2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke review
Does the 2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R deliver? Yes. Wheelies, and much more.Photo: KTM

I have a vivid memory of the first time I rode a KTM 1290 Super Duke, in 2014, exiting fourth-gear corner with the front wheel clawing at the sky. I rode the rear brake, tucked in as much as I could, and the front end gently floated to the ground, the engine still roaring like the king of the jungle. The speedometer showed 111 mph and I laughed out loud in my helmet. That thunderous engine—it's unforgettable to anyone who has used it. I can only assume a KTM engineer came to some threatening agreement with the gods in order to harness the insane power of this V-twin. It pulls from a well of torque that most bikes only dream of, and hits with a top-end rush that will match all but the fastest superbikes. I'm not sure how humanity will pay for its sins, but I do know that very few motorcycle engines have ever held a candle to KTM's 1.3-liter LC8.

2017 Super Duke R skyline photo
The 2017 Super Duke R comes in a splash of white/orange/gray or like this, with black wheels and frame for a stealthy look. Contemplative gaze over the Persian Gulf not included.Photo: KTM

The NASA-level thrust on tap has been a Super Duke trademark since the 1,301cc powerplant debuted three years ago, and despite a few updates intended to clean up tailpipe emissions the engine feels approximately the same amount of insane (very). But to get a grasp on what makes the 2017 Super Duke R different from its predecessor, it's best if we back up. Specifically, to KTM Motorcycles' brief street test of the new Super Duke, which took place in the city of Doha, just south of the Qatar MotoGP circuit. Cruising around suburbs for a morning told me all I needed to know about the new Super Duke: It is still an excellent street bike.

New KTM Super Duke details
Updates to the engine in 2017 include titanium intake valves (19 grams lighter) that help afford the Super Duke a 500-rpm higher redline, 10mm shorter velocity stacks, a beefier crankshaft, and a slight bump in compression (13.6:1, up from 13.2). It all adds up to four more claimed horsepower and an engine that is more efficient and cleaner burning.Photo: KTM

Walking up to the Super Duke, it’s hard not to notice that the angular, exoskeletal styling has gotten even more bold. Plastics have been removed from the subframe and the headlight is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen on a production bike. Love it or hate it, it’s a statement. Once in the cockpit the full-color, TFT dash is all you can see. I’ll admit I miss the classic sweep of an analog tachometer, but the truth is it has never mattered what rpm this 75-degree V-twin is spinning—there’s power available, and lots of it. The quickshifter is another obvious update, working both ways through the transmission. I found myself using the clutch sometimes, because I like it, and the Super Duke’s quickshifter feels more like a performance system meant for higher-rpm track work than an around-town comfort. Still, your left hand might get bored if it weren’t for cruise control, now selectable via a switch atop the left switchgear. One pull to turn it on, another tap to engage it, and you’re cruising, anywhere between 38 and 120 mph in third gear or higher. The 1290 also moves further into the technological age with fancy new features like a key fob system that lets you leave the key in your pocket while riding, and Bluetooth connectivity to that TV-screen of a dash.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke dash display
KTM’s new TFT dash in a few of its configurations. Upper left shows the standard display (seen in Sport, Street, and Rain modes), while the upper right is Track mode—note the TC settings and the larger speedo. Below are two snapshots of the menus, some of which are available on the fly and show speed to the right. A light sensor automatically switches the Super Duke’s display from this black background to a white background during the day, just like the Ducati Monster 1200 dash. Nifty!Photo: KTM

Last of the noticeable ergonomic updates is a handlebar that’s 20mm wider, 5mm lower, and 18.5mm farther from the rider. That means a riding position that’s canted forward more than before, but even stretching the reach nearly an inch doesn’t make the new Super Duke feel much more aggressive. The seat has “updated graphics,” according to KTM. I read that as saying it’s got a new cover material, but the structure is largely the same. And that’s exactly how it feels. Good news, I say, because the Super Duke has always been the most comfortable of the super nakeds for my 6-foot-2-inch self. As far as the slightly updated suspension and switchgear (see captions), they embody what the 2017 Super Duke has become in my opinion: a slightly better version of what was already an awesome machine. It’s comfortable, ultra easy to use, the brakes are stellar, the throttle response is smooth, the mirrors actually work...I could go on. It feels every bit as well built as a luxury naked bike should.

1290 Super Duke R on street
Riding the 2017 Super Duke around a city is a treat. It’ll be as mellow or maniacal as you like, all with a comfy seat and plenty of legroom.Photo: KTM

Which brings us to the only legitimate rub against the 2014-16 Super Duke R: track ability. That bike never felt entirely at home on a closed course. Lots of linear power, sure, but the traction control was ineffective and unpredictable and the suspension was too soft to let it tackle corners as aggressively as bikes like Aprilia’s Tuono V4 and BMW’s S1000R. Aside from the sportier handlebar and quickshifter, KTM put a lot of effort into an additional ride mode for the 2017 Super Duke R (adding to Sport, Street, and Rain): Track. In this new mode, the traction-control system is more advanced and is also adjustable to nine different levels of intervention, which you can do on the fly. Plus, wheelie control can be separated from TC, and the throttle response can be tailored within the mode without changing TC or ABS parameters.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R on track
The 2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R benefits from a new Track mode with a serious upgrade to the traction-control system. That, combined with the more aggressive handlebar, made me feel much more comfortable bending into corners and powering out like I meant it.Photo: KTM

After a session to learn my way around Losail, I played with the different levels and found immediately that the new system solves the loss of grip much quicker and more smoothly than the previous bike. TC levels 7 and 8 are both very conservative (9 is suggested for rain riding), but by the time I got to slip level 4 or 5 I felt the rear tire letting go noticeably before the electronics would step in. The lowest level I experimented with was level 2, which allowed big enough slides that I chose not to try my hand with TC off. Most importantly, the system intervenes gently and lets the bike keep driving forward. It’s much more performance oriented, and is a huge improvement for track riding.

Super Duke beauty shot from rear
The overall package for the Super Duke in 2017 is much the same—similar power (KTM claims 4 more than last year) and similar weight (expect 10-15 more pounds). It’s in the electronics and amenities that things have changed the most. Also, note that there are no longer any cowls around the subframe, leaving the trellis exposed and the Super Duke’s tail thin.Photo: KTM

The slightly stiffer fork springs and updated valving in the shock are technical improvements for sure, but the bike still feels soft compared to a Tuono or S1000R when the aggression is turned up. Overall, it’s a big step forward—even if it bucks and weaves a little more than some other bikes the 2017 Super Duke R is more capable on track than ever, and genuinely fun to push to the limit. As for wheelie control being independent from traction control in Track mode, all I can say is I want to shake the hand of the person that made that decision. A safety net from 177 crank horsepower but also the ability to wheelie all the way down the front straight? Yes, please.

2017 Super Duke forks
The Super Duke’s fork springs are stiffer for 2017 (1.0 kg/mm instead of 0.95 kg/mm) and the shrouds around the radiator now reach farther forward, aiming to give the 1290 Super Duke R a more menacing look.Photo: KTM

But as good as the updates are, let’s remember the real reasons to love the Super Duke. The absolute savagery of the engine is the most obvious, and that it can trundle around town as gently as you please. It chugs and shakes when you ask for a fat helping of torque, but it also cruises smoothly on the open road. If it’s not the finest engine ever used in a motorcycle, it’s in the running.

KTM 1290 Super Duke’s new launch control
Testing the KTM 1290 Super Duke’s new-for-2017 launch control. Hold the throttle wide open and the bike holds rpm at 6,500, then release the clutch and feed in power as quickly as you dare and hold on for a wild ride. Launch control mitigates wheelies through third gear, or unless it senses a lean of more than 30 degrees, at which point you’re on your own!Photo: KTM

Then there's the handling. Perfectly light and useable on the street, the chassis transfers gracefully to the racetrack. The Super Duke is narrow between the knees, feels lighter than its nearly 500 pounds (expect 10 to 15 extra pounds for 2017, due in part to the Euro-4 muffler), and despite all of the edges and angles in the styling it's easy to move around on while flying around a track. It's not that surprising, come to think of it. This is the bike that won our coveted Motorcycle of the Year award its debut year (2014), then dominated as the Naked bike of the Year for the following two seasons (2015 and 2016). In other words, the 1290 Super Duke already stood as the most thoroughly excellent all-around machine in the highly competitive naked-bike category. And now it has improved.

2017 Super Duke exhaust
The 2017 Super Duke exhaust looks the same but is updated inside for Euro-4 regulations. That means it’s a bit heavier, but it also includes a power valve just before the muffler that opens and gives the Super Duke more bark at high rpm. The shock has been updated, too, with slightly different valving.Photo: KTM

“So,” you’re thinking, “it’s the perfect motorcycle, eh, Zack? What’s the catch?” Good question. And yes, aside from heated grips not being standard (c’mon KTM!), there is one: The base price has risen to $17,999. That’s worth a wince, I think, especially considering the previously mentioned BMW and Aprilia are each available for less than $15,000. Plus, KTM has broken out the features into two upgrade packs.

1290 Super Duke power wheelie
Everyone knows the Super Duke accelerates with the best of them. When it comes time to slow down there are Brembo M50 monoblock calipers squeezing 320mm discs, as well as a new system called Motor Slip Regulation (MSR), which cracks the throttle butterflies under deceleration to help the slipper clutch mitigate engine braking.Photo: KTM

The Performance Pack gets you the up/down quickshifter, Bluetooth connectivity to the dash for phones and headsets, and MSR functionality (explained in the caption above). Simpler is the Track pack, which unlocks the Track mode and with it launch control, independent wheelie control, and the nine levels of circuit-grade TC.

2017 Super Duke handlebar controls
The menu system on the 2017 Super Duke is much the same as other high-end KTMs. Up and down arrows combine with buttons for “select” and “back” to navigate many layers of options. Cruise is controlled via a small stick on top of the switchgear, meant to be reached with your index finger.Photo: KTM

KTM USA has yet to decide on pricing for the packs, but based on European pricing we can estimate $300 to $400 for the Track mode and $500 for $600 for the Performance pack. This will put a fully loaded 1290 Super Duke R in the running with Ducati's Monster 1200R ($18,695 to $18,895) for the most expensive machine in the class. Another way to look at it is that the base price of the Super Duke has only gone up a few hundred bucks, and now has updated standard equipment like cruise, a color dash, and keyless technology.

New 2017 Super Duke split headlight
It might look a little bit like an alien that took a hatchet to the forehead, but the 2017 Super Duke headlight is a true piece of industrial art. A running light accents the edge of an aluminum carriage, which is split down the middle and doubles as the head sink for the LEDs. Look at it up close when you see one in the flesh.Photo: KTM

However you look at it, it’s a lot of money, no question. But I’d like to take a step back for a moment and evaluate the Super Duke in the scope of motorcycling. I think this machine, and its competitors, represent the future of motorcycling. Superbikes are getting more specialized and less useable as urban areas expand and two-wheeled vehicles start to make more sense as transportation. At this rate, naked machines like these will soon be able to serve 99 percent of any motorcyclist’s passion for performance while also being comfortable and practical. The Honda CB300Fs and Yamaha FZ-07s of the world will succeed in part because they work well, but also because machines like the 1290 Super Duke R exist, and give meaning and voice to the naked category. This KTM has been our vote for best naked bike for the past two years, and it just got even better.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R on track
Even with street tires the 2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R is a proper trackday slayer. With progress like this in the naked bike category, machines like this will keep driving the future of motorcycling.Photo: KTM

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION
Our Motorcycle of the Year in 2014 gets an upgraded dash, headlight, electronics, suspension, and engine. The Beast, 2.0.
TECH
PRICE $17,999
ENGINE 1,301cc liquid-cooled 75° V-twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER 177.0 hp @ 9750 rpm
CLAIMED TORQUE 104.0 lb.-ft. @ 7000 rpm
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION WP 48mm fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.9 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION WP shock adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping; 6.1 in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo two-piston caliper, 240mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 24.9°/4.2 in.
WHEELBASE 58.3 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.8 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.8 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 430 lb. dry
AVAILABLE March 2017
CONTACT ktmusa.com
VERDICT
The best all-around naked bike in the world gets a little better.

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