It is kind of hard to resist a bike that makes you feel like you are riding above your skill level—a bike that is so inviting and easy to handle from the moment you throw a leg over the tallish seat that you’re off and running before you have even glanced at the fuel gauge (yes, I had to coast down the mountain to a filling station as my over-exuberance got the best of me).
I will admit that I was already committed before I had turned the key, having spent quality time testing the previous KTM 690 Duke. I was a fan, infatuated by the bike’s easy ergonomics, light weight, willing personality, and big thumping motor. KTM has reworked the 690 Duke’s engine and added electronics for 2016, so I was eager to check it out.[Visit the Ultimate Motorcycling Motorcycle Reviews Page]Having clocked my early street miles on a Honda XL250R dual sport bike, I feel right at home on an upright bike with roomy ergonomics. Though I’m on tiptoes astride the 690 Duke’s 33-inch high saddle, the bike weighs just under 350 pounds, has a narrow frame, and wide bars—all working to make it easy to manage. I wouldn’t trade away any of the 5.3-inches of travel or of the big-single’s 105mm of stroke to get my Sidis at on the ground.My immediate target on my first ride was the local Santa Monica Mountains. After less than a minute’s ride down the neighborhood street it was obvious that I was going to twist the throttle and ride with unrestrained enthusiasm.The 690 is eager to please, and revs happily, encouraging you to step things up. It is clear you will have to restrain the urge to blitz around town or you will quickly get into trouble. Why tempt yourself?Find an appropriate playground and go have a blast. Thanks to a redesigned cylinder head, new piston and con-rod, updated crank bearings, and an improved air intake system, KTM has increased the claimed peak horsepower and torque of the LC4 to 73 horses and 55 ft/lbs.More importantly, the motor produces more power everywhere on the powerband from about 4500 rpm on up, while retaining its 690cc displacement. KTM upped the bore by 3mm, reduced the stroke, and found efficiencies in the intake and exhaust systems in order to comply with stricter emissions standards.It is difficult to quantify the power boost without riding models back-to-back, but what is undeniable is a higher redline. At 9000 rpm that extends the useable rev range by 750 rpm, and this generous overrev becomes addictive when powering between close-knit corners.Being a thumper, the 690 pulls all the way from idle to 8000 rpm before trailing off slightly. Shifting through the six-speed gearbox is a smooth exercise that requires only a light touch of the foot. The hydraulic clutch is similarly feather-light. My only complaint is that in tight conditions, I found the gap between first and second gear to be too wide.With gobs of torque and plenty of manageable power at the ready, it is an utter blast to whip through my favorite winding roads, enjoying the leverage of the upright seating and wide handlebars. The nearly supermoto ergonomics raise my confidence level exponentially. I push harder and lean farther, all without much effort. This is a chassis and motor combination to excel by.Suspension is aimed at athletic riding, and the 43mm inverted WP forks (non-adjustable, unfortunately) firmly hold the line in fast sweepers and don’t flex when braking hard. On several favored roads, I pushed to my maximum pace as the 690 took the bumps and imperfections in stride, with the shock compliance balanced nicely with the forks.Grip from the Metzeler Sportec M7 RR tires fed my confidence, allowing me to push right along with my enthusiasm, and that is an exhilarating feeling. As the pegs feel low, I was surprised to never scrape a peg, even though I felt like I was leaning over farther than usual.However, scuffing on the Metzelers assured me that I was working the edges—credit a healthy cornering clearance and the Duke being more than limber enough to slalom through chicanes quickly.Brakes are another essential part of the confidence equation and KTM fitted the 690 with a radially mounted four-piston Brembo acting on the immense 320mm front disc. With so little bike weight, and the limited power of a single cylinder motor, one massive rotor gets the job done with conviction, allowing me to brake quite late. Initial engagement is stay-out-of-trouble soft, and a healthy squeeze returns persuasive linear deceleration.In addition to hard braking, I am also a big fan of downshifting into corners; with plenty of compression braking from the 12.7:1 motor, and backup from the 690’s effective slipper clutch, I am able to do this with impunity. ABS is there to bail me out if I get too aggressive with the brakes.The new Ride Mode technology optimizes power delivery and response, utilizing the ride-by-wire throttle. Street mode is standard on the 690, with Rain and Sport options as part of a Track pack that includes traction control. In the perennial dry conditions of SoCal, I’m okay without the Rain mode, and Street is responsive enough to overly tempt my right hand.Those who require Sport mode know who they are and can spring for the Track pack. While I don’t feel cheated by the Street mode, I haven’t tried the Sport option. In a bit of a cruel taunt, the optional ride modes are displayed on the dash, but grayed out.OK, so maybe you can’t play in the hills and canyons everyday, but commuting on the 690 Duke is the best way to arrive at work with a smile on your face— the envy of your cage-bound cubemates. The KTM’s acceleration makes getting on the freeway another exercise in restraint, as it is rather easy to exceed the speed limit on the on-ramp.Suffice to say, the 690 can easily handle extra-legal freeway speeds with plenty of stability (and you can finally use sixth gear, which feels like an overdrive everywhere else). The naked profile doesn’t provide any wind relief, and above 80 mph your body works hard to break the air, so that’s a natural barrier to extreme tickets.KTM has worked to reduce the vibration on the 690, tapping the camshaft as a second balancer shaft. They claim this offers “all-day, twin cylinder-like comfort”—a bit of an overreach unless you are riding casually, and who would do that on this bike for long stretches?While there is a noticeable decrease in vibration at the footpegs and seat, there is still a prominent single-cylinder thump in the 5500 to 6500 rpm range. As that’s the addictive rev range on this bike, when you are on the gas you’re going to feel it. For me, the pulse is a part of the single-cylinder experience that I enjoy. However, I don’t enjoy the buzziness in the mirrors; unless you’re truly riding at a relaxed pace, the mirrors will not be sharp.What is sharp looking, though, is the brand-new light-sensitive TFT digital dash. With contrasting digits and back-ground color that change depending on available light, it defines what a dash should look like and spoils you for anything else. The extra large numbers make it abundantly clear how fast you are going, and the four-button controller is highly intuitive to use.There are a couple more horses to be had by slipping on the Akrapovič exhaust from the KTM PowerParts catalog, which also adds what KTM describes as “breath-taking, aggressive noise.” That Slovenian exhaust is stock on the R version of the KTM 690 Duke, which is not imported into the United States.It has been over two decades since KTM introduced the first Duke to the world, and the latest version will not disappoint. There is nothing more inspiring than a bike that you feel at one with as soon as you throw a leg over the seat, and that is exactly what happens to me on the 2016 KTM 690 Duke.Photography by Don WilliamsRiding Style:
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This week, in the first segment Editor Don Williams talks to us about the new Kawasaki Versys 650 LT. It’s the middleweight ADV style machine that uses the same 650 parallel twin motor as the Ninja 650, so it’s an excellent performer in a user-friendly, good looking package.
In the second segment, I chat with one of my dearest industry friends—now retired Honda PR executive, Jon Seidel. Jon’s fascinating career spans some 30 years with Big Red, and gave him some great experiences with some incredible machines. I was fortunate enough to be invited on many of the press launches that he organized. His new project is documenting and saving many of the old archives from years gone by—and incidentally, if you have anything that may be of value to the project, please contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll pass it all on to Jon.
So on that note, from all of us here at Ultimate Motorcycling, we hope you enjoy this episode!