Class of 2010: European Sportbikes - Foreign Exchange

While Japan throttles back, Europe delivers its most serious sportbikes yet

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Adam Campbell, Joe Neric

KTM's original RC8 wasn't as powerful as its Italian rival, but that was all right. The Austrian company said from the get-go that its first V-twin sportbike was intended as a streetbike, not a racer. When it came time for the well-known dirtbike maker to homologate its sole superbike for competition in 2010, it was a different story. Then the engineers pulled out all the stops, bumping displacement from 1148cc to 1195cc-just shy of the SBK ceiling for a twin-raising compression, porting the heads and inserting longer-duration cams, all to increase power.

It worked. Even without its so-called "club kit" installed, our RC8R made 145.1 rear-wheel horsepower-identical to the Ducati 1198S with its optional race exhaust and ECU bolted on-and 79.6 lb.-ft. of torque. Later, we had KTM's Tom Moen install the kit parts (Akrapovic Evo4 titanium exhaust, high-compression head gasket, slotted cam sprockets and an ECU chip), ran the RC8R on the dyno again and it made 155.2 bhp and 87.7 lb.-ft.

The R-model also features Marchesini forged-aluminum wheels and a carbon-fiber front fender, reducing the weight to 439 lbs.-a single pound more than the 1198S. Mission accomplished, KTM.

The RC8R is an analog offering in this overwhelmingly digital crowd. No traction control, no variable drive modes, no ABS-just a no-nonsense steel-trellis frame, high-end WP suspension and a big-bore V-twin that begs you to get on and go. One thing the KTM offers in abundance, that the rest of this group painfully lacks, is ergonomic adjustability. Featuring four-position footpegs, a subframe that can be raised and lowered and two bar positions, the RC8R can be reconfigured from an aggressive track tool to a street-ready near-standard in seconds. In its most capacious setting, the KTM offers 2 inches more legroom and 2 inches more bar rise than any other bike here. That being the case, we all fought over the RC8R for the 500-mile ride home from the racetrack.

We initially struggled to find chassis settings that worked. Following factory orders, Moen had raised the rear of the bike 5mm to speed up steering. But so set-up, it felt too high, falling into corners. So we had him drop both ends 5mm, retaining the same steering geometry but lowering the center of gravity so it changed direction better, particularly in the tight T9 chicane.

The R's upgraded, TiN-coated suspension is responsive but a bit soft, delivering vague feedback at high speed and behaving unpredictably at full lean. The R-model is fitted with reduced-offset triple clamps that increase trail from 3.6 to 3.8 inches for more high-speed stability, but the bike was still a bit skittish in the fastest parts of the track.

The powered-up RC8R was quick out of tight turns, too, since it was the only bike here that could be consistently dumped into first gear without suffering debilitating rear-wheel chatter. It doesn't have a slipper clutch, but its Keihin EFI system is equipped with a throttle kicker that cracks open the rear throttle butterfly on decel to reduce engine braking. This, coupled with a smooth, easy-to-modulate clutch, also made the KTM easiest to back into corners super-moto-style.

The big V-twin makes abundant power, but abrupt throttle response made this difficult to exploit. An extremely light throttle-return spring led to unintended input, especially on bumpy backroads. On top of that, the long-throw twistgrip was almost impossible to take from closed to wide-open without re-gripping, making it hard to feed in power smoothly. A KTM rep said production bikes will come with a revised cam on the throttle tube that reduces twistgrip travel-whether or not that improves initial pick-up remains to be seen. We certainly hope it does.

The RC8R's unique styling was universally applauded. Stealth Fighter-inspired sharp edges give the bike an aggressive, modern appearance. But no one liked the billboardy Akrapovic paint scheme-and the alternative Red Bull livery isn't much better. The tall, angular tank and skinny saddle likewise took some acclimatizing, as it proved difficult to anchor oneself when hanging off. We'd also appreciate a redesign of the odd-shaped, orange-tinted dash, which we found to be poorly organized, overcrowded and nearly impossible to read at speed.

This latest "Ready to Race" version of KTM's superbike is more satisfying on a racetrack than ever before, but still lands short of more evolved rivals like the Ducati and MV Agusta-not to mention, aggressive and effective newcomers like the Aprilia and BMW. On the street it's a different story. There the added adjustability and improved ergonomics tip the scale in the direction of Austria. With the race kit installed and the throttle mechanism improved, this might be a very different ballgame.

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