A little more than 16 years ago, Austrian manufacturer KTM was in the throes of financial meltdown, resulting in a corporate restructuring that separated the company's multiple manufacturing subsidiaries. Current KTM CEO Stefan Pierer saw some potential in the motorcycle division, and together with partner Rudi Knunz (the current CFO of KTM), bought out all remaining interest and assets in that sector of the company. Although the Mattighofen factory had already amassed many World Motocross and Enduro championships, many were skeptical that the relatively tiny company could sustain itself enough to make anywhere near a full return to its former glory.
So much for the doomsayers. With an aggressive marketing strategy relying on heavy factory racing participation and a product lineup patterned around that competition involvement, KTM has enjoyed a meteoric rise to become the second-largest European manufacturer. Even a two-year partnership contract with North American powersports giant Polaris was called off a year before it expired in 2006, with KTM's increasing sales and financial health helping Pierer decide that the immense monetary and infrastructural strength of a deal with Polaris wasn't worth giving up complete autonomy in KTM's direction.
After continuing to carve out an increasingly larger share of the off-road market, the upstart Austrian powerhouse is now already making a name for itself in the on-road side. The new RC8 represents KTM's first serious foray into the hyper-competitive world of supersport machinery, and after hitting European showrooms in 2008, the distinctively-styled V-twin is now set to finally reach U.S. shores as an '09 model. Our Euro correspondent Alan Cathcart gave a first riding impression and technical details of the bike in the July '08 issue ("Austrian Attack"), and his rave review had us fidgeting in anticipation of getting our paws on one to wring out on American pavement.
To our surprise, the RC8 quickly demonstrated that it's got some big differences that distinguish it from the standard V-twin sportbike fare.
Slinging a leg over the RC8 reveals a far more hospitable riding position than the Ducati 1098, with a lower seat height and higher-set bars putting much less strain on your wrists and torso, with far more legroom. A plus is that the KTM's ergos are adjustable, with the rear tailsection/seat height adjustable in two positions 20mm apart, while the clip-on bar height can be adjusted by 15mm, and the footpeg brackets can be set in either of two positions 20mm apart (we left all of them in the lower position and had no complaints, including zero problems with footpeg ground clearance during track use). Even the shift lever is adjustable for shift throw and effort. Unfortunately, although wide and flat enough to be supportive, the seat's foam is pretty hard, and the stiff suspension (more on that later) quickly turns any extended straight-line drones into butt torture after 20 minutes.
Because of the seat's low height in relation to the rest of the bike, wind protection is pretty good, and vibration at cruising speeds isn't obtrusive (even though the mirrors' images are constantly fuzzed out, making it impossible to tell if that's a police cruiser behind you). Fuel mileage is decent, averaging 40-plus mpg on the highway and dipping into the 36-mpg range when really giving the KTM the whip; the fuel tank capacity is only 4.4 gallons, however, and the low fuel warning on the dash comes on at around 125 miles, so you'll be filling up often. The LCD digital dash display has a "road" and "race" mode, each with a boatload of functions that can be toggled via paddle switches on the left bar or a button on the dash; the road mode features a digital speedometer and bar graph tachometer, but they're both a little too small to see at a glance.
The RC8 has very snappy throttle response, with a revviness and lack of flywheel effect similar to the Super Duke R we tested back in August-although thankfully not quite as hyper-responsive. Coupled with a shorter first gear than the usual ultra-tall fare found on some other V-twins, this makes zipping through urban environs on the KTM a breeze. Handling is surprisingly lithe and agile, and braking from the monobloc/radial-mount Brembo calipers is nice and crisp at rational street speeds.
We did notice the throttle response to be a tad inconsistent, however. Most of the time response off the bottom or transitioning from braking is nice and crisp, but occasionally it exhibits a little fluffiness at those light throttle settings. Engine braking control from the ECU (back torque is controlled by opening the rear throttle plate slightly rather than a slipper clutch) is also a bit wonky, with none available in first gear (meaning you should rarely downshift to first unless you want a ton of engine braking), and seemingly variable amounts in second gear. While not outright bothersome, these inconsistencies were a bit annoying at times.
What really was bothersome, however, was the tremendous engine heat pouring out of the side fairing vents, especially the right side. At anything other than a serious sport-riding pace or a highway cruise above 70 mph, the heat is enough to notice even when wearing boots and leathers, and it will cook your lower legs in short order on summer days. This is not to say the KTM runs hot; on the contrary, the excessive heat is the result of the fairing working well, as the RC8's engine coolant stays below 200 degrees F for the most part even when ridden in anger. Even if the coolant temps does rise above that in traffic, it quickly begins to drop once you get back up to speed-just make sure to hang your legs out in the breeze to avoid getting them roasted medium-rare.
On The Gas
The first thing you notice when flicking the RC8 into a turn is that it really does "flick" into a turn; the KTM is certainly the most agile V-twin supersport machine we've ever ridden. During one portion of our street/canyon testing, we brought along a Ducati 1098 just to see how the KTM would stack up, and the differences were eye-opening. While the Ducati is by no means truckish in terms of steering, the RC8 feels almost like a 600 in comparison, with less effort required to initiate the turn and less to change lines mid-turn if necessary. The KTM is able to carve a tighter line with less lean angle than the 1098, and overall just feels shorter than the Ducati, even though their wheelbases are identical. Some of this can be attributed to the KTM's steep 23.3-degree rake angle, yet the RC8 remains surprisingly stable through bump-ridden pavement.
KTM bought out Dutch suspension specialist WP back in 1995, and like all KTMs the RC8 is so equipped, with the fully adjustable suspension featuring a rear shock sporting both high- and low-speed compression damping adjustment. Overall wheel and chassis control is very good, exhibiting decent compliance over the small bumps while handling the bigger stuff reasonably well. We use the word "reasonably" because unfortunately the spring rates on the KTM are suitable only for riders approaching 200 pounds and above; this results in some issues when hitting bumps at higher speeds. While ramping up the pace can allow lighter riders to load the suspension enough to get it working properly for the most part, big hits or dips at speed cause the spring to overpower the rebound damping near the bottom of the shock travel and upset the chassis. Backing off the compression damping helped to some degree, but unless the pavement you're riding on is glass smooth and/or you are a heavier rider, a spring change might be first on your modification list.
Up to that point, however, chassis feel while cornering is excellent, with good front-end feedback adding to the rider confidence factor. We're anxious to see how the KTM will work with spring rates more in line with our tester's weights.
The RC8's 75-degree V-twin sports an impressively flat torque curve, pumping out excellent power from 3000 rpm all the way up to just before the 10,250-rpm rev limiter. The big difference, though, is the engine's lack of flywheel that results in a very quick-revving twin; the KTM practically leaps off the slower corners without having to carry a lot of momentum as you do with the Ducati, and that advantage carries over into the midrange as well. Throw the RC8's impressive agility into the mix, and it adds up to a bike that goes quicker with less effort in the tighter canyons. The KTM simply gets the steam pumping earlier and faster than other twins, and even any four-cylinder bike would be hard-pressed to keep up with the RC8's versatile powerband in that environment.
Although the KTM makes good power almost up to the rev-limiter, it doesn't feel quite as strong as the Ducati up top, and the dyno chart confirmed our subjective impressions. That swift acceleration from lower speeds just starts to wane a bit past 9000 rpm, although we kind of expected it, considering that the RC8 breathes through approximately 8mm smaller throttle bodies, and we're not sure how restrictive the stock under-engine exhaust chamber is to pass EPA standards (there are also the power-robbing considerations of the dry-sump oil pumps and dual crank-driven counterbalancers as well). Unfortunately, hard data to see if the KTM's advantages are enough to counter the Ducati's will have to wait, as the 1098 was unavailable when we were conducting racetrack testing with the RC8.
Braking from the monobloc/radial-mount Brembo calipers biting on 320mm discs was excellent during both our canyon and racetrack testing, with superb power and good progressiveness, although some testers were wishing for a bit more feel during the canyon blasts. Nonetheless, the KTM was very stable during aggressive braking, and the engine back-torque-limiting system worked well at keeping the rear wheel from upsetting things during corner entry (except for the slight inconsistencies in second gear noted earlier). And there were no complaints in the traction department, as the OE-fitment Pirelli Dragon Supercorsa Pro tires offered superb grip and feedback on both street and track.
Another V-Twin Competitor Finally Appears
We have to admit that the KTM RC8 surprised us with its overall sporting competence. Like anyone else, we have a tendency to look at the specs and generate preconceived notions on what we expect from a motorcycle. But the KTM basically blew all of those ideas out of the water from the first day we rode it. Yes, it has a couple of blemishes on what would be a shining first try at a supersport motorcycle, but KTM has come amazingly close to hitting a high-water mark on that initial attempt. We can only imagine how much farther KTM's engineers will take it with a few more R&D; years under their belts.
It took a while, but Ducati appears to finally have some solid competition in the V-twin class. And if we were them, we wouldn't take KTM lightly.
+ Quick-revving, strong engine
+ Very agile handling
+ Adjustable ergonomics
- Engine heat cooks your legs
- Hard seat
- Slightly inconsistent throttle response
x KTM came very close to making a winner in its first try at a supersport machine
|SUGGESTED SUSPENSION SETTINGS|
|FRONT||Spring preload: 5 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping: 7 clicks out from full stiff; compression damping: 9 clicks out from full stiff; ride height: fork tube flush with triple clamp|
|REAR||Spring preload: 21mm thread showing from top of preload ring; rebound damping: 13 clicks out from full stiff; high-speed compression damping: 2.75 turns out from full stiff; low-speed compression damping: 20 clicks out from full stiff; ride height: maximum high on eccentric adjuster|
**'08 KTM RC8
Type: Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, 75-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 4 valves/cyl.; shim-under-bucket adjustment
Bore x stroke: 103 x 69mm
Compression ratio: 12.5:1
Induction: Keihin EFI, 52mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.
Front suspension: WP 43mm inverted cartridge fork, 4.7 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload, rebound and compression damping
Rear suspension: WP single shock, 4.9 in. travel; adjustments for spring preload, rebound damping, high- and low-speed compression damping, ride height
Front brake: 2 radial-mount/4-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: two-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Front wheel: 3.50 x 17 in.; forged aluminum alloy
Rear wheel: 6.00 x 17 in.; forged aluminum alloy
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Dragon Supercorsa Pro
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Pirelli Dragon Supercorsa Pro
Rake/trail: 23.3 deg./3.5 in. (90mm)
Wheelbase: 56.3 in. (1430mm)
Seat height: 31.7 in. (805mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.4 gal. (16.5L)
Weight: 444 lbs. (201kg) wet; 417.6 lbs. (189kg) dry
Instruments: Analog tachometer, LCD panel for digital speedometer, coolant temperature, clock, multi-function displays for odometer, tripmeter/low-fuel tripmeter, average fuel consumption/mph, running time, etc.; racetrack data (lap times, best lap, laps to go, top speed, etc.); warning lights for neutral, high beam, turn signal, oil pressure, fuel reserve, shift point
Quarter-mile: 10.27 sec. @ 138.1 mph (corrected)
Top speed: NA
Roll-ons: 60-80 mph/3.05 sec.; 80-100 mph/3.38 sec.Fuel consumption: 35-45 mpg, 36 mpg avg.
For KTM's first attempt at a full-on sportbike, the company deserves an A+ for effort. A lot of people underestimate just what's required to bring competitive sportbikes to market, and KTM has done a remarkable job to rise from essentially a non-entity to its current position in just a few years. For the RC8 to be as good as it is out of the gate is an impressive achievement. It feels very light, has decent power and is a lot of fun to ride. That said, the bike has some definite quirks as outlined in the test that would give me pause if I was considering a purchase. I could live with-or fix-the inconsistent throttle and stiff suspension as part of owning something as interesting and unique as the RC8. But the engine heat, which roasted my leg medium-well one evening on the commute home, is unacceptable and would be the deal-breaker for me.
The RC8 is a bit of an enigma to me. It's no secret that KTM is going after Ducati 1098 territory, yet it makes less power from a bigger engine. Go figure. Then there's the twitchy throttle syndrome that it shares with the Superduke and Superduke R.. That gets annoying over a bumpy road when you're trying to maintain a steady hand on the gas. Speaking of annoying, there's also a lot of engine heat that spews onto my right leg at cruising speeds. All the negatives aside, I really like the RC8. With the subframe and pegs at the lowest setting it's-dare I say-comfortable for a sportbike. The power is only marginally lower than the Ducati, yet my gut instinct tells me it's lighter and more nimble, making for a bike that changes direction in a snap. KTM also nailed the styling as well. The angular lines look aggressive, the mirrors and license plate bracket come off easily when it's time to hit the track...and it's orange. I like orange. They say it takes two to tango. In that case, bring on the 1098 and let's start dancing.
I was surprised as anyone at how well the RC8 works, considering that it's KTM's first attempt at a full-blown supersport machine. Yes, there are some issues with the orange twin that would need fixing before I would plunk down almost 20 large, but having that much disposable income would also mean that those fixes probably wouldn't be too much trouble to accomplish. Even with the overly stiff spring rates, it's easy to see that the basic package is there for a superb sportbike that can slice and dice with the best of them. And I'm sure that KTM will follow the usual European practice of offering upgraded (and more expensive) versions of the RC8 in the coming years.
But that brings up the one aspect that might be the KTM's real weakness at this point. Ducati has its long-running performance, styling, and pavement racing heritage that easily justify the expensive sticker prices on its supersport machinery in the minds of American customers. It will be interesting to see if U.S. sportbike enthusiasts step up in the same manner for a bike that doesn't quite have the same pedigree.