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Common Tread

2019 KTM 790 Duke first ride review

Oct 24, 2018

It’s not often that a manufacturer takes a drastic departure from its preferred engine layout. Ducati manufactures L-twins, Triumph produces parallel twins and triples, and KTM produces singles and V-twins. When they do decide to step out of that box, the results could go either way.

When Triumph introduced an inline-four in their mid-sized Daytona in the early 2000s, it was met with little fanfare and abandoned shortly thereafter. When BMW first brought their four-cylinder to market in their K line, society dubbed it "The Flying Brick" and boxer-twin traditionalists were skeptical. But it eventually caught on and later the S 1000 RR, S 1000 R, and S 1000 XR ushered in an entirely new generation of four-cylinder power for the Bavarian manufacturer. So, when KTM announced it would be debuting a new parallel-twin engine, I was immediately interested to see on which side of the line it would fall.

The first bike to receive KTM’s new p-twin is the all-new KTM 790 Duke, a middleweight, naked sport bike that slots in between the single-cylinder 690 Duke and the flagship of the Duke line, the 1290 Super Duke R. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the 790 and I was excited to get the opportunity to live with this bike for a few days to figure out just how good it really is.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
KTM dubbed the 790 "The Scalpel" for its razor-like handling. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Meet the 790 Duke

The Dukes are a family of naked sport bikes living within KTM’s lineup. From the entry-level 390 Duke to the wildly powerful 1290 SDR, these bikes offer a fun, spirited ride, with enough comfort built in to get you (and your lower back) through a full day of riding. Naked sport bikes are one of the few growing segments of motorcycles in the United States and have been hugely important overseas for years. This is evident in the fact that the European market gets a version of the 790 Duke that restricts power output to adhere to A2 licensing restrictions.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
The all-new parallel-twin engine is at the heart of what makes this Duke so unique in KTM's lineup. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Here in America, however, we get the full-flavored version. The liquid-cooled, 799 cc parallel twin claims 105 horsepower at 9,000 rpm and 64 foot-pounds of torque at 8,000 rpm. For reference, that’s on par with Yamaha’s FZ-09, which claims 65 foot-pounds of torque with the help of an additional cylinder. (Triumph’s Street Triple RS claims 57 foot-pounds.)

Even with the addition of dual counterbalancers, the engine spins up wickedly fast. It can easily get away from you if you’re not paying attention. This engine is definitely not aimed at new riders. Rather, I see this as a second or third step for most riders progressing through the displacement line.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
The TFT Dash layout is clear and easy to use. It allows riders to select from four preset riding modes and then fine tune them by making adjustments to ABS, Traction Control, and Anti-Wheelie mode. You can even turn the quickshifter on and off. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The engine is a stressed member in the tubular steel frame. Its power is kept in check by a sophisticated electronics suite comparable to what can be found on the larger Super Duke R. At the heart of the system are four distinct rider modes, which can be selected via the full-color TFT dash.

The layout is super intuitive and easy to navigate. Using the control panel on the left side grip, riders can select between Rain, Street, Sport, or Track.  Each mode offers varying levels of throttle response, traction control, power output, and anti-wheelie control. When you get into Track mode, you can dial in nine different levels of spin adjustment in the traction control and you can turn off wheelie control.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
This chart helps to explain the breakdown of the different ride modes. KTM image.

Both traction control and ABS (standard) are lean-angle-sensitive, thanks to an IMU. That means that the system will engage differently when you are in a turn, based on how far you are leaned over. ABS can also be put into Supermoto mode, which disables the safety feature at the rear wheel. You also have the option to turn everything off, if you so choose.

The 790 Duke gets a quickshifter for seamless upshifts as well as downshifts. To help keep things smooth during aggressive downshifts, the slipper clutch is aided by KTM's Motor Slip Regulation (MSR) system, which acts as an auto blipper to match engine speed when blasting down through the gears. The one piece of technology that isn't standard is KTM's My Ride system, which allows the rider's phone to be linked to the dash. For folks interested in this, the My Ride Control Unit can be added from the Power Parts catalog.

The biggest change KTM riders will notice is the use of a cable clutch as opposed to the hydraulic clutch that is standard on the more expensive models. The 790 Duke does get adjustable levers, but I don’t love them. They don’t adjust far enough out for my big paws. I would most likely be looking to upgrade these.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
Braking was strong and progressive. ABS is standard and can be configured to Supermoto mode or disabled completely. RevZilla photo.

This wasn’t as much of a problem when shifting but it was for braking. I brake with two fingers on the lever and the rest on the bar and I kept smashing the lever into the knuckle on my ring finger. I would have loved more of an initial bite out of the dual radially mounted, KTM-branded, four-piston calipers, but overall braking was strong and progressive.

The 790 Duke is suspended at the front via a 43 mm WP fork similar to the 390 and 690 Duke. While KTM’s full-sized twins get 48 mm fork tubes with external adjustment, the 790’s fork is a sealed unit with no external adjustment. It utilizes a progressive spring, which gets stiffer the further into the 5.51-inch stroke you get. There is also a stock steering damper mounted at the lower triple.

The rear WP shock is only adjustable for preload via a notched collar. It gets a progressive spring, as well (which is normal for a stock non-linkage shock). The shock is actually a floating piston with separated gas-charged design, which offers more performance than a normal emulsion shock. But the lack of adjustability on the suspension overall is still going to be the biggest limitation of the 790’s performance.

2019 KTM 790 Duke Spurgeon Dunbar
The engine is easily my favorite part of this bike. I like both the power it makes and the way it delivers it. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

Riding the 790 Duke

Whereas KTM nicknamed the 1290 Super Duke R “The Beast” for its overall brute strength, the 790 Duke was dubbed “The Scalpel” for its light handling. As I approached this review, the main thing I wanted to focus on was whether the new Duke lived up to its nickname.

In order to do this, I spent as much time riding the 790 Duke as my regular work schedule allowed. I racked up nearly 500 miles over four days. I tackled city commuting, highway travel, and curvy back country roads to really figure out what you can expect from this bike in stock trim.

2019 KTM 790 Duke Spurgeon Dunbar
Commuting from my parents' house to test the Duke's highway capability. Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar.

Sporty steering geometry (24 degrees of rake and 3.86 inches of trail) combines with the relatively low dry weight of 373 pounds to allow the Duke to turn in with minimal effort placed on the handlebar. The bike is extremely nimble yet the slightly longer wheelbase of 58 inches gives it a very stable feel at high speeds on the highway. I tackled a few trips back and forth to my folks’ house, which entails about 35 miles of turnpike cruising at 85 mph. The 790 didn’t even flinch.

I was most impressed with the engine on this bike. It has gobs of mid-range power. It spins up fast and pulls hard. I really like the throttle response in Sport mode. I felt it was crisp and strong without being overly twitchy, which is a problem we’ve seen from some of the other manufacturers out there.

I did notice that the fueling tends to stumble below 4,000 rpm as if it’s searching for the appropriate air-to-petrol ratio. If you’re looking for a bike to putt around on in lower rpms, this bike is not the one for you. The 790 Duke wants to run, not crawl. It prefers to cruise right around 5,000 rpm, which is right at the beginning of the sweet spot between 5,000 and 9,000 rpm.

2019 KTM 790 Duke Spurgeon Dunbar
The KTM 790 prefers to be moooooving. Below 4,000 rpm, the fueling seems to stumble a bit and at lower speeds the heat coming off the catalytic converter is more noticeable. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

The bike gives off a noticeable amount of heat which is readily felt at one’s feet and lower legs (the catalytic converter sits right between the rider’s heels). If you regularly read Common Tread, you’ll know that I am a KTM 1090 Adventure R owner, so I am no stranger to the heat these Austrian bikes can produce. I’ve grown used to it and it isn’t bad enough to bother me. However, if you know you’re sensitive to engine heat, this could be a deal-breaker for you.

I think that both of these issues speak volumes to the fact that OEMs are having to adhere to increasingly strict emissions requirements. I would imagine there will be solutions for these issues in the aftermarket, depending on how strict motorcycle regulations are in the state in which you reside. I was already drooling over the full-system Akrapovic exhaust for the 790 and I don’t even own this bike. (I recently got to hold a full-system Akra race exhaust for the Super Duke R, and it’s insanely light. The entire thing weighs like five pounds.)

2019 KTM 790 Exhaust
The exhaust smashes into my right foot when riding on the balls of my feet. RevZilla photo.

Another issue with the exhaust is the fact that my right heel smashes into the stock can. This is a problem that I continually have on Kawasaki models and I am experiencing it here, as well. If you have large, size 13 flippers, you’ll probably have a similar issue if you ride on the balls of your feet.

Once you get out onto an open country road, all of those nitpicks disappear. This bike just puts a smile on your face. Put it into track mode and dial back the traction control and it’s extremely easy to loft the front wheel. Running third gear long and riding over dips in the road had me laughing in my helmet.

While the entire electronics package is really impressive, it was the quickshifter I had the most fun with. Running up through the gears was great, but it was the aggressive downshifts that really got me. The MSR technology works seamlessly with the slipper clutch to match engine speed and the rear wheel never felt unsettled.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
The 790 Duke is aggressive enough to ride fast but relaxed enough to be enjoyed all day. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

This bike is fast, intuitive, and smooth. The ergonomics are aggressive yet comfortable enough to ride all day, if your butt is up to the challenge of the relatively firm, sport-inspired saddle. It also feels insanely light. The power-to-weight ratio is so good. I liken it to what I imagine an MT-07 would be if someone stuffed a MT-09 engine into it.

While it might sound simple, the turning radius at “parking-lot speeds” was really impressive. A lot of the naked sport bikes I have ridden have a limited steering lock that makes them incredibly difficult to turn around at low speeds. The Duke makes low-speed maneuvers a breeze.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
The 790 Duke got a lot of attention from riders and non-riders alike. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The stock suspension is tuned more toward the sporty side. This works great on those back-country roads, but as I made it back into the city it was a bit harsh on the broken Philadelphia blacktop.

Curious about modification options for the suspension, I reached out to Evan at Solid Performance. From what he tells me, the front fork is fully serviceable with tune-able internals, just no stock external adjustment. It looks like there will be a drop-in kit from KTM to add adjustment for those folks who want it. There will also be a factory one-inch lowering option for shorter riders who feel the 32.5-inch seat height is too tall.

The rear shock, however, is not adjustable internally without serious modification. Evan said that there will be a replacement rear shock available but didn’t have the details on it just yet. It bears mention that at the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb this year, Chris Fillmore came in third place overall and set a new middleweight course record with a relatively stock 790 Duke. The suspension was one of the few modifications he tackled.

While I am no Chris Fillmore, I would want to modify the suspension if I were planning on purchasing a 790 Duke. The rest of the stock package is pretty impressive as it stands.

Competition

The KTM 790 Duke will hit the market with an MSRP of $10,499 and fills a hole in KTM’s lineup for folks who don’t want a single-cylinder 690 Duke but aren’t ready for the jump to the 1290 Super Duke R for $17,999.

But what should it be compared to outside of the KTM family?

2019 KTM 790 Duke Spurgeon Dunbar
There isn't a specific direct competitor for the 790 Duke. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

You could look toward all of the Japanese middleweight twins, like the Suzuki SV650, Yamaha MT-07, or Kawasaki Z650, but it’s not really fair. The KTM outguns those bikes in so many ways, including its much more significant price tag.

You could compare it to the MT-09 from Yamaha and Z900 from Kawasaki. The 790 will feature comparable power numbers but feels slightly more aggressive than the Z900 (I have yet to ride the updated FZ-09). Both the Yamaha and the Kawi feature more top-end horsepower, an adjustable suspension, and a lower MSRP, but they don’t come close to the technology of the KTM. In fact, the only other middleweight naked that is this tech-heavy is the Triumph Street Triple RS.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
The non-adjustable suspension on the 790 Duke was its most glaring shortcoming. RevZilla photo.

The RS gives you a track-level suspension right out of the box but also costs $2,000 more. And while it features more top-end horsepower than the 790, it doesn’t have the thrust of the KTM’s torque. And the $2,000 you save can do wonders for suspension upgrades.

All in all, there is not a clear-cut, out-of-the-box competitor for the 790 Duke. KTM built a very unique machine that I think will appeal to a lot of people.

Conclusion

The 790 Duke lives up to its nickname. This thing is a scalpel. Yet, in my opinion, the most significant component of this bike is the engine. It’s so damn good. Gobs of midrange and power that spins up sharp and fast. I can only imagine this plant is going to become a foundational staple in KTM’s lineup to serve as a platform for other models alongside the Duke.

Maybe a 790 Duke GT Sport Tourer for Lance or a 790 Adventure S for Lemmy (who has been racking up road miles like a fiend on our Honda Africa Twin). But the bike I am most excited about, in addition to this Duke, is the 790 Adventure R. With the way KTM has taken its own spin on the middleweight naked segment with this new Duke, I can only imagine they’ll take the same approach with future Adventure models.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
Available in black (with a hint of orange). KTM photo.

If it sounds like I liked this bike, I did. I am a fan of what KTM is doing right now. The 790 Duke is an extremely balanced motorcycle. It offers a nearly perfect combination of power, weight, and handling for folks looking for a fun sport naked. And if you aren’t a fan of orange, KTM even has a black version.

2019 KTM 790 Duke
Price (MSRP)  $10,500
Engine type  Liquid-cooled, four-stroke, DOHC parallel twin
Displacement  799 cc
Bore x stroke  88 mm x 65.7 mm
Fuel management  DKK Dell ́Orto (42 mm throttle bodies)
Power (claimed)  105 horsepower @ 9,000 rpm
Torque (claimed)  64 foot-pounds @ 8,000 rpm
Transmission  Six-speed
Front suspension  43 mm WP Fork, progressive springs, spring rate is 6.0 - 9.0 Nm 
Rear suspension  WP Shock with preload collar, progressive spring, spring rate is 130 - 160 Nm
Suspension travel front/rear   5.51 inches / 5.91 inches
Front brake  Dual radially mounted, four-piston calipers
Rear brake  Two-piston caliper
Tires front/rear  120/70ZR17 Maxxis Supermaxx ST; 180/55ZR17 Maxxis Supermaxx ST
Rake  24 degrees
Trail  3.86 inches  
Wheelbase  58.1 inches
Seat height  32.5 inches
Tank capacity  3.7 gallons
Dry weight (claimed)   373 pounds