KTM 790 DUKE – Duking it out with the Middleweights!

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

In many ways this has been my most challenging review to date. The 790 Duke is an extremely important bike for KTM. The middleweight space is a very lucrative one, especially in the competitive European market. To date it has been dominated by two Yamahas. The cheeky little MT-07 and it’s sibling, the brilliant MT-09. KTM developed a totally new motor for this duel. Like the MT-07, the Duke has a 799cc DOHC parallel twin.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

The oversquare motor is an absolute gem. It pumps out 105 hp @ 9000 rpm and 86 Nm of torque @ 8000 rpm. It feeds this power through a slipper clutch to a six speed gearbox. 42mm Dell’Orto fuel injection feeds the beast a diet of high octane motion lotion. In typical KTM fashion there is a full house of electronic wizardry. Traction control, [3-modes plus a track setting] Ride by Wire, Cornering ABS, Quickshifter and even Launch Control. All this is conveyed to the rider via a TFT display.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

As we tend to say “ad nauseam” all the power in the world is worthless if you can’t lay it down. The Duke is quite small, weighing in at a scant 174 kg’s, fully fueled. It rolls on a 120 70×17 front tyre, allied to a 180 55×17 rear. The tyres look even bigger on the bike, a bit of an optical illusion created by it’s overall small dimensions.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

Suspension is non-adjustable WP. This is perhaps the first indication of cost cutting. WP have done an admirable job of making one size fit all. Only really banzai riding suggests that some suspension tune-ability would have been good.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

This is perhaps partly to blame on the Maxxis tyres developed specially for the bike. Their overall performance is OK, but I think the bike would feel even better on premium rubber. KTM call the bike “the Scalpel”. This is really apt. the 790 steers without effort, and blasting through the twisties is exhilarating. Track days will be huge fun on this beastie, and I suspect that many sportbike egos will be shattered by a good rider on a 790. But here’s the thing. I’m not sure that track day riders are really the target market. In my opinion, middleweights tend to be utility motorcycles. Commuting and general urban hooning with the odd bit of light touring duty thrown in. In this regard KTM may have a slight identity crisis with the 790 Duke.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

On the one hand we have a lightweight that is, or could be, perfect in the urban environment. Thing is, it also sports a whole hob of fancy shmancy electronics that would be more suited to an out and out sports weapon. This looks great on a spec sheet when comparing it to other bikes in it’s class, however it actually hinders its real world performance. Let me explain. KTM make the best gearboxes in the world, bar none. Problem is they went and fitted a Quickshifter. The shifter works great on the open road or on the track, snicking effortlessly both up and down. On the road, in the typical urban sprawl that this bike is intended for, the shift action is wrecked when you use the clutch. If you are just idling through the traffic you can’t use the Quickshifter and the shifter electronics mess with the normal shift action. Back off the throttle between shifts and the motor falls into a hole. Riding smoothly is nigh on impossible.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

This was what I was struggling to get my head around. Why didn’t they offer the fancy electronics as a “Track pack” like on the 1290 Super Duke R. If you buy the bike for track days and sports riding rather than in the utility role I mentioned earlier, then pony up for the bells and whistles. As it stands now you have to pay for the whole enchilada. Therein lies the next issue that I have. The price. At R147000 odd, and that is if you totally ignore the mouth watering Power Parts catalogue, the 790 Duke has some SERIOUS competition. Both the Yamaha MT-09, with it’s soulful three cylinder engine and Kawasaki’s superb Z900 will set you back over R10k less. Let me just tell you though, that having said that, the KTM will give a good account of itself in the performance stakes.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

Give me a plain Jane 790, as per the MT-07, and drop the price by the cost of the add-ons. Rather give me adjustable suspension. The 790 Duke is fundamentally such a fine motorcycle it really doesn’t need all the so called “rider aids”. It is light, flick able and endowed with a brilliant motor. It is torquey and tractable and you can switch off the Quickshifter, making it sublime in traffic, but why make me pay for something I don’t need or want?. Come on KTM, give us a basic 790 Duke at a reasonable price, somewhere between the cost of a MT-07 and a MT-09, and you are on to a winner. A little bit more attention also needs to be given to the general fit and finish which is a bit iffy in places.

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

The KTM 790 Duke fills a gap in the Duke line-up. The huge leap from the 690 to the 1290 has been addressed. Members of the orange clan will not be disappointed. The 790 rocks! I can’t wait to lay my hands on the Adventure version. Ample power and light weight. It will throw a serious orange cat amongst the pigeons! This is how to build a parallel twin!

Let me just, as a caveat, say something about KTM’S and the guys that buy them. The Austrian company tend to take their motto “READY TO RACE” really seriously. The discerning guys that buy them love this no compromise approach. They don’t demand Honda like civility. On the contrary, they would find the Honda way rather boring. Katooms are like your macho buddy. The one that is always a blast to hang out with, but you would be nervous to leave him alone with your missus. Life with them is truly exciting. Isn’t that why we ride bikes after all? Sorry guys, got to go. I hear my 1090 Adventure R calling…….

Photo credit: Bjorn Moreira / ZA Bikers.

My name is Dave Cilliers. I consider cars as four wheeled shopping baskets and only worth using as a last resort! For years bikes have been my primary transport. Racing, touring, commuting or just kicking up dust on African tracks, I have owned over 270 motorcycles and ridden millions of kilometres. I am happiest when sharing my passion for motorcycles with like minded people whilst traversing Africa in search of adventure.