Smaller capacity bikes have just started to make a bit of a comeback in Europe. For a while the slowly enforced death of the two stroke engine meant buyers were left with functional but ever so boring four stroke commuters. Bikes like the Honda CBF125 for instance, perfect for commuting on but not likely to inspire a new generation of rider. For excitement we need something a little bit different from a well proven manufacturer.
Four strokes do of course have a place, they are reliable and economical but they will never produce the same kind of excitement as a similar capacity two stroke. The peaky power delivery, aroma and narrow power bands are as addictive to me now as they ever have been. Thankfully though manufacturers have started to realise that the way forward is to design bikes that will appeal to riders of all ages, no matter what engine lies beneath the bodywork. Style is everything.
Sportsbikes have traditionally been a way to tempt riders on to two wheels and there are plenty of tasty looking, fine handling small capacity bikes in the class, like the Yamaha YZF-R125, Rieju RS-3 125 and the Kawasaki Ninja 250 but times are changing and practicality is starting to feature on a bike buyer’s wish list. Naked machines have knocked sportsbikes off the top spot in many European countries. Comfort, good looks, reliability and economy are all higher on the wish list for many buyers than race bike inspired beauty and impracticality.
KTM decided to shake things up a bit in 2011 by releasing their first ever 125cc road bike. It’s not just any old 125 either; this is the new benchmark in naked style. For a factory with such a rich sporting history behind them KTM missed out on the learner legal road market. Well they did until the launch of this stunning 125 Duke. The Duke is a bike which should win over any self respecting teenage bike fan, or (as the firm hopes) encourage a new generation of young riders to discover the fun and freedom that only a journey on two wheels can bring.
The Austrian bike firm employ over 1600 people and have a presence in over 70 countries. KTM have no less than 188 world titles to their name in various disciplines and can also boast ten successive victories in the gruelling Dakar rally, so they know how to build a race bike, but can they build a successful road bike that will appeal to kids? When they decided to develop a brand new 125 for the road KTM invited 90 youngsters from all over Europe to visit the factory and give them ideas on how it should look. Can you think of any other manufacturer who would even contemplate the thought of hordes of children running around their factory and being a large part of the inspiration behind such an important machine?
The result of that market research, coupled with the skills of the KTM engineers and the well proven Kiska Design team have created what has to be one of the most innovative and funky looking naked bikes a seventeen year old can ride on the road today. The KTM Duke 125 is without a doubt very eye catching, in fact during the photo shoot at a skate park during the UK launch we were mobbed by teenagers, all wanting to know everything about the bike. They were interested in the quality names which adorn the Duke, like the 43mm upside down WP forks and rear adjustable mono shock, the Bybre radial front brake with 280mm disc (the bike also has a 230mm rear disc), they were also intrigued by the multi functional and very pretty digital dash which offers loads of useful information including trip distance, odometer, clock, temp, RPM, speed, gear indicator, fuel used etc. Incidentally during our time with the bike it was averaging 6.7 litres per 100km and we weren’t riding with economy in mind!
KTM realise that youngsters like to personalise a bike and the factory aftermarket catalogue features loads of goodies to allow them to do just that. Items range from sticker kits to an exhaust and even a very snazzy looking LED lighting strip, which can be fitted to run along the groove in the tank. There are also hand guards, crash bungs and a headlight kit, but due to an agreement with the Austrian Government and KTM you won’t find any factory tuning parts, although I dare say firms like Malossi will soon release a big bore kit to suit the bike.
KTM developed a brand new engine for the bike; it’s a fuel injected four stroke (as you’d expect), it’s also liquid cooled and has a traditional six speed gearbox. The engine is clean burning and produces the permitted 15bhp. The engine benefits from a balancer shaft which cuts out nasty vibration and I must say it’s very smooth. Press the starter button and it springs eagerly to life, prod the gear lever to select first, ease out the light clutch and the bike pulls away nicely. Four stroke 125’s aren’t always as exciting as I’d like them to be but KTM have put some thought into how the Duke sounds. The R&D team put a lot of time and effort into perfecting the exhaust and it has quite a distinctive note to it, almost like a large capacity bike as you drop back down through the gears.
The engine performs very well and I must admit it provided enough fun to keep me entertained for the day. Like all 125’s in Europe the bike has to be restricted so you’re unlikely to see over 70mph on the clock but it does accelerate well enough and the gearing is well spaced, although sixth almost felt like an overdrive at times, which means you can keep it in fifth for ages, in fact you could pretty much leave it in fifth until you get on to a motorway (providing you’ve got a full licence of course).
The engine may be good but how about that lightweight steel trellis space frame, suspension and brakes? We spent a day blasting around the English countryside and the bike impressed me. The weight is carried low down and is centralised which means the bike feels very neutral and well balanced beneath the rider; it’s very stable at low or high speed and is light too. The Duke is comfortable and the seat height is low enough for most riders to touch the floor easily. It also has a great turning circle, which is great for novice riders. The brakes are made by Bybre, a name you may not be familiar with but they’re a Brembo subsidiary and they do work very well and are capable of producing stoppies on demand. The WP suspension is another top-notch name and it soaks up the bumps perfectly well, even with the rear shock on the standard settings
All that road riding is good fun but for a ‘proper’ test we needed something a bit more entertaining so we went to a kart track for the afternoon. The Duke handled itself perfectly well on the tight and twisty track. It can hold a good tight line, has loads of ground clearance and the suspension and brakes are just as good on track as they are on the road, as were the tyres, just what you want from your first ‘proper’ bike. One of the test riders on the day decided to test how well the bike crashed (by accident of course) with a low speed tumble. The bike was fitted with crash bungs, which took most of the impact and the only damage to the bike was a circlip, which popped off the rear brake pedal, not a bad result for bike or rider. We put in 100 laps on the track and the bike never felt like it was getting out of shape, there was no brake fade and the chassis is stiff enough to cope with a bit more power, just as well because the 200cc version has arrived recently.
I defy anybody to have a go on the Duke 125, or even to see one in a bike shop without coming away wanting one. It may only be small in capacity but it’s big on style, attitude and personality. The Duke 125 will put KTM firmly on the learner legal map and convert them into loyal customers of the brand and quite rightly so.