First Ride: 2017 KTM 390 Duke

All but extinct a decade ago, small displacement motorcycles are back in force with almost every major manufacturer now offering them. Prices range from a bit under five grand to about six, but what buyers get varies a lot. Everyone wants to pay as little as possible, but if there’s one category where a few more bucks may make a big difference, this is it.

The 390 only needs the slightest clutch play to leave a stop light with its front wheel in the air.

Speaking of paying more, the peppy 2017 KTM 390 Duke is the most expensive of the small ones at ones at $5,799, a $300 increase over last year’s price. That being said, the Mini Mayhem Machine (more on that later) is getting a quite serious makeover for 2017.

What distinguishes the KTM, aside from the class’ highest price – and this is where it gets interesting – is that it also offers the category’s biggest displacement along with the highest power (44 hp) and torque numbers, and by a solid margin at that. Truth is, to find something with similar performance, the class above is where one needs to look. Honda’s excellent 47 hp CB500F is the best example, but it’s also over a grand more.

So, in a nutshell, KTM makes you pay more, but it also gives you more. More what? Well, in one word, more fun. 300 cc nakeds like Honda’s 30 hp, $5,099 CB300F and BMW’s 34 hp, $5,250 G310R get by in traffic. The 390 only needs the slightest clutch play to leave a stop light with its front wheel in the air.

Which almost our entire group of experienced journalists did with regularity in Turin during the model’s recent world launch (Italians like motorcycles, so no one really seemed to care). Then it switched to who would leave the longest tire mark when braking for the next light. No worries, the 390 comes standard with ABS. It’s just that KTM gives you the choice to totally deactivate the system (for those who still oh so ignorantly think they’re better than the ABS) or to put it in Supermoto mode, which allows the rear wheel to be locked for no other reason than being silly.

It’s done simply through the big and bright new colour display, a surprising feature for a bike of this price. The optional KTM MY RIDE even connects your phone and shows songs and calls on the screen!

The more you ride and the closer you look, the more impressive features you find. The all new suspension, for example, is surprisingly good. It’s supple enough not to rattle the rider’s spine on bad pavement, yet firm enough to handle some serious speed on a twisty mountain road where the solid, agile and precise 390 really is a blast. The updated and excellent brakes actually add to the fun factor as the rider can count on them anytime a corner is misjudged and speed needs to be swiftly shed.

The engine is as great as the chassis is intuitive. Various mods for 2017, including ride-by-wire throttle, allow it to produce more power and torque earlier, which translates into an amazingly friendly riding experience for such a small displacement.

Whether in an urban environment or on the open road, the first half of the rev range is more than enough to fully integrate and even outpace the flow of cars. At every moment, the raspy sound of the Austrian single is pleasantly there and vibrations, while always felt, are not a problem until the highest revs.

KTM also played around with ergonomics in 2017, slightly tilting the torso forward, but keeping the pegs in the same spot. Although the position could be called sporty for a naked, comfort is not affected as there’s still no weight placed on the hands. The new and improved seat is not bad for short or medium length rides, but it becomes the limiting comfort factor after that.

There’s a lot to like about KTM’s new 390 Duke and very few negatives to point out. Among the most obvious are a radiator fan that is literally on all the time, which is annoying in town, hoses and wires that are a bit of a mess when you look closer, and a seat that, while improved, could be better on long rides.

But for that price, overall, it’s nothing less than an amazing achievement. It’s both beginner-friendly and fun-for-the-more-experienced-but-cheap. And it’s sexy.

Competitors:

BMW G310R Honda CB300F
2017 KTM 390 Duke
Engine Displacement: 373.2 cc
Engine Cylinders: 1
Peak Horsepower: 44 hp @ 9,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 27.3 lb-ft @ 7,000 rpm
Fuel Economy: N/A
Cargo Space: N/A
2017 KTM 390 Duke
Base Price $5,799
A/C Tax N/A
Destination Fee N/A
Price as Tested $5,799
Optional Equipment
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 8.7
9 Styling
10 Powertrain
9 Quality
7 Comfort
8 Practicality
9 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
9 Fuel Economy
9 Features
9 Value