Naked Ambition | Cook’s Corner

KTM is doing exactly what it needs to—reinventing itself with radically improved streetbikes and ADV machines.

By Marc Cook, Photography by Francesc Montero, Kevin Wing

Talk about moxie. KTM’s admitted goal is to become a world power in motorcycling, to take on the likes of BMW, Ducati, and Triumph with class-leading machines that don’t need so much as an asterisk or any such below-the-fold explanation for the hyperbole. No need to say, “Hey, that’s a really good effort…for a dirt bike company.” As the Austrian firm expands its product line, refines its street products, and pushes into new model categories, it has to (and wants to) position itself as something more than the company accustomed to dominating off-road racing. This transformation can’t be done in a press release or with a marketing campaign. It’s down to the hardware. Simple as that.

Here, KTM is doing exactly what it needs to—reinventing itself with radically improved streetbikes and ADV machines. The leap in capability and sophistication from the venerable (and venerated) 990 Adventure line to the 1190 Adventure and Adventure R is nothing short of amazing. In one step, KTM has brought us a new chassis with world-class handling and crafted an engine that’s both more powerful and more efficient. The mavens of Mattighofen have, because of this, moved from being bit players in the ADV market to a company able to stand toe to toe with BMW and the mighty GS. Take that, Munich.

Some of KTM’s most notable advances come by way of embracing the latest in electronics, from adaptive, lean-angle-aided ABS and traction control to sophisticated ride-by-wire systems that fully leverage the up-dated hard parts. Despite a sample size of just two—the 1190 Adventure and the brutally entertaining 1290 Super Duke R—I’m willing to crawl out on a creaky limb and declare that KTM’s cracked the code. Pun intended.

The logic behind such a declaration is a little less shaky after a ride on our 1290 Super Duke R testbike. I don’t want to give too much away be-fore we’re able to get this year’s bumper crop of high-performance naked machines together—where we’ll surely pit the new BMW S1000R, Ducati’s new Monster 1200 S, and Kawasaki’s Z1000 against the KTM and the evergreen Aprilia Tuono V4 R and Triumph Speed Triple R. But the first impressions of the 1290 are powerful. Yeah, it’s crazy fast and will threaten to melt the rear tire and have you wearing the steering stem for a good-luck charm any time you crank open the throttle with the traction-control disabled. (Most adults, having experienced an unprotected launch on the 1290 will probably leave the TC engaged from then on.)

But here’s the thing: In both the 1290 Super Duke R and the 1190 Ad-venture, KTM has brought together brutal power and sophistication. When you ride one of the old bikes—like my long-term 990 SM-T—you realize just how much they've always felt like big-ass dirt bikes. Sure, they’re dirt bikes with street wheels, sticky tires, and monoblock Brembos, but the sensations from the saddle never seem to veer far from KTM’s dirty roots. Even the previous 990 Super Duke had that rough-around-the-edges feeling, like it was just barely tamed enough to escape the production line without biting some innocent Austrian.

No more. This new generation of KTM street (and street-biased) machinery is a massive step into global competitiveness purely on the basis of performance and sophistication. And we’re not done. Word is that my beloved SM-T, which was discontinued this year, will be replaced by a slightly tamer version of the Super Duke R. And, as beastly as the Duke is today, just imagine KTM really stepping up the development effort for the next track-focused RC8. Watch out, Panigale.

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