As far as bg are concerned, KTM’s 125 Duke is unquestionably the most important new motorcycle of 2011. The reason is straightforward: it’s specifically designed to engage with an endangered species on planet bike – the teenager. Unless fresh generations come into motorcycling, the whole concept of a biking future unwinds.
It is not just the UK which has witnessed a downturn in the number of motorcycle test applications: many other countries have suffered, but back in Blighty the decline is nearing catastrophic proportions.
There are many possible explanations – start up costs, a problematic and expensive test procedure, relatively cheap car access, a changing social context – but what it all boils down to is that motorcycle ownership is seen as expensive, and insufficiently aspirational or radical. The days when bike ownership was a practical and engaging solution to teenage mobility problems have long gone.
In 2009 – the last year for which DfT statistics are available – new motorcycle registrations hit an all time low, and there is precious little evidence to suggest that things have been looking up since then. The needs of young people coming into motorcycling have to be addressed.
Which is where the little KTM comes in. KTM claim the design was led by highly specific market research, insofar as they solicited the views of European youth and acted upon them – with minimalist mediation from middle aged focus groups. The Duke 125 may well have ramifications for an older biking demographic – which ironically may turn out to be the most radical aspect of the 125’s appearance (see below). The motor is a bespoke lump, specifically designed for the 125, and not a castrated hand me down. Which means a fair degree of flexibility while conforming to the 15 bhp EU learner standard. However, it also means that there isn’t much to de-restrict, and in the heyday of strokers that would have been a definite marketing problem: who wants to be stuck with 15 brake (crank) when a simple fix opens up over twice that (on the late, lamented Aprilia RS125). But the decline in easily available 125 performance mirrors both the decline of youth interest in motorcycles, and the inversely proportional increase in learner legislation. That is the context in which the bike was designed.
To their credit, KTM have produced a well finished machine which combines lively handling (courtesy of decent enough WP suspension, a useful looking trellis frame, and 128 kgs kerb weight) with enough stability to reassure more insecure novices. There are LEDs everywhere, and the bike can be customised by accessing a large range of stickers and design themes (a direct spin off of the market research). The brakes are manufactured by a Brembo subsidiary. Whether or not the apparent build quality is more than skin deep will only be revealed over time and grime. Suffice to say, it looks the part.
KTM’s corporate tie in with Bajaj made this bike possible: it’s built in India, and it’ll be interesting to see how much the SE Asia version of the Duke retails for. Thus we come to the heart of the matter, for the Duke is not a bike for everyteen. The UK press were blown away by it, but forum comments consistently suggest that £3,600 for a fixed 15 bhp is not doing the little bike any favours. It would be a real sadness if this machine ended up as a designer’s urban plaything, a toy for adults armed with disposable income and ready to splash. The whole point of European firms using sub-continent and Chinese based manufacturing under licence is volume. £3,600 for a bike aimed at teenagers is not volume: think about what that money gets you in car terms, because like it or not, cars are part of the competition in the UK. Cut the margins and stack the shelves would be have been a more realistic sales construct for the 125, without sacrificing too much of the Austrian firm’s quality ethos. KTM may well shift enough units to justify the tag: the rest of us can only hope that the bike hits the target demography, because that would mean new riders.
None of which diminishes the importance of the bike: at last a manufacturer is paying attention to an essential constituency. In doing so, KTM have the template for something like a 350 cc roadster not exceeding 140 kilos at the kerb: the all encompassing quest for power has come at the expense of extra weight all too often. The Duke 125 has reminded a few people about the massive fun factor a true lightweight offers, which is significant in itself. It is also a timely reminder that low weight and smaller motors equate to big savings at the pumps. There remains a suspicion that many potential young riders will be priced out, but the concept behind this type of bike has welcome implications for all of us.
bg hope to evaluate the ride in more detail in the near; up to now we’ve had ten minutes in a supermarket car park. Which left us wishing we’d had the balls to go inside. Those aisles have never looked more tempting…
UPDATE: A 2oo version of the lil’ Duke was revealed at the Milan show (November 2011), along with KTM’s related Freeride range. Discussed here.