Wheel alignment

Monday 28 September 2020

The KTM 790 at 18 months - a progress report


A hooligan machine if  ever there was one!

An IAM friend of mine who has owned multiple European and Japanese bikes recently said, "There is a special corner of Hell reserved for MV and Moto Guzzi owners who can expect the full dealer workshop maintenance experience".  It was a tongue in cheek retort to someone he knew questioning the reliability of KTM's.  Indeed, several of my friends formed the shape of a cross with their fingers when I announced the intent to buy a Duke 790.  I guess that it's a widely held belief with some substance that Japanese bikes are generally more reliable than European or American ones but what's it really been like to own the 790 since March 2019?

Let's start by saying that I was aware that KTM's had a bit of a mixed reputation before I bought one but the test ride was so exhilarating (HERE) that I just had to own one.  I've rarely laughed out loud inside my helmet but I did multiple times on that day. 

RS 10 hypersport tyres on the demo bike taking a hiding on coarse road chip

The 1500 km review with all the early accessory purchases is HERE and there have been multiple other posts about various bits and pieces.  However, after 18 months ownership and 15,000 km, I thought it might be useful to pull together some thoughts about real life ownership over that time.  The distance covered ought to have been nearly twice that, but that's what C-19 and two eye surgeries do for you!

I needed a bike which had good performance plus excellent handling more than outright power and speed because of where I live in the countryside and also my IAM work.  It needed to be light because of my age - 73 next month for a bit of future-proofing and it's filled the bill perfectly.  Leaving aside all the rational reasons, I also wanted a bike which had a bit of "mongrel" in it! 

HANDLING. In a word, outstanding.  Light weight and steering geometry makes cornering effortless.  It's not called The Scalpel for nothing.  It's very forgiving too.  If corner entry speed is a bit too high, just lean it some more - no drama. That's all that needs to be said apart from noting that good handling also noticeably reduces fatigue on a run.  Ditto for ergonomics with respect to fatigue - my ageing body needs all the help it can get and the KTM is close to perfect for me.  Tyres naturally have a bearing on handling and the OEM Maxxis pure sport tyre get a black mark.  They were fine in the warmer, drier weather when I first bought the bike but as soon as it got colder and wetter, grip reduced dramatically.  A front end slide saw the Maxxis removed at a little over 3000 km and replaced with Bridgestone T31 sport touring tyres.  An excellent all round tyre with plenty of grip in all conditions.  However the front hoop was badly losing its profile at 6000 km although the rear was fine. I suspect that countersteering to maintain good progress on the twisty roads where I live contributes to that. At 8000-odd km, they were replaced with Michelin Road 5's which have been genuinely outstanding, no matter what the conditions are like.  They have currently covered 4000 km and are in great condition.  The other great feature is the turning circle.  Immeasurably better than my last 2 bikes and ideal for narrower roads without having to do a 3 point turn or even worse, having to step off it due to a misjudgment!  (Ummm...... I did this a few years ago on my 2009 Street Triple which had terrible lock.  Almost made it.....)

Rear Michelin Road 5 @ 4000km

BRAKING. The stock brakes and pads were ok (the word "adequate" springs to mind) but I fitted EBC HH pads during lockdown as I knew from fitting them to previous bikes what sort of performance gain to expect.  They delivered the expected performance but I suspect they exacerbated an issue which I'd noticed before they were fitted.  At low speeds (say <20 km/hr), gently applying the front brake creates a slight snatch like the pads are grabbing then slightly letting go.  This becomes more pronounced if more lever pressure is applied.  Sticking a magnetic dial indicator on the forks and checking disc runout revealed a couple of things.  The front right hand disc has a runout of 0.07mm.  This is within the manufacturer's tolerance of 0.1mm but the difference between high and low points is only just over 90 degrees.  The front left hand disc has a runout of 0.13mm which is outside tolerance and the difference between high and low is approximately 180 degrees apart.  

RH front disc with dial indicator

A trip to my dealer a few days ago led to the service manager describing the slow speed braking performance as "aggressive" and he is following up with KTM to get the disks replaced under warranty. I should add that at higher speeds, the brakes perform perfectly and I automatically compensate for the deficiency at the lower speed.  It still needs addressing though. (Update:  New rotors fitted under warranty)

THE ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION.  An absolute delight and proof that you don't need a big capacity bike to go fast in most road conditions as it's the power to weight ratio that has a lot of relevance until aerodynamics takes over.  The 790 has plenty of torque but the quickshifter is a really useful tool for keeping the bike in the right rev range.  I use the quickshifter on downshifts all the time for engine braking in combination with the throttle to keep things smooth as opposed to relying on the brakes.  It gets used less on upshifts as it requires reasonably large throttle openings to make smooth changes and I tend not to wring its neck on most occasions.  With the stock muffler, the engine sounds great too with a decent bark and a few pops on a trailing throttle.  No intention to fit a louder muffler as I prefer not to draw attention to myself.

The only slight downside experienced to date is a very slight misting of oil from the cam cover rubber seal at the camshaft ends.  It's nowhere annoying enough to have it fixed properly until a future service requires the cam cover to be removed.  A temporary fix has been to paint flexible sealant along the join at those points and it works perfectly - no more misting.

Sealant painted on part of the cam cover joint

Setting chain tension is complicated by the fact that I have an ABBA stand which lifts on the swingarm pivot rather than a rear paddock stand that lifts on bobbins.  The KTM method is to measure clearance between the underside of the swingarm and the top of the chain whilst on the paddock stand.  I can't use the official method so I do it with my neighbour sitting on it.  In his everyday clothes, he weighs about the same as me fully kitted in riding gear.  All a bit complicated but it works out ok.  Not that impressed with the Chinese OEM chain but will probably change it for a DID brand fairly soon.  It gets lubed with either Maxima Chain Wax or Tirox teflon spray every 500 km or thereabouts using the excellent GREASE NINJA.

ABBA stand with attachments to lift both wheels at the same time

FLEXIBILITY.  The multi-option rider modes/traction control have been particularly useful for the mix of country and town riding.  Sport or Street modes are my preferred options on the open road and the performance increase and throttle response is particularly noticeable compared with rain mode as you might expect.  However, apart from its obvious use, I find rain mode useful for making the bike less snatchy on low throttle openings for city work in dense traffic.  I've never even bothered to use track mode with all the sub-options such as anti-wheelie and launch control.  I find that 6th gear is almost superfluous for the conditions I ride in.  The national speed limit is 100 km/hr apart from some rare stretches of expressway.  At that 100 km/hr, 6th is almost like an overdrive and I only tend to use it on long, straight roads where a constant speed can be maintained.

FUEL CONSUMPTION.   How long is a piece of string?  You don't buy a 790 for economy.  However, because of the relatively remote location where we live and that much of my riding involves 500km+ days, I wanted a decent range out of a tankful.  On an average ride, the instrumentation shows around 4lt per100 km.  Checks against my GPS suggests this is a little  optimistic.  I've never pushed my luck in the name of getting an absolute reading but think that a range of 270 km is pretty safe on most occasions.  Maybe 300 km if you're taking it really easy.

LUGGAGE CARRYING.  Touring on the 790 wasn't a significant criterion when considering the purchase.  There are accessories available involving bolt-on steel racks etc but I wanted to keep the minimalist, clean lines of the standard bike.  A slim rear seat pack is all I use to carry tyre repair equipment, a medikit, a few tools and documentation for my role as an IAM Examiner.  For a 6 day tour last February (HERE), I added a 10 litre yachting dry bag and a backpack which were perfectly adequate.

Travelling light for a 6 day tour

CYCLE PARTS.  The standard of finish is quite impressive.  The paintwork is as bright as the day it was bought and there's no rusting on any of the bolts or other steelwork.  I installed R&G anti-slip film where my knees touch the tank for additional protection.  The bike gets washed using an ordinary car wash 'n wax or the excellent Muc-Off  motorcycle cleaner.  I find cleaning the bike is quite therapeutic and if I'm in need of extra therapy, the paintwork might get a coating of Mother's carnauba wax on the odd occasion.

R&G  grip/paint protection kit

HEADLIGHT.  I thought it would be adequate for nighttime riding where there was ambient light such as street lights.  It's actually much better than I supposed and is fine for maintaining a decent speed in the unlit countryside.  The spread of light also lights up a wide angle which is good for spotting things off the road.  I've done 5 Iron Butt (NZ equivalent)1600 km in under 24 hour rides on various bikes and would have no qualms about doing one on the 790.

No complaints at all!

Lighting up the countryside

SERVICE COSTS.  First service at 1000 km involved an oil and filter change, diagnostic computer check and a general check round the bike.  It cost NZ$279 (260 AUD, 183USD, 134GBP).  Second service at 11000km involved an oil and filter change, check and clean air filter, software upgrade, replace frame bolts under warranty, and a general check round the bike.  It cost NZ$314 (292AUD, 206USD, 161 GBP).  This was a little less than my naked GSX-S 1000 and think that it was pretty reasonable.  The dealer I use involves a 320 km round trip.  They're aware of the travel time involved and always go out of their way to turn the bike around as quickly as possible.  (Boyds in Hamilton for Kiwi riders). 

IN SUMMARY.  I've banged on about it before but to get a match made in heaven, a bike has to meet the technical needs of the prospective owner and appeal to to their emotions.  I found this out first hand when I bought the GSX-S 1000 almost on a whim.  Great performance but surprisingly, I found it bland and a bit lacking in character.  Perhaps that's a slight pointer to the differences between the majority of Japanese bikes and those from elsewhere, particularly Europe.  The 790 gets patted when I walk past it in the shed.  The Gixxer didn't.  It's worth repeating what someone said to me when I had narrowed the choice down to the Duke 790 and the 765 Street Triple R.  "It's not the way the coin lands that decides for you, but your reaction to the way the coin lands that will tell you the decision you want to make".  Those words actually made the choice a lot easier than it would have otherwise been.

Having set the scene, the KTM still makes me laugh every time I ride it and it more than meets my specific technical needs.  The relatively minor issues (call them "character traits") listed in this blog post in no way significantly detract from the immense enjoyment I've had from owning it. Most of the time, l can ride it fairly sensibly, but it really does encourage immoderate behaviour *grin*.  Trying to be dispassionate, if I was looking at a new bike today, it would still be the KTM 790.  Can't express it any better than that.

Coromandel Peninsula where I live - riding heaven!


  1. Fantastic that you've found your bike and are getting out and enjoying it Geoff!

    So am I going to see you on Saturday ;)

    PS: did you try an MT-09? They are an absolute hoot and you'd never need worry about reliability ;)

    1. It's a blast riding the 790 Andrew 😁

      I'm a bit old for a really long haul now - don't think my knees will hold up! Hope that you have a trouble-free and fun run.

      I like the XSR variant but not as much as the KTM. That's the beauty of how different bikes affect us!

  2. That's a pretty fair assessment of the KTM790 mate. Looks like your thououghly enjoying it still, which does make it the right bike for you. I've done a bit of reading up on the adventure model as well. Are you boys having a meet up ride somewhere?

    1. Thanks Steve, it's still so much fun! A couple of friends have the 790 Adventure and love them. I'd personally prefer the 390 for use round our way.

      Andrew is doing the annual 1600 km in under 24 hours organised ride. I'm a bit long in the tooth for that now. Last one was in 2010.

  3. KTM is a very reputable brand in Europe, I am surprised to hear that people are doubting its reliability.
    What an honest and completely unbiased review, Geoff. Oh, and by now you must be the oldest hooligan on the island ;-)

    1. Hi Sonja. None of the faults are really serious, just a bit "quirky" and not all bikes are affected. MV, Ducati and other "exotics" have a worse reputation.

      Haha! Yep, I certainly get tired after a long day in the saddle 😁. I think a Lotus 7 might figure in my plans in a year or two!

  4. I absolutely love my 790 it's quick super agile looks great Weighs practically nothing.... Oh and bright orange wheels for the win..

    1. Thanks for taking the time to post! It was a 2009 Street Triple that started my love of light, nimble bikes. I wouldn't have minded orange wheels but when I first looked at them, my wife was utterly scathing about 790's with an orange paint job. You can't actually see the thumbprint on my forehead but sometimes, it pays to keep the peace :-) . Safe riding!

  5. Geoff,
    Really enjoy reading your posts which I've found helpful as part of my own 790 experience. I've just had my 1st service done which included a dash replacement due to the dreaded 'white dots'. I added the comfort seat which was better than the stock plank but have reverted to the standard seat with a sheepskin cover (which I picked up 2nd hand) and this seems a little better. Next up I'm going to get a sheepskin for the ergo seat which I think will be the best solution.
    Keep the updates coming and ride safe.
    Cheers, Keith

    1. Hi Keith,
      Thanks for the kind words but sorry to hear about the dash replacement. I've come to the conclusion that a rider's butt shape and weight are significant factors in the comfort stakes on any given bike 😁. On my Iron Butt rides, the best comfort was gained through a specifically-designed custom seat on my Blackbird, followed very closely by an Airhawk pad on my Street Triple. A sheepskin was better than my standard Blackbird seat, but well behind the other two I mentioned.

  6. It does look like a lot of fun and that is what this caper is about, right?

    1. Hi Dave,
      Absolutely! We're a long time dead so we might as well have fun while we can 😁

  7. Hi Geoff,
    Nice write up. When I first saw the pic of the Hypersports tyre I mistook it for yours and I can tell you I was well impressed :-)

    I've just gone past 10K miles and for the fun of it did my own 'good and bad'. My overall opinion is that it's a fun bike that is built to a price. It's not a criticism as it's allowed me to be able to afford it and have lot of fun with it. I would struggle to justify much more.

    One thing I do need to address though is the seat on very long runs (8-10 hour days). I may look at your Airhawk option - maybe a Xmas prezzie from the wife and kids :-).

    Here's the link - https://sdtravelogue.blogspot.com/2019/08/2018-ktm-790-duke-long-term-review.html?view=magazine


    1. Hiya Steve,

      Thanks for the kind words. I merely added to the damage on the demo bike tyre. They were as soft as butter and not really suited to public road surfaces :-) .

      That's a very nice way of presenting your findings and we clearly hold similar views. I'm just waiting for my new disc rotors to arrive under warranty. It's still eminently rideable though.

      My butt is generally ok on 500-700 km days with the standard seat but an Airhawk would be ideal for longer distances. It was perfect on the Street Triple for 1600 km in 21 hours.

      Best wishes to you and your family for the impending lockdown and hope all goes well.

  8. If you wanted a reliable Japanese bike to light up your smile, you could have tried the MT 09. Certainly one wheel salutes would be on the cards in may gears. Don't like the gunk on the cam covers. Covering up poor finish ....

    1. I didn't want a reliable Japanese bike as I'd just come from a GSX-S 1000, a Street Triple before that and a Blackbird before that. Wanted something a bit different that would light my fire. Thanks for dropping by!


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