KTM’s 2020 1290 Super Duke R: First Ride Review

A gentler monster: KTM revamps its monstrous 1290 Super Duke R making it smoother and more thrilling to ride.

KTM continues to up the ante in the naked bike world with the steady evolution of its mean-looking and open-class 2020 1290 Super Duke R ($18,699). The Austrian brand tames the brutish, and at times, uncivilized character of its 180-horsepower sport naked by reinventing the chassis and thunderous 1301cc LC8 Twin. We swung a leg over it during its test ride unveiling in Portugal.

KTM 1290 Super Duke R

Leaner and most certainly meaner, the Super Duke’s appearance is tidier with a shorter overhangs fore and aft. Opposed to a traditional low-slung sportbike the Super Duke is devoid of a front fairing and lower cowl, which shows off its muscular twin-cylinder engine.

In a dealership full of cookie-cutter bikes, the Super Duke stands out with its now signature split praying mantis shaped LED headlamp. A closer look reveals the mesh-screened ram air intake which loads the big Twin with fresh air. A pair of airbox-mounted, showerhead-style fuel injectors shoot into the engine – boosting top-end power – something that the 1290 historically lacked.

This along with improved engine mapping increases the 1290’s potency, especially when barreling across 160 mph straightaways. The 75-degree LC8 retains its punchy demeanor off idle–torquing away from stop signs like few other sport motorcycles. An optional electronic quickshifter maximizes thrust during shifts through the six-speed gearbox, without letting off the throttle, nor squeezing the clutch lever.

As usual, the Super Duke R is a hoot to blitz away from traffic lights. With 103 lb-ft claimed torque, the 17-inch front wheel climbs toward the sky easily, in any of the first four gears. Electronic anti-wheelie control keeps the front wheel hovering near the pavement. Of course, the rider can manually disable this feature, and rely on a dab of the rear brake to set down the wheel. Either way, the choice is yours.

KTM 1290 Super Duke R

When it’s time to shed triple digit speeds, the Super Duke R uses a beautiful set of machined Brembo Stylema superbike calipers gripping 320mm diameter rotors. The setup is powered through stainless-steel hoses and a radial pump master cylinder. Lever position adjustment is another nice touch.

The optional quickshifter also includes auto-blip downshift function so the rider can downshift without squeezing the clutch. This add-on is exceptionally helpful when making downshifts at lean. Lean angle sensitive cornering ABS helps mitigate wheel lock up during brake application. The ABS also includes a “supermoto” mode, which deactivates rear ABS for advanced pilots that wish to slide by brake during corner entry.

KTM 1290 Super Duke R

The Super Duke R’s historically spongy suspension components were a weak link–especially when ridden at an elevated pace. We’re happy to report that the new Apex generation fork from WP offers greater support and road holding. In addition to tool-less style compression and rebound damping adjusters, the fork includes spring preload adjustability. Ride height can be modified based on preference or rider weight. Red rubber sliders monitor fork travel, so it’s easier to dial in the optimum setup.

The 1290’s rear suspension benefits from a linkage-type configuration greatly improving suspension action. Where the non-linkage equipped 2014-2019 models exhibited hyper, supermoto-like movement at pace, the new setup delivers a calmer and more compliant action– similar to Aprilia’s class-leading Tuono V4.

Damping adjustment controls on the shock body and a handy twist-style preload adjustment knob facilitate quick changes. The adjustable foot controls and handlebar are other nice touches proving KTM pays attention to details. Well done, KTM.

A tilt-adjustable Samsung Galaxy S7-sized color TFT display functions as the Super Duke’s command center. With crisp fonts and a bold range of colors, the panel is a tremendous upgrade from the dinky display employed KTM’s other road bikes.

KTM 1290 Super Duke R

In lieu of a touchscreen, settings are manipulated through handlebar-mounted switchgear. Logical menu navigation makes it easy to tweak individual settings. The size of the buttons and their tactile feel are improved, making it easy to enable features like cruise control. We’re especially fond of the left hand paddle-style buttons so the wheel spin threshold can be modified, on the fly, while riding at pace.

More polished in every way, the 1290 Super Duke R, knows how to get loose and burn Bridgestone Battlax rubber on the street and racetrack. And with its enhanced chassis and more capable electronics package, it balances this wild behavior with a degree of competence that we missed since the RC8R sportbike retired. Still fast, still wild, the 2020 Super Duke R earns our respect with its new-found professional attitude.


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