2008 KTM LC4 Singles Road Test
On the afternoon flight home from Spain via London, you head west over Greenland. The effect is that of an endless sunset, as the plane’s westbound speed is roughly commensurate with the rotational eastbound speed of the earth. It got me to thinking about chasing horizons on a bike–and how sometimes those end-of-the-riding-day periods of perfect pink/gold light seem almost bittersweet because of their shortness.
Of the three new KTM LC4-powered bikes unveiled to the world’s motoring press in Almeria, it’s the Enduro 690, the highly capable new dual-sport, that best evokes these feelings. The easy handling, plush suspension and ample torque is a great recipe for feeling groovy no matter what surface the tires are on. KTM engineers also wanted to deliver a bike that was friendlier to sub 6-footers than its other Adventure models, so they chopped the suspension travel a tad and installed a very narrow seat that does aid touch-down. Of course, when you aren’t dabbing or stopping at cow crossings, that same stiff narrowness makes it a sadistic wedge that will soon have you begging for aftermarket help.
Dual-sport is all about compromise, and the subjective choices that go into deciding how to parse all the factors are what make things interesting. A good off-roader can rock right along on graded roads and easy single track. But at more than 300 pounds, this isn’t a pure dirt bike–KTM’s EXC bikes fill that bill. On the other hand, most anyone will have a ball chucking this Enduro around a winding paved road. Credit here goes to the stiff trellis frame and fat 48mm fork that would normally be overkill on a dirt bike. The fun continues to amp up until the skinny off-road tires and soft spring and damping rates announce themselves as limiting factors. One note here, we had world-spec bikes with dual-sport tires. The U.S.-bound Enduro will be fitted with full knobbies, so expect some loss in pavement prowess as a trade-off for more hookup in the mud.
The throttle employs electronic “fly-by-wire,” technology, and Luddites will be glad to know that it is mechanically limited by a metal tab inside the venturi. It follows your commands via cable as a kind of insurance policy in case some digital gremlin decides to go for redline when you least expect it. You’ll find KTM’s nifty four-position EFI map switch useful on all three machines (under the seat on the Enduro and SMC, tucked behind a frame rail on the Duke), but it is most welcome on the Enduro. The only problem came in trying to remember which setting was which, since they don’t progress in a logical, linear fashion. In the dirt we preferred it set in Position One, where the EFI serves up a much more gentle acceleration ramp and knocks back peak power–meaning you don’t need to be so careful with the throttle to keep the tail from swapping. Position Three is the “standard” setting that offers a gentle ramp of acceleration and eventually gives you full power at the top end. But it’s the full-zoot “aggressive/sport” Position Two where there’s a 1:1 relationship between throttle twist and engine response. Get out on some good asphalt and you’ll be surprised how fast and capable this machine is. And for those of you venturing out into the third world (or parts of Los Angeles, depending), Position Zero is built for “bad gas.” It runs a special map with a richer mixture and retarded timing.
Speaking of fuel, it turns out Buell isn’t the only company looking for ways to hide the weight of gas. A 3.1-gallon tank resides just under the rear portion of the seat on the Enduro and SMC, which according to KTM engineers is a great place to put it in terms of bike balance. With nothing between you and the triple clamp, you can slide forward to help that front tire dig in, simultaneously releasing the rear for dirt-track-style corner exits. For those of us who might want to tilt at more distant windmills, KTM reps say there’s an 18-liter auxiliary tank in development, modeled after that fitted to a bike it campaigned in Baja. Another cool thing about the stock tank is that it’s strong enough to not only be “self-supporting,” but will also allow you to carry a passenger. For that, the Enduro and SMC models will ship with rear passenger pegs that you can install yourself–just don’t tell your pillion that they’re sitting on a load of high-test.
Sharing all but the wheels and tires with the Enduro model is the Supermoto SMC. Unlike pure sportbikes, this one gives you the choice of hanging off road-race style, or shoving the bike down and kicking your leg out dirt-track style. We had an afternoon to scratch around a tight course they set up in a parking lot, and very fast times were possible using either or both styles. It came down to how much you trusted the bite of the front Pirelli, yet it never stopped being fun. We did experience some missed upshifts under hard acceleration between first and second gear, and there was some variance in feel between bikes. Out on a long Spanish straightaway, the SMC managed a top speed of 108 miles per hour–4 mph higher than we attained on the Enduro. Both bikes exhibited a tendency to feel “busy” at such speeds, being shoved around by the air and soft damping rates (which to be fair, I could have adjusted out, but that would have meant pulling over and getting my fingers dirty). Of course, if you’re willing to give up the dirt and the racetrack for a better street experience, including higher top speed, then you need to meet Mr. Duke.
There’s definitely something to be said for getting in with a bike after a good brand has had 13 years to work on refinement. In fact, wish I could have ridden an original 1995 Duke back-to-back with this new one because as I remember it, the difference in quality, feel and rideability from that bike to this is remarkable. The first thing you’ll notice is that the seat feels Gold Wing-comfy compared to the one on the Enduro/SMC, yet thanks to the more street-oriented suspension travel, the height is manageable for average riders. The second thing you’ll likely notice is the handlebar, which is wide, reasonably high and within easy reach. But it’s the lack of a bend in it that might give some riders a pain in the wrist. The bars feel almost flat, meaning you have to raise and shove your elbows outward to get a full grip. The fuel tank is in front, where you’d expect it on a motorcycle, but the airbox is out under the tail in the back. And just under that? One of the slickest looking pressure die-cast swingarms in the business.
KTM has always been about putting top-line components on its bikes, and the new Duke gets the royal treatment here, too. Long-travel WP suspension soaks up pretty much anything you need to ride over, while the Marchesini wheels and super-grippy Pirelli tires keep you hooked up right to full sportbike limits. The radial-mount, four-pad Brembo caliper would be more than powerful enough for a bike twice this weight, so unless you want to practice your stoppies, better to make your actuations deftly with a finger or two and no more.
I’ve never been a big fan of single-cylinder bikes on the street because I like smooth power and lots of it–both on the gas and off. Downshift into a corner and dump the clutch on an older big-bore, high-compression single, and engine braking delivers rear-wheel lockup and chatter. All the new KTM LC4s have a slipper clutch which greatly enhances the riding experience. Also, the Duke’s very effective counterbalancing system makes the LC4 single almost feel twin-like in its smoothness. So instead of thinking about how much I’m shaking as the big piston does the Pogo under me, I’m thinking about that next apex, and how fun it is to twist the throttle as I pass it. Go find your favorite curvy road, pick the tightest section, and tell me you’re not quicker through there (with less drama) than on pretty much any bike you’ve ever ridden. It feels like the bike could lean to 65 degrees before you touch a footpeg, there’s lots of grunty power from just off idle to redline, and the underslung exhaust sure helps keep the overall CG manageable as you transition through a tight S-curve. Oh, one more thing: The Duke’s engine has been tuned for more power than its siblings, so it pulls harder out of corners and keeps pulling all the way up to an indicated 120 mph. Now this may not make it the King of the Road, but it ought to qualify it for Prince.