2019 KTM 790 Duke

First Ride Review

When one thinks of KTM’s Duke naked sportbikes, the 1290 Super Duke R, a.k.a. “The Beast,” is usually the first to come to mind, especially if you have had the good fortune to twist the throttle on one. With its 1,301cc, 90-degree LC8 V-twin churning out a claimed 177-horsepower in a 430-pound (dry) package, it’s an arm-straightening, wheelie-popping, soul-stirring experience that stays with you…maybe even wakes you up at night.

KTM’s other Dukes sold in the U.S., the 690 and 390, are no less potent in their own right, but the power and performance gap between the single-cylinder, 73-horsepower 690 and the fire-breathing 1290 SD-R is a bit too wide, perhaps leading some to choose neither.

Rather than filling the gap with a larger single or smaller V-twin, KTM designed an entirely new engine called the LC8c for the new 790 Duke–its first parallel twin. This engine layout allowed a shorter wheelbase and lower seat height than a Vee, yet the parallel-twin’s 75-degree crankpin angle and 435-degree firing order give it a righteous V-twin feel and sound, and KTM has coaxed a claimed 105-horsepower and 64.2 lb-ft of torque from the new mill.

The liquid-cooled, 799cc DOHC engine has horizontally split, high-pressure-cast aluminum cases and Nikasil-coated aluminum cylinders instead of sleeves that shave weight, improve cooling and keep the engine extremely compact. Trickery such as diamond-like carbon-coated piston pins and finger followers riding on the cams reduce friction and the size of the cam lobes, and primary and secondary counterbalancers all but eliminate vibes.

Mounting the twin as a stressed member–another first for KTM–in the light chrome-moly steel dual-backbone frame has helped hold the bike’s weight down to just 411 pounds wet, too.

Two of many thoughtful, minimalist elements in the Kiska predatory body design include the light, open-lattice cast aluminum swingarm, and housing the airbox in the bolt-on aluminum seat subframe, where it breathes through separate intakes on the right and left and allows easy air cleaner service.

As you might expect the new 790 Duke is also a showcase for all of KTM’s latest electronic rider aids, including ride-by-wire throttle control, four Ride Modes (Sport, Street, Rain and Track), cornering ABS, Supermoto ABS (disables rear-wheel ABS) and lean-angle sensitive traction control.

The six-speed transmission gets a highly functional up/down Quickshifter+ and a feather-light assist-and-slipper clutch, and in case you still downshift or close the throttle too abruptly and overwhelm the slipper function, Motor Slip Regulation (MSR) automatically applies a touch of throttle to maintain traction.

All of this stuff is easily controlled via the menu and mode buttons on the left handlebar and displayed on the full-color, light-sensitive TFT display menu. The bike’s only electronic option is KTM’s MyRide feature, which tethers a smartphone to the bike via Bluetooth and lets you monitor and control calls and music with the mode button and TFT display.

KTM launched the 790 in Europe last March as a 2018 model, but waited until recently to bring the bike to the U.S. as a 2019. Our first ride began at GoPro HQ in Carlsbad, California, where we sampled the incredible new GoPro Hero 7 waterproof action video camera before heading for the mountains in northern San Diego County near Ramona and Julian.

Palomar Mountain’s East and South Grade Roads were the perfect playground for the 790, since the engine’s emphasis on torque output (we’ll append dyno results to this story soon), ultra light weight and sport-tuned suspension and brakes give it tremendous drive out of corners and excellent handling precision and sharpness.

Fire up the 790 and its cammy, mechanical idle instantly reminds of the 1290 SD-R, and the exhaust has a throaty burble on decel that is classic racetrack rock ‘n’ roll. The powerband is wide and flat and the engine revs out to 9,500 rpm, so it can be short-shifted into higher gears for flowing corners or quickly dropped one or two cogs for a screaming burst of power.

The twin has a nice pulse feel without any unpleasant vibes, and the 6-speed transmission snicks into each gear effortlessly, especially when you use the Quickshifter+ to up- or downshift without the clutch lever in 2nd-6th. And when you do use the lever the assist function makes it one-finger easy.

Despite its mission as a corner eater, seating on the 790 Duke is closer to a standard than a sportbike, with a flat, tapered, multi-position tubular handlebar that leans you forward a bit and puts some weight on your wrists, and footpegs that are surprisingly low and comfortably located.

The seat is basically a firm, thin flat pad, but it’s wide enough to provide reasonable support for longer rides to the canyons. Like most KTMs the seat is quite high at 32.5 inches and you’ll need an inseam of 32 inches or better to get your feet flat on the ground, but the bike is so light I had no trouble maneuvering it on my tiptoes. Overall the seating position is a good compromise for fighting the wind on the freeway or hunkering down into attack mode in the corners.

I found it a bit surprising that such a high-end (and premium priced) sportbike doesn’t come with any suspension adjustment other than ramped rear spring preload, but after riding the bike a while decided that I could live without it.

The 790 Duke has high-quality WP suspension bits front and rear, with a 43mm USD open-cartridge fork that splits the rebound and compression damping functions into separate fork legs for enhanced tuning. Both it and the WP shock have progressive springs to cope with a broad range of inputs.

Sharp-edged bumps can deliver a whack to the grips and seat, but overall the suspension is firmly but comfortably compliant and works extremely well in most circumstances. With my 200 pounds aboard I wished for a bit more rebound damping up front in bumpy corners, but this might be solved with slightly heavier fork oil in the rebound leg.

Triple-disc brakes are a KTM/Spanish J.Juan design and are basically race-ready on the 790, with radial-pump, radial-mounted opposed 4-piston calipers biting 300mm discs up front and a floating, 1-piston caliper in back clamping a 240mm disc.

Feel at the lever is strong and linear, though I was surprised during one late, maximum-braking moment when I needed to squeeze the lever harder than expected, but I only experienced this once on what turned out to be a full day of fast, aggressive riding. At first it seemed as though the rear brake pedal had far too much travel, but a bit of adjustment took care of that issue and it works quite well now.

There’s lots of fun to be had playing with the bike’s various riding modes, which you can memorize from the chart above (check out Track mode, wow!). I tried each but settled on Street for my riding style, as it deliver full power and precise, smooth fueling with very little abruptness.

Nice details include easy battery access under the locking pillion seat, angled valve stems, a fully-featured trip computer and an LED taillight and headlight flanked by LED daytime running lights. Exploring the fat KTM PowerParts and accessories catalogs for the 790 Duke will give you all sorts of bank-breaking ideas–you have been warned.

Besides the lack of suspension adjustability, my only gripes are some glare on the TFT display when the sun is coming over your shoulder, and mirrors that provide a good view of your shoulders and little else. Otherwise, the 790 Duke has obviously been very carefully thought-out, designed and tested on the road and track (more than 375,000 miles of endurance dyno testing and more than half-a-million of endurance road testing, says KTM) before being unleashed. It even gets impressive fuel economy from the required 91 octane.

Since the first Duke, the 620, was introduced for 1994, KTM’s mission with its naked sportbike lineup has been to offer machines that are as “ready to race” as possible while still being accessible to the typical street rider.

Twice now KTM’s Chris Fillmore has won the grueling Pikes Peak International Hill Climb–first the Overall and Open class in 2017 on a Super Duke 1290 R and then the Middleweight class in 2018 on the new 790 Duke–and set course records both times on bikes prepared with goodies from KTM’s PowerParts catalog.

Fillmore also finished third overall on the 790 Duke in 2018, too, just four seconds behind two Open class guys, testament to the 790’s highly functional blend of light weight and performance (in addition to the rider’s talent, of course).

Most of us just don’t need or want the kind of hairy power offered by The Beast–the new 790 shares a lot of its character and DNA in a package that gets around corners better and is still lightning quick.

Perhaps KTM’s tech presenter summed it up best: “The 790 is an evolution in Duke development. When we designed the Duke we wanted it to bridge the gap between our smaller displacement bikes and the 1290 Super Duke R. But once we came out with the product, we realized it very much is the destination. What we found is that most riders really don’t need more performance than what the 790 Duke offers. It’s just an incredible platform.”