British Italophile Alan Cathcart once remarked during a trip to KTM's Mattighofen, Austria, headquarters that Austrians are generally more like Italians than Germans. Austrians, he said, meld their Germanic tendencies with a healthy dose of Italian-esque passion and humor, while Germans, generally speaking, are often a notch or three less playful, especially those north of Bavaria. All of which makes some sense given Austria's location, sandwiched between the two ex-Axis powers.
It's always risky to link a country's products with its cultural persona. But after an afternoon's thrash aboard the BMW R1200R and KTM 990 Superduke, one would easily come away agreeing with Sir Alan. Because while the R1200R and Superduke are reasonably similar in terms of basic makeup and category positioning-expensive, semi-sporty, twin-cylinder naked bikes with an eye toward all-around competency-they are very different motorcycles in terms of performance and attitude, bookending the category.
Swing a leg over their respective saddles and you'll begin to get the idea. The R1200R cockpit is roomy and traditionally Beemer-ish, with plenty of room between the seat, pegs and handlebar, and functional, no-nonsense aesthetics. The look forward is clean and businesslike, with a medium-bend handlebar undercutting a techy instrument panel consisting of a stacked analog speedo and tach nestled beside a digital display offering gear position, time, tripmeter, remaining fuel and more. It's a Spartan-yet-functional design.
The view from the Superduke's saddle is a notch or two sexier despite the fact that the basic layout-a flat handlebar and centrally mounted instrument cluster-is very similar. The tach/speedo module is significantly more compact than the BMW's, and its blaze-orange lettering-plus the tiny, flipped-up edge of the windscreen peeking above it-suggests you're aboard something a bit nastier than your average naked bike. Ergos are nigh-on perfect, the wide, rubber-mounted handlebar forcing the rider to lean forward just so, the pegs properly positioned and the distance to them ample to keep 34-inch-inseam legs from pretzeling. It's a compact machine, quite a bit more so than the larger-framed Beemer.
Punch the Superduke's hot-button and you'll get an inkling of that nastiness in mere seconds, the KTM-designed-and-built liquid-cooled, 75-degree V-twin lighting instantly and offering up a healthy bark through its dual underseat exhaust cans. Blipping the throttle results in an instantaneous brraap! and tells you straight away this is a seriously powerful open-class engine despite the inherent smoothness delivered by the counterbalancer between the cylinders. Although it's the same basic engine found in the new 990 Adventure, the 999cc Vee comes off feeling meaner and more purposeful in Superduke guise.
Starting and warming the R12's latest-iteration Boxer, on the other hand, offers up a smooth, loping vibe that rocks the chassis gently to the right with every throttle blip. Despite 1170cc of displacement, this is arguably the smoothest-running, most refined twin BMW has ever offered, and nowhere near the guttural, rev-happy mill that KTM's Vee is.
Pulling away from a stop shows just how refined the Beemer is. Clutch action and fuel-injection response are superb, and the 1200 chugs onto highways and byways without a hiccup of any kind, even in higher gears from slower speeds. Power is linear and smooth all the way up the rpm band, making it easy to concentrate on where you're heading, and flicking through the revised gearbox is totally glitch-free. Mirrors provide a wonderfully clear view aft, and if it weren't for the peculiar, counter-intuitive switchgear (which you get used to), we'd call the cockpit nearly perfect. There's a ton of midrange power on tap, too; we found ourselves short-shifting through the gears to ride that wave of smooth torque. This is easily the most usable and flexible Boxer-twin ever.
Once moving, the Superduke is nearly as refined, which is probably why its 103.6 rear-wheel horses are so shocking when first experienced. With perfect fueling, smoothly progressive clutch take-up and a snickety-snick gearbox, the Superduke feels like a mild-mannered all-rounder, though it doesn't take long before it's begging to be revved, power-shifted and thrashed within an inch of its life. Still, it's happy to trundle along in the slow lane when asked, its crisp control feel giving its pilot all the feedback necessary for finesse moves in traffic, its vibe-damped mirrors offering a crisp view rearward even at speed and at higher revs. Several staffers commented on what a happy commuter the Superduke is, especially with what is, in our mind, one of the best sporty-riding positions in motorcycling.
Long-haul comfort isn't really this pair's forte, but both are plush enough to handle one or two high-mileage days, the 1200 scoring more travel points than the 990 by virtue of its roomier cockpit, less-extreme ergos, more compliant suspension and larger touring-options list. As sporty as it is, the Superduke is a surprisingly comfy "short-tourer," its saddle offering decent support and its vibes well-controlled, though there's precious little wind protection. All in all, the KTM stacks up pretty well to the more all-around capable BMW in commuting/cruising/traveling mode, which says a lot about its overall design.
But when the highways, city streets and country lanes morph into serious back-road swervery, the KTM turns the tables on the Beemer, transitioning from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and acting more like a top-tier sportbike than some mild-mannered roadster. This transformation is anchored by what is an astoundingly capable engine/chassis combination, which is the source of all the "flog-me" begging we referred to earlier.
No matter what the situation, the Superduke simply wants to go-the faster and more aggressive, the better. Part of the bike's inherent excitability is due to its engine, which makes power everywhere and wants to be revved to the moon every time the throttle is opened. It offers an intoxicating level of visceral impact-Ducati-esque, really. Rarely have we ridden a motorcycle with as much built-in enthusiasm for speed.
And the chassis is every bit as happy. Steering from the wide bar is instantaneous and feedback-intensive, which allows you to put the bike exactly where you want it. Suspension is high-quality WP stuff front and rear, and although settings and spring rates are definitely on the firm side (big guys say, "Hallelujah!"), the ride's not harsh unless you're really light (say less than 150 pounds). Wheel control is excellent, especially at elevated speeds, and stability at those velocities is superb despite the bike's short 56.6-inch wheelbase. And when it's time to scrub speed, the Superduke's radial-mount Brembo calipers work like a true Superbike's, offering massive power and unreal control. We can't say enough about how this thing behaves in the twisties.
Obviously, the BMW isn't the back-road phenom the KTM is, but it does OK if the pace is reasonable; vagueness up front is the biggest hurdle. The motor is torquey, and although soft, the Telelever front and EVO Paralever rear suspensions are reasonably damped and do a good job of keeping the chassis stable. Smoothness is key here. One piece of tech that eroded smoothness is the R12's power-assisted Integral ABS brakes, which are hugely powerful but also very, very difficult to modulate, especially for non-experts. Grab a little lever and you get a little braking, but grab a bit more and braking power seems to double suddenly, which causes lurching and instability-not what a beginner or intermediate-level rider needs.
What you've got here, then, is a pair of excellent-albeit pricey-Euro-spec naked bikes with two totally different modus operandi: a highly capable but somewhat unemotional BMW R1200R all-rounder and an excitable and thoroughly athletic KTM 990 Superduke, which likes to party yet still makes it to work the next morning. As if you couldn't already tell, we're head over heels for the Austrian bike, which we suspect will figure prominently in this year's Motorcycle of the Year competition.
Guess we've got a bit more Italian than German in us, too.