2009 KTM RC8R - Über-Superbike

Austria gets serious

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Gary Freeman

They say: "The most powerful KTM ever."
We say: "The best-handling--and best-looking--KTM ever."

A claimed from the start for real-world rideability and pinpoint-precise handling, KTM's RC8 was nonetheless criticized for lacking outright performance. Partly this was a result of the RC8's original design brief, which called for "the perfect road bike, not the perfect racer," says KTM R&D head Philipp Habsburg. The company always planned to do a racebike next, and that's what this RC8R represents. Only 1000 units will be built in 2009-just enough to satisfy World Superbike homologation requirements, and none, unfortunately, for the American market.

The biggest changes to raise the RC8 to R-spec come in the engine department. Mindful of the 1200cc ceiling for twin-cylinder Superbikes, KTM has enlarged the bore of the Nikasil-lined cylinders by 2mm to increase displacement from 1148 to 1195cc. Forged Mahle three-ring pistons boost compression one point to 13.5:1. The 42mm titanium intake and 34mm steel exhaust valves remain unchanged, though altered porting specs improve flow and new, longer-duration cams activate the valves via finger followers. A larger radiator, redesigned water pump and new, side-mounted oil cooler better manage the extra heat produced by the bigger motor, which delivers a claimed 170 bhp-a useful hike over the original RC8's 155 bhp.

The RC8R has the same chromoly spaceframe as the RC8, but the geometry has been modified slightly with reduced-offset triple clamps that give more trail (3.8 inches vs. 3.6) for increased high-speed stability. The forks are now titanium-aluminum-nitride (TiAlN) coated, as is the shock damper rod, to reduce friction and improve response, and rear ride height is adjustable by almost a half-inch thanks to an eccentric shock linkage. An extra shim stack in the shock separates compression and rebound damping, so changing one won't affect the other. Front calipers are Brembo Monoblocs, and discs are .5mm thicker to better resist distortion. Forged-aluminum Marchesini wheels contribute to the R's 4.4-pound weight loss.

Hopping aboard the RC8R at Portugal's challenging new Portimao circuit reminds you what a compact and comfortable perch the RC8 platform makes. The rational riding stance makes you feel a part of the bike, and your knees tuck so tightly against the fuel tank that you feel as though you're aboard a single. There's plenty of room to move around on the bike, key on a challenging course like this, where you need to weight the front wheel to stop it from wheelying over the hills, and in other spots shift your weight rearward to stop the back end from street-sweeping under heavy braking.

Reduced gyroscopic effect from the lighter wheels makes the stellar handling better still, and the increased trail does indeed improve stability, letting you take the long, fast, downhill right onto the pit straight hard in fourth without backing off the throttle. The clean, crisp, clutchless upshift exiting this curve demonstrates the improved gearbox functionality resulting from the re-shaped shift star and smaller engagement dogs. Shifting action is good going down the gearbox as well, even without a slipper clutch. The RC8R instead relies on the Keihin EFI's "throttle kicker" system, which opens the rear throttle butterfly slightly on overrev to counter the effects of engine braking. This effectively provides the same benefit of a slipper clutch without the added weight or bulk.

The single biggest improvement on the RC8R, however, is the significant extra drive out of turns. Power delivery remains exceptionally linear, pulling hard from as low as 4000 revs right up to the 10,700-rpm limiter without any steps or dips between. Aided by excellent traction from the Pirelli Diablo Supercorsas, this is a thrilling bike to ride hard.

At the same time, it's a hyper-controllable bike, too. The KTM isn't as wheelie-prone as other big twins (read: Ducatis), and the ECU is ideally mapped; gone is the RC8's somewhat harsh pickup at low revs. The front tire always feels planted, helped by an ideal 54-percent forward weight bias, providing the confidence necessary to make full use of those fabulous Brembo radial brakes during trail-braking exercises. The RC8R is an exciting yet very reassuring bike that's fun to ride hard. You feel in absolute control, even when riding close to the edge. This is exactly what a V-twin Superbike should feel like.

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