Motorcycles

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

The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is so close to being the perfect motorcycle
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is so close to being the perfect motorcycle
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R is a muscular animal
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R is a muscular animal
KTM 1290 Super Duke R: mirrors don't see wide enough
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R: mirrors don't see wide enough
KTM 1290 Super Duke R: calm before the storm
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R: calm before the storm
KTM 1290 Super Duke R: it's all shoulders and angry orange
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R: it's all shoulders and angry orange
Loz prepares to shoot video with the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
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Loz prepares to shoot video with the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's trellis frame looks great but contributes to a bit of flex in bumpy corners
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's trellis frame looks great but contributes to a bit of flex in bumpy corners
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R cannot be mistaken for an ordinary bike
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R cannot be mistaken for an ordinary bike
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's sharply angled headlight and muscular shoulders
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's sharply angled headlight and muscular shoulders
KTM 1290 Super Duke R: 7.2 L/100km is the worst fuel economy we saw, and by the time we got to a petrol station it was back around 6.5 (Photo: Loz Blain/Gizmag)
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R: 7.2 L/100km is the worst fuel economy we saw, and by the time we got to a petrol station it was back around 6.5 (Photo: Loz Blain/Gizmag)
Sport mode is mapped so well that Street and Rain modes feel completely redundant on the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
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Sport mode is mapped so well that Street and Rain modes feel completely redundant on the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
Traction control and ABS are on by default every time you start the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
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Traction control and ABS are on by default every time you start the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
The whole design of the KTM 1290 Super Duke R looks angry\
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The whole design of the KTM 1290 Super Duke R looks angry\
KTM 1290 Super Duke R: slim front profile
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KTM 1290 Super Duke R: slim front profile
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is surprisingly comfortable and rideable
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is surprisingly comfortable and rideable
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's first and second gears are surprisingly low for such a powerful machine
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's first and second gears are surprisingly low for such a powerful machine
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's fuel range is now around 280 km, which is a huge step forward from early Super Dukes that would flash their reserve lights as early as 130 km when ridden hard
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's fuel range is now around 280 km, which is a huge step forward from early Super Dukes that would flash their reserve lights as early as 130 km when ridden hard
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R has no shortage of beautiful angles, if you like your beauty on the brutal side
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R has no shortage of beautiful angles, if you like your beauty on the brutal side
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R boasts vast power and torque that are available at all times from this 1301 cc, 180 hp, 144 Nm LC8 v-twin engine
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R boasts vast power and torque that are available at all times from this 1301 cc, 180 hp, 144 Nm LC8 v-twin engine
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's WP rear shock is adjustable for preload, rebound, high and low speed compression – but it requires tools
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's WP rear shock is adjustable for preload, rebound, high and low speed compression – but it requires tools
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's WP forks are adjustable for compression and rebound, using hand adjuster knobs – preload can not be adjusted
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's WP forks are adjustable for compression and rebound, using hand adjuster knobs – preload can not be adjusted
We find this left switchblock feels a bit clunky and dated – it's the same as the one used on the Adventure series bikes and seems due for an update
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We find this left switchblock feels a bit clunky and dated – it's the same as the one used on the Adventure series bikes and seems due for an update
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's right switchgrip is basic and fine
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's right switchgrip is basic and fine
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's main dash works fine, although the speedo overreads like crazy and the left side info/options panel is due for a refresh
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's main dash works fine, although the speedo overreads like crazy and the left side info/options panel is due for a refresh
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's headlight is decent without being spectacular
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's headlight is decent without being spectacular
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R boasts Brembo monobloc brakes that deliver eye-popping stopping power and are controlled by early-intervention Bosch ABS
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R boasts Brembo monobloc brakes that deliver eye-popping stopping power and are controlled by early-intervention Bosch ABS
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's exhaust positioning blocks the view of the rear wheel on its single sided swingarm
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's exhaust positioning blocks the view of the rear wheel on its single sided swingarm
We have no complaints about the excellent front and rear suspension on the KTM 1290 Super Duke R as WP gear is always top shelf on the road
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We have no complaints about the excellent front and rear suspension on the KTM 1290 Super Duke R as WP gear is always top shelf on the road
Loz battles his initial fear starting up the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
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Loz battles his initial fear starting up the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R corners well on Dunlop Sportsmart Sportmax 2 t\ires, although as a Bridgestone fan I'd love to see how it steers on BT003s
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R corners well on Dunlop Sportsmart Sportmax 2 t\ires, although as a Bridgestone fan I'd love to see how it steers on BT003s
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R turns easily thanks to wide bars
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R turns easily thanks to wide bars
Despite being the most powerful and torquey streetbike on the market, the KTM 1290 Super Duke R rarely feels out of control
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Despite being the most powerful and torquey streetbike on the market, the KTM 1290 Super Duke R rarely feels out of control
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is great in tight twisties, astonishing in open sweepers
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is great in tight twisties, astonishing in open sweepers
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is not the challenging ride you might expect
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is not the challenging ride you might expect
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is stunning in its rideability
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is stunning in its rideability
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is easy to overbrake on corner entries given how much stopping power you've got
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is easy to overbrake on corner entries given how much stopping power you've got
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R would be the nakedbike of choice for track day work
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R would be the nakedbike of choice for track day work
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is comfortable and willing on the road
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is comfortable and willing on the road
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is so close to being the perfect motorcycle
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The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is so close to being the perfect motorcycle

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.

The KTM 1290 Super Duke R cannot be mistaken for an ordinary bike
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R cannot be mistaken for an ordinary bike

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 Super Duke R's first and second gears are surprisingly low for such a powerful machine
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's first and second gears are surprisingly low for such a powerful machine

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.

Loz battles his initial fear starting up the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
Loz battles his initial fear starting up the KTM 1290 Super Duke R

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.

Traction control and ABS are on by default every time you start the KTM 1290 Super Duke R
Traction control and ABS are on by default every time you start the KTM 1290 Super Duke R

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.

The KTM 1290 Super Duke R corners well on Dunlop Sportsmart Sportmax 2 t\ires, although as a Bridgestone fan I'd love to see how it steers on BT003s
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R corners well on Dunlop Sportsmart Sportmax 2 t\ires, although as a Bridgestone fan I'd love to see how it steers on BT003s

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.

The KTM 1290 Super Duke R has no shortage of beautiful angles, if you like your beauty on the brutal side
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R has no shortage of beautiful angles, if you like your beauty on the brutal side

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.

The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's exhaust positioning blocks the view of the rear wheel on its single sided swingarm
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R's exhaust positioning blocks the view of the rear wheel on its single sided swingarm

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.

Review KTM Super Duke 1290

Product page: 1290 Super Duke R

7 comments
Theo Viljoen
Orange is so my colour!!! :D
Peter Andrews
Hey Loz, great article. KTM has made some really great bikes, but this looks like their best effort. I almost want to trade the sports car in and go back to two wheels. But as I approach the big seven o i think I am happy to read great reviews by you and I can sit in comfort with the top down on some twisties at the back of Brisbane, AND can still talk to my partner. But where is the video?
wanderkip
Great review, Chris. I've never ridden any bike with over 100 hp, but now I'm tempted to say that nothing succeeds like wretched excess!
ChrisLeavitt
I've always been a fan of the Dukes too. Back when I was still a fairly inexperienced rider, I had a chance to putt around a parking lot on a 990R... only got to get a hint of its raw power and torque. The 1290 appealed to me as soon as I found out about it, and it's great to hear it's brilliant. Mr. Blain, how about a comparison to a different Duke (or Duc, that is), a current-model Ducati Diavel to compare with the 1290? You bring a 1290, I'll bring a 2015 Diavel Carbon, and we can "duke" it out in SoCal!
algo.heim
Interesting view. Sad if KTM really tamed it to unrecognisable deapths. Could read more about the integration of slipper clutch and traction control and gearchanging up or down. One small correction, though. KL500 was not a two stroker and never a bike to scare its rider with its power.
KevinHood
I've had my Super Duke for a month now. Just got back from the Tail of the Dragon, Hwy 28, and Cherohola Skyway. Can confirm everything said in this article. I bought the Super Duke without ever seeing. When I went to pick up I was absolutely worried I had made a huge mistake. Is this thing supposed to be "The Beast"? More like the Stay-Puff Marshmellow Man. It was downright timid to ride as I rode away from the dealership. After a couple of hundred miles of break-in I finally really opened it up. Of course I opened it some on the ride home from the pick up. That gave a hint of what is in it. But now, twist the throttle and hold on. It's like a rolling launch mode as you go in to Warp 1. And then, without changing gears, twist the throttle again. Warp-freaking 2. And this thing doesn't so much accelerate as it launches itself from one level of speed to the next level of speed. Literally my shoulders hurt at the end of the day riding just from holding on. We had a couple of liter-bikes fly past us on the highway. Twist, twist and we were right on top of them. My buddy rides a Tuono 1100 Factory. It wasn't until we slowed down that I discovered there were three of them. Not two. We accelerated so fast the third one didn't have time to pass us.
MorganLaddZealear
Chris-- I actually own this bike, and after reading this article, and then putting down my first 2500 miles on it in the past three weeks... I take exception. Now, I understand that some portion of this article was supposed to be about how it isn't "The Beast" you were lead to believe, and disappointed not to witness. It's a vehicle, not Lucifer in the flesh. And while your complaints about worthless Rain mode, Sport needing to be Street mode, ABS being too sensitive, and not enough rawness to scare the guy next to you, come from your experience as a motorcycle reviewer and author, not a hooligan who goes by the moniker Orange Zhinobi. As wanderkip below says about never having ridden 100 hp+ before, well... neither had I. On a wet highway, Rain mode isn't needed. In a downpour, it could save your life. And on Highway 9 through the Santa Cruz mountains in even a light shower, all those safety features kept me from flying off a cliff the first weekend out. As a 150mi+ commuter/day, I can attest that Street mode was designed to negate sudden throttle jerks caused by uneven pavement whilst throttling/leaning on the bars a bit. Try going from 20-70-35-5-60 through stop and go. Yeah, Street mode will keep you from squirting over some mot dot and clipping that Honda shading the line. Now, I haven't ever ridden a moto with ABS before, so maybe it is sensitive. Then again, it's probably the most powerful (read power/weight ratio) stock on the market. I'd venture to guess that's less of a testament to it's unparalleled engine (there are some that do meet and exceed, let's be honest), but not at ~420 lbs dry. Not even close. ABS in light, front-wheel drive cars is always more sensitive then in some C3500 HD. Juss sayin', maybe you don't understand ABS principles like us *cough* accredited mechanical engineer types. *TOOT TOOT* When an experienced, expert track rider takes you through twisties, wheelies thrice in straights at 50+ on an R6, then ends up wide-eyed when you romp past him at 150, "The Beast" wins the day, hands down. This article discourages people from a legend. KTM struggles to get exposure vs. Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Ducatti, and this sort of article trashes on a company that has more Baja 500 wins than anyone else. From LC4 to LC8, I'll likely never stop riding KTM's, and this article doesn't help. Regards, Morgan Ladd Zealear BSME UCSB