Don’t dismiss the new KTM 125 Duke just because it’s ‘only’ a 125 street single. Because this motorcycle, launched at Intermot 2010, might actually be the most significant and important new motorcycle launched on planet Earth in this century. Here’s why.
The new downsized Duke is the first fruit of joint labour between the second-largest motorcycle manufacturers in both India and Europe. On April 16 this year, Bajaj brought its shareholding in KTM up to a total of 35.67 per cent. By any standards, that makes the Indian company – the fourth-largest two-wheeler manufacturer in the world – a key influence in the future direction taken by KTM under its majority owner, Cross Industries. East meets West.
‘In my opinion, the biggest single challenge for today’s motorcycle manufacturers is this: how can we direct our future products towards a younger customer?’ says KTM president Stefan Pierer. ‘One way is the Zero Emission segment, our electric-driven off-road competition bikes, which could attract new, young customers. But the first and most important thing for us is the 125cc class, so let’s make cool, affordable, entry-level bikes which display the brand image, and that’s what we’re doing in conjunction with our partners, Bajaj, in creating and marketing the 125 Duke. If this also lets us expand globally by approaching emerging markets, that’s a bonus. But the main thing is to get young people on motorcycles for the first time and then to keep them riding, preferably with KTM, as they progress through life and up the capacity scale.’
That summarises KTM’s strategy with the 125 Duke, but there’s a key word in there: affordable. The contribution of Bajaj to this strategy can’t be overestimated, after it was decided in 2008 that KTM would engineer the motorcycle, their close allies, Kiska Design in Salzburg, would design it, Bajaj and KTM would jointly develop it and Bajaj would manufacture it in their vast modern factory in Pune. ‘Our design brief was to produce a lower-priced KTM made in India, which still delivered what the customer expected from us in quality and performance,’ said Robert Prielinger, KTM’s head of R&D for the 125 Duke project.
Then, he handed me the key to one of the five pre-production prototypes that have collectively clocked up more than 1,00,000 km in real-world testing, alongside the dozens of 125cc motors completing 150-hour endurance tests on KTM’s Mattighofen factory’s engine dynos.
Pre-production of the first 25 examples will shortly take place in India, followed by 50 more in January and the first 500 production 125 Dukes will roll off the Pune production lines in February. The 125 Duke is well worthy of the Duke name and Bajaj deserves credit for helping KTM source Indian suppliers who’re able to produce parts to European standards. Except for the wheels from China and some forged aluminium parts which come from Poland, all components for the 125 Duke are sourced in India.
Also, as the bike’s designer Gerald Kiska explained, it was always considered vital that the 125 Duke should allow owners to customise and personalise their bikes according to their tastes, preferably via KTM’s own catalogue, though it’s inevitable there’ll be a flourishing independent aftermarket if the Duke’s entry-level cool catches on, as Pierer & Co. hope. ‘It’ll be very easy to alter the colour and the look of the bike just by changing three parts – the headlight, the seat and the rear numberplate mounting,’ says Prielinger. So the 125 Duke is intended to be a chameleon of a motorcycle, constantly changing its colour and appearance all the way through its existence which, in terms of engine mileage, KTM intends should be substantial.
That’s because the 125 Duke’s liquid-cooled twin overhead cam four-valve single motor, measuring 58 x 47.2 mm for a capacity of 124.7cc, has been robustly engineered for durability as well as performance, says Prielinger, who declares that KTM took the lessons learnt in developing their highly-stressed 250 motocross engine as the basis for producing the Duke motor, whose cylinder head is almost identical to that on KTM’s 250SX model. This means the engine can grow to 200cc for a future power-up kit that’s already producing 24 bhp on the Mattighofen dyno, compared to the 15 bhp@10,500 rpm, which the restricted 125cc version makes. The 200 Duke may even end up as a separate model for India and other markets. More promisingly, Prielinger admits that his team has run a 250SX engine installed in the 125 Duke’s chrome-moly trellis frame, without any problems!
After riding it in the hills and valleys around Mattighofen, I can say that this bike will definitely be king of the road in its class. For a start, it’s a full-size motorcycle delivering a quite natural and relatively upright riding stance that’s comfortable even for a six-foot rider. My knees tuck into the cutouts in the sculpted 11-litre fuel tank, while the 1350 mm wheelbase and cast-aluminium wheels give the KTM substance combined with agility. The test bike came shod with 110/70R17 front and 150/60R17 rear Michelins that will be replaced by specially-developed radials produced by MRF – the first time a front radial has been made on the subcontinent.
The 125cc motor has a high 12.6:1 compression ratio – one way of delivering the sparkling acceleration (by 125cc streetbike standards) that the KTM offers. The quite punchy maximum torque figure of 1.22 kgm@8,000 rpm that the engine produces is another reason for choosing the relatively square engine dimensions. There’s a single gear-driven counterbalancer which does a good job of eliminating undue vibration – even revving the willing little engine to the 11,000 rpm rev limiter didn’t result in any noticeable tingles. A Bosch ECU controls the fuel injection and while the ECU limits top speed to 100 kph under EU legislation (80 kph in Germany), in de-restricted guise, the 125 Duke is capable of exceeding 120 kph.
The motor is a semi-stressed component in KTM’s trademark trellis frame with 43 mm upside-down forks developed by WP in Austria, but made in India by their suspension partners, Endurance. There’s a 160 mm cushion of wheel travel at both ends and even though non-adjustable, the full-size front suspension adds visual substance to the package. The rear shock is adjustable for spring preload to allow for a passenger or luggage. The good-looking black-painted Jingfi wheels carry a 280 mm Bybre steel disc with a radially-mounted four-piston caliper up front, with a single-piston rear gripping the 230 mm rear brake. In case you were wondering, Bybre is the Indian division of a certain Italian brake manufacturer, as in ‘By Brembo!’
The Duke’s twin-cam engine whirrs instantly to life when you thumb the electric-start button, settling to a slightly high idle speed with a muffled, but definitely fruity-sounding thump from the exhaust, which pops back occasionally on deceleration. By entry-level standards, this sounds like a racebike! There’s hardly any mechanical noise from the motor – it sounds powerful and potent for a 125cc streetbike and lives up to that impression on the go. The low first gear is just for getting off the mark, with second good for 45 kph or so. Then comes third/60 kph, fourth/75 kph, fifth/100 kph and sixth where I saw 125 kph several times on the good-looking KTM dash.
But you don’t need to rev it out in every gear to get a sense of speed – the engine’s pretty torquey for a little ‘un, so you have the choice of surfing the curve by using third or fourth gear all the time or else riding it to the limiter in every gear like the Red Bull Rookies do on their 125GP KTM ring-dinger two-strokes. Your call.
One key ingredient here, though, is how easy to use and confidence-inspiring the 125 Duke’s controls are. The whole transmission on the 125 Duke is flawless in operation, with a progressive-action clutch that feeds out controllably and a sense of flywheel mass to prevent engine revs from unduly falling away as you swap gears. However, perhaps as the corollary or downside to this, you must always use the clutch to change gear, however experienced you are. Clutchless upshifts are very hard to perform smoothly.
The 125 Duke’s upright riding stance also delivers plenty of confidence, with predictable handling within the limits of the relatively skinny tyres, even if these are bigger than others in the 125 entry-level class. It steers very neutrally, much more like a downsized KTM 690 single than the more nervous behaviour of a CBF Stunner, and that Austro-Indian brake package is excellent. The radial front brake works well in spite of being small and solitary. It was quite a surprise how well it hauled down from 120 kph to rest in a panic stop.
The KTM 125 Duke is a wonderful motorcycle with a small engine, but a big heart. As a junior version of KTM’s Duke family of single-cylinder streetrods, it’s also cool and you can’t buy that vital ingredient anywhere else. However, as willing and able as the 125cc motor is in delivering the goods, I can’t wait to try a 200cc power-up version or even better, a bigger-engined 250 Duke using the exact same chassis, perhaps with bigger tyres and brakes, which KTM boss Pierer confirms is under development. ‘We’re working on a 250cc to 300cc single-cylinder engine, also four valves with twin overhead camshafts,’ he says. ‘This has more or less the same external dimensions so we can install it in the existing 125 Duke platform.’
As its succession of MX and Enduro World Championships continues to underline, KTM does know a thing or two about developing single-cylinder motors. The debut of the 125 Duke marks the start of an entirely new KTM R&D strategy based on adapting this competition-derived technology to the street, aimed at attracting new converts to the cult of motorcycling through the Duke 125 that’s a socially significant example of chameleon cool. Even their rival manufacturers must be hoping that KTM succeed!
TECH SPECS KTM DUKE 125
Max power: 15 bhp@10500 rpm
Max torque: 1.22 kgm@8000 rpm
Type: Chrome-moly tubular-steel trellis frame
Brakes: 280 mm disc with radially mounted four-piston caliper (f), 230 mm disc with single-piston caliper (r)
Suspension: 43 mm inverted telescopic forks (f), cantilever monoshock (r)
Tyres: 110/70 R17 (f), 150/60 R17 (r)
Wheelbase: 1350 mm
Kerb weight: 118 kg (dry)
Fuel tank: 11 litres