KTM's 1290 Super Duke R falls mercifully short of expectations

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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is so close to being the perfect motorcycle(Credit: Chris Blain/Gizmag)

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KTM's marketing team scared us a bit with its buildup for the 1290 Super Duke R, nicknaming it "The Beast" and pointing at a truly frightening spec sheet: 1,301 cc, 180 raging horsepower, 144 throbbing Newton-meters of torque, in a low-geared streetbike with a nasty attitude. Everything about it screamed "widowmaker," the next in a long line of motorcycles that were too big, too bad and too damn much for a normal rider to handle. But a funny thing happened when I took it out to test it – it didn't kill me. In fact, despite its tarmac-ripping torque and insane power levels, it proved to be a friendly, even encouraging, bike to ride, even when you switch the traction control and ABS off. What kind of black magic is this?

There are some motorcycles that scare me. The entire category of two-strokes for starters, after a brutalizing and formative early experience I had on a KL500 dirt bike. The Aprilia RSV4 Factory is another, with its terrifying launch control feature, in which you hold the throttle wide open at a standstill and then force yourself to dump the clutch.

Others sneak up on me. The BMW S1000R is a great example of a bike whose modest spec sheet hides a truly frightening level of aggression on the road. After riding that thing, the thought of KTM's 1290 Super Duke R genuinely filled me with fear.

I've always enjoyed the Super Duke series. The old 990 was a comfy, fast and torquey hooligan bike with excellent suspension. I wouldn't buy one due to its very limited tank range and boutique price tag, but I've had a lot of fun on them.

The new 1290, though, has all the hallmarks of a widowmaker. Try these numbers on for size: 1,301 cubic centimeters of bored and stroked LC8 V-twin anger, 180 peak horsepower (134 kW) – that's three-year-old superbike levels of top end performance – and 144 Nm (106 ft-lb) of torque, which is more than anything in the superbike class has ever made. In fact, the 1290 beats the 990 Super Duke's peak torque of 100 Nm (74 ft-lb) from just 2,500 rpm and upwards.

But it doesn't stop there. Most 180-plus horsepower motorcycles become manageable on the road due to racetrack-high gearing. Some of them will take you as high as 160 km/h (99 mph) in first gear, so you're only really ever experiencing half of what they can do if you ride them under the speed limit.

The KTM 1290 throws this kind of thinking out the window. First gear only takes you up to about 85 km/h (53 mph), making it short-geared even by roadbike standards. So what you've got is a historically overpowered and overtorqued engine running through extremely low gearing, in a package that weighs just 189 kg (417 lb) dry. You can see how a humble road tester with a young family might approach this thing with caution.

The spec sheet can only tell you so much, though, and within a few minutes of throwing a leg over the 1290, I had an entirely different picture of this bike.

The tire-destroying, earth-shattering power and torque are most certainly there. From anywhere on the tacho, you can unleash absolutely explosive acceleration with a firm twist of the wrist. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I've never ridden anything that accelerates faster on the road. The sheer flexibility of that massive engine is so extraordinary you've got your choice of about three gears at any speed, and that includes standstill, as the bike will happily launch in third with a bit of a clutch slip.

It's big-twin power that'll let you overtake at the speed of thought, and if you turn off the traction control, this bike will wheelie in first, second, third and fourth gears. For all I know, it'll wheelie in fifth and sixth as well, I wouldn't be surprised at all. If you absolutely, positively need to be able to wheelie at any time, this would be the bike for you, if it wasn't for the fact that the traction control is on by default, and you have to stop the bike and play around in the menus to disable it, an annoying process which takes around 10 seconds.

But even though it has the capacity to unleash absolute hell, it's remarkably well behaved. The throttle mapping is so sweetly designed that I never bothered taking it out of Sport mode. In fact, most of the two weeks I've had this bike for, the weather has been absolutely atrocious and I've been riding it around in Sport mode with traction control off.

Ride normally, and the 1290 feels like a completely normal motorcycle. It's only when you drop your right wrist with a fair bit of aggression that the beast shows its colours.

I feel like we can gloss over handling a little. The 1290 uses KTM's in-house WP suspension at either end and this has always been top-notch gear. I found the standard settings underdamped, so I used the hand-adjusters on the forks to dial in four clicks of extra rebound, and used a screwdriver to do the same at the back. I'd have liked to add a bit of preload on the shock to quicken the steering a little, but some wag had pinched the underseat tool kit, and I was splitting hairs. Being a tall bike with a nice low centre of gravity, it handles beautifully – although I almost thought I felt a bit of frame flex hitting bumps when leaned over.

In terms of comfort, dare I say it's almost plush. The riding position strikes a great balance between elbows-out aggression and all-day touring comfort. The seat is super comfy, with lots of room to move, although there are a couple of points near the back that start poking ever so slightly into your butt cheeks after an hour or two on the road. The footpegs are slippery, so I'd almost take a file to them and hatch in a bit more grip. The mirrors are only good for elbow gazing, and the gear lever is too short, but that's about where my complaints end on the ergonomics.

Brakes are absolute top-shelf Brembo monoblocs with Bosch ABS. They bite quickly and they bite hard. For all the 1290's vaunted acceleration it almost feels like you can stop harder than you can go, although the ABS does seem to intervene earlier than on other bikes.

Fuel consumption is another nice surprise. We never recorded worse than 6.5 liters/100km (36.2 mpg) on a tank, whether commuting or going hard in the twisties. The final tank range hovered around 280 km (174 mi), which is twice what the early Superdukes would deliver under duress, and more than enough to recommend this thing as a tourer.

In fact, for all my apprehension going into this test, I've come out with precious few bad things to say about the Super Duke 1290. You'd never call it a learner's bike, but on the other hand I think just about any rider could enjoy it. It's equally happy on a wet commute or a dry set of balls-out twisties. You'd have to call it the highest performance streetfighter on the market, and yet it's a genuinely friendly machine that makes such performance astonishingly accessible.

In fact, I think it's so easy to ride that KTM might have stuffed this up a bit. This isn't supposed to be a bike with mass market appeal. This is supposed to be The Beast, the bike that strikes fear into the beige. The kind of bike that makes the Captain Sensibles of the world look at you and shake their heads. The kind of bike you give your mate a ride on, and he comes back looking pale and defeated. I put a mate on this thing, and he came back looking downright empowered. That's not good enough.

My real worry here is that with a bike like this, your riding buddies will think you're only fast because your bike is awesome. What you want is for them to take it for a ride, come back and say "Christ knows how the hell you ride that thing, I'm not man enough." For $25,000 AUD (US$17,000), you want it to be a bike they'll talk about in hushed tones decades from now.

It'd be easy enough to fix. I think KTM's design team should use the current Sport mode settings as Street mode, and get rid of the completely unnecessary rain mode. They should concoct a Sport mode throttle map fit to make strong men weep, which wouldn't be hard given what the engine can do. While they're at it, get rid of the clunky menu system and give us dedicated traction control and ABS buttons that we can switch on and off easily, on the fly. Then knock sixth gear down a few notches so you can actually use it at 100 km/h (62 mph) without feeling like you're abusing the engine, and for Pete's sake fix the speedo, as it over-reads by more than 10 percent.

Give us access to the stomach-twisting fear we secretly desire, and then give us an easy way to flick back to this magnificently rideable all-rounder for the 95 percent of the time when we actually want an excellent real-world motorcycle like you've delivered us here.

Do that, and this would be damn near the perfect motorbike. As it is, it's only brilliant.

Take a look at this beast in action in our 1290 Super Duke video review.

Product page: 1290 Super Duke R

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