s just steers so bloody well it takes proper commitment to do the bike justice. A half decent rider with a few weeks on this little weapon would no doubt be difficult for anyone to shake on a twisty bit of tarmac…
For me and I’m guessing a lot of other riders, a naked bike is now a very real contender for our next machine. My years of sports bikes and road racing are behind me, and uber-high speed hijinx on the road is becoming less and less of an option as speed limits on good sections of road are continually reduced, and consequences raised. So full faired sports bikes don’t make as much sense as they once used to. Not when there’s so much performance available in bikes like this. If you haven’t ridden one of these jiggers, it’s time you did. It opened my eyes more than a bit.
That said.. I personally can’t stop thinking about what that superb engine would be like in the upcoming rally package. The idea excites me a lot and I probably should really ride the 1290 SuperDuke to compare it eh Trev… Trev..?
Currently the KTM 790 Duke is on promotion at $14,995 Ride Away
MCNEWS.COM.AU is a specialist on-line resource that provides motorcycle news for motorcyclists. MCNews covers all areas of interest for the motorcycling public including news, reviews and comprehensive racing coverage.