KTM launched the 790 Duke in November 2017 and fast forward to 2024, nearly seven years later, it’s still around today. For a model to stay so long in the lineup is, at least to me, an indication that the model was ahead of its time.
Replaying back memories and videos from 2017, it was one of the first middleweight naked bikes to offer a six-axis inertial measurement unit, and it was the first parallel twin engine with KTM’s own unique crankshaft offset that mimics the LC8’s power delivery and character. There were a few others, but let’s get into the meat of the matter here. The Scalpel remains as sharp as ever, and if you are looking to step up to it, let me tell you that it is one heck of a motorcycle to ride for the price that you’ll pay.
The 2020 versus the 2024 model year
For my unit at least, the bike is assembled in the Philippines but since the Austrian bike maker has expanded a lot since then, the new crop of 790s will come from KTM’s partner in China, CFMoto. Both brands have rights to the engine, but if you do buy a KTM 790 Duke now, you’ll get a Chinese-assembled bike that also has a new color-blocking scheme to it compared to the first editions from 2020 and prior.
For the global market, the first big spec change happened in the 2021 year model, where the tank and the subframe were colored black and a few decals were changed up. Apart from that, some select markets will come with a lowered front end. My model is still the global specification, but the Philippine-assembled 2021 and beyond 790 Dukes gets a lowered fork with less travel. Your mileage will vary depending on the market which you purchase this bike, however. This model was destined for other markets, but as we all know, the 2024 model year saw the 790 Duke come back to the United States, albeit with specs that look relatively different.
In the days of Euro IV emissions regulations, KTM was able to squeeze 105 horses out of its 285-degree 799cc parallel twin LC8c motor coupled with up to 64 foot-pounds of torque at the crank, but the 2024 version is adapted to Euro V so now it makes 95 horses. The torque band is still meaty, but 10 horses is a lot and something to consider. Having ridden a latter model year, however, it’s largely the same and you’d only feel it if you really exhausted the heck out of the twin-cylinder all the time.
As sharp as ever
KTM was ahead of its time back with the 2017 790 Duke. The brand made a splash with the six-axis IMU, the high-horsepower twin-cylinder, and the lightweight chassis, something that other manufacturers are only now catching up to. We may have the Honda CB750 Hornet now, the Suzuki GSX-8S, and the ever-lasting Yamaha MT-07, it’s only now that we’re seeing the Japanese big three catching up to the new crop of 800s in the market. KTM was really one of the first movers in the displacement space and it was one of the few in the category at the time with brands like Triumph with its Street Triple holding close to the 790 in terms of engine performance at the time.
As for the LC8c’s quirks, I expected its mid-range to be a lot meatier and torquier compared to similar bikes like the MT-07, whereas in the 790 Duke, it feels a little thinner down low but it gets beefier towards the middle. Fueling is a little lean down-low as well, which results in some stumbling at crawling speed. On top of that, I think that the quick shifter is a definite must-have after several updates over the years. Another thing to note, however, is that the bike’s transmission is good in most scenarios, but you have to be a bit more conscious about kicking it from fifth to sixth gear since you could hit a false neutral and rev up your engine to redline. Lastly, this is a very excitable motor and one that revs up quickly. It doesn’t like going slow either given the jerky fueling, but give it a good amount of engine speed and it’s mostly smooth sailing, that is until you pin the throttle and let loose.
The year 2017 was also the year that six-axis IMUs became a thing with a lot of motorcycles. Up until that point, basic traction control and ABS were the norms, but cornering traction and ABS were a bit of a rarity only reserved for the biggest and baddest motorcycles in the market, and even then the technology was still not as widespread as it is today. KTM was one of the first to really field it, and it still holds up today, with brands playing catch up or omitting the technology still (I’m looking at you MT-07).
The WP suspension is non-adjustable, and a bit of a letdown on paper, but not too much in the real world. It’s tuned to be an all-around setup that can encompass many situations. Sporty riding and touring are some of the things that the 790 Duke can do with its non-adjustable front and its pre-load-only rear shocks. I can confidently say that they’re one of the more sorted non-adjustable setups that I’ve tried on a bike in this class. If you aren’t too demanding when it comes to your suspension and getting everything dialed it to the decimal point, then the stock suspension is more than enough and very competent for street use. Track use is another story, but let’s get to that in the next section.
It gets better
I know that KTM knows how to make a great chassis, and the suspension was one of the things that was kind of holding things back for me. I knew that I could get more out of the bike and make it more planted. Out of the box, the setup was good for quick turns. The weight of it dry is 169 kilograms or 372 pounds. Filled up, it tipped the scales at 189 kg or about 416 pounds. That’s rather light and given the thinness of the tank and the ergonomic package, it made for something that flicked into turns quickly. However, there was a bit of chaos to the turn with the setup and how I rode. Basically, there was a bit of instability when the front would rebound or hit a bump. It was a very subtle feeling but there was room for improvement.
To solve this, I consulted my local Andreanni suspension specialist. The front of the Duke was good enough for me on most occasions, but to get that extra bit more stability and a little more aggressive for track sessions, an adjustable front would be the key. That, and a sag adjustment with the new suspension for my weight. After the change, the bike felt a lot more stable. The brakes, even if a lot of reviewers complained about the feel, got a lot sharper, and the overall stability of the bike tipping into corners was drastically improved. The conclusion I got out of this was that the chassis was very capable the suspension mostly holding it back.
Prior to that, however, I invested in a bunch of other parts. The biggest improvement came with the suspension, but I felt other things were “needed” to complete the look. The big changes came in the form of a rear passenger footpeg delete, a rear seat cowl, a de-cat pipe, a link pipe with an Akrapovic muffler at the end from another bike, and tank grips among a bunch of other small bits and pieces. The result…
Coupled with the precise but brutal power delivery of the engine, the rigid frame, and the upgraded suspension, this bike handles like a dream. New tires and a new rear shock will make it even better, but I’m already extremely satisfied with the bike in its current state.
I’m enjoying my rides with the Duke a lot more now, but that’s not to say that the bike did poorly in its stock form. Even back then it still ripped and it still turned on a dime so whatever I did was just to make it fit me a lot better. I was even able to enter it into a gymkhana competition and placed fairly well all things considered, and that was while the bike was on its stock front end.
I think highly of the Duke for its performance and handling. It’s a very sorted bike and one that will suit a lot of intermediate riders who want something sharp with an exciting rush for every ride. On top of that, the ergonomics helped a lot with getting a proper grip on the bike. It doesn’t force you into a position, it’s actually a happy medium between a sport naked and a supermoto, with a flat and wide seat, a thin tank that comes up just enough, and a wide set of bars that gives you a really commanding stance while riding.
The daily riding experience
At the time of writing this review, I have two bikes in the stable, the Duke and a Honda CB650R. The CB took on my daily riding duties before the KTM came, but once I got a feel for the lightness and the agility of the KTM, I was hooked and I rode it every day, however, that opened up a few concerns.
First of all, the bike doesn’t do too well in terms of heat dissipation. The traffic of the Philippines doesn’t take any prisoners, and in terms of heat, the Duke bakes while sitting at a light or stuck between cars. Temperatures rise quickly with this bike so you really have to filter through the gaps in order to get a breath of fresh air.
However, the agility and the lightness of the package makes it a good choice if you need to filter through traffic or put a foot down. The problem is the heat on the daily, if ride comfort is of concern, the Duke handles that perfectly well. While it was on the stock WP stuff, the 790 Duke is rather comfortable for a naked bike compared to a lot of other options. It feels sharp, but the stock setup struck a nice balance between stiff and sporty and comfy and touring. Then things edged to the sportier side of things after the suspension upgrade.
The ownership experience
So I took ownership of this 790 Duke on December 24, 2022, and within two years it had only tracked about 5,000 miles before making its way home with me. Since then, I’ve added an additional 7,000-plus miles to the clock, and have gone through a bunch of modifications, maintenance intervals, and a few kinks in the road, so to speak. The bike lived with me through daily commutes as my steed of choice on most days and most rides so wear and tear was inevitable.
It wasn’t smooth sailing with this bike, I’m not going to lie. It’s been a while since KTM launched the 790 Duke, and the brand has had time to sort out its platform and logistics with regard to parts, at least for where I am from. Whatever I needed was available as kits at the dealership and with the model being more common now compared to five years ago, there are a bunch of mechanics that knows a thing or several about the 790 Duke and how to work on it.
The rough waters came with regard to some issues with how my bike was kept prior to ownership. The fuel pump had to be replaced due to the fact that it was kept in a relatively humid environment prior to its release to me. It also showed some battle scars from its previous life as a demo motorcycle. On occasion, it also threw key failure error codes, a persistent error that’s native to the 790s of this vintage, though nothing has ever left me stranded. Most recently, and because of the miles on the bike, the cam chain tensioner is getting a bit worn, but the issue was resolved with a bit of cleaning and a reset. The wheels were also rather soft and thin and the bike sat out for a good month or two while it was waiting for a replacement set of wheels to come through.
Overall, owning this bike was not as big a challenge as I’d thought coming into year one with it and its third year on the road. Coming into its fourth year, I expect to hit the interval that involves some headwork, so that’s already in my books for the year. Might as well since the cam chain is still rather noisy up to this point.
Verdict: This one’s a keeper
I don’t think there is anything like The Original Scalpel. The bodywork is thin and the ergonomics allow you to ride this bike however you want. If you are more of a lean-out and tail-out kind of guy, then the ergonomic and electronic package will help you achieve those lofty goals. If you are a track rider, the bike is well suited for a slew of upgrades and its chassis is just waiting to be awakened by a good set of tires and better hardware. If you want a bike that’ll tour well, but still rip around and pull wheelies all day, then this bike is also something to consider.
Its flaws are mostly with the little things in my ownership experience. That and the heat that the engine lets out will shock riders who aren’t used to it just yet. Torque is also plentiful, so do swing a leg over this bike if you have prior experience. I don’t recommend it as a first motorcycle though. It’s a bit too unruly for the untrained throttle hand of newbies.
Gallery: 2020 KTM 790 Duke - Owner Review
For those that are interested, I’d wholly recommend the 790 Duke in its stock form. If you are buying one brand new, know that there may be features that you might have to unlock that I thoroughly enjoy like the quick shifter and the other riding modes. Apart from that, you will also have to contend with the running costs of the bike and pay attention to the sounds and the way that this bike runs. Apart from that, however, it’s a great ride and one that I’m definitely keeping.
Should you buy this bike though? I feel that this would be a more maintenance-intensive motorcycle to keep, so keep your warranty in handy. If you do end up buying the 790 Duke on the used market, it’s still worth considering for the right price.