2020 KTM 890 Duke R

Text: Kevin Duke • Photography: Stephen Gregory

The newest Duke is pointed up an enticingly twisty road, tugging at its leash. It begs to scamper and effortlessly lunges up the hill, its motor’s bark rising briskly before being interrupted momentarily with a pop from its quickshifter. A corner looms, and hitting hard on the brakes, you get to enjoy robust feedback and tremendous deceleration while sizing up the apex of the bend. The tip-in response is immediate as you dive toward the apex and then aim with precision for the next one. This is surely one of the best motorcycles in the world for tearing up squiggly lines on a map.

If you are in the market for a sporty street bike, KTM offers a desirable contender in the 790 Duke, introduced in 2018 and still in the Austrian manufacturer’s lineup. It’s tremendously sprightly, easy to handle, reasonably comfortable, and very quick—truly delightful to ride on a twisty road. It’s plenty enough for most, but aggressive riders wished for better suspension and sharper brakes to better exploit the intrinsic goodness of KTM’s parallel-twin package. 

The new 890 Duke R will silence those critics with its up-spec componentry and a power boost to create a rowdier package. When KTM says this new bike takes the 790 Duke and turns it up to 11, the statement is more legitimate than just marketing hyperbole. 

Go And Whoa! 

Well, it’s actually turned way past 11, all the way up to 889 (cc that is). Along with the extra 90cc over the 790 Duke, the 890 boasts larger valves, hotter camshafts, and higher compression to deliver a claimed 119 hp, a noticeable bump from the 790’s respectable 103 ponies, while the rev limit jumps 1,000 rpm to 10,500. 

The extra cubes vault peak torque a useful 14% and provide a highly surfable wave of power that catapults the Duke like a bigger engine whenever its ride-by-wire throttle is twisted. It responds with such strength that it makes us think we wouldn’t miss much by overlooking the imperious but pricey 1290 Super Duke R. 

To performance-minded riders, the engine upgrade alone would be worth the $ 1,000 upcharge from the 790 Duke’s $ 10,699 price. But there are also several other desirable features in the 890’s package. 

Let’s start with the stopping. The 790’s adequate J.Juan brake calipers are cast aside for the best binders currently on the market—Brembo’s stellar Stylema monoblocks—and lighter but bigger brake rotors that combine to reduce the weight of the front wheel assembly by 2.6 pounds. It’s a fabulous braking system, full of both feedback and power. 

The 790 Duke remains in KTM’s lineup and is an excellent sporty roadster. To most riders, its nonadjustable suspension is perfectly adequate. Discerning riders sneered, but their pleading for up-spec components is answered with this 890. 

From almost completely non-adjustable on the 790 to fully adjustable, the 890’s suspension proves to be highly adaptable, from firm and supportive to surprisingly compliant. Slightly longer suspension travel bumps seat height by 0.3 inches to 32.8. 

Assume the Position

Relatively roomy ergonomics are part of the KTM’s Duke lineup, and the 890 gets only slightly sportier while remaining fairly comfortable. The tapered aluminum handlebar is about an inch lower and a smidgen forward in its standard position for improved front-end feedback. The lighter footpegs are 10mm higher and rear-set for improved cornering clearance. I ran out of courage before running out of ground clearance, even with the sticky Michelin Powercup ll tires. 

The seat is comfortable if not plush, and it has ample fore/aft room to suit riders of various sizes. Adjustable clutch and front brake levers provide an optimal setup for all hands. The switchgear is handily illuminated and has a quality tactile feel. 

Comprehensive Electronics 

Yes, the 890 Duke R has a top-level electronics package, with a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU) that informs the lean-angle-sensitive traction control and antilock braking, including cornering-ABS. As is typical these days, standard equipment includes a choice of ride modes (Rain, Road, Sport) with throttle response paired with fixed traction and wheelie controls, and ABS settings. The Duke’s color TFT display automatically changes brightness based on ambient light and is always easy to read. 

And then the electronics story gets a little convoluted. The optional Track Pack ($ 340) gives you access to the Track ride mode, nine-level traction control, launch control, and the ability to switch off anti-wheelie controls. There are even more electronics that can be unlocked if you opt for the Tech Pack ($ 740), which adds the goodies in the Track Pack as well as a sweet up/down quickshifter and the ability to dial in your preferred amount of engine braking. 

Interestingly, the Tech Pack for the 890 includes essentially what the 790 has as standard. This effectively makes the 890 Duke $ 1,740 more expensive than the 790 version if you want the full suite of electronics, which you do because they are fascinating to play with and allow full customization to suit rider preferences. 

Does anyone really need clutchless gear shifting? No. But once you’ve experienced a well-executed quickshifter, any motorbike without one seems a little archaic, even if manual downshifts can be made smoother. 

Options not fitted to our test unit include cruise control ($ 335 including the software extension and the control switch) and KTM’s My Ride app ($ 270). 

Ride On!

The 890 Duke fires up quickly and emits a V-twin-like exhaust note. The slip/assist clutch has a light pull and is easy to modulate. Throttle response in Rain and Road modes is very smooth; Sport and Track modes are jumpier, but not so much that I didn’t prefer them. Gear changes are simplified by the quickshifter, making every acceleration event a delight. Weighing just 405 pounds with its tank full, the bike’s a doddle to maneuver. 

The Duke’s supermoto-esque riding position is fairly open and upright, making it ideal for the cut and thrust of urban travel and tolerable over longer distances. The wide handlebar encourages quick steering transitions and makes you feel fully in control. On a twisty road, it’s nearly unbeatable. That said, it veers toward twitchy. I hit a walloping pavement seam on a freeway at 80 mph, and the front end began a headshake but calmed down after just a few wags of the bars, thanks to the steering damper. 

Could It Be Better? 

It must be obvious by now that I thoroughly enjoyed my time aboard the 890 Duke R. Still, there are a few nits to pick. 

The forged sidestand is a nice piece, but it would be even nicer if it had a tab on it to help deploy it. I love the array of electronics, but having to pay extra for some of it, especially the systems that don’t require any extra hardware, is irritating. To go with all the other electro-doodads, KTM should throw in self-canceling turn signals like many of its IMU-equipped competitors. Finally, the 3.7-gallon fuel tank underserves the bike’s travel potential. An 890 Duke GT version with a bigger tank would surely be wonderful!

As it is, the 890 Duke R will go down as one of the most entertaining motorbikes I’ve ever ridden, and there have been more than 900 of those. It’s so light that it feels only a step or two away from being a supermoto bike, but with a power-to-weight ratio that thrills even jaded motojournalists. If you’re in the market for a sporty roadster, you’d be foolish not to consider the lightweight and powerful 890 Duke R. RR