First Ride: 2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT

KTM’s definition of a sport-tourer comes from the Super Duke R matured, but still a hooligan.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT First Ride review
2016 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT©Motorcyclist

They say: "Awesome performance, whatever the road."
We say: "And wherever that road takes you."

This one is a little bit personal. In 2013, my long-term motorcycle was a KTM 990 SM-T, a model that I sensed was coming to the end of the line when I saw the new 1190 Adventures (in base and R versions), both of which used the latest engine and chassis architecture. It wouldn’t be long, I thought, before KTM pulled the plug on this generation of LC8 V-twin engine.

Even worse, I knew the SM-T was a relatively slow seller for KTM despite what I thought were killer attributes. Based on the 990 SM, the T (or touring) had a larger fuel tank, more wind protection, slightly softer suspension, and even standard (if painfully small) rack-mounted soft saddlebags. Even as good as it was—and it was actually great in many respects—the SM-T apparently only resonated with kooks like me who simply wanted a quick, comfortable sportbike that hadn’t moved too far away from its hooligan roots. Against soft sales I figured KTM wouldn’t bother building a new-generation example, choosing to leave the gap between the Adventures and the Super Duke R. Steadfast in my belief system, I purchased my testbike, thinking it was the last of a kind.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, action shot
The smooth-yet-scintillating engine gives the GT outrageous, crazy-easy speed.©Motorcyclist

It was and it wasn’t. The KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, which everyone just shortens to GT, is due in the US in August as a 2017 model, intended to offer a more sensible alternative to the Super Duke. Sensible as in more fuel capacity, 6.1 gallons, up from 4.8 in the Super Duke R. Sensible as in a more relaxed seating position thanks to a 25mm-wider bar positioned 10mm higher, with four-way-adjustable perches and 22mm of range. Sensible as in owning a new frame-mounted fairing with a manually adjustable windshield in place of the SD-R’s, well, nothing. Sensible as in factory-built hard luggage, optional elsewhere but standard for US models. Sensible as in standard cruise control and heated grips, with a heated seat (for rider and passenger) optional.

Enough with the sensible schtick. Truth is, the GT is still very much a Super Duke. The chassis, aside from a longer and stronger rear subframe, is the same. Same wheels and sizes, though the GT carries sport-touring Pirelli Angel GTs stock. And despite getting WP’s latest semi-active suspension, the GT carries basic spring and damping rates over from the Super Duke. It’s a little more complicated than that because the WP system is capable of a much wider range of damping rates than the Super Duke’s, and the two more relaxed modes are definitely cushier than the Duke’s baseline settings, but the Sport mode is intended to mimic the naked bike’s taut ride.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT First Ride review
The KTM utterly dominates. To get any real competition, you need to bring a BMW S1000XR or a Ducati Multistrada 1200.©Motorcyclist

Any idea that the GT is in the slightest way sensible dissolves the first time you twist the throttle on the 1,301cc, 75-degree V-twin. Gifted with claimed 173 hp and 106 lb.-ft. of torque at the crank, the smooth-yet-scintillating engine gives the GT outrageous, crazy-easy speed. Modifications to bring the engine into Euro 4 compliance resulted in combustion-chamber tweaks and the addition of an exhaust-system valve, and helped move the torque peak down the range by 1,000 rpm, now at 6,750 rpm. Yet the engine retains its free-revving, thrust-at-all-speeds character. Truly, this engine defies easy description and collects hyperbole the way a librarian hoards books. Smooth and collected at low rpm, and emphatically easy to modulate thanks to spot-on ride-by-wire programming, the GT’s engine begins pulling hard by 3,000 rpm, where it taunts the Bosch traction control to keep the 190/55-17 Pirelli fat with traction.

Hold it open and the GT’s mill begins howling through the airbox under your chin and shivering through the footpegs and tank sides. My SM-T does, too, but at what seems like half volume and maybe half the aggression of the GT. Every bit of gushing we’ve done about the Super Duke R’s ability to blur vision and draw the next corner to the front wheel like some kind of tractor beam applies here. And it’s not just the effortless speed that gives me a shiver down the back, it’s the way the GT goes about it. No matter the ride mode—there are three, Sport, Street, and Rain—power comes down the chain predictably. I never feel like I have to change my riding style to accommodate the GT, which I can’t say is true of my SM-T.

Last item on my infatuation with this powertrain: If you consider the GT’s natural competitors to be bikes like the Aprilia Caponord 1200, the BMW R1200RS, or even Honda’s VFR1200F, the KTM utterly dominates. The contest is done by the top of first gear and the very first jab of the new quickshifter. (That quickshifts up only, not down.) To get any real competition, you need to bring a BMW S1000XR or a Ducati Multistrada 1200. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Multi, which is heavier and less powerful than the GT, will struggle to keep up while the XR will give the KTM a serious fight. BMW probably holds the horsepower edge while KTM brings the torque. Topping my anticipation list: Getting these two out on a road test.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, dash
2016 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT dash©Motorcyclist

The GT is not just about sheer speed, though that never hurts, but KTM continues the Super Duke R’s superb handling here. After I added one notch of rear preload—there are four settings, all made by an electric motor on the shock—the GT’s handling became that delightful combination of low-effort turn in combined with fantastic feedback through the chassis. Tip-in comes easily, with little effort, and even though the GT is about 30 pounds heavier than the Super Duke R, it never conveys that heft. Roll into a corner and the GT obliges, then it hunkers down on the suspension, waiting only for you to wind the throttle up for the exit. Which it does with real ferocity, and no tendency to pick up or run wide at the exit. It takes about five corners to get into a groove with the GT.

One of the aspects I fell in love with on my SM-T is the bike’s willingness to report exactly what the contact patches are doing, all the time, every time. Same deal with the GT, where you can feel the rear nibble at wheelspin as the TC light flickers on the dash, and you can sense how much braking you can get away with while stuffing the front into a decreasing-radius corner. I found myself immediately comfortable on unfamiliar Majorcan roads because I could feel the limits of traction approaching.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT First Ride, front
Much of the riding at the press event stuck to the tight turns along the western quarter of Majorca.©Motorcyclist

Rider aids help. Carrying the same basic package as all the big KTMs, the GT gets sophisticated lean-angle ABS and TC, along with MSC (motor speed control), a kind of artificial slipper clutch that holds the throttle plates open slightly so rapid downshifts don’t overtax the mechanical anti-hopping clutch. I found myself missing the S1000XR’s auto-blip downshifting, but the GT will tolerate a quick series of downshifts without complaint or tail wagging.

KTM carried over the Super Duke R’s braking system, with 320mm discs clamped by Brembo M50 monoblock calipers—yes, superbike-spec brakes on a sport-tourer. This is a powerful setup with excellent feedback through the controls, despite the fact that the two ends are electronically linked front-to-back. On a couple of occasions during the launch, I sensed the system adding rear brake when I already had some going, causing the back end to trigger the ABS. It was like I’d stepped a little harder on the rear pedal when all I’d done was squeeze the front a bit more—and fractionally more at that. The GT only did this a couple of times, and I didn’t try to replicate the characteristic.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, Brembo brakes
Yes, those are superbike-spec brakes on a sport-tourer.©Motorcyclist

Much of the riding at the press event stuck to the tight turns along the western quarter of Majorca, but these roads were bumpy enough to test the semi-active suspension. As on the 1290 Super Adventure, where the system debuted for KTM, the GT’s gets a 48mm WP fork with a spring and travel sensor in one leg and a damping pack in the other; the shock has an electro-valve adjuster for damping and an electric preload adjuster giving 10mm of spring compression over the four settings. All adjustments come though the left-side switch cluster and shown on the auxiliary display next to the tach. Here, the modes are Sport, Street, and Comfort. Street and Comfort use a “skyhook” concept that allows as much suspension freedom as possible, increasing damping only when the sensors see the bike pitching excessively. Also, damping changes according to how hard you’re braking or accelerating. By adding compression up front and rebound damping out back under hard braking, the GT can keep the chassis more level. Street and Comfort differ mainly by the thresholds—Comfort allows more wheel stroke for a plusher ride at the expense of the bike feeling “busy.” It’s not unpleasant, but it’s also obvious when the system suddenly firms up under acceleration or braking.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, forks
The GT’s gets a 48mm WP fork with a spring and travel sensor in one leg and a damping pack in the other.©Motorcyclist

Sport mode is different, though, with firmer baseline settings that closely mimic those of the Super Duke R. Damping rates change according to chassis attitude and other factors, but not as much as in the other modes. Sport mode also eliminates the anti-dive function present in the other modes, which KTM’s engineers say is there to allow fork dive for better front-end feel and to help speed up steering on the brakes. This tactic is effective, and gives the GT a more sportbike feel, but even here the suspension is firm without kicking over sharp bumps.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, shock
The shock has an electro-valve adjuster for damping and an electric preload adjuster giving 10mm of spring compression over the four settings.©Motorcyclist

At the end of the day, we assembled journalists rode 40km of highway back to the hotel, highlighting the strengths of the GT over the SD-R. While the typically Kiska-sharp fairing does a neat job of keeping windblast off your torso, shoulders and arms are still exposed. No turbulence of note for me, fortunately, in either extreme of the screen’s 3-inch adjustment range. BMW’s S1000XR has slightly more coverage at the expense of some turbulence with the screen in the lower of two positions. The angular cheeks of the fuel tank provide lower-body protection, and I was surprised to see the GT absent hand guards, which are effective on bikes like the XR.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT First Ride review, fairing
No turbulence of note behind the screen’s 3-inch adjustment range.©Motorcyclist

The bike I rode was fitted with the optional heated seat, which is about 15mm taller than the stocker, but still not too much of a stretch for my 30-inch inseam. I tried it and the heated grips briefly on the 58-degree day and they are, like the 1290 Super Adventure’s setup, plentifully toasty. My only wish is for a less fussy menu system to turn them on. It’s easy to understand but takes a lot of button pressing. BMW has this figured out with a dedicated grip-heater switch.

So the combination of moderate riding position—I’ve always felt comfortable on the Super Duke R, even without official upper-body protection, because you sit into the bike, not on it—good seat, smooth engine, and well-executed fairing system provides a comfortable perch. It’s not too sporty, not too ADV like; you get a slight forward stance on the upper body without carrying much weight on your hands. This is the kind of ergo package the European manufacturers do so well, and KTM’s understanding of it shines through.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT First Ride review, seat
Our test bike was fitted with the optional heated seat.©Motorcyclist

Closing the deal are KTM’s factory hard bags. Capacity is listed as 30 liters each, but the styling dictates an unusual shape—flat on the face near the bike but pointed out toward the lid. My helmet, a medium shell, just barely fit. Thankfully, the integrated locks and latches allow you to leave the cases unlocked but still securely closed. A single key, the ignition, allows you to lock and unlatch the bags, which hang from metal inserts in the tail section, stabilized by long heel guards on the passenger footpeg bracket. These bags will be standard on the US-bound bikes; prices haven’t been finalized but I’ve been told the GT will be right at $20,000.

Going into this test ride, I wondered if the GT would really be the successor to my beloved SM-T. It’s not. It’s a whole lot more. There isn’t a single system on this bike that isn’t better than my KTM’s—more power, better suspension, stronger brakes, better aerodynamics, much improved luggage, greater comfort. That’s only important to SM-T owners, of which there aren’t that many, But the GT’s capabilities speak volumes about the Super Duke R, and the fact is that KTM managed to “sensiblize” the SD-R without stripping it of the sheer joyfulness that made us proclaim the Super Duke R our 2014 Motorcycle of the Year. Look out, class of 2017.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke GT, side view
Not too sporty, not too ADV like.©Motorcyclist
Based on the Super Duke R with minimal changes for comfort and convenience.
[BMW R1200RS][] and [S1000XR][], [Aprilia Caponord 1200][], [Ducati Multistrada 1200][], [Honda VFR1200F][]
ENGINE 1301cc, liquid-cooled 75° V-twin
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 173 hp @ 9500 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 106.2 lb.-ft. @ 6750 rpm
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION WP 48mm fork with dynamic compression and rebound damping
REAR SUSPENSION WP shock adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping
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 32.9 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT 452 lb. (dry)
AVAILABLE August 2016
Brutally fast, completely sporting, still a bit of a hooligan but with great comfort and many conveniences.