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MD Tests Crazy Light Street Legal Singles, Part 2: KTM 390 Duke ABS

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In Part 1 of this series, we reviewed the Husqvarna FE 501 S dual sport with parts added (notably, 17″ wheels and street rubber) converting it to an ultra-light street legal supermoto. Before comparing the two, this story will focus on the KTM 390 Duke ABS, the other machine in our lightweight street legal single comparison.

In the children’s story of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, Goldilocks sampled three bowls of porridge before finding the one that was just right, which she quickly devoured. When we published our report from the European launch of the 390 Duke two years ago, we had hopes the little Duke might be that “third porridge”.

Are the 250 cc singles too slow? 300 cc twins too heavy and complicated? Maybe this little KTM is the perfect lightweight, all-around single for street riders. With an advanced 375 cc DOHC four-valve, fuel injected engine putting out a claimed 44 hp, and a class-leading dry weight of just 305 pounds, the 390 Duke promises to offer plenty of performance in a small and nimble package.

The seat height specification of 31.5″ together with a wheel base of just 53.8″ tells you something about how compact the bike is, but in person the little Duke looks even smaller than the spec sheet promises. The 390 Duke looked positively tiny parked next to our Versys 1000 LT test bike.

This is no cheaply built toy, however. Far from it. KTM’s heritage of building pure race bikes is on display in the design of the 390 Duke chassis. Starting with a chromoly tubular space frame similar in design to the frames in KTM’s larger displacement models, KTM adds a relatively huge 43 mm upside-down fork from WP (the same fork diameter found on the RC8 R superbike), a Bosch ABS brake system with a Brembo-designed (but manufactured in India) four-piston caliper gripping a 300 mm disc in front, and light cast aluminum 17″ wheels wrapped by Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tires (a wide 150 mm in the back, and 110 mm in front).

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Our only complaint about the instrumentation, which is quite thorough, is a digital tachometer which is difficult to read. While looking at the instruments, you are aboard a machine with upright ergos that will seem a bit tight for those over 6′ tall. We had a 5’2″ rider sit on the bike, and she touched her feet down easily (although not quite flat footed). The seat is fine for shorter rides, but quite hard with a sharp edge that could prove uncomfortable, particularly for shorter riders.

The six-speed transmission offers a wide choice of ratios, with a top gear for highway riding at relaxed rpm levels. Holding nearly 3 gallons of gas (2.9 to be exact), the extremely efficient 390 Duke (we are averaging roughly 55 mpg) has a decent range.

Riding the Duke delivers even more than we expected. The standard suspension is taut and works well for aggressive riding without being too harsh. Compression damping is far stiffer than found on other small displacement street bikes we have tested.

The chassis is very stiff, and the 390 Duke is extraordinarily responsive to rider input without feeling twitchy. There is plenty of power for highway cruising at elevated speeds, as you might expect, but you pay for the complete lack of wind protection in that environment.

The 390 Duke thrives in a different environment … while attacking tight, twisty roads. Its responses are smooth and controlled, at the same time they are effortless. We can’t really fault the handling.

The engine complements the chassis with smooth power and good torque that allows you to cruise around anywhere above 4,000 rpm without complaint. When you really want to make progress, however, you want to keep the little duke spinning between 6,000 and 9,000 rpm. Vibration is well controlled, but you know you are riding a single.

This engine separates it from the 250s and 300s currently available with its flexibility and torque. By comparison, the smaller displacement singles just feel slow, and the twins feel high strung – requiring high rpms to make progress.

The stock Pirelli tires seem to stick like glue and complement the chassis well. While the 150 section rear tire almost seems too wide for such a small bike, its profile doesn’t hamper the ability of the 390 to turn quickly and predictably. It just adds more grip.

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The brakes have plenty of power and good feel (I remember when much heavier bikes, such as a Honda Hawk 650, made due with a single front disc). The response from the lever indicates the front caliper has good stiffness, i.e., good initial bite is followed by progressively greater power without having to squeeze the lever too hard.

This is a simple, light, do-it-all motorcycle that has only one specialty.  Fun.  Riding the 390 Duke ABS can remind you of some of the smaller standards you rode in the past, at least insofar as ease of use is concerned. What is totally foreign is the performance level, particularly from the chassis. This is the perfect bike to take out for that Sunday morning ride through the local canyon where you can completely lose yourself in the experience. While nothing happens suddenly, the handling is so intuitive, and the little engine so willing, the 2015 KTM 390 Duke ABS seems to more frequently offer up that special motorcycle bliss most of us are looking for.

At a U.S. MSRP of $4,999, many riders should be tempted to add this little Duke to their stable, while less experienced riders could find it the perfect entry point to motorcycling.  It is available in the color scheme shown, as well as an all-Black version you can see on KTM’s web site.

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62 Comments

  1. TURBO MAN says:

    Its a nice bike and had the pleasure of riding one in the Philippines last year..Its the best bike in its catergory but I picked up a new 2012 Hyosung Gt250R with a 2 yr warranty for 3300.00..I can go anywhere this Duke can and the KTM isn’t for everyone and neither is the Hyosung..

  2. Tyler says:

    Just picked up a 390 Duke this past weekend. Other than some insurance issues (several companies have it listed as a kit built bike) it is a fantastic street bike. I am a bit on the small side (5’7″) so it fits me perfectly. And frankly it is almost perfect.

    • RD350 says:

      Congratulations Tyler! Are you in the USA? Just wondering if they are released here yet.

      Also, how is the comfort after several hours in the saddle? Sore butt? Tingling fingers?

      Thanks

      • Tyler says:

        Haven’t had the chance to ride it for “several hours” at a stretch, though I can tell from my 30-40 miles rides that the saddle will not be comfortable for long distance work. No worries, the aftermarket will provide.
        And I am in Houston, they just hit the local dealer within the past two weeks.

  3. Jeremy in TX says:

    I really like these little bikes, but I just don’t live in an area where I could take advantage of what they have to offer. Too bad. I want one even though it makes no sense.

    However, what a stellar value to a beginner looking for a bike that will stay interesting for a long time or anyone looking for a fun tool to add to the garage for pleasure or just economical transportation.

  4. Patrick D says:

    I had one of these for an hour test drive last year. The best analogy I could come up with was that it was like a BMX with an engine. Terrific fun, very agile and with a certain amount of civility, which would allow you to use it everyday without feeling like you weren’t wasting it.
    Given how it reached 80mph so easily, it made me wonder why we bother with big heavy bikes when so few of us need them. I’d be torn between this and its faired brother, though.

    • mickey says:

      “it made me wonder why we bother with big heavy bikes when so few of us need them”

      Tour the interstate loaded 2 up with luggage across Utah with it’s 80 mph speed limit, or any number of open states out west and you will no longer wonder. Small bikes are great in small places, not so much in big places.

      Just read a piece on a guy that has ridden all over the country on a 50cc Honda moped. Top speed 30 mph. Says it’s all he needs.

      http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/274634951.html

  5. RRocket says:

    For 2015, the 390 Duke and RC were supposed to have slipper clutches. Did the test bike have a slipper clutch??

  6. RD350 says:

    Between the RC390 and the Duke, the Duke seems like a better choice for street riders. As much as I like the looks of the RC, I dont enjoy riding with low clip-ons and high pegs on the street.
    I would love to see this motor in a SuperMoto streetbike .. it would put the DRZ400SM out of business over night.

  7. Neil says:

    I sat on it at 5’10 and the pegs were too far back sliding me into the tank. Too bad they cannot make two alternative bike lengths. I think we need the old CB300 style series from the 70s but with a mono shock. A motorcycle is a motorcycle at these engine sizes for street riding. The pegs and arms move with each other. Pegs up, arms down. Arms up, pegs down. It’s an Isosceles trapezoid. This arms up pegs up nonsense is not comfortable and I noticed the same thing on the Street Triple, the Speed Triple etc etc. They are nice bikes but the engineers aren’t thinking. Most people on the street should not be riding so fast that they need their feet under their pelvis. The race version has low bars with the same footpegs and thus makes much better engineering sense.

    • Stuki Moi says:

      More so than up or down, for the biggest ergonomic annoyance with sporty euro street bikes is how rearset their pegs tend to be.

      Even a good amount of forward upper body lean is not uncomfortable (Interceptor, ZX14), as long as the pegs are far enough forward to allow use of ones posterior chain muscles to take weight off of the wrists.

      Posterior chain involvement from more forward pegs help alleviate knee strain as well, by balancing out quadriceps recruitment.

  8. Vrooom says:

    That’s an extremely reasonable price. Reading the article I was expecting around $8K for that bike.

  9. Jay Craig says:

    MotorCyclist has a video comparison of the CBR300R, the 300 Ninja, the R3 and the RC390 here:

    http://www.motorcyclistonline.com/2015-small-sportbike-shootout-beginner-bikes-entry-level-review-two-wheels-video

    I’ve been anticipating for this review for a while and pondering my choices. After watching it, I think that the best choice for me is a CBR300F with a 350cc big-bore kit from Bill Blue (it was designed for the CRF250L as a 386cc kit, but the CBRs longer stroke makes it an almost even 350cc). The naked styling and more relaxed riding position are more to my taste too. It’s also a little lighter than the R, and cheaper too. Sounds like a modern version of my old XL350 street bike.

    • So, $4K for the bike+$650 for the parts=labor and you have?

      • xLaYN says:

        Some of us like to mess with our bikes, he likes the CBR300R and is willing to spend the money to modify it and get something he likes.
        There are other who would not a bike based on the aspect of the foot pegs.
        sooooo, to answer
        “So, $4K for the bike+$650 for the parts=labor and you have?” = a bike he likes

        not so long ago I remember there were a project about modifying a SV650 here.

  10. Tom says:

    hmm,
    maybe I will have to stop referring to KTMs as Kost Too Much

  11. xLaYN says:

    Seems like Dirck has nothing to complain about. There is no wheelie photo so it means it doesn’t fit that category; for the power wheelie junkie readers.
    I saw one today and looks nice, reviewers seems to agree in what a great package is, and everything down to suspension and brakes (two overlooking things in going cheap that you wish were better once you got B grade ride) is great.
    There is something though, my first bike were a CBR assembled in Brazil, and have a couple of friends with toyotas assembled in BZ and the perception is that the engine reliability is lower; being an Indian built machine could that be a point against it?.
    If I had 5k$ burning my pocket I would buy one and fix that “top gear for highway riding at relaxed rpm levels” with a “2 down on front 3 more on back” sprocket kit and go ride it like I steal it.

    • Dirck Edge says:

      With that gearing you could wheelie without the clutch

      • xLaYN says:

        life is too short to wait for the front tire to be changed, all time wheelie ATW or 1 wheel drive 1WD would prevent unnecessary wear on the front tire.
        MD readers notice the diplomatic finesse of Dirck by not concluding which bike is better or which one he drools about.

        • Stuki Moi says:

          Small or not, It IS a KTM! Meaning, the front wheel is only there to enable stoppies…….

  12. NRHRetro says:

    I have no doubt that KTM is producing world class motorcycles, particularly the “Dukes”, impressive machines indeed. I just wish they didn’t look like motocrossers.

    I can’t make myself like the styling, (or the orange frames). If I were in the market for one of these 300cc class bikes, I would have to go with the Yamaha on styling alone.

  13. Don Fraser says:

    5 grand, amazing value

  14. Buckwheat says:

    Impressive, but I don’t see the advantage this has over the 690 Duke, which seems like more of a street bike, whereas this 390 seems like a street legal dirt bike. Which makes me wonder why KTM doesn’t sell a dual purpose version of this 390. Dirck: you’ve ridden both, right? What’s your take on the 390 vs 690 Duke?

    • todder says:

      The advantage is the price. Once you start talking duke 690 money, then there are lots other choices to consider. Friend from work just bought one for his wife as a step up from her previous beginner bike and couldn’t be happier.

      • Buckwheat says:

        Agreed. Perhaps if the 390 sells well KTM will see fit to drop the price on the beastly cool 690.

    • Stuki Moi says:

      The 390 is about half as wide, half as tall, half as long, half as vibey and half as expensive. And has twice the spread between the lowest rpm it can run at without stuttering and redline.

      But, the 690 has soul. Something that is largely lost on the rest of KTMs current lineup, in their quest for civility, efficiency and measurable performance.

  15. pete Rasmussen says:

    The weight or lack of it is the deal maker. Japanese look quality but they are cheaply made in regards to weight! Weight , brakes and suspension go the KTM.

    • MGNorge says:

      That helps keep the Japanese brand’s prices down.When a bike is spec’ed with unobtainium and top shelf components you pay for it. That’s exactly how all, or most, consumer items are.

  16. Dave Joy says:

    I wish I was 30 years younger, I would buy one tomorrow as a second bike! I had a Yamaha SRX400 in the 80’s and it was great fun. I lived in the UK then and spent lots of time thrashing it around the Derbyshire Peak District……..memories!

  17. Alex says:

    It’s true, the price of the KTM 390 has me thinking about being a 2 bike owner. I’d opt for the RC 390 rather than the Duke version though and my other bike would ideally be the Husqvarna 701. The rumored $12,500 MSRP can’t be right, can it?!? That’s nutty cuckoo.

  18. todd says:

    I can’t decide between the Yamaha R2 and this. On the one hand, I am totally sold on Yamaha’s quality, not so much on KTM’s… On the other hand, I like not having a fairing and I really enjoy riding singles. Maybe I should go find a street legal WR450F.

    • Kirk R says:

      A street legal WR450F sounds like a serious maintenance headache if you’re planning on street use only. They are definitely purpose built dirt bikes and require a lot of maintenance as do most modern 4 stroke dirt bikes. Maybe if they built something like the WR250R in a bigger size…

      • todd says:

        Only if you ride them like a dirt bike… (Through the air, throttle pinned, mud caked in the radiator). Street riding is very easy on motors.

  19. KevinP says:

    Ditch,
    How well does this little Duke wheelie?

    • VLJ says:

      You know, “Ditch Edge” might just be the coolest name ever. Sounds like the street-savvy, hardbitten anti-hero in a Frank Miller flick.

      • MGNorge says:

        “Ditch” was his riding nickname. 🙂

        • Dirck Edge says:

          As in “he was so fast he could ditch the cops” … or “he was such a crappy rider he typically ended up in the ditch”. 😉

          • MGNorge says:

            🙂 Either! 🙂 Ditch does sound like a cool nickname but not so much if you were always ending up in one! LOL!

  20. EZMark says:

    All this performance for $1000 less than the slow, old tech SR400 Yamaha.
    Sounds like a winner to me.

  21. Mugwump says:

    And the RC Cup suspension is a direct fit. If that’s something that entices you.

  22. Gordon Haight says:

    I’ll wait for the Yamaha R1 and see how it fares. My guess is it will have better quality and similar horsepower and WAY better looks for the same
    money.

    • VLJ says:

      My guess is the R1 will have about a hundred and fifty more hp than this tiny Duke, but hey, who’s counting?

      🙂

      (Yes, I assume you meant the R3. Just messing with ya’.)

    • Grover says:

      00ps! Make that the Yamaha R3.

  23. Martin B says:

    I made my own “Duke” many years ago. I took a Honda XL350, replaced the shocks with street bike shocks from an RD350, had a welder extend the swing arm by 2″ to increase the wheelbase, added some BSA low rise bars, and voila: a totally intuitive twisty road weasel with unlimited ground clearance, perfect torque for the task (most hill roads in third gear, with little need to change down, and engine braking supplementing the weak front drum brake), and comfort and space for longer rides. I bitterly regret selling that bike, but I had to finance buying my first car somehow. Those were strange days when bikes were cheap but cars were costly. Now it’s the other way around.

    I now have a Suzuki XF650 Freewind, but health and cost have prevented me from riding for a couple years. The Suzuki is a modern equivalent to my old XL350. Singles make great twisty road bikes. Most of our roads in NZ are motorcycle racetracks with inadvertent car drivers interrupting the flow.

    • todd says:

      I did nearly the same thing with my XL350. I fit a kawasaki disc brake front end to the bike and laced up some 18″ rear aluminum rims for the front and back. I ended up fitting a CX500 tank on it and some drag bars. That bike was super fun. Sold it many years ago and don’t know what ever happened to it.

  24. Blackcayman says:

    sounds like a solid “win” for the segment…