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km : First Ride

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19 January 2010

The 2010 KTM RC8R has been a long time coming. An evolution of the 990 RC8 sportbike concept that KTM first showed at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, it’s a radical departure for the company best known for race-winning dirt bikes. Last year the concept finally made its way to production in the form of the 1190 RC8; despite a larger motor, it was strikingly similar to the show bike from five years earlier, complete with underslung muffler, razor-sharp body lines, and beautifully crafted swingarm. We really wanted to like the RC8, but there were issues. Now comes the RC8R, and we’re wondering if anything has really changed.



Despite a half-decade from show to street, the RC8, KTM’s first foray into sportbikes, was riddled with quality issues ranging from low-rpm stumbles to painfully loud rear brakes and a transmission that often refused to stay in gear. Performance was also a letdown; despite making 155 horsepower, its 405-pound dry weight kept it from being fast in comparison to the 170-horse, 377-pound Bolognese pasta rocket Ducati 1198. The brakes were good and the suspension adequate — it was a formidable machine on paper — but on the track it just wasn’t there. Our final point of contention: the $19,498 price. While the 1190 RC8 was intended to be on par with Ducati’s 1198, it was fitted with an 1198 S price tag, but not fitted with any of the S-model Ducati perks like Ohlins suspension, forged wheels or traction control.



Fast-forward a year, and now KTM is offering us the RC8R. Our first thought: Would this bike finally be what the RC8 should have been? Never before have we had such high hopes for a bike as we had with the “Ready to Race” R-variant. With the demise of Buell, and with Aprilia and BMW defecting to four-cylinder powerplants, KTM and Ducati are left to fly the V-twin flag in the superbike arena; it’s only natural for the comparison to be made between the new ‘R’ and the current generation Ducati 1198.



The $19,998 price tag (just $500 more than the base ’09 model) notwithstanding, the best part of the RC8R is the engine. No longer 1148 cc with a mere 155 horsepower, the bore has been increased by two millimeters, giving the RC8R an overall displacement of 1195 cc. Compression gets a serious bump — from 12.5:1 to 13.5:1 — and lighter pistons are attached to reinforced con-rods. Fuel and air is fed through new 42 mm titanium intake valves, while exhaust gases flow past 34 mm steel units. Other internal revisions include new dampers and counter-balancers that eliminate a considerable amount of vibration versus the 1148-cc mill. Lower vibration equals less inertia wasted. All this leads to a seriously potent 170 hp and 91 lb-ft of torque — pretty impressive for just a 47 cc bump. With 15 additional ponies in its stable, the RC8R gets a revised water pump impeller to increase coolant flow as well as a separate oil cooler to keep overall engine temps down.



Like the 1148-cc mill, the 1195-cc dry-sump engine has an external oil reservoir that sits forward of the engine to counterbalance the transmission that’s attached aft. Because there’s no oil pan to hold the four liters of lubricant, the heaviest part of the engine can, in theory, be as close to the ground as possible. Of course, putting the muffler assembly immediately under the engine negates that concept. While we’re all in favor of mass centralization and keeping as much weight down low as possible, we have to wonder why the engine — which is the single heaviest part of the motorcycle at 141 pounds — sits four inches higher than it could simply to put a fifteen-pound muffler closer to the asphalt.



Engineering nit-picks aside, the performance from the new engine is undeniably good. Having sorted out the fueling issues from last year’s bike, the RC8R now pulls strongly from idle to the 10,700-rpm rev-limiter without so much as a hiccup. Due to the narrower-angle V, the short-stroke twin builds revs as quickly as the Ducati, despite being less oversquare. It also gives it a raspy, much more distinct howl compared to the molto basso rumble of the Italian.



The biggest issue we had with the last RC8 we tested was shifting, and we’re grateful that there were significant improvements made to the transmission. Revised gear-shaft pinion dogs and a reshaped gearshift arrester star make the biggest difference. Shifts are precise and effortless with no pop-out issues; the only time the gearbox finds neutral now, it’s intentional and accompanied by a green LED on the dash.



A slipper clutch is still an optional extra, which is disappointing, but the ECU-controlled throttle bypass is fine for limiting back-torque for most riders and intermediate track day enthusiasts. The system just slightly opens the rear throttle butterfly valve to lessen the engine vacuum in order to soften the effects of engine braking.



If we had to pick a problem with the chassis on the RC8, it’s that the steering was a bit too quick. Combined with the very small amount of trail (91 mm), which made the front end feel vague, we were scared to push hard because we never knew what the front wheel was doing or might do. The revised suspension on the R reinforces our original assessment. With an all-new billet triple clamp that’s six mm shorter than the RC8, trail increases all the way to 97 mm. The new front end feels better planted when pushing hard into a corner and inspires more confidence in general.



The rear shock spring, per feedback from the KTM test pilots, has been softened considerably from 110 Nm to 95 Nm and gets a new linkage that allows 12 mm of ride-height adjustment. The front WP forks receive a new DLC (Diamond-Like Coating) treatment, reducing what KTM calls “stiction & friction.”



The brakes on the R are upgraded to the latest Brembo monoblocs, keeping in step with the current class of exotic superbikes like the MV Agusta F4, Aprilia RSV4 and Ducati 1198. They are truly top-notch, and we’ve extolled their virtues in previous motorcycle reviews (see Streetfighter and Hypermotard). Fade-free and full of feedback, they allowed us to pull the lever on the Magura radial master cylinder as late as we had the stones to try, and to trail the front brake all the way to the apex. Marchesini forged wheels round out the package and offer a two-pound weight saving to even further increase high-speed handling and braking. Additional carbon-fiber trim pieces also give the R a boost in the weight-loss department, but at 400 pounds dry, the RC8R is still not quite a flyweight; still, it’s a step in the right direction.



We’ll hold short of calling the RC8R’s looks “love it or hate it,” but the styling has certainly polarized enthusiasts’ opinions. There’s no denying that the origami-like package is truly unique. The design was definitely cutting edge at its 2003 unveiling, but sharp angles and stacked headlights seem to be at the end of their cycle with softer lines now making a comeback. The General Grievous front headlamp assembly, while technologically trick, looks bulbous and oddly mammalian from some angles. The short tail section and narrow seat is de rigeur on modern sportbikes, but the front fairing is wider than most twins. Like a runway model with D-cups, there’s a bit of a proportion issue between the front and the rear.



Styling aside, the RC8R is surprisingly comfortable for a sportbike, let alone a superbike. The placement of the engine low and forward in the chassis allows for the seat to be set much lower than you’d expect. The 31.6-inch seat height — adjustable up to 32.5 inches — relative to the tall fuel tank and rear tail give you the feel of being in the bike rather than perched atop it. Add that to the “double-bubble” windshield (an upgrade over the base RC8), and it’s pretty easy to stay tucked down. The seat padding isn’t very thick, but you’re rarely in one position long enough for it to be an issue. The clip-ons are adjustable enough to raise them to near naked-bike heights, and even the foot pegs and subframe have multiple mounting positions.



The dash is a bit too busy for our tastes. The current trend in instrumentation dictates that more information is better, and the KTM follows suit with a 99-lap timer that displays your current, fastest, and last lap times. All this plus your speed, a clock, and a temp gauge tend to crowd things and make it difficult to get the most important information — namely revolutions per minute. Thankfully there’s a bright red shift light because the bar-graph tachometer — especially the numbers underneath — is difficult to read amidst the crowd of LCD numbers.



In R spec, the RC8 is finally a pretty fantastic motorcycle, and to dispute it would only make us appear like Ducati fanbois. It’s fast, comfortable, and easy to use. With all the updates, it certainly delivers more bang for nearly the same buck as last year’s RC8; in fact, by building the RC8R (and kicking $4000 off the 2010 RC8’s price tag), KTM has all but admitted that the 2009 RC8 wasn’t as good as it was supposed to be. But without the benefit of the Ducati cachet, we just wish KTM would have packed a few more performance features into the RC8R and maybe updated its styling just enough to make it a more attractive option for our twenty grand.


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