Long-term test: 2013 KTM Duke 390 review

The urban fox

The 2013 Duke 390 is the second in a series of A2-compliant motorcycles I hope to ride for a few weeks on my commute across London, as a kind of long-term comparison test. I've had it for a week, after taking Honda back their CBR500R.

It's proving the perfect urban bike. Sharing the chassis of the KTM Duke 125, it’s tiny, and as a result highly adept at slicing through traffic.

It’s one of those machines that’s so nimble it makes it easy to change direction while virtually stopped, without putting a foot down. Nip up one side of a queue, stop, turn almost 90°, cut between two cars, then do another 90° turn and zip up the other side. It’s almost as manoeuvrable through traffic as a bicycle.

It will squeeze through the smallest space. The mirrors stick out no further than the ends of the bars.

Being a 390, it's also got ample power for zipping into gaps or through closing ones.

It's supreme at denying those abominable drivers who make it their mission to hinder filtering motorcycles. They have no chance of stopping it. It threads through traffic a like 125 commuter but goes like a full-size motorbike. Whack the throttle wide open from low speed in first and the front wheel leaves the tarmac.

In fact I've bent the rules of my long-term comparison test with the Duke 390. KTM have given me a full-power, 43hp one; the one for A2 licence holders has a different ignition map which restricts it by 1.5hp, according to a PR rep for the firm.

A2 licences carry a restriction of 48hp along with a power-two-weight ratio limit of 0.26hp per kg. While the full-power Duke 390 is already within the former, it’s low weight of 139kg falls foul of the latter, which is why it must be restricted.

The mathematically minded of you may spot that, according to those figures, the restricted Duke is still too powerful, making 0.29hp per kg. To make 0.26hp per kg, it has to gain about 20kg once all fluids are added. I choose not to delve any deeper into that. It gives me a headache. What seems clear is that the restricted Duke 390 has its nose against the A2 power-to-weight ratio limit.

The one I've got feels faster accelerating than the CBR500R, although I expect the 48hp (and 194kg fuelled) Honda would reel it in as the numbers climbed.

It's definitely more fun than the CBR in town. I'm not as sure about out of town. The motorway journey from KTM's UK headquarters to London was just as you'd expect. Wrestling with the wind, I thought: 'Remind what the point of a naked motorcycle is.'

It's not the only area where the CBR500R is more convenient. It's a struggle to get a disc lock under the seat of the KTM. It fits but only just. The Honda has much more space.

With a plastic tank, the Duke won't take a magnetic tank bag.

There is also some disquiet on internet forums about the build quality of Duke 125s. For example, there are numerous complaints of the front brake light switch failing because the rubber cap on it goes hard in the cold. Since the Dukes share so many parts, there's presumably a risk of the 390 suffering similar problems.

I got 58.9mpg from the Duke, mainly in town, and 113.4 miles between fuel stops. The range indicator, which comes on with the fuel warning light, said I had 24 miles to go before the 11-litre tank would be empty. It had dropped instantly from 32 to 24, and I once rode a Duke 200 that went straight from 15 to zero, so I didn't want to push it. The CBR500R did better on economy, at 67.4mpg, giving a theoretical 232-mile range from the 15.7 litre tank.

That said, the CBR500R's service schedule includes a £250 valve clearance check at just 600 miles, which makes you wonder if Honda are worried about the Thai-built engine. In contrast, the CBR600RR doesn't need a valve check until 16,000 miles.

The fact is, neither the Duke 390 nor CBR500R has been around long enough for a clear picture of long-term reliability to have emerged.

In it's favour, the Duke will be about £400 cheaper than the CBR500R with on-the-road charges included. Both have ABS as standard.

However, the CBR500R feels like more of an all-round, do-anything motorcycle. Choosing between the two is a battle of head against heart. The CBR is the one you'd introduce to your parents. The Duke is more fun but might run off with your best mate. 

Sorry KTM but I think the CBR is the one I'd buy. Although I would be thinking of the Duke as I rode it.

Model: KTM Duke 390

Price: £4,500 plus on-the-road charges

Power: 43hp (41.5hp for A2 licence holders)