Saturday, 9 May 2015

A Dash of Orange

One of my favourite road-test write-ups - and one that I read often in the hope that some of its genius will wash off on me - is Hunter S. Thompson's "Song of the Sausage Creature", in which the author and journalist takes a Ducati 900SS for a ride on the roads round his home in Colorado and turns the resulting experience into one of his all-time classic pieces of prose. I read it again on the evening after my ride on the 2015 KTM 1290 Superduke R and wished that Thompson could have sampled the crazy orange missile from Austria; the resulting article would have been a defining masterpiece. Unfortunately he didn't, so you'll have to put up with my admittedly inferior verbiage.

Literary considerations aside, let's start by taking a look at the Superduke R. The V-twin LC-8 motor is housed inside a tubular lattice frame, with beefy, fully-adjustable 48mm WP forks up front and an alloy cast single-sided swingarm suspended by a fully-adjustable WP shock; the bike is firmly connected to terra firma via low-pressure cast alloy wheels shod with uber-grippy Dunlop Sportsmart tyres and braked by a pair of four-piston Brembo M50 radial calipers and twin fully-floating 320mm discs up front, and a twin-piston Brembo caliper gripping a 240mm disc astern, all aided by a Bosch ABS system. In short, pretty much par for the course from the Austrian manufacturer, as is the bright orange/white/black paint job (on a bright day you will need shades to look at the bike). It's also available in flat black if you're a more discreet type - or if you're called Darth Vader. [...]

Zooming in even closer, the powerplant has been bored and stroked (108mm x 71mm) and has shorter inlet tracts than the version originally fitted to the RC-8. This is aimed at improving low- and mid-range torque. Throttle bodies are also enlarged compared to the RC-8 lump, from 52mm to 56mm. The cylinder heads feature two spark plugs apiece. A slipper clutch feeds the power (a claimed 180 hp @ 8,870rpm and 106 ft-lbs torque @ 6,500rpm) to a wonderfully precise six-speed gearbox. This mechanical heart is controlled by a Keihin engine management system with a fly-by-wire throttle and three power maps (Rain, Street and Sport). A switchable Bosch MTC traction control keeps the rear wheel on the straight and narrow.

Right then, we've had a look at all the clever stuff, so why don't we take this fraulein out for a spin?

Achtung Superduke!
When you fire up the Superduke R you're greeted by a nice fruity note from the stock exhaust, backed by a fairly audible rhythm section of mechanical noise. I noticed that the bike took a fair bit of time to warm up to a point where I felt comfortable with letting it loose in the Catalan capital's mid-morning traffic. For the trek out of Barcelona I chose to go with "Street" mode, which although it gives you the full 180hp, gives a fairly long throttle action at the fly-by-wire twistgrip and turns the traction control all the way up. Ideal for getting familiar with the bike and for avoiding tripping the legion of speed cameras that infest the A-2 dual carriageway out of the city. The thing that struck me the most during the first couple of miles was the precise action of the shifter; if I had been wearing a pair of trainers instead of proper boots, I'd have been able to change gears just by flexing my toes. This was a pleasant departure from the bikes I'm accustomed to ride, which have quite a long shifter action and gratify you with a noticeable click as you go up and down the 'box. As I was to find out once I got off the dual carriageway, this meant that clutchless shifting was a doddle, whether going up through the gears on the straights or downshifting coming into the turns.

The successive sets of traffic lights enabled me to take stock of the riding position and get familiar with the handlebar controls, particularly the buttons used to navigate through the onboard computer's various menus. The riding position is halfway between a sports roadster and a supermoto machine; you sit quite far forwards in the bike, which is ideal for chucking it around in the twisties. The seat is far more comfortable than I expected it to be: after just over two hours in the saddle I didn't feel the slightest hint of numb bum syndrome. Unfortunately I reckon that the riding position is just a little bit too cramped to make this a pleasant bike for doing long-haul trips on. As for the controls of the onboard computer, they're quite intuitive, even for a self-confessed Luddite like me, and combined with the easy-to-read screen (backlit in orange - nat├╝rlich, Herr Bond, zis is a KTM, ja?) meant that, as I hogged the fast lane astern of a big Audi, I found myself nonchalantly setting the clock to the right time. The rest of the dash is easy to read, too, with a nice rev-counter and a second screen giving speed, time, gear indicator and a host of other info. A nice touch I noted on the left-hand control pod was a hazard lights button - a godsend when filtering through busy urban traffic, and not a feature I expected on this kind of bike.

My half-hour dual carriageway jaunt also brought to light the fact that the Superduke isn't the most stable bike in the world in a straight line: I could feel the bars weaving lightly on more than one occasion. Fortunately, the engineers at Mattighofen saw fit to include a steering damper as standard and at no moment did I feel unsafe on the bike.

Finally, I peeled off the dual carriageway and prepared to unleash the bright orange beast on the twisty roads of the Montserrat mountain. I switched to Sport mode and off I went. Almost immediately, I felt that the engine had become sharper and more focused. The throttle action became much shorter and the motor lost the slightly rough and buzzy edge it had shown all the way up from downtown Barcelona. And quite frankly, the Sport mode is what KTM's naked roadster is all about. Feed in a gear, crack open the throttle and the bike launches itself aggressively towards wherever you happen to be pointing it. The first three or four corners I took were a bit ragged; I must admit that I wasn't expecting this kind of zip from a V-twin. 

Once I dialled in my brain cells and concentrated on keeping my eye on the racing line, it all made much more sense, and I was able to enjoy the way that the potent engine, combined with the ultra-precise tubular lattice chassis and superlative handling turns the Superduke into a bright orange scalpel with which to slice through corners and zip down straights with a minimum of fuss and bother. The grippy Dunlops let me explore the bike's lean angles to the full and, despite being heavy-handed on the perfectly weighted fly-by-wire throttle at times, not once did I feel any undue squirming from the 190mm rear boot - no doubt more due to the traction control rather than to rider expertise. The very light traffic I met with on my way (one advantage of riding a mountain road early in the week) didn't hinder my progress for very long; roll off the throttle a smidge, peel off excess speed with the pizza-plate sized brakes, click down a cog on the smooth and precise gearbox and shovel on the coals - within seconds, the offending car wasn't even a speck in the mirrors. You have to stay focused on the road ahead of you, though: straights atrophy into mere hyphens between the twisty bits. Luckily the ABS-equipped brakes have loads of feel and even let you brake very deep into the corners without unsettling the bike if your entry speed is a bit on the lavish side - indeed they saved my bacon when I came across a Harley sportster midway through a blind-entry turn, allowing me to shave off just enough speed to pull up behind him before promptly whipping open the loud handle and bellowing past him on the apex. The poor sod must still be wondering what the hell happened...

I made a passing reference to the mirrors earlier: I think they're worth a mention because for once they're useful for more than just admiring your shoulders - a minimum of fiddling had them set up just how I like them, giving me a great field of rearward vision, so full marks to KTM for that.

Unfortunately, time flies by when you're having fun and it was with regret that I pointed the mean orange machine towards the dual carriageway, switched back to Street mode and made sedate progress back to the Barcelona KTM dealership, where I reluctantly handed over the keys. Yes, I must say that I was very impressed by the Superduke 1290R, and not just because of the eye-popping performance and superlative handling and braking, but also because the bike is clearly not just a weekend backroad/trackday toy, but also hints at being able to commute and go on weekend getaways (albeit solo), thanks to its comfy seat and good riding position. That said, some riders might feel hampered by the "locked-in" position on longer rides. My only real gripe concerns the braking. Despite the ABS they give bagloads of feel and feedback, which allowed me to notice a certain graunching noise (underlined by a slight juddering in the front brake lever) during low-speed braking. My very cursory inspection didn't detect anything seriously amiss with the front brakes, such as a warped disc, so I'm reckoning that it was from the pads: either they had knocked back slightly in the calipers or else - and more likely, from what I could see - they were nearing the end of their useful life. With regards to the three power curves (that can't be selected on-the-fly), I reckon that at least one of them, the Rain mode, might be totally superfluous; in the right hands this bike would probably spend about 80% of the time in Sport mode, which is surprisingly well-mannered and docile even when you're not riding flat-stick, and with occasional forays into Street mode when you feel the need to cool things down and keep your nose clean.

What we liked                                          
- The precise chassis                               
- Powerful brakes with                            
  loads of feedback despite                     
  the ABS                                                
- Sport mode                                          
- Comfortable seat; decent          
  riding position
- Easy-to-use controls;
  legible dashboard
- Wide field of vision
  from the mirrors
- Fruity sound from the
  stock exhaust

What we liked less
- A slight buzzy feel in Street mode
- Riding position might be tiring on long rides
- Position of the headlight switch
- Fiddly sidestand
- Bike too upright on the sidestand
- Graunching and juddering on low-speed braking

Tech specs at a glance
Motor: 75┬║ V-twin, 1301cc
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, slipper clutch
Final drive: Chain
Power: 180hp (claimed) @ 8,870rpm
Torque: 106 ft-lb (claimed) @ 6,500rpm
Suspension: front - 48mm WP forks, fully adjustable; rear - WP monoshock, fully adjustable
Frame: Steel trellis
Brakes: front - Brembo 2x 320mm discs w/ 2x M50 radial calipers; rear - Brembo 240mm disc w/ two-piston caliper. ABS.
Tyres: front - Dunlop Sportsmart 120/70 17; rear - Dunlop Sportsmart 190/55 17
Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Seat height: 835mm
Weight: 189 kg (without fuel)
Price: £13,999 / 16,318 € (MSRP in Spain)

Our thanks to Eric & Co. at the Barcelona KTM dealership for lending us the Superduke R for the day!

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