KTM's city slicker could be the catalyst to get youngsters into motorcycling.
The new 125 Duke motorbike is a sophisticated small fry
"Hey, is that the new 125 Duke?"
The middle-aged British guy had paused before going into the shop to come and take a look at my ride, just as I turned off the engine after parking. I was rather surprised at his recognition of the little bike.
"I own a 990 Adventure, but I was thinking about one of those for around town. What's it like?" he asked.
I couldn't tell him; I had literally picked up the motorcycle at the KTM showroom and rode around the corner to pick up something on my own before giving it a proper shakedown. "Read about it in Motoring," I said cheekily.
If he eventually did pick up the small-displacement naked motorcycle, it would just be gravy for KTM, considering the fact that he was out of the target market by about 20 years. As am I, disconcertingly.
The 125 Duke is new this year from the Austrian bike maker, and it's the firm's smallest-displacement street bike yet. At first blush, it's also a surprising decision from a company known for its big, off-road touring and motocross bikes and a racing heritage both on the track and in the dirt. But from a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense.
There is a huge market for small-displacement bikes in the world, mostly in China, India and most other east Asian countries. But the 125 Duke wasn't designed for those markets, surprisingly. It was primarily conceived to meet new EU regulations for 2013 for new riders: there will be an 11KW (14.6hp) limit and a minimum weight of 110kg for a first-time rider's motorcycle. And if you get a motorcyclist on a KTM when they're young, then more than likely they'll buy the bigger KTMs later in life - especially important since Europe is KTM's second-largest market after North America.
And in that respect, the 125 Duke could be one of KTM's most important bikes. Because if it's perceived to be a failure, if it has just a whiff of cheapness or unreliability or is lacking in that intangible quality of cool, then those new riders won't ever darken the doorway of a KTM dealership again. Phew, that's pressure.
Well, KTM dialled in the cool factor, all right. The 125 mimics the styling of its bigger brother, the 690 Duke, so it looks like a real motorcycle. Sure, the tyres are thinner and there's a lot more room in the engine bay that would normally be taken up by another cylinder, but the 125 still looks a little mean and edgy, following the company's sharp-edged styling of its bigger bikes well. It's a naked motorcycle with a tiny fairing at the front, just enough to say it's there, and everything looks and feels like a higher quality ride, from the surface of the seat to the upside-down front shocks. I don't think any 17-year-old kid would be embarrassed to show up at school on this.
Nor would I, for that matter, or even at the office. Even my 6ft frame was comfortable on this little bike; my legs fit nicely under the tank cutouts and my feet land back nicely on the pegs, so I didn't look like a bear riding a bicycle. My hands grab the handlebars low and close to my torso, giving me an upright stance that was ideal for low-speed riding.
The only problem with the low handlebars is that it means both the mirrors and the instrument panel are also low, making it necessary to move your whole head down to see them and take your eyes off the road entirely. And that's too bad, especially concerning the instrument panel; it's a backlit digital system that gives you more information that you'd expect on a bike like this, including a large speed reading, a sweeping tachometer graphic, and even trip odometers, a fuel gauge and a shift light, which is nowhere in your line of sight when riding. But the whole package is a higher quality addition to this low-cost bike.
Start up the engine - electric start, of course - and release the clutch to take off. But don't forget the low horsepower of this 125; I stalled it the first time, thinking it had much more on the low end, but the single cylinder has to be revved considerably to wring out its power. Luckily, it likes to rev, and once you get going on the road, it's easy to find yourself bumping off the limiter. On the open streets where you can get a bit of speed, keeping the engine singing high makes the bike fairly quick in traffic and able to dart around slower cars.
Also keep in mind, though, that because of its low horsepower you're not going to win any races. This one, a European version, is limited to 108kph, but the people at the KTM dealership say its next shipment of bikes will have a higher limit of 115kph, due to a lack of restrictions here. But regardless of electronic limits or not, the only way I could get the engine to reach top speed on a long, flat straight was to crouch down low into the tank for less wind resistance.
But that's not really the 125 Duke's forte; you'll appreciate its small size and light weight when roaming around city traffic. With a full tank, the bike comes in at just 125kg, so weaving around cars at slow speeds is a breeze.
But what impressed me after a full day of riding is not just the 125's performance, but its sophistication. Though the small engine has to be pushed to its higher revs for performance, it never gets buzzy or vibrating, as a balancer shaft in the engine helps smooth out its power band. And the upside-down forks on the front - something associated with much more expensive, modern bikes - do an excellent job of soaking up the speed bumps, pot holes and other road imperfections. Even the firm seat is comfortable, and I could stay in that saddle all day (in fact, I pretty well did). There's no doubt that, low horsepower notwithstanding, this feels like a real motorcycle.
My only question is whether I'd want a bike that you can only use in the city; its real-world top speed of 100kph limits its use for longer trips. But it does the same job as a scooter - including a fuel economy that could be measured in thimbles rather than litres - with the look of a real motorcycle. And when it comes to younger learners, parents will appreciate the lower horsepower while teenagers will like the cool styling.
And everyone will warm to its price of Dh16,500, the lowest-priced KTM street bike available. With a factory-offered accessory programme that allows owners to customise the bikes with different colours and parts, the 125 Duke may just be what helps kick-start the younger generation into getting on a motorcycle. And as successful as KTM undoubtedly wants the 125 to be, that's a good thing for the whole industry.