2015 KTM 390 Duke

Road Test Review

These days a rider looking for an entry-level motorcycle could do a lot worse, particularly in the 250-300cc range. Any number of cute Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki twins and singles that range in price from $3,999-$5,300 are ripe for the picking. All of these smaller machines are designed to be fun, approachable and easy to ride, with high performance and minimum weight generally secondary considerations.

Those priorities are reversed on the KTM 390 Duke, which costs $4,999 and has a rip-snortin’ 373cc single at its heart that makes more horsepower than many 650 singles, never mind any of those 300s. And the lil’ Duke is stripped down and ready to race at just 340 pounds with a full tank. While the bike’s diminutive size and rock-hard seat aren’t well suited to long rides, the 390 Duke is more fun than a go-kart on tight, twisty roads, track days, squirting between traffic or bopping down to the store.

Made for KTM in India by Bajaj Auto Ltd., which owns a 47-percent stake in KTM, the 390 Duke joins 125 and 200 Dukes that sell like curry vindaloo in Indian showrooms. Its liquid-cooled, 373cc, DOHC single with four valves has a dry-sump design and is compact enough that it fits in the 200 Duke’s tubular-steel trellis frame, with a 43mm USD WP fork up front and WP single shock controlling a light lattice-aluminum swingarm. The only adjustment is rear spring preload, but even with my 210-pound bulk aboard, the suspension performed well and never faltered. Head-turning, bright orange, lightweight cast alloy wheels wear excellent 110/70 and 150/60 17-inch Metzeler Sportec rubber, and the seat sits 31.5 inches off the ground but is so narrow that it’s easy to flat foot it at stops. The rider reaches out and slightly down to a wide, flat handlebar, and footpegs are a little rearset, resulting in a mostly upright, roomy but sporty seating position that’s great for fighting the wind at speed and attacking bends, whether you’re 5-feet tall or 6-feet short.

Normally a single with such a deep, thumping exhaust note would be buzzy, but a gear-driven counterbalancer effectively cancels any vibration until the engine is howling up near its 10,000-rpm redline, when a few tingles creep into the seat. On the Jett Tuning dyno, the 390 Duke cranked out 42.7 horsepower at 8,800 rpm and 25.7 lb-ft of torque at 7,100 at the rear wheel, a 20-25 percent improvement over the Ninja 300 and even a few more ponies than a Kawasaki KLR650. Yet the lil’ Duke is super easy to ride casually at lower speeds, with plenty of torque to pull briskly away from stops and a quick-shifting 6-speed transmission that has it turning 6,500 rpm at 70 mph. Though we constantly wrung the little bugger’s neck, the Duke delivered 58.7 mpg average, for a decent range of about 164 miles (assuming all of the 2.8-gallon tank is usable).

A radial-mounted opposed 4-piston caliper up front and 1-piston floating caliper in back from Brembo-subsidiary Bybre pinch the 390’s single discs, and Bosch 9MB two-channel ABS that can be switched off adds some security to its powerful braking. Handlebar switches are nicely backlit and the LCD instrument has comprehensive displays including a trip computer, gear indicator, fuel gauge and clock, but some of its tiny lettering is hard to read. A locking pillion pad is flanked by passenger grabrails and conceals a decent toolkit and battery access.

The 390 Duke is different from its 250 and 300 competitors in that it’s not a small bike you buy to grow out of—you buy it to keep because it’s small, light, quick and loads of fun.