KTM RC8 1190 – Test Ride

Neil Johnston grabs a KTM RC8 for a chilly mid-winter ride through the streets of Vancouver. His new ‘responsible self’ does not survive the experience …


Words by Neil Johnston. Photos by Kevin Miklossy unless otherwise specified.

I thought I’d boxed this guy up and shoved him away into a corner of my mind. I thought I’d moved on to more sensible things like adventure and touring, replacing this raving self with a better person, a responsible rider who takes the high road and chooses his moments.


Neil gets all id-like.
Photo: Glenn Simmons

Then KTM comes along and hands me this RC8 sledgehammer. Wham! The crate is shattered and here I am ratting across town and running highways in an id-enhanced rage.


The RC8 was built with an uncompromising monomania of fast in mind. At its structural and spiritual heart is an 1148 cc, 75-degree v-twin engine pumping out 155 hp at 10,000 rpm and 88.5 lb-ft of torque at 8,000 rpm, and all with the visceral mechanical edge of a snorting, fire-breathing demon.

Up front there are twin 320mm discs grabbed by four-piston radial-mounted Brembo Monobloc calipers.  There’s the premium and fully adjustable WP suspension. Topped with a steering-damper, the 43mm inverted forks up front sport preload, compression and rebound damping. The shock out back adds high and low speed compression damping to that list.


Don’t worry too much about the whirs and rattles.

The acreage of 190/55 Pirelli Super Corsa Dragon rubber out back, and the 120/70 up front, are mated to Marsochini rims. It has a gorgeous polished aluminum swing arm, and underbelly exhaust to centralize mass. Holding it all together is a chromoly steel tube trellis frame, using the engine as a supporting member.

At idle the RC8 wet-clutch apes the dry-clutch rattle of a Ducati superbike, a comfort to those switching brand loyalties to something less common, or augmenting their current dream fleet. To the rest of the world it simply sounds worrisome, leading to the re-coining of the phrase, “It’s a KTM, it’s supposed to sound like that.”

Then you throw a leg over the RC8 and the experience is like riding a petulant beast, straining at the leash. Below 2,500 rpms it lugs, suffering a distinctly un-twin lack of low-end torque and calling out for a shorter first gear.


Rider ‘sit-in’ position is good for gooning!
Photo: Neil Johnston

Crawling through traffic it lurches and surges. There are no secondary butterflies softening low-end response, the flywheel is made of helium, and the throttle is twitchy light. As a result, you’re forever feathering the (thankfully light) clutch and gingering the loud-handle to settle the low-speed lunging.

Combine that with shockingly powerful Brembo brakes and the world’s slickest seat, and the risk of a cruel interface between a male rider and the raised tank is high. If I had $10 for each time I gooned myself on the RC8, I’d have a good down payment towards the $20,898.00 sticker price, although testicle reconstruction surgery might come first.

It should be hateful, but it somehow adds to the KTM’s exotic drama.

Visually, comparisons have been made to origami and anime but those are grasping, there is no Japanese groupthink design here.


Photo: Neil Johnston

If robots could lust, this is what they would generate as porn, a complex topography of hard angles, gentle curves and passion. All tightly fitted together with extraordinary build quality, then filtered through its makers’ Austrian psyches.

You could send the RC8 to the far future and it would still look contemporary. Here in the present it is magnetic. Grown men slam into doors gawking as they walk by. Twenty-somethings collect, drooling enough that passers-by are in danger of slipping. This is how lawsuits start.

But you don’t care, because you don’t buy a bike like this to be a subtle wallflower. If you wanted to blend you’d ride a Gixxer.



The RC8 is happier when away from urban areas.
Photo: Glenn Simmons 

Beyond appearances, the RC8 makes no sense at all at in-town speeds, as the heat boiling off the bike’s right hand side (intrusive even at a very chilly 8C) expresses scarcely contained simmering rage at being subjected to such banality.

Then you break free of the clutches of suburbia and get your chance. Throw the throttle open and the RC8 snaps off the line. At 3,500 rpm the engine is starting to really come to life. Freed from town’s traffic the bike sings hard and mechanical into the upper range with a manic furry.

Once past the 6,000 rpm mark the digital tachometer graphs its way across the display to the 10,500 rpm red-line in an eye-blink, with spin-up that is near 600cc-sportbike quick. This is where the RC8 lives.


Sublime …

In the twists there is only a hint of vagueness – dial in the steering
damper and that too fades. Tip-in is light, elegant, rapid and planted.
Suspension is firm to the point of jarring at low speed but it holds
the road in a vicious unloving clawed embrace.

In these outbursts the RC8 is addictively sublime, coursing with an uncompromising superbike purity, which feeds your rider-id. The one-finger-abrupt brakes become surgeons’ scalpels excising speed with delicacy, yet when panic-grabbed are just as willing to slash.

Here too the rough low-end throttle control smoothes out, even as the vibration through the footpegs and bars builds, and the RC8 slices through speed limits legal and personal with an all too elegant ease.


Display offers a sea of information.

Regrettably, upshifting requires a firm measured jab. For all the bike’s sophistication, the transmission is slow-witted. Clutchless upshifts require careful and calculated execution, and come with the expectation of a false neutral.

Our test unit had not received the 2009 selector star and clutch spring upgrade to ease the shift action, a necessary improvement considering the lubricity of the competition’s transmissions.

In the whirl of bends, brakes and throttle, you can only look on at the information overload of a dash display trying to discern the speed. With modes for road and track the fine print LCD information is illegible at a glance and still sorely misses a gear shift indicator and fuel gauge.


Luck not included.

On a “MotoGP section” of local road, traffic becomes pylons, and you can’t help but push it somewhat. On the fifth pass through I pull over, there’s a job to do, notes to make. Just then, a police cruiser bullets past at what now seems a ridiculously quaint speed.

The KTM RC8 needs to be wrapped in such luck.


At a claimed 155 hp, the RC8 is down on power over its nearest ecological niche-mate, the 170 hp Ducati 1198, but somehow the RC8 makes the Ducati feel absolutely calm and gentle. It has a raw, mechanical feel with lightning spin-up, and no urge to coddle your imprecise humanity. By comparison the Ducati feels almost Honda smooth.

On the spec-sheet the two bikes are strikingly similar; to ride though, the experience is massively different. On the bell-curve of lunacy the Ducati is forgiving thank the gods of traction control for that.  The KTM RC8 is on the other side – an outlier, with a brutal sense of drama.


The mirrors not only work, they flash too!

Question is, how much do you value comfort? The ergonomic violence of a
Ducati 1198S, or a gentler more civilized veneer to ward off your
chiropractor after the 30th jerk of the whiplash throttle?

The ergos of the KTM are the sensible point, and something that no other superbike offers. Even the stylish mirrors actually provide a rearward view of something other than your elbows.

Abrupt and absurd, comfortable and hard-edged, the KTM RC8 is a passionate two-wheeled contradiction, until you realize it is designed with a superbike purity that moderates its low-end faults.

Uncorked on the open road, is where the RC8 belongs and proves to be insolently easy to ride.




1148 cc

Four-stroke dohc 75° v-twin,

(crank – claimed)
155 hp @ 10,000 rpm

88.5 ft-lbs @ 8,000 rpm

Keihin EFI (throttle body 52 mm)

Final drive
Six speed, chain drive

120/70 ZR 17

190/55 ZR 17

Twin 320 mm discs with four-piston

Single 220 mm disc with dual-piston

805/825 mm (31.69/32.48″)

1430 mm (56.30″)

184 kg (405.6 lbs)

Orange or Black
months or 20,000 kms


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