Costa takes the KTM Duke for a leisurley ride and discovers that a single lunger can be quite the hooligan.
A couple of friends and I took a ride around town on a rare sunny and warm afternoon. We were riding a trio of eccentrically styled motorcycles: our long-term Honda DN-01, a Suzuki Gladius and a KTM 690 Duke.
Every time we stopped at a crowded intersection, fingers pointed, eyes gazed and heads nodded. Odd thing was that most of the gawking was aimed at one machine: the Duke.
Its nakedly angular, Transformer-esque styling simply overshadowed the bulbous DN-01 and the swoopy Gladius.
Fortunately, this Austrian venture into avant-garde moto-nakedness isn’t just a styling exercise; it works damn well, too — especially when taking into account that only one piston propels it.
THE POWER OF ONE
That single piston resides in the latest version of the LC4 engine, which was introduced two years ago in the duckbilled 690 Supermoto and has since been incorporated into several other 690 models, significantly changing KTM’s big-bore street and dual-sport bikes for the better.
Claiming 62–65 horsepower (depending on which model it’s in), it’s up about a dozen horsepower on the older LC4 engine, and is the most powerful street-legal single made by anyone.
But maybe most significantly, the bone-jarring vibration that plagued previous LC4 engines (as used in KTM’s 640 models) has been quelled through the introduction of a counter-balancer.
KTM also introduced fly-by-wire fuel injection with the 690 single, which actually displaces 654 cc, and like many sportbikes these days, comes with three power modes. Oddly, on the Duke these options are selectable via a dial located behind a frame rail on the right-hand side of the bike (though it’s a better set-up than on the Enduro and SMC models, which require seat removal in order to access).
We’re not sure why KTM chose to do this as switching between modes on the go is not an option. A simple handlebar mounted switch would seem to be the most logical option of all.
In standard mode, full power is available up top but bottom-end power delivery is softer than in the more aggressive mode, which offers all the power, all the time. The third mode caps output to about 45 horsepower and is intended to make wet-weather riding more manageable.
A SINGLE DIGIT
There’s enough power on tap in the two more aggressive power modes to humble most middleweight supersport riders on winding roads, and without trying to sound boastful (go on Costa, let loose – Editor ‘Arris), that’s just what I did during one spirited jaunt along the lovely Route 327, which winds its way through the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal.
I caught up to and, for a while, followed a race-leather-clad rider mounted on a GSX-R750. He was riding smoothly enough and at a quick-ish pace and even hanging off the machine in turns, but he was still holding me up a bit. So I bided my time until the road opened up a bit where I passed him safely and pulled away.
This sporty aspect of the Duke caught me by surprise a bit and I wasn’t expecting to ride at such a sporting pace, and had left my house wearing jeans, a textile jacket and an open face helmet.
Now, I wouldn’t usually brag about kicking a pseudo-racer-boy’s ass, wearing casual attire and riding what should have been an outclassed machine, but then he shouldn’t have given me the finger when he later rode past me after I stopped to take some pictures.
Hmhh, maybe he didn’t approve of my riding gear …
FIRM AND FRUITY
At an adrenaline-inducing pace, the Duke handled superbly. Its chassis, which includes a steel trellis frame and a unique inside-out swingarm, is very rigid and responded instantly to steering input. The bike steered exactly where I wanted to go, and only a couple of times gave a hint of a rider-induced front-end twitch.
This is the closest a bike with so few cylinders can come to handling like a full-blown supersport.
I used mostly fourth gear (in the most aggressive power mode), and just let the tach needle sweep across its face between turns. On tighter turns, I banged the shifter down two gears and let the slipper clutch and massive single front disc with its Brembo radial-mount, four-pot caliper do their thing, initiating me into corners safely and smoothly.
The upright seating position and wide handlebar were conducive to this type of riding, allowing me to flip the bike effortlessly through esses, but the bike is tall and my body seemed to arc high above the pavement on quick transitions — it just felt a bit odd.
Firm suspension (supplied by WP) held the machine firmly through a chosen line at speed; however, it was a bit too stiff for Quebec’s “fine” pavement, even when adjusted to its softest settings, and I often found myself catching butt-air off sharp bumps.
Seat height, at 855 mm, is tall, and I barely got both feet flat on the ground. The rider’s portion of the seat, which has a rounded profile that widens and flattens at the rear, was much more accommodating than the perch on the 690 Enduro and SMC models, but it still limited riding time to about 90 minutes before my buns needed some airing out.
KTM’s accessory catalogue offers a gel seat for the Duke, in three different heights, though it would be nice if they just put the thing on as standard.
The seat lifts via a key, allowing access to the air filter, but there’s no place to store anything under there. Crafty individuals can remove the charcoal canister, which isn’t yet mandatory in Canada, therefore revealing a small storage compartment in the tailpiece that can hold tools, a pair of gloves or other small items.
But you didn’t get that from me.
UNLEASH THE INNER HOOLIGAN
The Duke incited illicit behaviour in town, so I really had to exercise restraint. The dirt-bike-like riding position triggered an almost automatic leg-out reflex in turns, and the “power-on-demand” engine, especially when in the most aggressive power mode, responded to ham-fisted throttle application with instant wheelies in first and second gears.
The bike’s slender profile allowed it to snake effortlessly through traffic — and when I came to a stop at an intersection, the small gawking audience waiting at the corner almost begged me to pull a YouTube-type stunt — well, at least in my head; they were actually waving over a cab.
Being somewhat pliable I decided to select the softest power mode in town and ignored the bike’s constant badgering. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Overall gearing is very tall and taking off from a stop required a fair amount of clutch slippage, taking some of the fun out of traffic-light sprints. I used only first to third gears around town and only got the bike into sixth when speeds rose above 110 km/h on the highway.
Dropping one tooth on the countershaft would do this bike wonders, but that would also probably jeopardize your driver’s license, as those effortless first- and second-gear wheelies would probably become as frequent in third gear.
That tall gearing, however, combined with rubber handlebar mounting and rubber footpeg inserts to provide a much smoother highway ride than the equally LC4-motivated 690 Enduro and SMC models, which are geared shorter and lack the rubber bits.
Aside from being lightweight and slender, another benefit of a single-cylinder machine is agreeable fuel economy. Even with a modestly heavy throttle hand the Duke averaged 4.6 L/100 km (61 mpg), which means you could squeeze almost 300 km from its 13.5-litre fuel tank.
The gauge set is shared among all current 690 models, and it is compact, with a prominent analogue tachometer and digital speedometer. Functions are limited to dual trip meters, a fuel reserve trip meter, time of day, and an engine temperature scale (it doesn’t display coolant temperature). A gear indicator would be a smart addition.
THE DUKE OF EARL
I enjoyed riding the Duke, even if it brought out the delinquent in me. Okay, especially since it brought out the delinquent in me. It’s not the most practical of bikes, with its firm suspension and limited touring capability, but at $11,398 it makes a sensible alternative to a middleweight supersport machine.
But be prepared: if the road is winding and tight, expect to peg the fun-factor meter often and to get the occasional finger from a disgruntled sportbike rider.
|KTM 690 Duke
|Four-stroke dohc single, liquid-cooled
|Power (crank – claimed)
|64 hp @ 7,500 rpm
|49 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
|Keihin EFI with Electronic Throttle Control
|Six speed, Chain drive
|Single 320 mm disc with radial-mount four-piston caliper
|Single 240 mm disc with single-piston caliper
|865 mm (34″)
|1,472 mm (57.9″)
|Dry weight (claimed)
|148.5 kg (327 lb)
|12 months / 20,000 km