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RIDE ON: KTM 1290 Super Duke R

By Mario

‘Unleash the Beast’ it says in KTM’s publicity push for the 1290 Super Duke R. We discover brute force is only half the story of this remarkable machine.

Wellington riders may have to put up with some sketchy weather, but boy do they have some great roads to play on. Tight, twisting ribbons of tarmac over the hills are always fun, and the grin-o-meter went to 11 tackling them on KTM’s über-naked Super Duke. As it turned out, even the weather played ball on our recent test.

The intimidation factor

Although KTM shied slightly away from advertising the latest Super Duke’s actual, monumental capacity of 1301cc, there’s no shortage of superlatives in the 1290R’s marketing blurb: ‘legendary…aggressive…unbeatable performance…razor sharp…endless power’. With a headline statement of “Unleash the beast”, the picture painted is very clear: this is one fire-breathing demon of a ‘bike, scarcely controllable by mere mortals. A look at the spec sheets confirms the impression, with 180hp propelling just 189kg of motorcycle.

So swinging a leg over one took some girding of the loins. As it happened, the moment occurred shortly after a blast on Suzuki’s capable new GSX-1000S, itself no slouch in the power department. I was expecting something utterly raw and intimidating, with sharp responses and a sledgehammer engine, so I pulled away gingerly and followed the Suzuki.

Bored out 1301cc unit weighs just 62kg

Bored out 1301cc unit weighs just 62kg

A revelation

It didn't take long to realise my preconceptions were off target. Yes, there’s a lot of power. But the control and delivery of it has a precision that’s uncanny. The fuelling is seamlessly smooth. Everything you touch responds with perfect feedback: the clutch, the brakes, the steering and the suspension. Meanwhile, operating discreetly in the background, is an electronics package that has all the bases–and your backside–covered.

Three riding modes allow different levels of traction control intervention. Rain mode cuts power to 100bhp, softens the throttle response right off and intervenes at the slightest hint of tyre slip. It also prevents wheelies entirely. Street mode gives full power, sharpens the throttle response, and allows a tiny bit of slippage and front-wheel lift before cutting in. Sport mode sharpens the throttle response even more and allows a good amount of rear-wheel steering before waking up. Anti-wheelie control is still in place but it’s not as pronounced. Then there’s ‘Off’, which might sound as sensible as juggling chainsaws but is nowhere near as mad as it sounds.

Reason being, that fantastic level of feedback. It really makes you feel in control over every aspect of the KTM’s behaviour. A lot of credit must go to the tyres: Dunlop’s SportSmart2. KTM have built the bike around these hoops, with the electronics calibrated to them. And you can really tell what they are doing–gripping like they're made of contact adhesive, mostly. The predictably classy WP suspension is another part of the equation. On stock settings the bike offered peerless turn-in with complete composure through the corner and getting on the gas. Surprising comfort, too. Needless to say, trail braking into corners was outstanding: the combination of grip and feedback meant the bike felt un-crashable (although the Super Duke does not have the Motorcycle Stability Control found on its Adventure brethren, so be warned).

VDO show how dashboards should be done

VDO show how dashboards should be done

Classy details

Mattighofen products are usually beautifully made and the Super Duke R is no exception. It’s also dripping in classy details, from the KTM-owned WP suspension to the Brembo M50 monobloc calipers. The latter fit perfectly with the bike’s persona of massive power combined with precise control, seamlessly metering out the exact amount of stopping power you need. The brakes are linked front to rear, with ABS options including a ‘Super Moto’ mode that switches off the ABS to the rear wheel only.

The VDO instrument cluster is a model of order and clarity. An analogue rev dial sits next to an LCD display dominated by a digital speed read-out. Subsidiary displays comprise time, gear indicator, coolant temp, fuel level and ride mode. A second LCD display covers all the other computer functions, operated from a simple, intuitive four-button mode switch on the left ‘bar.

There are plenty of other treats for the wandering eye. The single-sided swing arm (a first for KTM); the aftermarket-look of the exhaust can; the tool-free fork damping adjustment, even the on-brand orange fork seals.

KTM’s first ever single-sider

KTM’s first ever single-sider

The power and the glory

The subtlety, precision and control delivered by the 1290 Super Duke might be unexpected. But the shattering ultimate performance should come as no surprise. Get those huge 108mm diameter pistons pumping anywhere near the 10,000rpm limiter and the result is warp speed. It’s the torque that gets you. Sure, the gearing is long (you won't be using sixth gear much even at highway speeds) but the urge is immense. Tap down a gear, snap open the throttle and the KTM leaps forward with an aggression completely at odds with its erstwhile civilised behaviour.

Working in concert with the scalpel-like precision of the chassis, this sledgehammer power makes the KTM effortlessly quick on the sort of mountain roads we were lucky enough to be riding. It’s a uniquely satisfying riding experience. Nor is it spoilt by the electronics, which do their job with commendable restraint and discretion.

Brembo set-up is superb. Throttle is ride-by-wire

Brembo set-up is superb. Throttle is ride-by-wire


There are few machines that so utterly defy expectation as the 1290 Super Duke R. Yes, it is a light machine with a massive engine, massive power and massive torque. But it is so much more than that. In almost every area, it offers top-notch performance and does so with an ease that is utterly at odds with its Beastly image. It’s sharp but comfortable, docile when you want it and mental when you order it to be. Sure, there might be a few impracticalities associated with a 180hp naked and it wouldn't be your first choice for touring. But, hell, this is one supremely desirable motorcycle.


Model: KTM 1290 Super Duke R
Cost: $28,499 + on-road costs
Engine: 4-stroke, liquid-cooled, 8-valve V-twin
Capacity:  1301cc
Fuel System: Keihin EFI
Transmission: 6-speed, chain drive
Seat Height: 835mm
Kerb weight: 189kg
Fuel capacity: 18.0 L 


Everything, pretty much


Naked bike drawbacks

Demonstration machine courtesy of TSS Red Baron Motorcycles

Cover image provided by © Schedl R