Consider Kawasaki’s KLR650, probably the most ubiquitous of all 650cc Thumpers from the past couple of decades, produces about 36 horsepower at its rear tire. The 690cc Single in the Duke punches out almost double the ponies, 63.8 hp to be exact. Clearly, the KTM mill is in an entirely different league. It rips out even a couple of horses more than Kawasaki’s twin-cylinder Ninja 650! Click here to see the Duke’s dyno chart.
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The Duke has been a lynchpin in KTM’s excursion into the streetbike market. Best known for its dirt machines, the Austrian manufacturer created the Duke in the mid-1990s as its first street-specialized model. But despite publishing motorcycle tests for nearly 20 years, Motorcycle.com has never had a chance to review one. So a little history lesson is in order.
|* Duke l 620 (609cc): First seen in America in 1994. Not imported in 1995. In production on and off through 1999.|
|* Duke ll 640 (625cc): Introduced in 2000 and available in U.S. through 2003.|
|* Duke 690 (654cc): Introduced in 2008 with an entirely new engine, different styling. Not imported to the U.S. in 2011.|
|* Duke 690 (690cc): Introduced in Europe in 2012 with more than 90% new components, including an aluminum subframe.|
And so 2013 sees the return of the Duke to North America, updated from the 2012 Euro bike with new wheels and stainless steel muffler wrap rather than painted mild steel. The Duke’s orange-hued chromoly-steel trellis frame gives it a distinctive appearance, vaguely reminiscent of a Creamsicle-inspired Ducati Monster.
The Duke 690’s numeric nomenclature now finally matches the displacement of its comprehensively redesigned LC4 Thumper motor thanks to a 4.5mm increase in piston travel: bore/stroke is now 102.0 x 84.5mm. The bump in cubes combines with a new cylinder head to, according to KTM, yield 11% greater peak power and an even bigger boost in the midrange.
Dual spark plugs are used for maximizing combustion, triggered by stick coils that benefit from their own timing maps. Keihin fuel injection is connected to the throttle without mechanical linkage – this is a ride-by-wire system. A new gear sensor enables mapping optimized for each gear. The new engine also enjoys longer service intervals thanks to improved con-rod bearings. Oil changes are now recommended at 10,000 km (6200 miles), up from 7500 km, and the first valve adjustment is bumped from 10K to 12,000 miles.
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Maybe it’s just me, but I felt kind of stylish aboard the Duke, and not just because it had my name on it. It looks aggressive, purposeful and distinctive, held together, literally, by its chromoly trellis frame powder-coated a vivid orange. Some might find its appearance not to their taste, but you can’t say it’s not stylish. A cast-aluminum subframe tidies the tail section while supporting a broad passenger seat with sturdy grab handles.
The Duke’s ergonomics have been dramatically altered from its predecessor. Most noticeable is the new seat, now located more than one inch lower at 32.9 inches. The saddle’s bucket shape helps hold a rider in place during the wheelies that are inevitable on this hooligan machine, but it doesn’t allow much aft movement for those long of leg. The flat “bend” of the tapered aluminum handlebar and folding shift-lever tip are nods to KTM’s off-road heritage, while an adjustable front brake lever fits hands of all sizes.
The big Single fires up promptly and settles into a gait familiar to riders with experience on single-cylinder motorcycles. What’s different is how quickly the Duke’s large 102mm piston accelerates thanks to a relatively light flywheel. It exhibits a clanking noise at idle typical for a large-displacement Thumper, and it fires so infrequently that you can nearly count each piston stroke. A crank-driven counterbalancer suppresses vibration, and KTM also claims the motor is more finely balanced to tune out excessive shaking. However, there’s no hiding the large-amplitude vibration inherent in such a design.
The Duke’s fuel injection is very good, offering instant rideability when cold. A hydraulic clutch offers an exceptionally light pull requiring only one finger. The APTC (Adler Power Torque Clutch) design also incorporates a slipper function that is a great asset for big Singles that often exhibit an excessive amount of engine braking, especially ones with a high compression ratio (12.6:1) like the Duke’s.
Despite its hi-po orientation, the 690 has gobs of romping power low in the rev range. Grunt from just 3000 rpm is considerable, and a short first gear makes for wheelies on demand. The Thumper, in fact, can pull away from a stop while in second gear – it would easily tolerate taller gearing. It’s impossible to use full throttle in first gear and not wheelie, which, in our estimation, is a very good thing. It inspires naughty behavior – the devil is always lurking over your shoulder.
The Duke always feels eager, ready to romp at the next opportunity, whether that’s from a stoplight or simply squirting through traffic. New gearbox bearings help click off quick shifts from the super-slick transmission. There’s perhaps no sprightlier traffic dissector than the Duke. It’s ultra agile with a highly responsive motor, so it’s always ready for whatever shenanigans you desire.
Things are slightly less rosy on the highway. That bucket seat that holds you in place while riding on the back wheel doesn’t allow much aft movement, which inhibits how far you can bend your torso forward to cheat highway-speed air. There’s plenty of legroom, but you can’t skooch rearward to put your chest at an angle to the wind. It can be an ab workout at speeds beyond 70 mph. Mirrors blur at highway speeds.
Unlike nearly every Thumper, the Duke doesn’t feel wheezy at California freeway speeds. At 80 mph the motor is spinning about 5200 rpm, which is just below where peak torque is delivered. How impressive is this motor? Well, it managed to edge ahead of a 1200cc Ducati Multistrada in a 70-mph roll-on contest.
Judged by its steering geometry numbers, the Duke shouldn’t feel as nimble as it does. A 26.5-degree rake angle seems lazy for a sportbike, and its 115mm of trail is quite generous. Even its wheelbase, at 57.7 inches, is quite lengthy for a bike of its size.
Credit two other numbers for the Duke’s responsiveness: 330 and 160/60. The first is the Duke’s claimed weight minus fuel, which is remarkable for a 64-horse motorcycle. The second is the size of the rear Michelin Pilot Power tire, which is 20mm narrower than might be expected and enables quick roll rates.
The Duke relishes being pointed into a twisty canyon road where agility is valued over Big Speed potential. It delivers a playful eagerness to devour corners that few bikes can match, and none that we recall that can also pull up the front wheel at 50 mph. And while its steering is very sharp, plentiful trail and wheelbase numbers prevent it from feeling too knifey or unstable. The Michelins provide sure grip when ridden aggressively, yet peg clearance is a non-issue.
COMPETITION: Read our review of the Aprilia SXV 5.5
Helping keep the rubber on the road is a Bosch 9M+ ABS setup borrowed from the 990 SM T. It augments the sure-stopping power of the single 320mm front disc gripped by a radially mounted Brembo four-piston caliper and actuated by a radial master cylinder. A floating rear caliper bites on a 240mm rotor. Their performance is mostly excellent, offering strong power and good feedback. ABS kickback is readily felt when using the rear brake; dirt-trackers will appreciate the anti-lock control can be disabled.
In order to deliver a European-built sportbike with standard ABS to market at $8999 means build costs needed to be looked at carefully. For the Duke, this results in minimally adjustable WP suspension components. Its 43mm inverted fork has none, while the shock is adjustable for rebound damping and preload via a 10-position ramped collar.
More adjustments are usually better, but KTM has provided a well-rounded setup as delivered. Bumps are adroitly resolved with the 5.3 inches of travel at both ends. Suspension action isn’t super sophisticated, but damping rates are well chosen. Rear rebound damping felt a little weak initially, but adding a few clicks was an effective solution.
Instrumentation is contained within a single unit featuring a large analog tach and a rather small LCD display. A digital clock is augmented by your choice of odometer, two tripmeters or a gear-position indicator. Also handy is a count-up odo once hitting reserve, a la Yamaha. The tach, although very easy to read, is nearly superfluous on the Duke, as the engine’s hammering below you is a clear enough cue that revs are getting high – no need for a shift light.
The new Duke’s fuel tank capacity has been increased, but at just 3.7 gallons, it’s still quite tiny. The new engine claims 10% better fuel economy, and we were happy with the 49 mpg we averaged in our enthusiastic hands. As such, you can expect a range greater than 180 miles per tankful.
What We Don’t Like
The 690 Duke is a wonderfully engineered sport motorcycle, but it’s not without some small nits to pick. Its sidestand requires a firm kick to get past its stiff spring, and its leg seems an inch too long – it’s nearly impossible to deploy with a rider aboard unless the bike is leaned to its right. Also, its headlight is disappointingly dim on low beam, although its high beam is quite good. And its comfy but confining seat might annoy tall riders, while stubby pilots will wish for a lower saddle.
One more item of note: Engine vibration is inescapable, whether putting around at low revs, cruising down a highway or screaming it out up top. It’s felt in a rider’s hands, feet and thighs, and this might be off-putting for those accustomed to smoother multi-cylinder engines. That said, it’s not debilitating, as the large-amplitude vibes aren’t the high-frequency type that cause numbness in hands or feet.
KTM’s 690 Duke is an out-of-left-field homerun, if you can get past this mixed metaphor. It’s a great alternative to a typical sportbike, always ready to thrill but without the requirement of triple-digit speeds. And if the twisties aren’t part of your commute, you’ll be pleased with the Duke’s urban performance – despite an abundance of bikes to choose from, it was the Duke that got ridden most often.
Everything about this bike is sharp – steering, throttle response and brakes – and therefore is very appealing to experienced riders. If touring isn’t high on your list of bike duties, the Duke capably handles nearly anything else you can throw at it on paved roads while doing it with unique and fun-filled flair.
It’s the Duke’s distinctiveness that might prove to be its biggest obstacle to sales success. First, although KTM is a major manufacturer, the Austrian company’s street models are minimally supported in terms of marketing, so many potential buyers don’t even know it exists. Second, the 690 Duke doesn’t enjoy the competitiveness of hotly contested motorcycle segments, as there’s nothing else quite like it. Its closest rival would be Aprilia’s wild SXV 5.5 we tested in 2008, but, sadly, that high-maintenance ripper was dropped from the lineup years ago. You could step into Ducati’s Monster 696 ($9295) or an Aprilia Shiver 750 ($9499), but you’d be spending more money and would need to be cool with carrying around an extra 50-plus pounds.
While its $8999 retail price seems high for a one-lung motorcycle, this is a terrific and capable motorcycle that shouldn’t be overlooked by sport-minded riders.
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