A fun, aggressive ride but lacking in power

The V-Twin powered RC8R enters its fourth model year of production, and KTM continues to refine and tweak this unique superbike for more performance and better handling. Last year, the 2011 model bested its most obvious rival, the Ducati 1198, by two places. This year, Ducati has stepped up with an all-new design, while KTM brings a handful of changes to the engine and suspension. We didn’t expect the RC8R would repeat its win over the Duc, but the real question was whether it would move up the rankings with its increased power and handling.

For 2012 the KTM RC8R’s 1195cc 75-degree V-Twin gets some internal engine revisions. First, the crankshaft received 100 grams of additional mass for more inertia to smooth out the engine vibes. Then a kilogram was added to the flywheel. The top end of the engine got attention as well with new camshafts with a more aggressive profile and revised timing. Finally, the fueling was rewritten to settings that are based on specs from KTM’s Club Race kit.

Twisting the throttle on the RC8R doesn’t really feel like there is much improvement in the power department, but it’s been almost a year since we've thrown our leg over this model, so it’s tough to say. What is more important is how it stacks up to the competition. Our motley crew rated the KTM at the bottom for engine power and in the middle of the pack in regards to engine character. The down-low punch is impressive and fun, allowing you to torque out of the corners and lump around town, but the top end is lacking when compared the levels of horsepower kicked out by the front-runners in this contest. An argument can be made that the low-end power is exactly what you want on the street,and as you can tell, we had some fun playing with this tasty-looking Twin.

“The RC8R has tons of good torque which makes city riding insanely fun,” comments our stunt-buddy Ernie Vigil. “But it lacks raw power compared to its nearly-200 hp foes.”

On the MotoUSA Dynojet 250i dynamometer the RC8R pumped out only 148.33 horsepower, which is the lowest number put forth in this contest. However, the torque number of 85.42 lb-ft was the second highest, just falling short of the full ten points by less than two-tenths of a lb-ft. Do you have an inner hooligan aching to get out? If so, the RC8R is worth a look.

On our real-world drag strip, Waheed was able to click off an 11.40-second run at 137.1 mph in the quarter. Before you freak out about how slow that is, remember this is on a dirty piece of asphalt just like you might find on your local back roads with recommended street tire pressures. When comparing to the other bikes it’s important to compare the results from the same day. While it was the slowest time, it was just two-thirds of a second slower that its closest rival. During the same run, the RC8R accelerated to 60 mph in 3.915 seconds.

On the same piece of pavement, we measured the braking distance from 60 mph at 134.7 feet. While this is the longest of the group, once again it must be said that it was just a couple feet off of a mid-pack performance. On the street the brakes have the excellent feel that you would expect out of a set of front Brembo monoblocs, but the initial bite was a bit grabby for some of our riders. Out back the feel and power was weak at best, most likely contributing to the longer stopping distance. For those riders who don’t rely on the rear binders and like a strong initial bite, the KTM scored highly, but with the low scores from the other half of our crew, the RC8R slotted right in the middle for the subjective brake scores.

Our lady stunter-turned-tester, Leah Petersen, sums up the front brakes: “I was always thrown a bit off balance when the forks decompressed when the brakes first grabbed hold. I used the engine brake much more than the brakes.”

Rowing through the gears reveals yet another hitch in this Austrian exotic’s giddyup. Shifts are not as smooth and precise as the others at this level, and under heavy load, grabbing a gear required serious stabbing at the clutch and even rolling out of the throttle at times. Previous versions of the RC8R had troubles with popping out of a selected gear, so the engineers made the actuation more positive, but it looks like it was at the expense of shifting ease.

Another change made to the drivetrain for 2012 was the addition of a sensor that allows the ECU to control engine braking, depending on the gear selection, to negate the need for a slipper clutch. The system works well, and we never had a complaint for our hacking specialists, Waheed and Vigil. The pull of the clutch is light yet slightly vague, which most likely contributed to the longer 0-60 and quarter-mile times, as it was challenging to get a optimal launch.

The chassis of the RC8R is as unorthodox as the 75-degree V-Twin powerplant that hangs from its chromoly trellis frame. An aluminum subframe holds the rider up in a deeply dished seating area. The first thing riders notice sitting on the KTM is how far you sit into the motorcycle. This translates to a unique feel when cornering that can take time to get used to. Riders feel closer to the pavement, making dipping into curves effortless once accustomed to the feel.

"This bike demanded a very different riding style; I kind of felt like I was fighting it most the time," admits Leah. "Occasionally I would get in a rhythm with it, but it certainly is a bike you must learn."

While some struggled with the unique feel, the more aggressive riders loved the mid-corner stability and how easy it could change direction from side to side.

“The cool thing about the KTM is how maneuverable it is. It flicks side-to-side with very little effort,” explains our Road Test Editor Adam Waheed. “It’s also deceiving how good this bike really is because it rewards aggressive riding. And when you do ride it hard, it’s just as fast as every other bike on the street. It just demands commitment.”

As different as the seating position is, it’s surprisingly comfortable with spacious legroom and more upright riding position when not in a tuck. Adding to the comfort is the ability to adjust the handlebar height and sweep, footpeg height and seat height. If you can’t find a comfortable seating combination on the KTM, then sportbikes aren’t for you. The only complaints came from the stiff seat padding, which wasn’t the best for long freeway stints, and the tall feel of the seat when making tight parking-lot-type maneuvers.

“The KTM just felt too tall for me personally,” says our shortest tester, Lori Dell, who stands at 5'6”. “I felt vulnerable turning around for the photo passes on off camber areas.”

Just like the R1, the RC8R was thirsty for petrol, although not to the same level, placing mid-pack in consumption. After three tanks of fuel, we averaged the KTM at 33.25 mpg, which would give it a fuel range of 144 miles with its 4.35-gallon tank. Perhaps there is a pattern emerging linking fuel economy and sweet exhaust notes?

Each year the KTM RC8R gets better with its super stable yet unique handling prowess, cool styling and torquey engine character. It’s a great machine for a wide range of riders with its highly adjustable cockpit. But, as expected in a contest between the best each manufacturer has to offer, sheer power counts, and the KTM still isn’t there with that part of the platform. If the Orange Brigade could coax another 20 hp out of the RC8R, we think it would be fighting for a medal in our Superbike Smackdown.