August 20, 2019 By Maynard Marcelo Photos by Randy Silva-Netto

Living Up to the Hype: KTM 790 Duke Review

As with most conceptual designs, motorcycle manufacturers usually drum up the marketing hype long before the actual product launch to generate considerable interest from the motoring media, and more importantly, from the targeted consumers. More often than not, the reality doesn’t live up to the hype when the bike makes the transition from concept to actual product. Not so much with the KTM 790 Duke.

We first saw the KTM 790 Duke concept during the EICMA show in Italy back in 2016, and we were delightfully surprised that the prototype we saw in Milan and the actual product we have here looks very similar in more ways than we had anticipated. It’s not the most beautiful looking naked bike out there, but it sure looks distinctive. It took two long years before the production 790 Duke got to our shores but after spending two weeks with it during the Christmas holiday break, I must say it was worth the long wait.

My time with the 790 Duke started on my ride back to Makati after picking up the bike from KTM in BGC. Visually, the production 790 Duke shares a lot with its prototype; the underseat exhaust was replaced with a Euro-4 compliant side-mounted system and the headlight that it shares with the 390 Duke. However, unlike the 390 Duke, which has a beefier-looking trellis-style frame, KTM gave the 790 Duke a simpler and more compact chassis featuring a cast aluminum subframe as first seen on the concept bike. According to KTM, the load-bearing design of the tubular chassis gives the 790 Duke a sharper turn-in and greater lean angles, allowing it to slice through the turns with extreme responsiveness.

After pulling out of the KTM driveway, almost immediately I noticed how light the handling of the 790 Duke is. Changing directions is quick and instantaneous with plenty of leverage from the wide handlebars at low or even at elevated speeds despite having a steering-damper. Filtering in traffic is a breeze, that is, if you could manage the 825mm seat height. Riders shorter than my 5‘7” frame, I suppose, will have a bit of difficulty standing on uneven surfaces, so be mindful where you step during traffic stops. But thankfully the 790 Duke is light and easy to balance even with one foot up on the footpeg. Heat management is good. I didn’t feel much heat radiating from the motor or even the exhaust while stuck in traffic so the 790 Duke should also work as a daily commuter if you want.

Unlike the 690 Duke it replaces, the 790 Duke doesn’t get the rare distinction of having the most powerful single cylinder motor on the planet. But it does get a newly developed LC8c motor that’s not only more powerful than the outgoing single but also very compact. The small letter “c” on the LC8c motor actually stands for “compact”. This is KTM’s first-ever parallel-twin motor and it features a 75-degree crank offset and 435-degree firing order that gives it that unmistakable crossplane sound. It also uses two balance shafts to eliminate any unwanted vibrations even at very high rpm, allowing the motor to be bolted directly to the chassis. There’s good low-end power, wide mid-range spread and great top-end power, too. Give the throttle a handful and the motor spools up very quickly, catapulting you forward with urgency accompanied by a satisfying crisp exhaust note.

What I’m sure everybody will appreciate is the way the 790 Duke dispenses each of its 105 hp and in 64 ft lb of torque in reserve. Weighing just 169 Kg. dry, the 790 Duke has one of the best power-to-weight ratio in the naked middleweight category. So to keep everything in check, KTM equipped the 790 Duke with a new throttle-by-wire system and comprehensive electronic rider aid package that would allow the more experienced rider to enjoy the bike’s full potential safely, and these are; the selectable riding modes, track mode, motorcycle traction control, quickshifter +, motor slip regulation, supermoto mode, and motorcycle stability control with cornering ABS.

The riding modes offer 4 pre-set options: Sport – for more aggressive riding, Street – for comfortable urban riding, Rain – for wet riding conditions, and Track – for ultimate attack mode on the racetrack. All four modes offer the maximum power at full throttle; the only difference is how each setting reacts to varying degree of throttle inputs. After briefly experimenting with each of the settings, I ultimately left it in Sport mode for the best balance of aggressiveness and control for my taste. Trackday aficionados will definitely find the Track setting the best because it will allow the rider to utilize racetrack functions such as launch control, increased throttle response, variable slip adjustments with the traction control, and disengaging the Anti-Wheelie.

Canyon riders, on the other hand, will find the Supermoto Mode the most entertaining of all. In this mode, ABS is deactivated on the rear wheel to allow the experienced rider to execute rear-wheel slides like on a supermoto. ABS remains functional on the front wheel, though. The quickshifter +, works superbly in any mode you choose. The tiny “+” sign there means it works both on up and downshifts, with perfectly timed blips on downshifts. I especially like that I only use the clutch when in first gear crawling in traffic or coming from a dead stop. It’s a convenience all motorcycles with a manual 6-speed gearbox should have.

The prevailing bad weather late in December prevented me from riding the 790 Duke as much as I wanted to, but it also gave me the opportunity to test the bike’s safety features like the traction control and ABS. Both worked extremely well, I must say. But credit should also be given to the stickier-than-stock Mitas Sport Force + tires installed on our test unit. These tires, combined with the latest Bosch 9MP two-channel ABS, gives the 790 Duke some of the best confidence-inspiring grips in the business. I tried to summon the traction control light on the dash with a handful of throttles several times but I was only successful once or twice even on very wet roads. I also tried a couple of simulated panic stops in a straight line and on wet road but the bike predictably and consistently stopped without drama. I’m still mustering enough courage to see if the cornering ABS works on wet roads, but I will just assume that it does.

As good as the 790 Duke may be, there are some things I wish it had that would make it a better bike. Say for example the suspension. While it uses the newest WP open cartridge upside-down forks, it is completely devoid of any adjustments whatsoever. Even the WP mono shock in the rear is only equipped with a spring preload adjuster. As expected of an aggressive middleweight naked from KTM, I find the non-adjustable suspension to be on the stiff side for less than ideal road conditions of which we have plenty. This is further exacerbated by the thinly padded seat, making extended time on the saddle tiring, especially when you’re not riding aggressively. This could be easily rectified with a more comfortable gel seat from KTM Power Products, but sadly you will have to do with the stock suspension unless you re-valve them or replace them completely with fully adjustable forks from Ohlins. And then there’s the price. At PhP 820,000, the price of admission for the 790 Duke is certainly not cheap.

But in all fairness to the 790 Duke, it’s truly difficult to not ride it like a hooligan. Every time I swing a leg over it, it just begs to be ridden aggressively. And every time I do, it never fails to put a very big smile on my helmeted face. That in itself makes it priceless. When you’re in that zone, it becomes a surgical tool for dissecting corners, and ride comfort becomes the least of your priorities. No wonder they call it “The Scalpel”. The 790 Duke certainly lives up to the hype.

Engine: LC8c parallel-twin, liquid-cooled, dohc, 8-valve, 4 stroke

Displacement: 799 cc

Max Power: 105 hp @ 9000 rpm (claimed)

Max Torque: 64 lb-ft @ 8000 rpm (claimed)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Seat Height: 825 mm

Tire Front: 120/70 R17

Tire Rear: 180/55 R17

Brakes, Front/Rear: Disc/Disc ABS

Fuel Capacity: 14 liter

Dry Weight: 169 kg

Price: PhP 820,000

+: Powerful LC8c parallel-twin motor, agile handling, superb build quality

-: Non-adjustable suspension, thinly padded seat, pricey

C! Rating: 9 / 10


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