KTM 690 Duke

To me bikes, like the YZF-R1, Gold Wing or Fat Boy, don’t have to be explained. They’re like a Winnebago or a hammer: one look at them is enough to get what they’re about. But others are less straightforward and need to be put in context. The 690 Duke is one of them. It looks like an entry level or a step-up bike; at 10 grand, it’s as or more expensive than a long list of much more versatile motorcycles; and maybe more puzzling than anything else, it’s powered by a big single, an engine configuration that’s all but absent from the over-500cc street bike market. Anyone calling the combination awkward just couldn’t be blamed. Actually, there’s nothing like the 690 Duke on the market, mostly because no one’s really asking for it. Which begs the question: why? That’s where background is critical. 

KTM isn’t out of its mind when it chooses to produce something like the 690 Duke. Not that many are sold, but that’s okay. That’s not why it exists. For high-volume sales, they have small displacement 125s and 200s and 390s, and also more mainstream machines like the Super Duke and the big Adventures. The 690 Duke is all about brand identity, history and roots. 

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The 1994 620 Duke was KTM’s first-ever street bike, a weird machine largely based on the company’s biggest displacement off-road models of the era. It was fun, but also crude and somewhat primitive. Hey, first times aren’t always Oscar worthy performances. But it did transform the off-road brand into a street bike manufacturer and it is the model that opened the door to every street legal model present in KTM’s current lineup. In some ways, the 690 Duke is to KTM what the GSX-R750 is to Suzuki: from an accounting standpoint, it doesn’t have to keep being produced. Still, for historic reasons, it must stay. 

The 690 is also a technical showcase as it’s powered by what KTM rightfully claims is the most advanced and powerful production single in motorcycling. This motor was considerably upgraded for 2016: 20,000 hours went into its development and more than half the components are new. Specifically, there’s a new cylinder head, new balancing system with an additional shaft that allows for 1,000 more rpms while actually reducing vibration, increased bore and reduced stroke, and an all-new crank/rod/piston assembly. Ride-by-wire throttle is used, multiple engine maps are available to the rider, traction control has been introduced, cornering ABS is standard and an all-new day/night LCD display keeps track of it all. Claimed crank horsepower is now an impressive 73 horsepower, up seven per cent (75 horsepower on the Akrapovic-equipped 690 Duke R that won’t be imported into Canada) while max torque is 54.6 foot/pounds, up six per cent. Chassis-wise, there are tweaks to the steering geometry, but not much else worth mentioning—the reason being, what was there before worked very well.  

Street-going KTMs have matured dramatically over the past few years, yet some models still exude a sense of the unusual and possess an aura of non-conformity. The 2016 690 Duke is a prime example. The unique 690cc single is mainly responsible for the model’s somewhat awkward, yet pleasant mechanical identity, but there’s more to the 690’s unusual side, like an extremely narrow and a tallish stance. It has many of the characteristics of an entry level model, such as a very low weight, almost effortless steering and very manageable power delivery—at least with all electronic rider aids turned on—and with a lower seat, it could actually be a very friendly, if pricey, first motorcycle. 

One of the most rare and remarkable aspects of the 690 is that it can both introduce someone to motorcycling and be thrilling and unique enough for veterans to truly appreciate riding it. For the latter, the wonderfully light and precise feel of the chassis/steering combination, the strong brakes, the surprisingly complete and functional electronics package and, perhaps more than anything else, the amazing grunt of the high-tech thumper, will bring joy on the type of narrow, endlessly twisty roads and tight, go-kart-like track that was the test environment during the world launch of this model. The key to the 690’s fun-factor in this environment is that it’s very narrow, very light and surprisingly powerful. It will actually wheelie on its own accelerating in second gear, which can be a ton of fun for experienced riders who like that sort of light front end nature. 

The catch is that for the 690 to wheelie, traction control has to be switched off, same as the other KTMs with TC. It’s less of an issue on a 73-horsepower 690 Duke than on a 180-horsepower 1290 Super Duke R, but, still, wouldn’t it make sense to be able to have fun doing wheelies coming out of corners AND know that TC has your back? Other pet peeves I had with the 690 was an engine that’s not happy chugging at anything less than 2,500 rpm in the higher gears and a somewhat hard shifting transmission. But the overall performance and midrange torque offered by the single remains unquestionably impressive. 

Electronics include a Supermoto mode that allows the rear wheel to be locked while ABS remains active at the front (to back it in entering corners). As for comfort in everyday use, the 690 is decent: suspension isn’t harsh, but still pretty firm; the seat becomes uncomfortable on long rides; the riding position is compact with a sporty feel, but places almost no weight on the hands; and wind pressure becomes an issue at sustained high speeds. 

The 690 Duke is essentially a niche machine destined for the garages of connoisseurs. It seems only they will appreciate it enough to accept the $9,999 MSRP sticker. That’s too bad, because it means average motorcyclists probably won’t get the chance to experience the fun and unique character of this super-light and surprisingly advanced single-cylinder motorcycle.