First Ride Of The 2018 KTM 790 Duke From Europe – The 790 Duke, which is due in European showrooms by the end of March and in the US at the end of this year (the delay due to homologation requirements, apparently), is a hugely important bike for KTM. The 799cc naked parallel twin is not merely a new model but the first of a family of bikes in the big-selling middleweight sector. With its typically sharp-edged lines, the 790 fills the large gap between the 690 Duke single and 1290 Super Duke V-twin in the Austrian firm’s streetbike range. It will be the starting point for other KTMs (including a 790 Adventure, due in a year’s time) as well as models from sister brand Husqvarna.

Typically sharp-edged Kiska styling instantly identifies the 790 Duke as a KTM. The high-mount muffler barks a characterful note, due to the parallel twin’s irregular firing order.


KTM’s development team considered a midsize V-twin before deciding that a parallel twin, more compact and less expensive to produce, was a better bet. The DOHC, eight-valve unit (which KTM calls the LC8c, for Liquid-Cooled 8-valve “compact”) has its crankpins offset by 75 degrees (as opposed to the more common 180-degree orientation) to give an irregular firing order, and it is tuned as much for midrange torque as top-end power. The engine’s two balance 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 fork and a rear shock with adjustable preload (using a C-spanner rather than remote knob).

The aftermarket will no doubt be full of options to remove the 790 Duke’s large license-plate and taillight mount. Aside from that, it’s a pretty clean and angular shape.


Where the 790 is definitely not basic is in its electronics, which set new standards for the middleweight class. The Duke follows KTM’s big V-twins in using 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 and easier-to-use 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 a Track setting that gives extra functionality, including on-the-fly adjustability of the traction control and the option of turning off the anti-wheelie function.

Left: The crown jewel of the tidy cockpit is the TFT display, showing any info you’re likely to need. It’s controlled with the switchgear pictured below.
Right: The 790 Duke uses the now-familiar four-button KTM switchgear—set/select, back, and two directional buttons. The index-finger high beam is just visible on the far side of the cluster.

On the launch ride in Gran Canaria, Spain, I mostly used Street and the slightly sharper Sport (there’s also Rain, which reduces power), both of which gave excellent throttle response. Just over 100 hp and a flat torque curve was always likely to be fun from a bike claiming a weight of 383 pounds, especially when aided by a superbly light gearbox and excellent shifter. A couple of riders reported a few false neutrals, but the several bikes I rode changed flawlessly.

It was no surprise to find the 790 feeling quick and instantly entertaining on the roads of Gran Canaria. Sure enough, it ripped to well over 100 mph with minimal encouragement, on the way to a top speed of about 140 mph. It pulled sweetly from 4,000 rpm or below, and was sufficiently smooth up near the 9,500-rpm redline that vibration was never an issue. A pleasant surprise was the slightly lumpy character and the off-beat exhaust note from the high-level pipe, both of which added to the entertainment.

Left: The flat, wide, one-piece handlebar offers plenty of leverage to flick the 790 Duke around. The bike fits well even if you’re tall too.
Right: KTM considered a V-twin engine before opting for the more compact parallel-twin layout. There’s no denying the engine is physically small.

My only real criticism of the 790’s power train is that didn’t particularly like slow speeds at steady throttle opening—the fuel system seemed to be hunting slightly for the right delivery. This wasn’t remotely annoying when briefly riding through a few sleepy Spanish villages, but might be more so on a city commute. Back on the positives, the clutch’s action is very light, and there’s always the option of Rain mode for a generally softer power delivery.

If my pre-ride doubts about the engine were mostly whether it would provide ample excitement, my concern about the chassis was whether the basic suspension spec would allow the handling to be as sharp as it should be from such a short, light bike—especially given the generous travel of 5.5 inches (140mm) front and 5.9 inches (150mm) rear. The 790 put those to rest when slicing nonchalantly through the first set of bends, and spent the rest of the day confirming that KTM’s development team got their suspension calibration spot-on.

Left: With 100 horses on tap and a claimed weight under 400 pounds the 790 Duke is plenty rowdy.
Right: An aluminum rear subframe holds the airbox (that’s the intake below the seat, on each side). Soft luggage makers, beware of the pipe.

There was one section of about five miles where the road surface deteriorated from gloriously smooth to gnarled, bumpy, and occasionally loose. The lead rider barely slowed the pace, and the bike coped really well, passing on some jarring through the bars and seat but holding its line and refusing to lose its composure. 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.

On this stretch, especially, it was good to have the KTM’s high-spec 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. The Maxxis Supermaxx ST tires gripped very well for sport-touring rubber too. I also thought the front stopper’s blend of 300mm discs and four-piston radial calipers from J.Juan gave excellent power and feel, though one rider (who brakes with only two fingers) reckoned the lever required too firm a squeeze.

Left: The 790 Duke is no supersport, but it held its own on the racetrack, even with sport-touring rubber and limited suspension adjustment available.
Right: Brake calipers on the 790 Duke are from J.Juan, not Brembo like many other KTMs. That said, the dual, four-piston calipers and 300mm discs offer a lot of power.

The 790’s suspension, tires, and brakes all gave a decent account of themselves on track, when we hit the Maspalomas circuit for a brief thrash after lunch. Sure, the ABS activated in a few places every lap as the tire ran out of grip, and both ends felt slightly vague as the suspension and tires approached their limits. (Some adjustability would have been nice on track.) But the Duke could be ridden impressively hard without getting out of shape or threatening to do anything nasty, which for a relatively inexpensive middleweight is pretty impressive.

At the other extreme, it should also prove quite practical. Fuel consumption averaged more than 40 mpg despite plenty of throttle abuse, so the 3.7-gallon tank would normally be good for around 150 miles. The seat was beginning to feel slightly 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 30.7 inches (780mm). Other extras include a carbon front mudguard, adjustable rearsets, seat hump, and Akrapovic silencer.

Whichever color the 790 Duke is painted it’s oozing KTM style, with the split headlight and lots of angular panels.

The handlebar can also be adjusted, by reversing the mounts. Despite being tall I found the bike fairly roomy by middleweight standards. It’s also pretty well specified, with LED lights, useful mirrors, adjustable levers, and an illuminated menu switch, though not self-canceling blinkers. I should point out, the fact that I’m resorting to criticizing a naked middleweight for those things emphasises how thoughtfully detailed it is.

KTM’s 2018 350 SX-F receives some of the special changes from the 2017.5 Factory Editions.

From the right angle, you could be forgiven for confusing the 790 for a 1290 at first glance. The designers will be happy with that.

US pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but this KTM is set to make waves with its price when it goes on sale in Europe, costing less than Ducati’s Monster 821 andTriumph’s Street Triple R despite its high specification. Those bikes face a formidable rival in the 790 Duke, which has the performance, style, character, ease of us, and quality to be a contender. It seems KTM’s attack on the middleweight division is off to a flying start.


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