2014 KTM 1290 Super Duke R | First Ride

KTM comes out with the wildest naked bike yet: 180 hp, 106 foot-pounds of torque, 417 pounds

2014 KTM 1290 Super Duke R

It comes from a family of hooligans, its prototype revelled in the nickname of "The Beast," and its blend of 180 hp, light weight, and raised one-piece handlebar sounds like a recipe for uncontrollable wheelies and general craziness. So I'm surprised to find myself carving down the famously twisty road from Ronda to the southern Spanish coast on a bike that is not just outrageously fast but outstandingly polished and refined.

This rapid ride, following project leader Hermann Sporn as he cranks through the endless turns, is perhaps the best of a memorable weekend on the Super Duke R. As you'd expect of a bike that kicks out huge amounts of torque almost from idle and weighs just 417 pounds without fuel, the KTM is heart-stoppingly, arm-stretchingly fast.

But this most powerful Super Duke also brings a new level of sophistication to the breed. On both road and track it's improbably well behaved—its smooth, perfectly metered throttle response and advanced electronics helping to make its ferocious performance remarkably controllable. It even generated a few rumblings of complaint that The Beast has been tamed, if not actually neutered—at least unless its wheelie-limiting traction control system is deactivated.

Utilizing a dry-sump lubrication system (the external oil tank is visible in front of the engine, with a built-in oil level sight window) allowed KTM engineers to keep the 75-degree V-twin from being excessively tall.

KTM certainly made a lot of effort to make this the most refined Super Duke yet. The power comes from a biggest version yet of the firm's familiar 75-degree, DOHC V-twin. Increasing the 1,195cc RC8 R engine's bore from 105 to 108mm and stroke from 69 to 71mm boosts displacement to 1,301cc. Cylinder head design is very similar to the RC8 R's, but the Super Duke has bigger valves and shorter rods to compensate for its longer stroke.

The big V-twin's maximum output of 180 hp at 8,870 rpm is impressive, but it's the broad spread of torque that defines this engine. The peak of 106 foot-pounds is 40 percent up on the old 990 Super Duke, and even more significantly this bike produces more torque at 3,000 rpm than the smaller unit does at its maximum. Vibration was a key issue on a motor of this capacity. The 1,301cc lump has twin balancer shafts to the 990's one, and the redesigned pistons weigh slightly less despite being 7mm wider.

The latest 1,301cc version of the LC8 V-twin is not just a bored and stroked RC8 R engine. Numerous components, including the cylinder heads, cams, pistons, and crankshaft are all new to help produce a claimed 180 hp and 106 foot-pounds of torque.

The R-model's chassis is based on a typical KTM-style chrome-moly tubular steel frame, this one holding a single-sided aluminum swingarm and with multi-adjustable WP suspension at each end. The 48mm inverted fork has separate compression and rebound damping adjusters, one in each leg, with plastic knobs that allow fine-tuning with no need for a screwdriver. Braking is by Brembo's top spec M50 monoblock four-pot calipers biting 320mm discs and plumbed with Bosch ABS.

The remote reservoir-equipped WP rear shock works without a linkage yet provides excellent suspension action, absorbing both big and small bumps easily. High- and low-speed compression damping are adjustable, in addition to spring preload and rebound damping.

Typically sharp and aggressive styling—by longtime collaborator Gerald Kiska's studio, led by British designer Craig Dent—is unmistakably KTM, in either trademark orange or black. The view from the reasonably low seat (32.9 inches) is of an 1190 Adventure-style digital display with analog tach, plus a slightly raised and relatively narrow one-piece handlebar. There's a fairly roomy riding position, and a choice of Street, Sport, or Rain engine mode via a press of your left thumb.

The low-slung headlight and lack of fly screen mean there's virtually no wind protection apart from that provided by the clocks and humped fuel tank. But after I'd fired up the motor with a soft rumble from the 2-into-1 exhaust system's low-slung silencer and headed out along the motorway that runs along the Spanish coast from Estepona toward Malaga, the KTM was happy to chug gently along in convoy at a steady 70 or 80 mph, feeling very smooth and with none of the snatchiness of some of its predecessors.

The 1290 Super Duke R's instrumentation is much cleaner than previous KTMs, with the analog tach bracketed by two LCD info panels. The ride modes and info displays can be toggled via the four-button setup on the left handlebar switchgear.

But of course this bike wasn't built for cruising, and at the first opportunity I took a deep breath, leaned forward slightly, made sure my right foot was over the back brake lever, and whacked open the throttle at about 50 mph in third gear. The KTM responded instantly and shot forward at a shoulder-splintering rate, hesitating slightly as the traction control kicked in but continued charging as I flicked into fourth and then fifth…and then all too quickly had to slow as I caught up with traffic. Not before the KTM had put 130 mph on its digital speedo however, still 40 mph short of its likely top speed.

On the way up a twisting hill road, accelerating from below 3,000 rpm in top gear still resulted in reasonably smooth and strong acceleration. It didn't really matter what speed I was doing or how hard the engine was revving, the big, ultra-grunty V-twin motor simply catapulted the orange bike forward, scenery flying backward and exhaust bark rising and falling as I flicked through the six-speed box, which shifted very sweetly (though it lacks the quick-shifter of rivals including Aprilia's Tuono V4 R).

The forged pistons utilize Formula 1 design technology, with ultra-short skirts and internal bracing providing high strength with very light weight. Despite being 7mm larger in diameter than the 990 Super Duke's pistons, the 1290's slugs are 47 grams lighter.

Better still, the throttle response was so smooth, even in the most aggressive Sport mode, that the super-strong engine was easily controllable. KTM's engineers have learned a lot since 2005 and the first Super Duke with its on-off power delivery. This bike's ride-by-wire throttle control is excellent and is backed up by a traction control system that is seamlessly smooth as it very occasionally activates under hard acceleration out of turns.

Unlike some bikes' systems, the KTM's isn't adjustable separately other than changing riding modes—the traction control cuts in more readily in Street than Sport mode and earlier still in Rain. That was fine by me, though more fine-tuning potential would occasionally be good. The system prevents the front wheel lifting, which maximizes acceleration but is frustrating if you want to pull wheelies.

The beautiful single-sided aluminum swingarm sets the 1290 Super Duke R apart from other KTMs, and the fat 190-size rear Dunlop SportSmart 2 tire ensures the bike's prodigious power gets to the ground.

I can't see most owners being too bothered, but it seems a slightly strange decision by KTM, especially as the Super Duke's torque and sublime throttle response make it perfect for wheelying if you turn off the electronics. Doing so requires much button pushing, is best done at a standstill, and then of course leaves you without the undoubted benefits of traction control. At least keeping the front wheel down might help keep your license for longer—an important consideration on this bike.

If the engine is impressive, then the chassis more than backs it up. The frame is stiff enough and the suspension taut and well damped enough to keep that monster torque under control. On the road we used standard showroom settings, which were just about right for my 187 pounds. The 4.9 inches of fork travel was generally sufficient to give good front-end feedback without being harsh, and the relatively generous 6.1 inches of rear suspension travel didn't come at the expense of a remotely soggy ride.

The huge airbox of the 1290 Super Duke R sits nicely ensconced between the frame rails of the KTM chassis. Note the triangular adjustment knobs on top of the fork tubes for easy alteration of damping without tools.

Even the KTM struggled slightly over a couple of sections of particularly bumpy road in the hills, suddenly feeling a bit nervous despite the WP steering damper. But mostly it was superbly composed, and it also handled the track sessions at the Ascari circuit with impressive control, after both ends had been firmed up to track settings. A naked bike with this much power could easily have been a tank-slapping handful, but it charged to an indicated 150 mph with minimal movement of the bars.

The way the R-bike came barrelling round a flat-out right-hand kink, accelerating hard in fifth and just snicking into top gear before I had to shut off and brake into a tightening second-gear right-hander, was magical. But perhaps the bike's most useful attribute was that breadth of torque. Even on the track it was happy to grunt out of turns with as little as 5,000 rpm on the tach—and a torrent of smooth, immaculately calibrated acceleration always available.

Perhaps inevitably there was a little bit of twitching when I used the stunningly powerful Brembo monoblock brakes into a couple of faster turns. But the ability to firm up the front in seconds with a tweak of those fork-top adjusters was welcome, and the Super Duke generally felt quick, agile, and stable enough to give just about any superbike a run for its money. Its standard-fitment Dunlop SportSmart 2 tires (a European variant of the Q2 here in the States, but not the same) were retained for the track sessions and worked well at Ascari just as they had on the street.

…it's improbably well behaved—its smooth, perfectly metered throttle response and advanced electronics helping to make its ferocious performance remarkably controllable

Back in the real world for the ride down the hill to the launch base on the coast, the KTM showed it should prove respectably practical for a naked bike. Fuel consumption ranged from 30 mpg when thrashed to around 40 mpg, suggesting a typical range of around 150 miles from the 4.8-gallon tank. The seat seemed reasonably well padded and caused no discomfort on a day's ride with several stops. There's neither much room nor much to hold on to for a pillion.

KTM's typically comprehensive Power Parts catalog has plenty of useful accessories alongside the performance-boosting ones. Heated grips, ergo seats, and Hyperstrada-style plastic panniers will boost long-distance practicality; shame there's no fly screen too. And there's a long list of carbon-fiber and aluminum components as well as genuine performance parts, including brake discs, levers, footrests, crash protectors, and an Akrapovic pipe.

That's all very cool, but perhaps the most impressive thing about the 1290 Super Duke R is just what an exhilarating and refined bike it is in standard form. Perhaps its only real drawback, apart from the fact that it won't stop you getting cold and wet, is that it's far from cheap, costing notably more than its close rival the Tuono in most markets. That's a drawback but shouldn't detract from the impact of a stunningly fast, capable, and most of all fun-to-ride machine that justifies the considerable hype that has preceded it.


"This has been a very exciting project. We started with building up the first [1,301cc] engines and putting them in the old Super Duke, and right away we recognized that this is the way we wanted to go.

"Throttle response was a big challenge. In former times we only cared about the maximum rpm and maximum power, but on this engine we focused on partial load—on making sure that the engine works perfectly at every rpm and at every throttle opening.

Peter Gorbach, KTM Engine Manager

"This paid off because everyone who rides the bike recognizes that the engine is very controllable. When you want to get serious you can open the throttle wide and it pulls and pulls. But a normal customer can ride it in the city when the conditions are not perfect.

"When developing the engine one crucial thing was to choose the throttle body diameter carefully. The larger it gets the more output you get, but that's worse for partial load because when you open the throttle just a little bit there is a huge of amount of air coming in immediately.

"Another thing is the intake and exhaust ports—we wanted to make the intake ports as small as possible to help gas flow at partial load. And the twin ignition is really beneficial if you want to increase the top power but not lose partial load quality.

"I'm not surprised that some bikes don't have correct fueling because it takes a huge effort to come to this level. If you look at the RC8 engine, we were keen to make it better every year. Every year we made small steps, and finally it is very good, but it has really been a lot of work.

"With the calibration, say there are 10 variables, every time you change one you have to adjust all the others as well to see whether it's beneficial or not. We've spent thousands of hours on the test bench with this engine to optimize it to this level.

"Why doesn't the traction control allow wheelies? The tough thing is to develop a system so that when you're wheelying, it [the front wheel] comes down smoothly. We are testing but it's still not yet at the level that we want to introduce it."

2014 KTM 1290 Super Duke R
MSRP: $16,999
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC, 75° V-twin
Displacement: 1301cc
Bore x stroke: 108 x 71mm
Compression ratio: 13.2:1
Induction: Keihin DFI, 56mm throttle bodies
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop SportSmart 2
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Dunlop SportSmart 2
Rake/trail: 24.9°/4.2 in. (107mm)
Wheelbase: 58.4 in. (1482mm)
Seat height: 32.9 in. (835mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.8 gal. (18L)
Claimed wet weight: 445 lb. (202kg)