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The Austrian company's single on steroids has copped a major revision for 2012, and it's a crackerjack of a motorcycle on a number of levels

Back in motorcycling’s dim, dark past, single-cylinder road bikes were par for the course – anything else was exotic (or undiscovered). Then along came the twins – Vs, parallels and flats – followed by triples, fours and sixes.

After the Japanese in-line fours set new standards for power, reliability and smoothness from the late ’60s, with Honda’s CB750K0 of 1969 leading the charge, the single’s time in the sun was already long gone, the format largely relegated to small-capacity commuters and the dirt bike world.

With apologies to Yamaha SR/SRX fanatics, supermono nuts and Royal Enfield devotees (and others, who I’m sure will make their presence known!), it’s a paradigm that still holds true to this day.

Fact is, with their bottom-end and mid-range torque and traction, and their light weight and compact dimensions, single-cylinder engines are ideal for dirt bikes, and their inherently high level of vibration is of little concern when negotiating the bumps, ruts, bog-holes and rocks of a typical jaunt through the bush.

For high-performance roadies, however, generally speaking riders want mid-range and top-end power plus the smoothness of a multi, not to mention big-mile reliability, and so modern road-going singles have largely been restricted to dual-purpose machines, supermotos and the odd loner, like Yamaha’s SZR660 sports bike of 1996 to 2001.

And then, as if to stick their collective middle digits in the air at the established order, KTM’s engineers came along and produced the new 2012-spec 690 Duke – a crackerjack of a motorcycle that challenges just about every pre-conceived notion of a single.

After sampling the bike for myself through peak-hour Melbourne traffic and along a few favourite backroads, this latest Duke (for the name stretches back in KTM history to the 1995) blew me away – in terms of its technology, its refinement, it’s thrilling ride and (perhaps most surprising of all) its flexibility. But before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s take a look at what we’ve got here and where it’s come from…

The 690 Duke isn’t new to KTM’s range; in fact it arrived in Australia at the start of 2010, albeit in 654cc guise, along with its up-spec 690cc 690 Duke R sibling. However, for 2012 the 690 Duke has received a hefty update – the 690 Duke R is gone, while the standard model now gets the 690cc engine, with that donk itself having undergone a major revision.

If you think singles are low-tech, thing again. The Duke’s LC4 donk is a liquid-cooled, four-valve, fuel-injected unit, but the newie also comes with a redesigned cylinder head with twin sparkplugs, each with its own ignition map. A ride-by-wire throttle is mated to a choice of three fuelling maps, which – rather curiously – are altered via a switch found under the pillion seat. KTM says no less than 90 per cent of the engine’s components are new, and that the bike’s fuel consumption has been improved by 10 per cent. That’s impressive, especially when you consider the unit’s output has been raised to a claimed 69hp (51.5kW) at 7500rpm and 70.5Nm at 5500rpm – making it, says KTM, the most powerful and refined single on the market.

Beyond the engine, the Duke now boasts a switchable ABS system from Bosch and a tweaked chassis with an all-new aluminium subframe. The rider’s and pillion’s seat are now split, with each 30mm lower than the old model (the rider’s seat is now at a far more manageable 835mm, as opposed to 865mm), while the tank capacity has been bumped up a tad to 14 litres.

Throw in new instrumentation (with a gear indicator), new graphics and a KTM-esque choice of a couple of basic colour schemes – white or black, each with a distinctive orange tubular chromoly trellis frame – and there you have it: the new 690 Duke.

I have to admit, for me this bike had flown in ‘under the radar’, so to speak. So when I first collected it, I approached it with a clean slate and no expectations. Imagine my surprise then, when after the first city block I was grinning like a deranged madman, sending the front hoop skipping skywards off ripples in the road’s surface and gleefully short-shifting and grabbing gobs of throttle to let the bottom-end torque of the LC4 engine do its thing. Yep, now it had my attention…

From a distance the Duke looks tough – there’s a futuristic back-street brawler theme going on, like Robocop on two wheels. It’s all angles and aggression – typical KTM fare, and pretty darn appealing (to my eyes, at least). All the good names are there on the componentry, too – WP suspension, Marchesini rims, Brembo brakes – which make the $10,995 price tag all the more attractive.

Upon hopping on the bike the first thing I noticed was just how light and little the Duke felt. KTM is claiming 150kg for the bike with all fluids bar fuel, which in meaningful terms equates with a fully-fuelled and ready-to-roll weight of under 165kg – lean and mean, by any measure.

The lower 835mm seat height should suit a broad spectrum of riders and it’s narrow at the front, so it’s even easier to get a foot down than that figure initially suggests. The perch broadens considerably at the rear, and it’s good and comfy – a far cry from some of the plank-like seats that have graced KTM roadies over the years.

Thumb the ’leccy starter and the Duke sparks into life, immediately settling into a raspy but even idle. There’s no doubting it’s a single as it buzzes away at a standstill, but the vibes soon dissipate with a few revs when rolling down the street. Actually, for a single this engine is remarkably refined, with a highly effective balance shaft.

I can remember riding a 640 LC4 from Melbourne to Geelong about 12 years ago, where the vibes were so bad I could barely keep my feet on the pegs or my hands on the bars. Nothing of the sort with this Duke, where the only vibe-induced negative is a blurring of its mirrors.

This Duke is supremely agile; the speed with which I could lay it on its ear or flick it from side to side at lower speeds took my breath away. It takes a bit more effort at, say, highway speeds and above – it does, after all, have a long 1466mm wheelbase and a fairly rangy 26.5-degree steering head angle – but the broad and flat handlebar provides a heap of leverage to get the job done.

The Duke is also incredibly easy to ride, with a bolt upright ride position that places you in total control and responsive controls. The clutch is light, the throttle too, but the six-speed gearbox likes a bit of encouragement. There’s nothing wrong with it <I>per se<I>, but it rewards a more deliberate prod with your left foot, and when I was still getting used to the bike I hit a couple of false neutrals when hurrying my way through the gears.

In many ways the Duke only encourages that sense of urgency; in terms of outright numbers the 690cc engine isn’t producing a stratospheric amount of go, so you’ve got to make the most of what it’s got. That means short-shifting to use that low and mid-range torque to your advantage, and that makes for an involving ride. The exhaust note brings its own unique character to the party, but I’ll bet many Duke owners will go for a more raucous aftermarket system as a matter of course.

I couldn’t fault the fuel injection but there was a bit of driveline lash when trundling along in heavy traffic at low (say 10-20km/h) speeds, where I found I was feathering the clutch a bit to smooth out proceedings. Despite this, the Duke is a handy little weapon in the urban jungle, even with those fairly wide ’bars, but if I thought it was a heap of fun in this environ, the best was yet to come.

Over some of my favourite local backroads, which range from tight-and-twisty mountain routes to flowing sweepers over undulating terrain, the Duke was pure bliss – responsive, nimble, and just plain fun. As far as I’m concerned this is its natural habitat – or at least the sort of terrain where its thrilling and engaging ride can be savoured to the full.

I found its slipper clutch was a helping hand through the tighter going, helping to smooth the way through aggressive downshifts, but I found I still wasn’t getting within a grand of its 8000rpm redline – far better to keep it humming between 5000 and 7000rpm, in that optimal blend of max torque and power.

The WP suspension is fairly basic, at least in terms of adjustment (rear preload only), but it offers an excellent compromise between comfort and sporting performance. It’s just the ticket for our often rough Aussie roads, and in the right hands and in tighter going, a Duke has plenty of potential to shame far more powerful sporting fare. The Duke simply delivers gobs of traction and a fine level of feedback that reveals what’s going on at each contact patch at any given moment.

And when the forces acting on that rear Michelin Pilot Power occasionally did get the upper hand, the ride position, the ride geometry and that big handlebar mean the loss of traction isn’t a cause for concern. As someone who prefers his rubber to be gripping, not slipping, I appreciated that, but supermoto fiends will revel in the Duke’s antics if that’s their want.

As previously mentioned, there’s a choice of three fuelling maps from mild to wild, but the selector is underneath the pillion seat – an odd decision, given the control of this feature in just about every other applicable model is located on the handlebars. I had fine weather for the duration of the Duke’s stay, so full biscuit it was.

It’s a single-disc stopper up the front but it’s a radial-mount, four-piston Brembo job and it’s ample for slowing a bike of this size and weight. The single-piston unit down the rear is also effective, and both are backed up by a Bosch 9M ABS system, which stands out simply for being so unobtrusive whenever its services are called upon.

It’s a switchable system, but the bike has to be in neutral to turn the ABS off, and after switching off the ignition it reverts to a default ‘ABS on’ mode.

And then we come to another keenly pointed arrow in the Duke’s quiver – running costs. That attractive price tag looks even better when you consider the relatively frugal costs involved in keeping it on the road. The 160 rear hoop will be cheaper to replace than a traditional sportsbike’s 180 (or bigger) back tyre, and it’s a lower spend on brake pads and discs because of the single-disc set-up at the front.

Then there’s the fuel – you wouldn’t expect a single to be overly thirsty, but the 25.5km/lt I got out of the Duke across a range of riding scenarios is still impressive. With the 14lt tank, I’m talking about a working range of 330km between fill-ups, and with its comfy seat that distance is entirely manageable.

Hell, if you can put up with the lack of wind protection (that bikini fairing offers little if any protection), you could even tour on this thing. Certainly the engine could handle it – at 100km/h in sixth it’s only pulling 4000rpm. KTM has also bumped out the Duke’s factory service intervals to 10,000km – that’s a strong show of faith in its product, and another aspect that will further soften the hit to the hip pocket.

I had a brilliant time on the 690 Duke; it’s a visceral, feel-good machine that undlines what motorcycling’s all about. It’s also a sharp looker, distinctive, practical, cheap to run and relatively cheap to buy. Granted, at this price point it’s up against plenty of worthy multi-cylinder competition, but for sheer fun the 690 Duke is one tempting proposition.
Type: Liquid-cooled, four-stroke, DOHC, four-valve, single-cylinder
Capacity: 690cc
Compression ratio: 12.6:1
Fuel system: Electronic fuel injection

Maximum power: 69hp (51.5kW) at 7500rpm
Maximum torque: 70.5Nm at 5500rpm

Type: Six-speed
Final drive: Chain
Clutch: Wet

Frame type: Tubular chromoly trellis
Front suspension: Inverted 43mm WP fork, non-adjustable
Rear suspension: WP monoshock, adjustable for preload
Front brakes: Single 320mm disc with radial-mount four-piston Brembo caliper, ABS
Rear brake: Single 240mm disc with single-piston Brembo caliper, ABS
Tyres: Michelin Pilot Power
Sizes: Front 120/70-ZR17, rear 160/60-ZR17

Claimed wet weight (but no fuel): 150kg
Seat height: 835mm
Wheelbase: 1466mm
Fuel capacity: 14 litres

Price: $10,995
Colour: White or black
Test bike supplied by: KTM Australia,
Warranty: 24 months, unlimited kilometres

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Published : Friday, 10 August 2012
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