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KTM 1290 Super Duke R Motorcycle Review: Unleashing the Power

In the moments before an epic battle between the characters Goku and Frieza of Dragon Ball Z Kai, Frieza (the bad guy) taunts Goku (the good guy) and fires off a volley of energy blasts. None, however, faze Goku. In that moment, Goku stares Frieza down and delivers, “I am the warrior you’ve heard of in the legends, pure of heart and awakened by fury. That’s what I am. I am the Super Saiyan!” Goku becomes enveloped in a fiery energy and his power is magnified 10,000 times.

In context, Frieza is tarmac, and Goku the KTM 1290 Super Duke R.

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My first experience with KTM’s 1290 Super Duke R came some years ago and suffice it to say, it left an impression. The naked brass-knuckled street fighter was everything I could ever want in a motorcycle. Not only could the Super Duke R handle daily duties thanks to its comfortable upright seating position and soft seat, but when you grabbed your Moto GP super-suit and streaked off toward a great back-road or your local track, you were rewarded with a track-focused monster featuring a power-band similar to the energy unleashed in the heart of a thermonuclear explosion.

And at the end of my time with the last Super Duke R, I’d have said the motorcycle was a perfect specimen. Nothing could be bettered or changed without making it slightly worse. Why mess with excellence? KTM, however, thought otherwise. Late last year, the Austrian manufacturer updated the Super Duke R to feature more power, a new suite of electronic aids and displays, restructured suspension geometry, and some minor changes to the riding ergonomics to make an already powerful Saiyan into the Super Saiyan you see before you. It’s a fierce machine that’ll give your riding the power to decimate all.

Like launching a Space Shuttle, twist the Super Duke R’s throttle and you’re met with acceleration that’d give most astronauts a run for their money. More brutal than the last Super Duke R, the new motorcycle’s acceleration caught me off guard the first time I laid into its phenomenal throttle. The front wheel almost instantaneously comes up off the ground as if the wheel and pavement are forced apart through magnetic repulsion. Shift into second and the bike settles back onto the pavement — just for a moment. Then the front tire is back in the air as the speedometer climbs with lightning-like speed.

Just how powerful is this bike though? For us mere mortals, the math works out to be 177 horsepower and 104 lb-ft of torque. For a motorcycle that weighs just 430 lbs sans rider, that’s a hell of a power-to-weight-ratio.

KTM 1290 Super Duke R 3
Sam Bendall

To tamper the front wheel’s bird-like nature, KTM’s new suite of electronics features an “anti-wheelie” control that allows the rider to select if they want to unicycle the Super Duke R. Accomplishing this task is no easy feat, with the anti-wheelie mode working through the motorcycle’s traction management system to reduce the amount of torque sent to the rear wheel upon throttle application. Turning the system off, however, has the real potential for getting you into trouble, and becoming very addictive.

Where KTM might have gone too far in its quest to make the Super Duke R better is in the motorcycle’s suspension. The updated Super Duke R now features stiffer front springs and a re-valved rear shock that makes cornering that much better, but the stiffened springs somewhat sacrifices everyday rideability. I wouldn’t call it a jarring ride, nor would I call it as comfortable as the previous iteration. It took just a few hundred feet to notice the revised geometry, and after a couple of miles, I wish KTM hadn’t touched anything beside the engine.

Along a scenic stretch of distorted and twisted road inside Los Angeles proper, I summoned the KTM’s Saiyan ancestry and unleashed the torrent of power kept deep inside the motorcycle’s soul. Through each corner, my knee got closer to the tarmac and my speed increased. It’s an amazing machine, one that can easily intimidate even the most experienced riders with its laundry-list of performance stats. Yet, when you’re carving canyons, it’s capability is approachable when you give the Super Duke R its proper respect.

KTM 1290 Super Duke R 2
Sam Bendall

Farther and farther toward the ground I leaned until the inevitable happens: I scraped my knee. It feels like it could go further still though, like the Super Duke R is gyro-stabilized. I don’t remember the previous version being so accessible. And here, riding on the buttery pavement, the revised suspension makes sense. Take the Super Duke R anywhere with some undulation or broken pavement, however, and it becomes less sensible. But there isn’t time to think about the bike’s capability, or lack thereof, as the turn abruptly ends in a long, upward straight. Wheelie-ho!

The straight ending, I coax the front wheel back to Earth with a dab of rear brake. As the tire touches down onto the pavement, I grab a handful of front brake and plant my butt as firmly into the rear of the motorcycle’s seat as I can. The brakes grab with such force, my body lurches forward toward the bars and at this moment, I’m supremely glad I grabbed AGV’s new Carbon Modular helmet for this ride. With so much mass lurching forward, its feather-like weight reduces the overall momentum and keeps my neck from real strain.

Where KTM absolutely hit it out of the park is with the new dash. Gone is the split analog dial and monochromatic digital display, replaced in favor of a TFT unit that makes switching between riding modes, and reading the gauges, an absolute breeze. However, as this motorcycle is an absolute hooligan, you likely won’t be looking down much. You’re more likely to be looking skyward.

To me, KTM’s new 1290 Super Duke R is the best motorcycle on the road. The Super Duke R has the right look, the right power, the right daily abilities, and though it costs $17,999, for what you’re getting, that’s a deal when you consider its supercar beating performance. It’s so good, you’ll be quoting Goku as you dip into the 177 horsepower, screaming into your helmet, “KAMEHAMEHA!”

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Amanda DePerro
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Amanda DePerro is a Midwest-based freelance writer and journalist who loves video games, gardening, and true crime. She is a…
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