Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
In some respects, the 790 Duke has no heritage at all. This parallel twin roadster is that rarity of a completely new motorcycle – the first of a middleweight family that will involve not just KTM but also sister brand Husqvarna. But the Duke’s name, knife-sharp lines and orange paintwork confirm its Austrian origins, as do elements of its DOHC engine and steel trellis frame, and its unapologetically belligerent attitude.
KTM’s rise to become Europe’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer has been dramatic. The original, single-cylinder 620 Duke roadster was launched in 1994; the 990 Super Duke that announced a more serious, V-twin powered street bike assault followed as recently as 2005. Those models’ current successors, the 690 Duke and 1290 Super Duke R, leave a mid-sized gap in the range that the 790 Duke has been created to fill.
KTM considered developing a middleweight V-twin before opting for a more compact parallel twin, with an irregular firing order designed to mimic a V-twin. The 799cc, eight-valve unit produces 105bhp at 9000rpm and gives a choice of four riding modes via a button on the left bar. Twin balancer shafts prevent the vibration that plagued British parallel twins in the Fifties and Sixties.
This allows the engine to be a stressed member of the tubular steel frame, which incorporates an aluminium rear subframe that surrounds the under-seat airbox. KTM kept costs down with relatively simple suspension from in-house specialist WP. Another long-time partner, design house Kiska, contributed the typically aggressive design that incorporates a trademark LED headlight, wide one-piece handlebar and colourful TFT instrument panel.
That 105bhp output feels plenty from a bike weighing just 174kg wet, especially as the Duke has a very sweet throttle response and kicks out plenty of torque through the midrange. It’s good for 130mph-plus, feels like it’s doing that speed at much less (thanks to its complete lack of wind protection), and revs smoothly through its six-speed box with the aid of a slick, two-way quick-shifter.
The chassis is excellent, too, combining light, easy steering with confidence-inspiring stability, despite the suspension’s generous travel and minimal adjustability. The J.Juan brakes and Maxxis tyres lack the glamour of brands such as Brembo and Pirelli, but also work well. And with superbike-level traction control plus cornering ABS, the 790 brings a new level of sophistication to the middleweight division.
The Duke’s lively performance was to be expected; less so the parallel twin’s involving character. The rev-happy engine generates an off-beat, almost V-twin-like exhaust bark that adds to the entertainment. The KTM’s versatility is also easy to admire. It’s respectably roomy and comfortable (despite a fairly thin seat), and averages over 50mpg even with hard use to give a range of 150 miles or more.
Better still, at £8499 the 790 Duke is very keenly priced for such a sophisticated and capable all-rounder. Like Triumph’s original Street Triple, a decade or so ago, it hits the sweet spot between performance, practicality and value to create a roadster with universal appeal. That hole in KTM’s range is comprehensively filled; the 790 dynasty is just beginning.