KTM 1290 Super Duke R 2020

KTM 1290 Super Duke R

Aboard the updated 1290 Super Duke R.

Words by: Roland Brown
Pictures by: KTM Media

KTM’s lead rider had pulled in after a couple of warm-up laps, leaving clear tarmac ahead. And by the time I’d dispatched the main straight with the wind tugging at my neck, clamped on the ultra-potent Brembo Stylema calipers and then carved through the Portuguese circuit’s opening series of right-hand turns, it was clear that this Super Duke was far more at home here than its predecessor would have been.

The bike’s stability under hard braking was impressive, as was the precision with which it flicked into each turn in response to light pressure on the handlebar. And under acceleration the difference was even more obvious. As the KTM charged forward its chassis felt superbly taut and well controlled, coping with the 1301cc V-twin engine’s huge torque notably better than the old model would have done.

The afternoon’s ride on some wonderfully twisting and traffic-free roads in southern Portugal confirmed that the Super Duke’s new-found composure is welcome on the public highway, too – though arguably most appreciated at speeds that are best left unrecorded.

Put simply, the harder you ride this subtly restyled but comprehensively updated KTM, the more you’re likely to value its development. Which is timely, given that this year the V-twin faces aggressive new opposition from Ducati’s Streetfighter V4 and Kawasaki’s supercharged Z H2, as well as from familiar four-cylinder foes including Aprilia’s Tuono V4 1100. 

Extra engine performance wasn’t the main aim of this update but KTM’s team overhauled the dohc eight-valve unit nevertheless, partly to reduce weight. Many internal parts and the crankcases are lightened, saving almost a kilo throughout the engine. The new exhaust also saves a similar amount despite having larger-diameter pipes and an additional catalyser.

The intake system is revamped with a single intake at the centre of the headlight’s insect-like nose, instead of one on each side. This adds some ram-air effect and feeds a bigger airbox, which in turn supplies new top-mounted injectors. The result is a 3bhp increase to a maximum of 177bhp at 9500rpm. More important figures are arguably the near-unchanged torque peak of 140Nm, and the fact that over 100Nm is produced from just 3500rpm.

As before the 75-degree V-twin is gloriously flexible, which ever of its three engine modes (Sport, Street and reduced-output Rain) is selected. A tweak of the throttle sends the bike leaping forward with a muted growl from the silencer, yet the response is as refined as it’s strong, and even very low-rev running is smooth and civilised.

On those sweeping Portuguese roads this made the Super Duke wonderfully exhilarating and effortlessly rapid. KTM’s lead rider wasn’t hanging about, and I could tip the bike into blind turns in pursuit, knowing that even from 4000rpm it would rocket out again, responding immaculately to the throttle and revving smoothly and hard while I hung on tight and flicked though the revised gearbox with the aid of the flawless shifter.

That engine flexibility was also handy on the circuit, where the KTM was happy to take most turns a gear higher than I might have expected, and fired out of the Turn One right-hander in fourth where most bikes would require another downshift. It was seriously motoring just before that, too – indicating almost 270km/h in top while I sought what little wind protection was available behind the instrument panel.

Wind pressure might become an issue at times because the Super Duke provides very little protection even by naked bike standards. Some launch bikes were fitted with an accessory screen for the road ride but even this didn’t help much. (To be fair, KTM also produce the Super Duke GT for those wanting to avoid the breeze.)

This bike’s refreshed styling is even more sharply aggressive than before, and intended to add some downforce. The riding position is slightly sportier, with the handlebar set lower and further forward. That was helpful on track and also seemed a good compromise on the street, still giving a comfortably upright position for slower-speed riding.

There’s some adjustability in the handlebar, and plenty of other neat touches. The footrests can also be adjusted, and you can even fine-tune the gearlever throw, and quickly reverse the shift pattern. Less helpfully, the bigger airbox cuts fuel capacity from 18 to 16 litres. That should still mean a range of getting on for 200km, given that the KTM was averaging almost 7l/100km despite plenty of throttle abuse.

Its TFT screen is new and improved, part of an electronics update that includes revamped and more easily used switchgear plus latest-generation Bosch traction control and cornering ABS. It all worked seamlessly although it’s disappointing that, as before, you need the optional Track Pack to be able to disable the anti-wheelie, at least without turning off traction control too.

Enabling the Track setting gives a quick choice from three throttle modes, of which even the softest, Street, gave a very direct response, although I generally used the slightly sharper Sport at Portimao. Traction control adjustment is by Aprilia-style left thumb and index finger buttons. The system was impressively unobtrusive, level four of the nine giving a useful safety margin with minimal interference.

The Super Duke’s chassis changes far more than a first glance at the retained layout of tubular steel frame and aluminium swing-arm might suggest. That frame features larger-diameter tubes and uses the engine as a stressed member for the first time, which triples torsional rigidity and saves 2kg of weight.

A rear subframe of cast aluminium and carbon-fibre replaces the old steel tubes, saving another 1.5kg. The engine is held higher in the frame, which KTM say aids handling and gives a 5mm higher pivot for the single-sided swing-arm, which is redesigned and 15 per cent stiffer.

Rear suspension action is completely reworked, now incorporating a rising-rate linkage below the WP shock. This allows the remote-reservoir unit to have a longer action, while reducing rear wheel travel from 156 to 140mm. Up front, the 48mm WP Apex forks give an unchanged 125mm while now allowing adjustment of preload as well as damping.

Steering geometry is tweaked, and wheelbase increased by 15mm to 1497mm, but it’s the rear-end changes that make most difference. The Super Duke always handled fine on the road and it’s now better still, feeling a little more sporty and composed, and steering with impeccable accuracy even when its pilot is putting plenty of body weight through the bars.

A couple of times, when I hit a big bump at speed and felt a jolt through the seat, I wondered whether the outgoing model would have soaked it up slightly better. But I’m not sure about that, and most of the time the rider quality was fine, and the seat felt impressively comfortable. (A semi-active option would be nice, but at least the forks feature handy plastic damping knobs at the top of each leg, and the shock has a remote preload adjuster.)

And on track the new Super Duke’s advantage very quickly became clear. The previous model worked okay but was held back by all that rear suspension travel, tending to squat under power and feel a bit loose and wobbly, especially with a tall or heavy rider on board.

This latest bike has no such issues. Entering turns, and when braking with the full force of Brembo’s potent Stylema calipers, the KTM’s chassis felt subtly more controlled, aided by that stiffer frame and probably also by the revised geometry and the WP forks’ revised cartridge design.

And on corner exits the Super Duke was transformed. It no longer sat down under acceleration but stayed taut – holding its line much better, transmitting all that torque to its sticky, 200-section Bridgestone S22 much more efficiently, and generally making the bike both quicker and more enjoyable to ride.

Better still was the machine kitted-out with full Akro system, WP race suspension and Bridgestone slicks, on which we got one wide-eyed and hugely entertaining session. Louder, firmer, sharper and doubtless quicker still, it steered superbly and confirmed that the beefed-up frame can handle even more grunt and force than the stock bike provides.

Back in the real world the KTM looks competitively priced although its base figure doesn’t include the quick-shifter or Track Pack. Both seem almost obligatory in this class and add roughly five per cent to the cost before you get expensively tempted by the PowerParts list.

Keyless ignition and cruise control are standard fitment, though, and the Super Duke costs substantially less than the Tuono V4 1100 Factory and Streetfighter V4, though more than the base-model Aprilia and most other hyper-naked rivals. More to the point, the opposition is facing a distinctly toughened-up KTM.

Ever since its debut in 2014 the 1290 Super Duke R has been sharply styled and bursting with V-twin torque and character. It has always been light and sophisticated too, but until now its chassis didn’t quite hit the same heights. That changes with this latest model, which is notably stiffer and better controlled, giving KTM’s V-twin a timely boost with which to take on that growing gang of hyper-naked rivals.


Hermann Sporn, Super Duke R Project Leader

“Our main aim was to improve the chassis. We wanted to give a better feeling from the front end. We knew the frame was a bit soft so we increased the stiffness by a factor of three. We knew we didn’t have enough anti-squat so we increased that a lot. And we knew the handling could be better so we raised the centre of gravity.

“From the start of the project we wanted to keep the Super Duke’s good street behaviour and improve it for the track. And the stuff we did for the track helps for the street. Having more feedback is helpful, and better handling gives the possibility to change your cornering line – this helps a lot on the road too.

“We wanted to keep the character of the old Super Duke, so it should be easy to ride even for beginners. Riders liked the geometry, the handlebar size, the distance to the footrests… those things are really important. And they liked you could ride all day without discomfort from the seat so we wanted to retain that.

“Has the bike’s balance changed, from the street towards the track? No, no, no! That was a discussion we had in-house. Some people said, ‘This is a streetbike, and we are doing too much development on the racetrack.’ But I said, ‘When we are on the track we are on the maximum, so here you can feel if the chassis is doing right or wrong. If it works here we can see if there is also an improvement on the street.” And we found that it did work much better there too.”

“This is a motorcycle with a huge amount of torque. I believe we don’t have 20 or 28bhp less than the red bike [Ducati Streetfighter V4], we have 20Nm more – and that is what you need on the street. When I’m looking for the last second on a racetrack I need horsepower, but not in the mountains. There you never know what the next corner will bring, so it’s great that the Super Duke will drive out of turns from just 3000 or 4000rpm.”