First ride: KTM Duke 390 review

Austria's latest hand-grenade gets lobbed at some lovely wet, bumpy, slippery UK roads...

LET'S be honest: 180 bhp bikes are not for everyone. Not for me, anyway. Besides the fact that I couldn't possibly convince even one bank manager in the country to sign off on a loan for one, I doubt I would keep it rubber side down, or my licence clean, long enough to make it worthwhile.

Point is, nuclear weapons are all but obsolete. Yes, you still need to have them, but you're not really going to use them, are you? A few smart missiles, or heck, a bunch of rocket-propelled grenades, seem to do a pretty good job of blowing stuff up too. 

Back in 2011, when I first heard a KTM 350 Duke was on the cards, I loved the very idea of it. A 350cc street bike with maybe 35-40 bhp, light, agile, loud and fun (KTM don't do quiet or boring). I immediately bookmarked the Duke as one for the future shopping list, but was gutted to hear that they were then intended only for the Asian market. 

But in the post-recession era, one zillion horsepower at prices that few people can afford is not the winning formula anymore. As this realisation has dawned on manufacturers and punters alike, you now have something like eight or nine models in the 250cc-500cc segment, where just a few years ago you had none at all.

So when the boys in Austria confirmed that a 375cc Duke would be sold in Europe and the UK, evidently on the strength of expected demand, I immediately flicked my mental pages back to that bookmark. Oh yes - still very desirable.  

KTM is an increasingly major player, with sales last year at 107,000 units, exceeding that of BMW. Their 32% growth over the preceding year is largely down to the success of the 125 and 200cc Dukes, especially in India - where they are built - and other developing markets. 

Now filling the gap in their range between the 200 and the 690 comes the eagerly-awaited 390 (the moniker reflecting ease of nomenclature rather than the actual engine capacity) - the perfect size for an urban-oriented bike that's powerful and light enough to be fun on Sundays and Mondays, plus cheap enough to buy, insure and fill-up in the real world. 

The 390, like its smaller siblings, is built by Bajaj (which owns a 47% stake in KTM) over in India and - as KTM took pains to emphasise - then quality-checked in Austria before being despatched to dealers. The build quality of the 125/200 has not proved problematic, and there is no reason to imagine that the 390 will turn out any different. 

The 390 is also visually identical to the 125/200, with only different paint and stickers to separate the bikes in the parking lot. KTM couldn't control its urges to splash buckets of bright orange paint over everything, with the cool black wheels seen in the early pictures giving way to trademark orange hoops. Dunno about you, but I prefer the black ones; the orange trellis frame is enough colour for me. This much orange on one bike seems a bit look-at-me wannabe. But it's a KTM thing, eh… (insert shrug here).

When you swing a leg over the 390, it feels reassuringly narrow and low (the firm seat is actually 10mm lower than the 200's), yet substantial enough to excite. Wide bars push your elbows out, and between them is a simple, square instrument display offering up a lot of digital information, including fuel readings, trip, clock, fuel, even 'side stand down' warning text. So far, so 125-and-200. 

The major functional differences are revised suspension, better tyres and the bigger engine, and to experience all these you need to get going. Thumb the starter, take in the 'yep, definitely audible' engine note, pull the light clutch in, and snick into first. 

At just 12 kg heavier than the 125 (or 9.5 kg more than the 200), but with 44 bhp instead of 15 (or 25), this thing was bound to be a flier. And it is. The 390 feels at least as quick as Honda's new 500 twins (which do 0-60 in five-ish seconds), despite the difference in capacity, number of cylinders and horsepower, thanks to the fact that at just 139kg, or 150kg fully fuelled with 11 litres, it is some 20% lighter, and packs 293 bhp per ton to the Hondas' 242. 

The revvy single feels like it can go on and on, and indeed, urges you to see for yourself. The engine doesn't feel stressed or strained or too vibey, it just keeps making more power and speeds up the world, until the limiter kicks in at 10,500 rpm. The gearing is well spaced, not as short as the 200's, which feels constricted in comparison. While a tall sixth gear and the day's conditions did not permit hitting the stated top speed of 100 mph, top speed is of far less relevance than how you get there. The Duke just loves staying above 5-6,000 rpm and hustling in the 60-80 mph zone, which is where the best country road action is.

The rainy afternoon's riding in Northamptonshire included a lot of quick backroad riding and some fast A-road stints, but also some pottering in town and multiple passes for photos, and the bike had been presumably caned by other journos in the morning session. At the end of it all, the fuel consumption readout on the display was nine litres per 100 miles, which works out to 50.4 mpg.  This seems reasonable in the context of the 200cc Duke giving 63.9 mpg when Visordown thrashed, er, tested it. That said, the 390's tank seemed roughly about one-third full after a trip reading of 90 miles, which is more like 60-65 mpg. Anyway, I reckon owners will achieve figures closer to KTM's claimed 80 mpg. It's all in the wrist…

The 390's suspension (WP 43mm USD front forks and WP rear shock) has been beefed up and the damping revised, giving it the ability to smooth out patchy road surfaces and jump breakers without making you feel sorry for the bike, but is still stiff enough for sufficient feedback. 

The hard-wearing Indian MRF tyres on the 125/200 have been replaced by stickier Metzeler M5 Sportec rubber (110/70 front, 150/60 rear), which markedly increase the 390's handling performance envelope. It's a pleasingly agile bike, and though our session was wet, remained very planted throughout. In town, the 800 mm seat height, light clutch action, generous torque and compact turning radius make it a bike you can live with happily. 

With a 300mm disc up front clamped by four-piston ByBre (Brembo's budget brand) calipers, the new Duke's braking is strong and progressive enough for the class, though you may need to use an extra finger in a hurry. As with the 125 and 200, ABS comes as standard on the 390, and this is only a good thing, as I discovered when at one point on our route there was suddenly a load of mud all over the road. If you're the sort who likes to have a play, you can switch off the ABS via a not very prominent button to the lower left corner of the console. 

The stock 390 is not A2 licence compliant, but KTM says that a 1.5-bhp-reducing remap from your local dealer will make it nice and legal for A2 noobs. For those determined to have a bike like no other, KTM offers loads of cosmetic and performance accessories, from graphics and, uh, illumination kits, to a slip-on Akrapovic silencer and Z-ring chain and sprocket (in orange of course). And if you want a sports 390 clad in a full fairing, well, KTM has something for you later this year. 

On the whole, the KTM 390 Duke is a sweet little bike. Maybe not something you'd put a poster of up on your bedroom wall, but, more satisfyingly, something you could happily put in your garage. Practical, cheap, cool and fun, for an MRP of £4,500 - only £500 more than the 125 Duke and £300 more than the 200; and £700 less than the Ninja 300 ABS - it's one of the best bargains going right now. The CB500F is £150 more, near enough to consider and certainly worth a test ride, but the fun factor swings towards the Duke. I would cheerfully buy this bike with my own money.

250 units have been allocated to the UK, and I'd imagine they will sell like RPGs to insurgent rebels. Viva the revolution!

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