Test ride: 2019 KTM 790 Duke

I’m lucky you’re reading this review. Riding the 790 Duke turned me from a mild-mannered Gold Wing lover and Harley owner into a wannabe hooligan, ripping and snorting all over town. Sling a leg over the low 825 mm seat, thumb the parallel twin into life, and you just want to peel out of there like Keanu or Tom. Every. Single. Time.

Maybe it was because the bike is relatively small for its power and it feels like a toy, though it’s very far from it and lists at $11,499. Or maybe it was because when you ride it with a full-face helmet, you’re far enough forward that you cannot see any of the instruments or even the headlight – in fact, nothing of the bike except the mirrors. It’s as if you’re flying, and it’s addictive.

The 790 Duke is a physically small bike, but try telling it that.

Somehow, I kept my licence from being fed into the government shredder. This bike needs a major reality check from anyone who grips its bars, to remember that riding is a hard-earned privilege, and you’re probably not that good a rider anyway. But with that out of the way, oh my god it’s fun.

Read all the specs for the 2019 KTM 790 Duke here

It probably helped, too, that KTM did not supply its press bike with the plug-in dongle that’s needed to access Race mode. I could switch between Sport, Street, and Rain (actually, I pretty much just left it in Sport), which adjust the power delivery and the traction control as you’d expect, but Race allows wheelies and drifting and launch control. I think KTM has a pretty good handle on the aspirations and abilities of the Canadian motorcycle press corps.

It’s on quick, flicky corners that the 790 Duke excels.

What is it?

The 790 Duke is a 799 cc parallel twin that claims 105 hp and 64 lbs.-ft. of torque. This means it goes like stink. That’s no big deal – probably, my Aunt Fanny could build a motorcycle that goes like stink in a straight line – but it’s the handling and the ease of the ride that make all the difference. There’s a reason why KTM calls it “the Scalpel,” because it really does dip and dive exactly as you’d want it to through traffic and along curving roads. Hence, the hooliganism.

The Duke shares its engine and much of its componentry with the KTM 790 Adventure, which impressed both Zac and Costa when they rode it in California this summer. The Adventure is the off-road version; its suspension and rubber are clearly quite different because the street-oriented Duke gets quite squirrelly on gravel roads and chewed-up, post-apocalyptic surfaces. The Toecutter might love the Duke, but he’ll last a lot longer on the Adventure.

(Actually, the Toecutter would probably want even more power, so would go for the just-announced 120 hp 890 Duke R, or the over-the-top 177 hp of the $20,000 1290 Super Duke R.)

When the engine first fires into life, it sounds a bit rattly. After a while, I grew to think of the noise as “raspy” or even “brappy” and forgave it the indulgence. Maybe I was turning into a thug. In fact, the engine is really quite smooth thanks to dual counterbalance shafts, and it pulls strongly throughout the rev range, all the way to just shy of its 9,500 rpm redline.

How does it ride?

So now that I’ve started the engine, blipped the throttle and peeled out of there in a plume of smoke and dust, how’s the rest of it?

Quite comfortable, for a start – at least, more so than I expected. You lean into the wind and if there’s any rain or dirt in the air, it’s going to hit you. On the upside, the bars aren’t low-slung like a sport bike or race bike, so your wrists and neck aren’t going to protest. The seat is fine for an hour or so at a time, but you’ll probably want to stop to catch your breath before your butt starts to hurt.

That’s Mark being a hooligan. Lock up your daughters and hide the family silver! Not for long though – he’ll get off the bike soon.

I went for a ride on country roads with a group of friends, who were piloting everything from a large scooter to a mid-sized cruiser, and it didn’t take long before I pulled up my proverbial jacket sleeves and started playing silly buggers. I overtook the procession to lead the way and wail around corners, waiting at the end for the others to catch up. I revved the Duke at stop signs. If I owned the bike, I’d probably have burned through a tire doing a donut. You’ll likely lose friends quickly if you do this regularly.

You won’t gain many friends who’ll want to ride pillion, either. I was curious how the bike would behave with a passenger on the back, but nobody wanted to trust their backsides to the Duke’s tiny rear seat. Either that or they just didn’t trust me. Can’t say as I blame them. It’s too bad because the back seat really isn’t much good for anything else – there’s no storage space under it, nor any bungee hooks or obvious places to hook onto.

The monochrome TFT display screen is full of useful information, but it’s really not very easy to read because most of the type is too small. You have to tip your head down to see it, anyway, so even if it’s flashing red and orange warnings, you probably won’t notice until you come to a stop or the bike blows up.

One of the best things about the Duke is its traction control, which includes leaning ABS. It was good to know that a bike this responsive is also looking out for me, and that everything can be toned down in slippery conditions. I never did get the chance to ride in bad weather – I was too busy staying inside on those days, keeping warm and watching TV – but it’s a comfort to think the bike could force me into responsibility when conditions dictate.

Don’t think for a moment that the Duke is parked legally. Mark’s bucking the system here. The meter ran out almost two minutes ago.

Is it worth it?

The 790 Duke is not cheap. It starts at $11,499, and that’s before the silly freight charge of $550 and any taxes. It’s unchanged for 2020, but the newer model year is still bumped up in price by $100, just because.

You can get a lot of naked bike for that kind of money, including the $10,900 BMW F800R, the $10,400 Kawasaki Z900, and the $10,200 Yamaha MT-09. You’d expect the KTM’s WP inverted front forks to be adjustable, but they’re not. That leaning ABS is really nice though, and none of those other bikes kick out quite so readily as the Duke. None feel quite so small, either, and while that’s not always a good thing, it is with a bike like this.

I had a lot of fun with the KTM, but given the choice, I’d probably make the sensible decision to keep my licence and my friends and go for anything but the Duke. That’s just me though, being responsible because I’m old and I’ve been round the block.

Of course, motorcycles aren’t always about being sensible. If you want to go round the block in a haze of tire smoke and burning rubber, face in the wind and yelling all the way, KTM’s got the bike for you.

 Read all the specs for the 2019 KTM 790 Duke here

It may look like The Fly from the front, but that headlight is exceptionally effective.


    • It worked for my 990 Superduke (the orange ones looked cheap, black looked awesome) – at least in my opinion. My wife still considers it the ugliest bike I have ever owned…

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