Remember that neighbourhood kid your mom told you to stay away from? The one who’d urge you to do things you knew could get you in trouble. That kid was unkempt, tough, rebellious, and yet somehow, so likable.
Well, as a grown-up there are some things you should still stay away from, if for no other reason than they will coax the worst out of you. And the 2019 KTM 690 SMC-R is the two-wheeled equivalent of that adolescent agitator.
New for 2019, the $12,899 SMC-R is the only supermoto in KTM’s line up, in a category that was once more popular. In fact, the only other bike on the market that can be considered a genuine supermoto — that is, a single-cylinder dirt bike equipped with 17-inch wheels and sporty tires — is the Suzuki DR-Z400SM, which is a docile minion in comparison.
Powering the SMC-R is KTM’s 693 cc LC4 single, which claims 74 horsepower and 54 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s huge power, and it really emphasizes just how much KTM has developed the single-cylinder engine over the years. That’s easily twice the power produced by the 651 cc single in my KLR650, though admittedly the Kawasaki is a decades-old design.
The fuel injection system features a ride-by-wire throttle, and the bike is equipped with traction control and lean-sensing ABS, both of which feature limited adjustability, and can be switched off. Everything defaults to mommy’s-watching-out-for-you mode each time the ignition is switched on, but an optional dongle is available that retains any settings you’ve selected indefinitely.
Now, about that switchable traction control: The owner’s manual states that holding the TC button for 3 to 5 seconds with the throttle closed should turn it off, but it took me several attempts to succeed, and even then it seemed random.
KTM introduced a counterbalancer into the LC4 engine in 2008, and it transformed the engine from a hand-numbing, tooth-chipping jackhammer into a rider-friendly mill easily capable of daylong rides. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the seat, which is hard, narrow, and akin to being perched on a two-by-four plank sitting upright.
Despite having dirt-bike origins — it is a modified version of the 690 Enduro R — the chassis could easily underpin a supersport machine. The chrome-moly trellis frame is rigid, there’s a massive cast-aluminum swingarm, and it’s equipped with high-end suspension and brake components. KTM subsidiary WP provides the fully adjustable suspension, and brakes are by Brembo. Wheels are 17 inchers, and the Bridgestone S21 tires are a moderately sticky street-sport compound. I’d spoon on a set of super-sticky race compound tires and wick up the fun factor chasing down supersport riders during a track day.
The SMC-R has a couple of ride modes, which KTM labels Road and Supermoto, selectable on the fly with a button on the left-hand switch pod. More appropriately they should be called Try-Catching-Up and Put-Me-in-Jail modes. Road mode is supposed to provide balanced throttle response, while Supermoto is more direct and also backs down traction control to allow supermoto-worthy rear slides. In reality, I could barely differentiate between the two modes: both of them provide aggressive throttle mapping, and both require a judicious right hand.
No laws were broken, I swear
The SMC-R is a tall bike, with the seat at 890 mm (35 inches). Butt-splitting seat not withstanding, the riding position is upright, roomy and comfortable. I once owned a 690 Enduro, which had a very similar riding position and seat, and I replaced the original seat with an aftermarket item. The change completely transformed the bike in a very good way; I’d suggest doing the same if you’re looking to pile on some distance.
Throttle response is instant, and a beginner will find it abrupt, even in pseudo “Road” mode — those KTM guys are funny. Wheelies… well, if you’re averse to riding on a single contact patch I suggest you don’t fan the clutch with the revs up in the lower gears.
I took my influential accomplice on one of my favourite twisty, bumpy roads northwest of Montreal, which will remain unidentified so I can keep it to myself. Despite the secretive nature of this road (okay, it’s near Lachute, Quebec, but that’s all I’m saying), a leather-suit-clad rider on a ZX-6R caught up to me at a rather quick pace. He was in attack mode. To flatter his ego a bit, I let him by. Then I got into attack mode.
Admittedly, if the road were more open and flowing, he’d have probably ridden away from me. But in these tight quarters, I put my elbows up and the hammer down. I caught up, and then filled his mirrors with black, white and orange. I noticed his elbows drop a few times as he checked to see where I was, and he even wicked it up a notch when he noticed I was right on his tail.
Now, here’s the thing about supersport machines: while they are tailored specifically to dominate other types of motorcycles on a racetrack, on the road they are compromised machines. While he lifted his butt off the seat occasionally to deal with bumps, which visually upset his bike, my butt stayed planted on the seat, and the leverage offered by the wide handlebar allowed me to throw the bike around effortlessly. Only a hint of instability made it through the chassis in the form of a light headshake, and that was mostly induced by my sometimes abrupt handlebar inputs.
The torquey engine allowed the bike to blast out of corners, almost regardless of which gear was selected, though on this road it varied between second and fourth. The bike is equipped with a quick shifter, allowing clutch-less gear changes up and down the box. It works well at high revs, but is clumsy at lower speeds, increasing shifting effort and providing jerky gear changes. In town, I resorted to normal clutch shifting, and used the quick shifter only when riding like a delinquent.
The bike is geared quite tall, prompting use of five of its six speeds almost anywhere but on the highway, and even then, sixth works best above 110 km/h. Below that and the bike shudders. When you replace the torture device seat, also look into shorter gearing — it’ll really unleash the hooligan in this machine.
Despite my ambitious throttle hand, the bike still managed an average of 4.4L/100 km, and aside from that bike-chasing episode, I didn’t ride at high speeds, which would have otherwise affected fuel mileage. At that rate, the 13.5-litre, rear-mounted fuel tank is good for about 300 km.
So, is it a good riding partner?
At $12,899 the SMC-R is reasonably priced for the performance it offers, and the cost is partly justifiable by the high-end components utilised on the machine. For that price though, I’d choose the 690 Enduro R, since it offers a wider range of riding, including serious off-roading, and it probably doesn’t give up all that much to the SMC-R in terms of road handling. On a racetrack though, it would be another story, so if pavement is your priority, the SMC-R is a seriously fun motorcycle.
Like that neighbourhood hoodlum you weren’t supposed to hang out with, the KTM 690 SMC-R can’t really be relied on to be your only riding partner. It makes an awesome second bike for those times when you need a release (get your mind out of the gutter Editor Mark, not that kind of release). It’s the ideal bike for a quick romp through the twisties, or even for a lively trip to work through commuter traffic. It’s great in little doses, but longer stints in the saddle will have you wanting to leave the party.