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First Ride

2017 KTM 390 Duke First Ride

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Let's say you're hunting for your first motorcycle. You're smart enough to shop for a smaller-engined bike, but don't want a mini crotch rocket or a scaled-down cruiser. That doesn't leave much to choose from, but there is the KTM 390 Duke, a so-called naked bike. It's essentially a sportbike without bodywork aimed squarely at noobs seeking a stylish alternative to the usual beginner-friendly go-tos.

The 390 Duke sports the Austrian brand's signature orange powder-coated trellis frame, but that's just about all this Lilliputian ride has in common with KTM's dirtbikes, supermotos, and adventure bikes. Priced at $4,999, the 390 is the littlest in the Duke lineup behind the middleweight 690 Duke ($8,999) and the monstrous 1290 Super Duke ($17,399). There is also a full-fairing version of the 390 Duke, the RC 390 ($5,499), with more aggressive ergonomics and suspension. As with most bikes in this entry-level segment, the 390 is manufactured far from company headquarters – this one comes from India.

Unlike its ballsier stablemates, the 390 Duke is equipped with a humble fuel-injected 375-cc single-cylinder engine that puts out 44 horsepower. That output is remarkable, especially considering that the bike's wispy 342-pound curb weight undercuts the $4,099 Suzuki GW250 (403 pounds), the $5,299 Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS (383 pounds), the $3,999 Honda CB300F (348 pounds), and the $4,990 Yamaha R3 (368 pounds). Incidentally, those competitors also have smaller engines than the KTM.

The 390's liquid-cooled engine channels power through a slipper clutch – a race-proven feature designed to prevent unsettling the rear suspension or locking the rear wheel during downshifts while riding aggressively – to a six-speed gearbox. Thanks to the mill's modest output, the 390 doesn't need a hydraulic clutch to achieve light lever effort. The radially mounted, 300-mm front disc with a four-piston caliper, and a single-piston rear setup with a 230-mm disc hail from ByBre, Brembo's India-based subsidiary that supplies affordable stoppers to small-displacement motorcycles and scooters. The Duke's ABS system can be disabled, which is good news for advanced riders wishing to explore the edges of the bike's stopping capabilities. The non-adjustable WP front fork is inverted, a configuration you'll find on more performance-oriented motorcycles. The preload-adjustable rear monoshock is also manufactured by WP.

Up close, the 390 Duke's construction appears to have a lot in common with an off-road bike – not surprising, given KTM's enduro roots. There are hints at the bike's budget construction, including the dirtbike-like bodywork and the zip ties holding clutch and brake cables to the handlebar. But considering the bike's $5,000 price point and exceptional performance specs, steel trellis frame, die-cast aluminum swingarm, and 17-inch cast aluminum wheels, it's on the higher end of the entry-level-bike spectrum.

I found the ergonomics aboard the 31.5-inch-tall saddle generally comfortable, though my leg bend felt a bit tight (I'm 5'11", with a 32-inch inseam). Fire the single-cylinder engine up, and it chatters like a quiet jackhammer at idle. Nobody said singles sound sexy. For what it's worth, Akrapovič offers an aftermarket slip-on silencer for a more growly exhaust note.

At most areas in the powerband, a subtle vibration emanates through the footpegs and the thin seat – there's a reason singles are called "thumpers." The small digital dash includes a bar-style tachometer that can be tricky to monitor in direct sunlight, though it's easy to gauge the engine's sweet spot and rev limit by the seat of your pants (and ears) after a short amount of riding. A bright red shift indicator also aids the timing of cog swaps, and a digital gear-position indicator makes the decision-making process easier. There's a strong pull from just above idle and an eager climb through the rev range as the engine approaches its 10,000-rpm redline. Peak horsepower comes at 9,500 rpm, so you'll need to work to extract every last drop.

As you might expect from a lightweight little bike, the 390 flicks through corners easily, and its upright riding posture allows for a comfortable grasp of the aluminum handlebar. With a generous 5.9 inches of travel, bumps are absorbed effectively, and the suspension is responsive enough for confidence during aggressive cornering on canyon roads without feeling excessively squishy. Aided by the 390's relatively low weight, the brakes are capable of strong stops, with good lever feel and ABS that doesn't seem overly intrusive or pulse-ey.

A couple of complaints: Engine vibration can be grating during long, high-speed rides. The saddle is also firmer than I'd like, with a plywood feel that reduces damping. One possible solution is KTM's accessory Ergo Seat, which adds 0.78 inch in thickness but offers a comfier seating surface with more even weight distribution.

The field of beginner bikes is richer than it's been in decades, with excellent small-displacement offerings hailing from all major manufacturers: Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. Even BMW is getting into the entry-level game with its soon-to-be-released G310R. The 390 Duke is still among the sportiest and most powerful of this crop of starter motorcycles, but its capabilities raise an important question: Is this too much for a first-time motorcyclist? A smart approach, a sensible attitude, and appropriate training should make this relatively powerful motorcycle acceptable for newbies, though beginners should note that the 390's potent power-to-weight ratio makes it quick enough to hang with considerably more expensive sports cars; such is the incredible performance-to-buck ratio offered by motorcycles.

If you're mature enough to manage the aggressive performance and don't mind a stiff saddle and a vibey engine, here's my advice: Buy the proper gear, take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, and saddle up on a KTM 390 Duke.

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