How many times have you discovered a new gadget, a new workflow, a new shop or a new piece of software and thought to yourself, Well, this changes everything!" It doesn't happen often but when it does, it is usually wonderful. The KTM 200 Duke promises to be like that. But is it? If, like me, you have read all the online reviews then you will know that most people who rode the motorcycle at the Chakan test track preview thought the world of the KTM. The question we are finding the answer to today is simple - is the KTM as dramatic, as market-changing as the first ride suggests it should be or not?
So we called in the obvious frames of reference for the KTM. In alphabetical order, the Honda CBR250R is first. It makes the same peak power as the KTM but takes a very different route to the enthusiast's heart. It's a soft, civil, versatile, comfortable motorcycle which enjoys its sense of being large, spacious and planted. But it also commands a premium of roughly Rs 60,000 for the ABS model and Rs 25,000 for the non-ABS model over the KTM.
The other motorcycle is the Yamaha YZF-R15. The little Yamaha is a bit of a legend and is here because it is, in our eyes, the ultimate enthusiasts' ride on the market today. We know from extensive experience that the R15 is friendly, forgiving and fast. However, it has a displacement, power and consequently, a performance disadvantage here while being just Rs 6,000 cheaper than the Duke 200. Has Yamaha lost its serve in not bringing out its 250cc competitor early enough? So many questions!
The CBR looks like a scaled down VFR. I personally don't like the VFR so I'm not particularly a fan of this design. But the CBR inescapably looks like a big motorcycle and ridden quickly in traffic creates and maintains the illusion that you are on something substantial. It's well-finished and good looking and the sole clue to its real nature, really, is the rear tyre which looks extremely tall for its width when seen from the back and hence, a bit odd. Finish levels on the CBR are excellent and build quality is pretty good. There used to be a niggle with rusting nuts in the early batches but that has since been fixed.
The R15 version 2.0, as Yamaha like to call it, wasn't as big an update as the name suggests. But it did serve to sharpen the focus of the motorcycle. The subframe on which the seats sit is kicked up at a wild angle and the tweaking of the lower body panels does work. The fatter tyres are crowd-friendly and they make the styling look sharper and fresh. But where the first Yamaha's weak spot, design-wise, was the rear-end, the v2.0 also has a back problem.
Now the issue is that angle at which the tail piece is mounted. It's extremely steep and makes the bike look focussed and sharp from the front. But from the rear, the lines haven't resolved well and despite the LED tail lamp and the pointy end it looks like a local modifier redid the rear-end. The darker colours look far better than the lighter options, though. The Yamaha has always been exemplary when it came to finish levels (except for the unpainted engine which turns white in the rain but is hidden from view in the fairing). Build quality is stellar - amongst the absolute best - and it also enjoys a well-deserved reputation for being as reliable as an AK-47.
The KTM then, turns up in a pair of torn jeans, a round-neck tee, one earring and canvas shoes at this black-tie evening. It looks dramatically different. Not sloppy, just vastly more hedonistic. And way more regular at the gym. Gerald Kiska, KTM's design don has allowed the few body panels there are no fat whatsoever. It's a distinctive, brutal composition made of planes meeting each other at sharp angles. I wouldn't call it beautiful but the design is proportionate and it is hard to peel your eyes off the motorcycle and look at the others. Part of the reason is the way the mass is centred around the engine. This is a design choice we have seen on most international motorcycles recently. And the KTM nails this while the Yamaha comes close. And these two just make the CBR look a bit flabby.
The KTM's appeal is further reinforced by the chassis components and aggregates. As your eyes sweep from the lovely split-spoke design alloy wheels and its coating of low-profile radial rubber to the radial brakes to the trellis frame to the awesome looking aluminium swingarm to the well-matched rear tyre via the white-coloured rear monoshock... It's a lot of expensive looking detail that elevates the KTM to a high pedestal in equipment and perception terms.
But Bajaj haven't rammed the dagger home as it were, which bugs and mystifies me. Because when you look closer the sky high impression is dulled a bit by a series of cheaper-looking components that are not only present, they are usually sited right next to the expensive bits. The brake and clutch levers are completely unspecial, ditto swingarm axle bolt and nut, steering head bolt, the entire switchgear set. Also cheap looking are the subframes on which the footpegs are mounted. This is where the sharpness of the rest of the motorcycle is diluted in design and the finish looks downmarket. They are completely functional, of course, but it's sort of like an unbranded red belt on a Armani suit.
So let's close off the design discussion. Styling? I like the Duke more than the R15 which beats out the CBR. This being the most subjective discussion of this whole test, YMMV as the internet nerds like to add to all of their opinions (It means, I think, your mileage may vary). Build quality is nearly even with the Duke and the R15 solidly first and the CBR a bit behind. That said, in feel, the KTM feels far more solid and together than the R15. Finish levels? There are no losers here on this front and any of the three will easily set the bar for the rest of the market.
The three bikes here are separated by 50cc from each other. But these are three good engines, dramatically different from each other in nature and feel. Because of the KTM, though, I'm going to talk about them including their gearboxes and gearing as one unit because the KTM makes a very interesting choice in this department and it transforms the nature of the motorcycle.
The KTM 200 Duke has a pretty solid engine in spec. It is a DOHC motor like the CBR and all three boast four valves. It employs a higher compression ratio to extract more power and torque from its smaller displacement. The engine has what feels like a significantly lighter crankshaft than the other two. The result is an eye-widening appetite for revs. The exhaust is a unique design with the header pipe snaking its way past the left side of the engine into a massive grey collector that feeds down to the underslung exhaust tip. Bajaj say this helps mass centralisation and enhances the handling. I know it causes two things. First, many people forget to ask the mileage and instead ask how you're out riding without an exhaust. Second, the exhaust gives the bike a surprisingly loud and gruff, though hollow, voice and makes you wonder how it came through noise emission tests in the first place.
And that sets the tone for the KTM engine. It's the least refined engine here. Both the other engines are quieter and more composed. But the KTM has almost no vibration to speak off and it sounds properly thrashy nearing redline. Technically, this is probably a reason for the KTM to lose points. But start riding it and you understand clearly that the dramatic engine noise is part of the appeal of the package. It endows the KTM with a distinct, bohemian personality that makes the other two feel a bit bland in character. What the KTM loses in refinement points, it makes back in personality points.
And then you start riding it. In traffic, the CBR is a solid, fast, smooth knife. It can cleave through the mess in a quiet humming blur with superb swiftness. The R15 also does this, but it likes more revs on board so it is a more involving, a more urgent experience. I think the earlier R15's ergonomics were better suited to daily use but the powertrain still works extremely well. You can trundle along a la CBR in higher gear at lower revs all day if you choose, but it just feels a lot happier with the revs up high.
The KTM possesses in this quiet ballroom, all the violence and drama of a falling chandelier. It's highly strung like you wouldn't believe and while it can be ridden calmly like the other two motorcycles, it constantly whispers naughty things in your ear, encouraging mischief and more throttle. In traffic, the engine and the short ratio gearbox are sublime. The gearing is so short that at, say, 50kmph, you can be in any gear you like except first and this makes for outstanding rideability. But the come-on-go-harder nature of the motorcycle means this is a moot point. What actually happens is furious blur of gearchanges and revs. To the CBR's knife, the KTM is a machine gun - one with snatchy low-rev fuel injection.
The numbers do not corroborate this sensory image, however. The 17PS (at 8500rpm) and 15Nm (at 7500rpm) R15 is obviously the slowest here. It manages 60 and 100kmph in 4.79 and 13.07 seconds respectively. Which trumps other 150s nicely but the Duke and CBR are quicker by a hefty margin. The Duke always feels like it's going a million miles quicker than the CBR but it actually isn't. The Duke takes 3.58s to hit 60kmph, 0.22 seconds quicker than the CBR. The Honda, remember makes 22.9Nm of torque, 3.7Nm (or 19 per cent) more than the Duke at 7,000rpm, a whole thousand revs earlier. At 100kmph, the two are evenly matched and that story continues to the quarter mile as well.
The KTM does record slower numbers than expected because of its gearing and that's a bit ironic. The CBR requires two shifts to get to 60kmph where in the KTM requires one more. To a 100kmph, again, the KTM is in fifth while the CBR is in fourth - another half second lost to the gearchange.
The low gearing also causes the Duke to top out quickly and effortlessly at 132.67kmph in sixth where the CBR will run on to 146.82kmph. It must be noted that the CBR only gets to about 135kmph in a reasonable amount of space and time. The rest takes ages. The R15 hits 131kmph flat out and again 125kph comes up nice and quick but the final few kmphs take time.
But the Indian enthusiast doesn't just ride in the urban environment, right? Out on the highway, all three are capable of 120kmph cruising if the fancy takes you. This means high revs on all three though and surprisingly, the CBR, which would appear to be the easiest to do this on, suffers at these speeds. High rev vibes are the most obvious on the Honda. Riding smoothly, but this swiftly will quickly result in numb fingers. The R15 and the Duke are noticeably smoother. None of the three show any mechanical distress from this kind of extended high revs. Take it down to a more reasonable 80 or 100kmph and all three are perfectly at home. The CBR's ride quality and least committed, spacious ergonomics make it the easy pick for long-distance work.
The R15 in its new avatar has actually lost some of its versatility. The riding position is more committed and the steeper slope of the seat means you cannot squirm around to find relief on long rides. The pillion accommodations are also harder to live with as well. The Duke is actually quite good at highway work in ergonomics terms and once more, pillions are largely being ignored here, but the position is definitely better than on the R15.
Overall, I'd like to rate the Duke engine on top for its dramatic nature, but I'd say even stevens to the CBR and the Duke. Their performance and economy is nearly the same and I ascribe no points to the extra top speed of the CBR - it is hard to achieve in almost all real world situations. The R15 is last here, but I'd be remiss if I called it the loser. It's still a stormingly capable engine and if Yamaha were to do a 250cc engine that did everything the 150 does, the CBR and the Duke would both have another think coming.
The R15 is the current handling benchmark for the entire Indian-made motorcycle bracket in India. Its blend of forgiving but accurate handling, the stability at full lean, effortlessly natural turning behaviour et al is legendary. It's no surprise that every time we go back to the track, we see still more R15s warming up in the pits. The R15's steel spar frame, smart suspension choices and sticky MRF rubber are the business right now.
And this idea the Duke threatens to smash out of the stadium. The trellis frame is super rigid, the tyres are pretty sticky (you do get the sense that stickier tyres still would be still more fun), and the way the motorcycle turns and leans over is incredible. There's zero resistance to any steering inputs and Bajaj have done well to arrest the feeling of falling into corners on a motorcycle this sharp wearing such an aggressive tyre profile. But as great as the KTM is to handle, the tyre profile also creates a confidence issue at deep lean angles and after a certain point, unlike the R15, you're never quite sure if you have more tyre tread left to lean on or not.
The CBR in contrast is much hairier at the limit, though far more encouraging at lower speeds. Turn in is neutral, it's planted when leaned over but when you raise the pace, the soft suspension gets in its way. You find yourself waiting for the motorcycle to settle before you can make the next steering or throttle correction and that slows the CBR down. In our earlier track test, that was why the less powerful R15 calmly dismantled the challenge of the CBR. And I suspect, now the handling battle is firmly between the R15 and the Duke.
That said, the ride quality of the Duke puts a bit of a spanner in the wheels. The Duke is hard. It absorbs road imperfections with a heavy hand but it likes its stiffness. Which means you have to deal with the shocks that come through. This is very much in character with the violence of the engine but it makes riding the Duke hard on India's imperfect tarmac harder and still more frenetic. On smooth roads, the KTM is uncatchable. But as soon as bumps appear, the KTM has to back off a bit and start making up any lost ground with its torque and quick revs. In fact, if ride quality is a primary candidate in your purchase decision, the KTM isn't the star. I believe the KTM, had it been tuned for a little more compliance, would have been epic.
Out in the twisties, the CBR will hum smoothly through, gobbling up good and bad tarmac without fuss. It needs that moment to compose itself when you're pushing on, but it's peaceful, capable and cheerful. The R15 likes being strung out at high revs, handles bumps and lumps with a smile, encourages you to try harder and is able to forgive riding mistakes quite easily. Which is why we keep calling it friendly. The KTM is a beast. It wants you to make the right decision, reacts to all inputs instantly and does not have the capacity to forgive like the Yamaha. It will bite the careless hand. Personally, that kind of ruthless motorcycle is what I love, but I suspect this will be awesome for the youth but sensory overload for more mature riders.
Braking is pretty good on all three. The KTM's height and stiff suspension means you have to adjust to its brake's feel a bit, but once you do, braking performance is great. The R15 still has the best brakes when it comes to feel and feedback. And the CBR offers either the very expensive but ultra-effective ABS, or powerful brakes that allow excellent modulation - until the soft suspension gets upset.
Overall, I'd say the Duke and the R15 are neck and neck here with the CBR a hair behind the duo here. The Duke's awesome handling is held back only by its stiff ride, where the R15 in its new version feels like the chassis has too much ability and grip and therefore needs more motor. The CBR does it all, but reacts slower, feels its heavy self in corners and loses out.
These are dramatically different motorcycles in temperament and role and I think it is important to establish that fundamental distinction.
The Yamaha is billed as a supersport machine. That means it lives to lean over to its limit, stab apexes in the eye, and produce extremely fast lap times at the race track. On the other hand, the Duke 200 is billed as a street bike. So far, we have used that term as a catch-all phrase that helps classify any and everything that is otherwise hard to deal with. But with the Duke the focus on being a great street bike is pin sharp and it helps define the term. It's meant to be a sharp, rapidly accelerating motorcycle that slips through traffic like a stealth fighter. As usual, the Honda wants to be versatile. The CBR, unlike the other more focussed motorcycles that wear that name abroad, is not an all-out sports motorcycle. It chooses a softer ride quality and consequently a slower handling package, a comfortable riding position and that sense of weight to create a platform that's calming, all-day capable and feels every inch a big motorcycle.
The CBR for me, here, comes third. It matches the Duke for performance and has the best touring ability here. But in traffic - where you spend most of your time - it's outgunned by the other two. The R15 may not be quicker or faster but it's distinctly sharper and more fun. At the track, again, the R15 is able to keep the CBR behind it without significant effort. But if you're a tourer, the CBR is it for you.
The R15 comes in second. It's still a stupendously good motorcycle although that lovely chassis-engine balance has skewed towards the chassis in the update. If you chose to not spend the extra Rs 6,000 on the Duke, I wouldn't be surprised. In traffic, the R15 can be a lot of fun but unlike the Duke, it can also be ridden gently when you like.
The Duke isn't technically the best motorcycle here. But it assaults your senses like nothing else here. It backs that up with credible performance that overcomes its displacement disadvantage to the CBR. It handles well enough for us to drool at the prospect of taking on the R15 at the track. And it's a very good price for a very well-equipped motorcycle to boot. The KTM reminds one strongly of an old, hungry two-stroke and it's this emotional appeal that makes the KTM such a special motorcycle to ride. And in the case of motorcycles, in my experience, it's all about emotions. They change everything.