Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 8th March 2018

‘The Scalpel’. ‘The sharpest street weapon’. ‘Maximise the thrill of the ride’.

KTM’s marketing slogans seemed over-the-top when they were used at prior to the 790 Duke’s pre-ride press conference in Gran Canaria. After all, this new Duke is a mass-market, 105bhp naked middleweight, not some exotic sports bike dripping with lightweight parts.

KTM 790 Duke

But it’s hard to argue with claims of sharpness and thrills as I aim the 790 through another set of bends in the Spanish island’s hills. On straight sections, the KTM has been making the most of those 105 horses, leaping forward with a brilliantly crisp power delivery, revving hard and smoothly through the box with the aid of its two-way quick-shifter, and making a rorty twin-cylinder thrapping sound through its high-level pipe in the process.

And in the twisty bits it’s every bit as entertaining: steering sweetly in response to a nudge of its wide bars, staying very stable under both braking and acceleration, and finding plenty of grip as we crank through the seemingly never-ending strings of hairpins. We’re approaching the end of a day spent mostly with the throttle wound open, and the 790 has done a good job of living up to the hype.

KTM 790 Duke

Serious marketing effort was only to be expected, because the 790 Duke is a key model for KTM – the first of a new middleweight family of bikes. With its typically sharp-edged lines, it fills the large gap between the 690 Duke and 1290 Super Duke models in the Austrian firm’s streetbike range, and will be the starting point not only for other KTMs, including an Adventure model, but for sister brand Husqvarna too.

KTM’s development team chose a parallel twin layout in preference to a smaller version of their 75-degree V-twin, largely because it could be made more compact. The 799cc, DOHC eight-valve unit (which KTM calls the LC8c, for Liquid-Cooled 8-valve, compact) has its crankpins offset by 75 degrees to give an irregular firing order, and is tuned as much for midrange torque as top-end power.

KTM 790 Duke

The engine’s two balancer shafts allow it to be employed as a stressed member of the frame, which in KTM tradition is made from tubular steel. An aluminium rear subframe encloses the airbox, whose intakes are below the seat on either side. The WP suspension specification is basic, with non-adjustable 43mm forks and a rear shock with adjustable preload (using a C-spanner rather than remote knob).

Where the 790 is definitely not basic is in its electronics, which set new standards for the middleweight class with a five-axis IMU to provide high-level traction control, plus independent anti-wheelie and cornering ABS braking as standard, along with four riding modes. It also has a neat TFT display, operated by an updated version of KTM’s familiar four-button switchgear on the left handlebar. A press of the ‘Up’ button changes the digital display to allow selection from the four riding modes, one of them, the Track setting, giving extra functionality, including on-the-fly adjustability of the traction control, and the option of turning off the anti-wheelie function.

KTM 790 Duke

For the morning’s road ride I stuck to Street and the slightly sharper Sport (there’s also Rain, which reduces power), both of which gave excellent throttle response. Just over 100bhp and a flat torque curve was always likely to be fun from a bike weighing just 174kg wet, especially when aided by a superbly light gearbox and a shifter that made going both ways through the box a delight.

It was no surprise to find the 790 feeling quick and entertaining. Sure enough it ripped to well over 100mph with minimal encouragement, on the way to a top speed of about 140mph. It pulled sweetly from 4000rpm or below, and was sufficiently smooth up near the 9500rpm redline that vibration was never an issue. What came as a pleasant surprise was its slightly lumpy character and the off-beat note from the high-level silencer.

My only real criticism of the power train is that the 790 didn’t particularly like slow-speed running at a constant throttle opening, tending to hunt slightly, which might prove irritating in town. Back on the positives, the power-assist clutch’s action is very light, and there’s always the option of Rain mode for a generally softer delivery.

KTM 790 Duke

Chassis performance was excellent. The Duke’s light weight and sporty geometry meant it could be flicked into turns with minimal pressure on the wide handlebar, yet it steered in a very neutral and confidence-inspiring way. The suspension might have minimal adjustability but it’s certainly not budget equipment. Despite the generous travel (140mm front, 150mm rear) both ends were very well controlled, on the road and even when we had a quick blast at the tight Maspalomas circuit.

On one very rough section of road the 790 transmitted some jarring through its bars and seat, but still held its line and didn’t get remotely out of shape. A softly sprung adventure bike would have given a plusher ride, but the Duke’s balance between sharp steering, stability and comfort felt just about right. It was also good to have the KTM’s high-class electronics in the background, meaning that braking or accelerating too hard on a gravelly patch would have resulted in the ABS or traction control taking over.

KTM 790 Duke

The Maxxis Supermaxx ST tyres gripped very well for sports-touring rubber, even on track. And the front brake blend of 300mm discs and four-piston radial calipers from J.Juan gave plenty of stopping power. At the other extreme, the Duke should prove quite practical. Fuel consumption averaged over 50mpg, so the 14-litre tank would normally be good for around 150 miles. The seat was beginning to feel firm by the end of the day, but comfort seemed reasonable. For short riders there’s a 20mm lower seat and a chassis kit that drops it by another 25mm, to 780mm.

Most importantly, another figure that looks encouragingly low is the KTM’s price of £8499. There are some useful bikes in the naked middleweight division, including Ducati’s Monster 821 and Triumph’s range of Street Triples. They face a formidable new rival in the 790 Duke, which has the performance, style, character, ease of use and quality to make a huge impact.

KTM 790 Duke

KTM 790 Duke
Engine type Liquid-cooled parallel twin
Displacement 799cc
Bore x stroke 88 x 65.7mm
Maximum power 105bhp @ 9500rpm
Maximum torque 65lb-ft (87N.m) @ 8000rpm
Front suspension 43mm WP usd telescopic, 140mm travel
Rear suspension Single WP shock, 150mm wheel travel, preload adjustment
Seat height 825mm
Wet weight 174kg
Fuel tank 14 litres

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