A Disruption in the Force: KTM 790 Duke Vs. Triumph Street Triple R
A timeless favorite goes up against a brash newcomer in the standard bike wars
You’ll see a theme if you scroll back the last decade or so on MO: we have a thing for the Triumph Street Triple. After numerous rides and shootouts each time it gets updated, it’s safe to say we love that little 675cc three-cylinder. The sound it makes is outrageously cool, the power it delivers is fun without being overwhelming, and the overall package is an absolute blast. Yeah, the looks are kinda polarizing, but none of that matters once you twist the grip.
Then, lo-and-behold, Triumph one-upped itself and upgraded the Street Triple at the end of 2017 as a 2018 model, giving it a significant bump in displacement: up to 765cc – much to the grins of dyslexics everywhere. Of course, the magic of three cylinders didn’t go anywhere, and the new bike was once again a hit amongst us all. Tom “Biceps” Roderick seriously considered buying one when he walked out the proverbial MO door on his way to self-employment. Meanwhile, we all liked it enough to name it Motorcycle.com’s Best Standard Motorcycle of 2018. And by “it” I’m talking about Triumph’s top-of-the-range RS version of the Street Triple. Contenders for the Streetie’s crown have come and gone, and while some have done better than others at swaying our opinion, at the end of the day our hearts have always gravitated back to the Triumph.
KTM’s response? “Challenge accepted.”
Okay, we seriously doubt this was actually said inside some KTM board meeting (although it’d be great if it were), but when it comes to benchmarking an existing model for KTM’s new 799cc parallel-Twin, Team Orange couldn’t have picked a better target. Of course, we all know the result: the 790 Duke. Our European friends got to taste the Orange kool-aid a year before we did, but when Evans came back from his 790 Duke First Ride he really loved it – as in, he was thinking of ways to buy one without pissing off his wife. Naturally, our response was to put the KTM head-to-head with the Triumph to see if our favorite little Triple could hold off yet another challenger. If you need detailed overviews of each bike, click on the links above for a breakdown.
Keeping things Apples to Apples
Naturally, we do our best to keep comparisons as fair as possible, and the basis of this starts with price. The 790 Duke only comes in one flavor with pricing set at $10,499. With that, you get a potent 799cc parallel-Twin – which, as you should know by now, is a first for KTM – pumping out 98.0 hp and 60.2 lb-ft to the rear wheel on the MotoGP Werks dyno. Accompanying the Twin is an electronics suite featuring adjustable (and switchable) traction control, ABS, power modes, and best of all, a quickshifter in both directions. Brakes are twin 300mm discs with J.Juan radial-mount 4-pot calipers in the front, 240mm single disc and one-pot J.Juan caliper in the back. WP handles suspension duties (pun not intended), but cheaps out a bit offering a non-adjustable 43mm fork and a shock with just preload settings available.
The Street Triple, however, comes in a variety of flavors, from the $9,950 S model on up to the $12,550 RS. While the latter gets all the bells and whistles like a quickshifter (only for upshifts), five ride modes, Brembo M50 calipers, Öhlins shock, and the most power in the range – a claimed 121 hp and 57 lb-ft – the price moves it rather far away from the KTM, especially considering the Triumph also comes in an R version starting at $11,250 – much more in line with the 790. For that price, the R gets Brembo M4.32 calipers, Showa Big Piston fork and adjustable shock, four ride modes (no Track mode), full TFT instrumentation, and slightly less power than the RS – ours put down 114.9 hp and 56.7 lb-ft to the wheel, according to the MotoGP Werks dyno.
However, things aren’t always as perfect as they seem, since we were sent the R model in the Matt Aluminum Silver color, adding $250 extra, for a total of $11,500. A whole thousand bucks more than the KTM. To confuse matters that much more, the base Street Triple S version starts at $9,950 and moves up to $10,200. While that may be the closest from a cost perspective, the S model is slightly detuned from the R (which is already a little down to the RS), only gets two riding modes, lower-spec Showa suspension, and basic pin-slide two-piston Nissin brakes. Neither the R or S gets a quickshifter, but going on cost and which features most closely line up, we opted for the Street Triple R to face the 790 Duke.
The procedure is fairly simple from here: we flog them on the street, then rinse and repeat at the track, joining our friends at Rickdiculous Racing for a day at Chuckwalla. Keeping with the apples-to-apples theme, we spooned each bike with Dunlop’s Q4 tire. We did this for a few reasons. First, the Q4 is a track-focused tire for the road rider, meaning it can handle street riding just fine, but it also heats up quickly for track use without the need for warmers – perfect for us lazy MOrons who don’t want to bother with slapping blankets on tires after each session. Second, and maybe more importantly, the standard tires on our test Triumph were already squared off in the center from a previous user. That would have impacted handling severely and unfairly against the ST765.
Considering my time aboard the Kramer GP2 Prototype, powered by the same 799cc Twin as the KTM, I was anxious to see how the 790 Duke would perform. Joining me on this flog-a-thon is none other than “Biceps” Roderick, coaxed out of semi-retirement by the call of a wailing Triple and a burbling Twin (and the offer of a free breakfast). But since he was on the verge of actually buying a Street Triple, Tom was the perfect candidate.
This is why we do this
Looking at the specs (and considering our past experience), on paper the Triumph appeared to be better of the two. With three cylinders, more power, and only a nine-pound weight difference on the official MO scales (420 lbs vs. 411 for the KTM), both Tom and I had a hard time imagining the Triumph losing. Out on the road, the Streetie exhibited all of its lovable character, too. The three-cylinder wail is as intoxicating as ever, and now that it has more displacement, the extra shove when you twist your wrist adds to the excitement factor. Not having a quickshifter was a bit of a drag, but that’s a first-world problem if ever there were one. The Streetie shifts just fine if you know what you’re doing, and the slipper clutch does a great job of keeping the rear in check if you don’t. Adjustable levers and an informative TFT display, including gear indicator, are also a nice touch.
If the specs and the dyno numbers were all we needed to determine these tests, then our job would be incredibly easy (and boring). Sometimes though, the magic can’t be found on a piece of paper. This is the beauty of the KTM 790 Duke. Despite what the numbers say, both Tom and I fell for the 790 instantly. KTM dubs the bigger 1290 Super Duke R “The Beast” and this, the 790 Duke, “The Scalpel” – and after riding it, the name definitely fits. The smaller Duke takes the attitude of the big, burly 1290 and refines it to a precision-like quality with the 790.
Despite having one less cylinder than the Triumph, Tom was convinced this is “probably one of the best parallel-twin engines ever! The Trumpet may make more peak horsepower, but look for yourself at the dyno chart and see how the KTM’s Twin romps the Triumph’s Triple from 3,100 rpm to 9,100 rpm in horsepower production, while also producing significantly more torque through the same rev range. And the dyno data can be felt in the real world whether on the street or at the track.”
This is the secret sauce behind the KTM. While the Triumph makes more power, it’s only after the KTM hits redline that the 765 Triple shines, meaning you have to wind it up to keep chase. At Chuckwalla this wasn’t much of an issue, since you naturally keep engines singing at the track – and in fact the Triumph easily kept the KTM in its dust when it came to outright speed. But when you’re cruising the street or even playing in the canyons, the broad spread of power from the Duke is easier to tap into.
Of course, since the KTM has a smaller rev window compared to the Triumph, you also have to shift more. Not a problem, since the Duke not only has a quickshifter, but it works for both up- and down-shifts – not bad for $10,5K. That said, the QS isn’t the slickest system in the world. Downshifts are a little clunky at times, and if I really wanted to go from sixth to third quickly I’d resort to using the clutch. Still, it’s nice to have.
“Equally impressive to its power production is the KTM’s handling,” Tom says. “Eager to get leaned into a corner, the KTM holds its trajectory and absorbs road imperfections surprisingly well for a bike with non-adjustable suspension units.” It’s true. Despite its basic suspension bits, we never found ourselves eagerly wishing to adjust settings at either end on the KTM, even at the track. Could they be better? Sure, slightly stiffer springs and/or increased damping wouldn’t hurt.
The biggest surprise by far is how each motorcycle carries its weight. As T-Rod explains, “What doesn’t translate from paper to real world is the KTM’s seemingly minor nine-pound weight advantage. I’m still scratching my head at how KTM managed to make the 790 Duke feel 50 pounds lighter than the Street Triple. Whatever magic combination of CoG, rake, trail and wheelbase numbers works so well I just can’t believe it’s not butter.”
As if this test didn’t bring us a few surprises already, what continually left us floored was how much lighter the 790 feels. It’s worth saying it again – the KTM is only nine pounds lighter than the Triumph – but whether on the street or the track, hustling each bike from side to side was dramatically different. The Street Triple feels slow and lethargic (words we’d never otherwise use to describe the ST) compared to the quickness and agility of the 790 Duke. It’s otherworldly.
On the electronics front, both are equipped with TC and ABS. At the track, both ABS systems intervene earlier than prefered, the Triumph especially so, leading me to shut them off. The Duke does come with a Supermoto ABS setting, letting you lock the rear wheel to your heart’s content. That said, Tom and I are split about which brakes we prefer. Personally, I lean towards the feel and power of the Triumph’s Brembos while Tom’s on the KTM’s side. The TC nod also goes to the KTM, as it’s adjustable to different levels, and performs remarkably well at putting the power down without too much distraction to the rider. Once slip is noticed on the Street Triple R, power is cut dramatically. And there’s only on or off, no selecting of different levels.
Turning our attention away from flogging and onto slogging – as in, casual riding – things look a little better for the Triumph. First, “the Triumph has a much cushier seat compared to the KTM’s flat, densely-cushioned pad,” says Tom. “But the extra legroom on the Duke and more upright riding position kept me happier during freeway riding.” Personally, I appreciated the KTM’s extra legroom, but the upright seating position left me feeling like a sail on the highway. Without any wind protection, I preferred the Triumph’s slight forward lean to help offset the windblast.
Need we say more?
This is one of those rare times when we don’t need the MO scorecard to pick a winner. If you’ve read this far it should seem fairly obvious. It’s just surprising to us that it happened with these bikes. At first, we thought the Triumph had an easy win lined up for itself. Turns out the reality was entirely different. Let Tom clarify:
“There’s really nothing to complain about when it comes to the Triumph. It’s still the same excellent motorcycle with all qualities we love that catapulted it to the top of MO’s 2018 Best Standard category. It’s only when ridden back-to-back with the Duke that it becomes apparent how much heavier and lethargic the ST3 is compared to the new Duke. However, maybe I’d change my tune if it were the RS model for $2,000 more.
For the $1k price difference, and considering all the other previously mentioned reasons, it’s easy to chose the KTM over the Triumph. With the money saved a person can then go about upgrading the KTM’s only real flaw (if you want to call it that) — it’s non-adjustable suspension components.”
2019 KTM 790 Duke vs. Triumph Street Triple R Scorecard
KTM 790 Duke
Triumph Street Triple R
Total Objective Scores
Tom’s Subjective Scores
Troy’s Subjective Scores
KTM 790 Duke
Triumph Street Triple R
|MSRP||$10,499||$11,450 (as tested)|
|Engine Type||799cc liquid-cooled Parallel-Twin||765cc liquid-cooled, in-line 3-cylinder|
|Bore and Stroke||88.0mm x 65.7mm||77.9 x 53.4mm|
|Fuel System||DKK Dell’Orto, 46 mm Throttle Body||Multipoint sequential electronic fuel injection with SAI. Electronic throttle control|
|Horsepower (measured)||98.0 @ 9500 rpm||114.9 @ 11,500 rpm|
|Torque (measured)||60.2 lb-ft @ 7900 rpm||56.7 lb-ft @ 9800 rpm|
|Valve Train||DOHC; four valves per cylinder||DOHC; four valves per cylinder|
|Front Suspension||WP inverted 43 mm fork, non-adjustable, 5.5 in. travel||Showa 41 mm upside down separate function big piston forks (SF-BPF), 115 mm front wheel travel. Adjustable compression damping, rebound damping and adjustable preload|
|Rear Suspension||WP Monoshock, preload adjustable, 5.9 in. travel||Showa piggyback reservoir monoshock, 134 mm rear wheel travel. Adjustable spring preload (lock-rings), compression damping and rebound damping.|
|Front Brake||Dual 300 mm discs, radial-mount 4-piston J Juan calipers, ABS||Twin 310 mm floating discs, Brembo M4.32 4-piston radial monobloc calipers, switchable ABS|
|Rear Brake||Single 240 mm disc, single-piston J Juan caliper, ABS||Single 220 mm fixed disc, Brembo single piston sliding caliper, switchable ABS|
|Rake/Trail||24.0°/3.8 in. (96.5mm)||23.9°/3.94 in. (100.0mm)|
|Wheelbase||58.0 in.||55.5 in.|
|Seat Height||32.5 in.||32.5 in.|
|Curb Weight (MO Measured)||411 lbs.||420 lbs.|
|Fuel Capacity||3.7 gal.||4.6 gal.|