Latigo Canyon is one of the first twisty roads I sampled when I arrived in SoCal, and it remains one of my faves even after nearly 20 years. I recently headed back to that area for what’s sadly become an infrequent event in my life: a Sunday ride.

It was delightful to dive into Latigo’s buffet of corners with only my pleasure in mind – no video sequences to shoot, no U-turns for yet another pass by a photographer, and no pulling out my notepad every 20 minutes to make sure every possible detail of a test bike is logged. It was just me and my bike on a wonderfully serpentine road.

Well, actually, it wasn’t my bike and I wasn’t alone. I was aboard KTM’s playful 390 Duke, winner of our Best Lightweight/Entry-level Motorcycle of 2015, and I was chasing one of my moto buddies, Eric Putter. Eric was aboard his Suzuki GSX-R1000 with some comfort and ergo mods that combine some of what makes the new GSX-S1000/F appealing but with full Gixxer power: near 180 hp at its rear tire.

2015 KTM 390 Duke First-Ride Review + Video

Meanwhile, the lil’ Duke transmits 40 horses to the wheel from its 373cc cylinder. Producing less than 25% of what the big Suzi generates, the KTM was clearly outmatched, right? Wrong! Within the tight confines of Latigo and other nearby canyons, the Duke was able to hang right with the Gixxer on all but the longest straights, and I was keeping up and stretching a gap in the tightest sequences without exerting much effort – the huge grin painted on my face belied the bike’s modest $5k pricetag, which includes grippy Pirelli tires, a slipper clutch and standard ABS.

KTM’s 373cc Single cranks out horsepower (and torque) numbers in excess of its class rivals, supplying superior punch from bottom to top. The 390 Duke has the same state of tune as the RC390 tested in our Beginner-ish Sportbike Shootout.

KTM’s 373cc Single cranks out horsepower (and torque) numbers in excess of its class rivals, supplying superior punch from bottom to top. The 390 Duke has the same state of tune as the RC390 tested in our Beginner-ish Sportbike Shootout.

At this point you might be thinking Eric can’t be a good rider if a 390 Duke can keep up with him on a Gixxer Thou, but, trust me, Eric’s speed is well beyond average. He and I actually have a similar pace on the street – keeping a solid margin for error – so staying close to him (again, except for the longer straights) while on a one-lung roadster like the Duke is a veritable achievement. The richness of torque relative to its sub-400cc competition gives the KTM the rare-for-its-class option of two gears for any corner while maintaining entertaining velocities.

Later, we switched steeds for a few miles. Eric’s bike is an excellent example of how a competent superbike can be transformed into a better streetbike (project bike story, anyone?), endowing it with versatility for everything from errand running to sport touring. But on a tight canyon path, the sporty Gixxer GT felt a little like a Concours 14 after jumping off the crazy-agile Duke. Riding quickly required far more effort on the literbike: a much greater shove on the bars and much more concentration on monitoring and shedding speed. Honestly, the smiles were bigger and more frequent when aboard the Duke in these canyons.

Later, while enjoying the panoply of motorcycles at the Rock Store, we ran into a MO reader who wanted to know if I’d endorse him buying Aprilia’s new and awesome RSV4 RF. Well, I’d advocate the lusty ’Priller to anyone who could afford one, but Adam was already riding one of the best sportbikes ever made: BMW’s HP4. My advice was to keep his HP4 for track duty and augment his collection with a Tuono 1100 for sporty street riding.

2015 Six-Pack Superbike Shootout Final Answer!

There is no new bike priced less than $6,990 (Yamaha FZ-07) I’d rather ride to the legendary Rock Store.

There is no new bike priced less than $6,990 (Yamaha FZ-07) I’d rather ride to the legendary Rock Store.

Having become quickly acquainted, I suggested we mount up for more riding. I led our trio aboard the Duke, while Eric took the tail end to keep an eye on our new friend. Adam proved to be a good rider, showing promising speed while keeping himself in control – no squid indications even when I pulled away while unwinding the tightest sections more quickly than the superbikes could. There were a few times I coasted while waiting for my cohorts. We blitzed our way all the way down Latigo and had so much fun we turned around and rode it the other direction.

Back at the Rock Store, Adam took his first close look at the KTM I was riding. He bent over to look at the engine and then glanced back with knitted eyebrows and a puzzled look on his face.

“Just one cylinder?” Adam queried. I grinned for the thousandth time that day and nodded in the affirmative. “But how does it have so much power?” he asked in disbelief.

It should be noted here that if I were to design a perfect road for a 390 Duke, it would look a lot like Latigo, so the scale of the environment played a significant factor in how quickly it could be ridden. In the confined spaces of the roads in the Santa Monica Mountains, the 390 Duke can run with almost anything due to its extreme agility, relatively broad powerband and solid chassis.

Sure, I could wish for stronger brakes, larger readouts on the gauges and a smoother gearbox, but the Duke is an incredible value for its $4,999 MSRP. It has unparalleled equipment in its class, easily cruises at 80 mph and above (I once saw 110 mph on its speedo…), and, to my eyes, it looks cooler than most bikes costing thousands of dollars extra.

If you’re a basketball player or sumo wrestler, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll feel cramped on the 390. But for little old me on those canyon roads, it was hard to imagine I could have more fun on almost any other bike. (Well, I do have excruciatingly fond memories of this one.)

Skidmarks – Slow Bikes Fast

On that bright, sunny Sunday aboard the 390 Duke, the old adage “It’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow” was put into sharp focus. And if it can be true for me – someone who has ridden the fastest production motorcycles ever made – I hope you can see the possible relevance to you.


  • DickRuble

    Small, nimble bikes are fun, and big singles double the fun. Just because I am taller than average and because I cannot ride in Latigo Canyon exclusively, I would opt for the 690 Duke…

  • Old MOron

    Now you’re speaking my language. I have 50K miles on my DR-Z 400SM, and I love riding it in the Malibu Alps – and pretty much everywhere else. I’m so glad that smaller, lighter bikes are making a comeback.

    • Ducati Kid


      Overjoyed to learn of 50K astride your DR-Z 400SM, eagerly await Mattighofen-Pune’s ‘Duke’ 390 achieving such proved reliability.

      Hammatsu enjoys a long proved reliability record their latest competitor hopes for!

      • Old MOron

        Ha ha, yes, and my bike has endured a few crashes, too. Aside from some fat bars and a bigger tank, it’s bone stock. And it just goes and goes.


    I wish this bike was available when I was in high school.

  • Where’s the point that just enough turns into too much? 70hp? A CBR600 with flat bars?

    • Kevin Duke

      I’d say that entirely dependent on a riders’s level of maturity, aptitude/skill set, and weight.

  • Alexander Pityuk

    Small/slow bikes can indeed be a lot of fun. In certain conditions. But sometimes i like to do a power wheelie. Or to embrace space-warp acceleration. Or drown in soothing comfort of a tourer. If only we could have all the bikes for all purposes…

  • Brands Guy

    Great article, and I jump from big bikes to smaller displacement ones, as well as riding scooters. My new ride is a Ducati Scrambler Full Throttle, but can’t rate my previous ownership of both a Ninja 300 and Duke 390 more highly. If I had the garage space and going for the ultimate garage, happily have a Duke 390 alongside a bigger bike

  • SRMark

    Reminds me of the thrilling days of yesteryear riding R-5s and RD350s. That KTM offends my elder-style orientation but the bike is a must ride for sure. A buddy noticed a huge chunk of wheel weights on a showroom model 390 the other day, indicative of shoddy wheel manufacturing but noticed no such issues on the 690. I’m guessing India vs Austria QC variance. Looks like I need to truck my truculent butt on over to my KTM dealer to see if my eyes can get over the fugly styling. If you happen to like the way it looks, this thing is a slam dunk.

  • allworld

    Having ridden the Stelvio Pass, bikes like the 390 Duke are by far perfect for tight turns.
    (Why ride the Tail of the Dragon when you can ride the Whole Dragon? Ride Stelvio)

  • kenneth_moore

    My son wants a Duke 390. He’ll get his unrestricted license next year, then he has to take the MSF course. Then I have to buy his bike; the little scamp exceeded my minimum GPA requirement by a healthy margin. I’m just hoping there’ll be some used ones on the market by then.

    • Old MOron

      Good on your son for his GPA. Good on you for putting him on two wheels. Now that he’s set the bar high for his GPA, you can hold him to it 🙂

  • Ian S.

    Would the agility and pace have changed if you were on an RC390 or R3 instead of the 390 Duke? I’m shopping for my first motorcycle and instead of power or looks, I want a lightweight and agile chassis that can provide feedback in the corners.

    • Kevin Duke

      The upright stance of the Duke, particularly its higher handlebar, gives it an advantage in agility because arms have more leverage. It’s only at high speeds when a lower handlebar has a slight advantage in cornering speeds due to more weight being carried on the front tire.

      • Ian S.

        Just the response I was looking for. Thank you so much!

  • spiff

    What about the 690? Still nimble and a few more ponies.

    • Ian S.

      Was this in response to my previous post? I’ve read really good things about the 690 and am very tempted by the light weight and late-braking, but think it might have too much power for me as a beginner. Not sure if a U.S. dealer could do the A2 restriction, but that would be something I could look into.

      • Old MOron

        Hey Ian, have you seen this MOronic comparison of the bikes you mention?

        • Ian S.

          I did not. Thank you for the link.

      • spiff

        I did read your comment, but was not responding to it. That said if you are mature enough (that is something only you can answer), and it meets the license requirements, I would go with the 690. It is not a dangerous amount of power, but it can write a check your skill may not be able to cash. You can also get into trouble with the 390. It is up to you, if you can control your urge to do foolish thing and grow into the 690 it will entertain you until the apocalypse. I have been riding for 30 years, and ride a bike that i would say is similar, and I love the thing. I would like to get a second bike for longer trips, but do not plan on getting rid of what I have.

        • Ian S.

          I did’t mean to hijack your question, but I certainly appreciate your response. As it just so happens, I saw that KTM is updating the 690 Duke. It will be interesting to see the changes.

          • 12er

            You can also stick the 690 in rain mode when you first buy to help control your urges. It has 3 ride modes that you can switch under the seat.

          • spiff

            That is a good idea, manufacturers should build this into the initial design for beginners bikes. Then you can start on a larger bike and not have to buy and sell your rebel 250 in 6 months of ownership.

  • Branson

    An excellent subject and well-written article!

  • Andy C

    When I went from my 2008 Ninja 250R to a 2009 650R Latigo really didn’t seem as much fun any more… Freeways are the opposite.

  • rudedog4

    I’d love to have a Duke 390 to burn up the back roads. Sweet little bike!