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By Ian Kelso, Contributing Editor
Last year I fell in love with a beast. Actually with “the” beast, as it is known in the industry.
The 1290 SuperDuke R is one of my favourite motorcycles of all-time. I love its dark angry look. I adore its edgy aggressive feel. I am enthralled by the Jekyll and Hyde nature of its growling 1301cc V-twin engine, one that can wind up so smoothly, then in a blink unleash mayhem with a ferocity unparalleled by most other road bikes.
And as a taller than average guy, it also fits me like no other bike I have ridden.
Surprising myself, by the end of that review I came to the conclusion the SuperDuke R was not just a near-perfect sport-naked, but actually one of the best all-rounder bikes on the market. The only thing missing was luggage to go on the road.
DROP EVERYTHING – THE GT IS COMING
So when KTM called me up a couple of months ago and asked if I would like to test their brand new touring edition -- the 1290 SuperDuke R “GT” -- I cancelled the family vacation and spent the next few weeks pining in anticipation of the day that it would arrive in the transport van from Montreal.
Ok, we didn’t actually have a family vacation planned this summer, but I did put a lock on my calendar for the ten days or so the bike would be mine!
SUPER SPORT TOURING
You could argue that KTM followed on BMW’s successful strategy porting their sport-naked S1000R to the more distance-friendly sport-touring S1000XR. There are however, significant differences in KTM’s execution. BMW opted for a more ADV-style setup on the S1000XR, propping the rider up into a much more standard seating position and beefing up the suspension. Though I love the S1000’s smooth but anxious inline-4 engine, I have to say for me that the XR’s styling is a bit on the fugly side. It unfortunately bears only a faint resemblance to its sexier sportier sisters.
On the other hand the GT keeps pretty much exactly the same ergonomics as the SuperDuke R with its more gentle lean to the bars versus the S1000R. The GT also makes a much less severe departure from the original SuperDuke design, adding just enough plastic for wind protection on the highway, but retaining a great deal of the sculptured otherworldly appearance of its sibling.
But how does it measure up?
LOOK & FEEL
Even with the stock pipe, the SuperDuke GT sounds awesome. It retains the same low-down vibration and growl that conjures images of a barely tame animal ready to pounce. I love the feel of V-twins because they feel less mechanical and more alive. Here the GT doesn’t disappoint. Appearance-wise, the GT has a distinctly less intimidating personality. The front beak softens the streetfighter appearance of the SuperDuke R, while the available colour schemes are more bright and futuristic: the dark and ominous black has been replaced with shades of silver and grey.
Panniers are always a sure way to ruin the appearance of a cool bike. KTM did an admirable job of designing some of the sleekest and most usable side bags I have seen on a bike, but I found myself taking them off at every opportunity to ride around town. Yes it was less practical if I decided I wanted to pick up some last minute groceries on the way home from work, but wow does the GT look so much cooler without them.
Being a SuperDuke, you can bet the GT has power. Oodles of it. In fact exactly the same 173 HP and 106 lb/ft of torque as the SuperDuke R. What surprised me was the very different way that power was delivered. At first I thought the GT version of the engine had been de-tuned as it didn’t scare the crap out of me with every quick flick of the throttle. Then I figured it out. Finding the extreme power of the GT is just a matter of giving it a bigger twist. Maybe KTM re-designed the throttle map to make acceleration even more smooth at lower RPM? All I know is that once I found the power, I pretty much had to keep traction control on high to keep the front tire on the ground.
The GT is crazy smooth in pretty much any road condition. The rear shock features semi-active suspension: you dial in the basics (number of passengers, style of riding) and the electronics monitor the road in real time, adjusting the damping milliseconds at a time according to the weight of the rider and the bumps on the road. In corners the GT truly makes you feel like you could never lose traction. This is an excellent feature on a touring machine where you may be constantly changing the weight of the bike as you add and take off luggage and passengers.
I don’t really test safety features if I can help it. I have never had to slam on the brakes while in full lean, and I don’t intend to try it. But if the time comes when you cross the apex and suddenly see a dead moose blocking your path, the GT deploys cutting edge tech that might just save your hide. The GT’s Bosch Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) with Cornering ABS system uses advanced sensors and modulates the pressure at the discs to optimize and maintain the reduced traction while bringing you to a stop as quickly as possible without locking up.
I like to ride late at night. Living in the big city, it is often the only time you can enjoy the more interesting urban parkways without having to navigate traffic. Toronto is blessed with several roads that wind through river valleys and ravines, but sometimes it is difficult to get a full view of the road ahead in corners where both the headlamps and the street lamps can’t reach. The SuperDuke GT introduces an innovative solution: three LED lights on each side of the bike that light up as the bike leans over, ten degrees at a time. Yeah, it also becomes a game to see if you can light 'em all up on every corner :-)
Come have complained that the GT doesn’t go far enough with wind protection on the front end. The shorty but adjustable windscreen worked well for me, but it was summer and I am used to riding a totally naked bike. Swapping windscreens is a cheap and cheerful modification though, so for those that find the GT too windy I’m sure there will be simple solutions.
The real litmus test of any touring bike depends on the colour of your butt after a long day in the saddle. I took the GT on a five hundred mile journey over two days incorporating highway, country roads, back roads and even some loose gravel. The first day was a quick 250-mile jaunt mainly on the highway, and with the combination of cruise control and fairly light traffic I arrived at my destination totally refreshed. The real test was the return to the city through the wilderness of the Canadian Shield the following day. Clocking almost ten straight hours from start to finish, I couldn’t believe just how incredibly awesome my rear end felt by the end of it. I could have easily gone further.
With a bike so comfortable that you can actually ride for longer distances , KTM has thoughtfully added a larger 6 gallon / 23 litre fuel tank so you don't actually have to stop as often to gas up. Yes, if you ride aggressively the GT can be thirsty, but no more so than sport touring bikes of even smaller displacement. The bike's ride character itself can be easily tempered by a simple flick of the thumb via one of the most intuitive ride control systems on the market.
If I could make one criticism it is that the bike is almost too easy to ride. It certainly smooths out the rougher and perhaps scarier edges of the SuperDuke R. But this may well be a selling feature for those who are looking to buy a more flexible purpose-built touring machine, but one that is based on some very fierce super sport DNA. The GT is an almost ideal synthesis of sport, handling and comfort and if I were planning to do serious distance I would choose it in a heartbeat over its older brother. It has also surpassed the SuperDuke R as the ideal all-rounder I had imagined. Yet on a purely emotional level, and for the kind of riding I do, my heart is still with the original. The 1290 SuperDuke R still retains my highest allegiance.
2017 KTM 1290 SuperDuke GT
MSRP: USD $19,999 / CAD $21,499