Going into it we surmised the little Duke was going to be the sportier ride and the Honda the more practical one. Guess what, that’s how it shakes out. Having said that, though, the practical Honda is really pretty damn sporty and the sporty little cheap KTM is practical enough to be your commuter – if you’re not much taller than 5’10, anyway. It’s way more compact than the CB500F.

We charted the changes Honda applied to the 2016 Honda here last week; in a nutshell, they totally revised the looks of the thing with bold new plastic, a bigger (4.4-gallon) fuel tank and a new tucked-in-tighter exhaust that gives the CB more a shrunk-down CB1000R look (designed by Honda of Italy) than the built-in-Thailand-on-the-cheap decor of the previous 500F.

050616-Little-Tearers-Honda-CB500F-9989

Meanwhile, the 390 Duke has proven to be a highly worthy recipient of our Best Lightweight/Entry Level Motorcycle of 2015, taking us in inexpensive style to a variety of destinations from lunch down the street to a trackday at Chuckwalla 200 miles away.

Duke’s Den – The Joy Of Riding Slow-ish Bikes Fast

Actually there was one complaint, concerning the KTM’s lackadaisical front brake, which we remedied with an SBS pad upgrade that we decided to not undo for this little comparison. Which is cheating, but at least we admit it.

050616-Little-Tearers-KTM-390-Duke-0279

In fact, these two bikes are a better match-up than at first meets the eye. They both make just enough horsepower to bust pretty easily through 100 mph, but with little danger of flattening your retinas. The Honda makes 8% more horsepower, but it’s heavier… the KTM is, well, it’s quite a bit cheaper but in some ways it feels like it. After a while you don’t care.

Freeway of Love

In the morning slogging through L.A. traffic to meet the other kids for a nice ride in the mountains, I was clam-happy to be on the Honda, whose torquey little just-barely oversquare Twin pulls cleanly from 35 to top speed in sixth gear. Its happy place is about 75 mph, where there’s just a trace of handlebar vibration, and at 80 its LCD bar tach says 6500 rpm. Its clock says you’re late, but isn’t everybody? If you only used it for commuting, 60-plus mpg would be doable, meaning you’d only need to gas up every 250 miles. Like I said before, anybody wishing to build a standard motorcycle should copy its ergonomics, and I sit behind that.

Did you turn off the coffee pot, dear? Wait, coffee pots all shut themselves off now.

Did you turn off the coffee pot, dear? Wait, coffee pots all shut themselves off now.

The seat’s okay, but it’s the perfect positioning (for my off-the-rack 5’8 body) of the CB’s grips and footpegs that makes sitting on it for long stretches painless. And if its suspension isn’t top-shelf expensive, you’re barely able to tell from the saddle on reasonably smooth freeway, where it serves up an almost plush, well-damped ride over the Botts dots and crushed dreams of all the poor saps trapped in the Priuses and entry-level Mercedes coupes. Throttle’s light and power is linear, brakes are powerful and smooth (now with adjustable front lever), clutch is light, all is well.

Riding back from a day with the kids in the mountains on the KTM through the same hordes in retreat is surprisingly, almost equally pleasant but in a different way. The Austrian bike is definitely a tighter fit than the Honda, riding on a shorter wheelbase and with less road-hugging weight. Its Single doesn’t pull from low revs quite as smoothly as the Honda Twin does; it prefers wide-open throttle or speeds above 50 mph at least.

The ride’s a bit choppier and the bumps a bit sharper – but those things combine to make you slap the cars around with even greater joy and wreckless abandon. On the little Duke, every tiny gap in traffic is an invitation and all the road’s a stage. You shift and rev and blip more than on the Honda, but those are good things. On the KTM, even the Golden State Freeway is a winding mountain road. Once it unclogs, though, the little Single’s counterbalancer has it running at 80 mph and 7000 rpm with maybe a tad less vibration in its grips than the really smooth Honda. It doesn’t need much empty carpool lane to register 105 mph on its digital panel (where there’s also a gear-position indicator the Honda doesn’t have), a speed at which the Duke doesn’t feel nearly as snubbed down as the Honda. Our bike does have the nice Touring Screen from KTM’s large accessory catalog to duck behind, which doubles the height of the stock screen for a mere 40 bucks.

It’s not put together as seamlessly as the Honda, but the KTM is littered with tasty nuggets including its trellis frame, and cast aluminum swingarm. Like the RC390, it also has not enough room between its exhaust and shock for even a heat shield.

It’s not put together as seamlessly as the Honda, but the KTM is littered with tasty nuggets including its trellis frame, and cast aluminum swingarm. Like the RC390, it also has not enough room between its exhaust and shock for even a heat shield.

Beautiful Downtown Burbank and Little Tujunga

Evans Brasscannon’s local Starbucks is packed at all hours with beautiful people of all sexes about to make it big in show biz – that or wind up 30 pounds heavier in a few years busting out of the yoga pants in an entry-level Benz stuck on the 5 freeway. They eyed the CB admiringly parked out front, probably hoping to catch our eye as we are obviously industry players. The subdued dark gray, tasteful trim and classic racing stripe give the Honda a refined look that does not reflect its affordability. Troy parked the KTM around the corner, probably just as well. It screams for attention, which in tinseltown is a good way not to get any. What do I know?

You won’t be having to stop for gas much on either of these.

You won’t be having to stop for gas much on either of these.

KTM, like honey badger, no care. The tighter the road, the better the little Austrian likes it. It’s lighter enough than the Honda that you can feel it as soon as you lift it off the sidestand. I thought KTM’s website must be exaggerating a bit where it says 306 pounds dry, but with the 2.9-gallon fuel tank topped up, the official MO scales say 326. That’s a whole 88 lbs lighter than the Honda, and has to be one of, if not thee, lightest streetbike MO’s ever ridden.

Once the Little Tujunga Canyon pavement begins convulsing, that amazing absence of weight, shorter wheelbase, shorter trail (only 1/10 of an inch, though) and skinnier, sportier Pirellis have it going all Giancarlo Falappa on the road. One place KTM saves weight is by using a progressive-wound rear shock spring instead of a rising-rate linkage. Soon as you sit on it, the top three windings are coilbound and you are into the stiff part of the spring, which suits the KTM’s rough-and-tumble character once it’s off the leash.

If you’re not too big, the ergos are perfect for burning down tight backroads. Slightly crude suspension including a 43mm inverted fork gets the job done thanks to feather lightness. Skinnyish Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tires also abet instant direction changes.

If you’re not too big, the ergos are perfect for burning down tight backroads. Slightly crude suspension including a 43mm inverted fork gets the job done thanks to feather lightness. Skinnyish Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tires also abet instant direction changes.

The ride can be a little harsh through the bumps and it’s slightly crude everywhere compared to both larger Dukes, but the bike is so light and agile it shrugs off annoyances instantly and goes right after the next squirrel. On smooth pavement, I fear there’s little that could keep up with it under a brave expert rider, which I am not. Dragging footpegs slow it not much.

The KTM’s little Single is actually revvier than the Honda Twin, producing max torque at 7000 rpm and max horsepower at 8900. Wring its neck, use the gearbox, exploit the slipper clutch, brake hard leaned way over – the only limiting factor when riding the KTM is your survival instinct. The only fly in the Indian ointment is that hard braking over bumps calls the ABS into play too soon, which may be the reason for KTM’s choice of less aggressive brake pads than the SBS ones we have on our test unit. A really good rider on this bike would seldom brake hard on the street, but would just throw it on the edge of its front Pirelli Diablo Rosso II and carve.

050616-Little-Tearers-KTM-390-Duke-0688

Troy says: The 390 is significantly lighter than the Honda, and that’s something you feel instantly. Not that the 500 is heavy, but when hustling the KTM through turns, the weight advantage is remarkable. You can toss the little Duke from side to side effortlessly.

While the KTM is a juvenile wart hog crashing through the underbrush with red eyeballs from feasting on fermented berries, the Honda is not far off its pace at all, cruising serenely along in a completely antithetical, Lord-of-the-manor manner. Its revised old-fashioned fork and ProLink-mounted shock erase most of the bumps that anger the KTM, and their softer calibration means you can’t whip the Honda so quickly from side to side. Its slightly fatter tires slow super-quick transitions too, but in exchange it’s a little more reassuringly stable. Once leaned over, it goes easily right where it’s aimed. It’s only heavy relative to the flyweight KTM.

050616-Little-Tearers-Honda-CB500F-0583

Its subdued-sounding, smooth engine is nothing like the KTM’s buzz saw, but it is using its 98cc extra displacement to make 18% more torque 200 rpm sooner than the KTM’s 7000-rpm torque peak. Sneaky fast, in other words, and the CB’s excellent, smooth fuelling and lack of real power encourage you to open the throttle early or just keep it open really and drag the rear brake. The clutch is light and the upgraded six-speed gearbox belongs in a more expensive Honda. Damping in the rear shock fades a bit after a fair bit of abuse, but that doesn’t slow the CB down much. We didn’t adjust the new preload-adjustable fork since we’re both lightweights, but heavier riders will appreciate that feature.

050616-Little-Tearers-Honda-CB500F-0631

For riding like a maniac in the curves it’s about what you’d expect: The KTM’s the one you want if you’re fast and aggressive. It’s like a big expensive toy, like a dirtbike, even; part of the fun is that it’s so abusable. If you’re in a hurry but not that big of one and like to think of yourself most of the time as a more sophisticated human, the Honda is an exceptionally good motorcycle. In its price range, nothing can touch it. Slightly out of its price range by a mere $691, however, there’s the Yamaha FZ-07 – the bike that won our Middleweight Mash-up Six-Way Shootout a couple of years ago.

The CB doesn’t have all the trick components, but it is more than the sum of its parts. It’s only heavy relative to this Duke, and goes about making quick work of curves in its own, much more subdued fashion. It’s never far off the pace.

The CB doesn’t have all the trick components, but it is more than the sum of its parts. It’s only heavy relative to this Duke, and goes about making quick work of curves in its own, much more subdued fashion. It’s never far off the pace.

Troy S: Both of these bikes really are representative of their manufacturers. The smooth, friendly nature of the 500F typifies the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” mantra… it’s a magic-carpet ride on the freeway.

Meanwhile, the aggressive, sporty nature of the 390 Duke is “Ready to Race” in mechanical form. This test boils down to riding styles. If the majority of your riding is in the canyons, or even a short and twisty trackday, with relatively few “normal” miles – the KTM is for you. If the majority of your time is spent commuting, with the occasional canyon ride thrown in, go Honda. Not that the KTM couldn’t pull commuter duty, but with its smaller engine, its rider will be rowing through the gears more than the 500F rider.

KTM’s 373cc Single is revvier and works harder all the time than Honda’s sweet little 471cc parallel-Twin, but just can’t make up for the Honda’s extra 98cc. Il Duke’s 88 less pounds more than makes up for the shortage, though. (These are actually the charts from our 2015 CB500F, since Honda tells us the engine hasn’t changed and the new exhaust doesn’t increase power. And that’s the graph from our last KTM RC390, said to be in the exact same state of tune as the Duke.)

KTM’s 373cc Single is revvier and works harder all the time than Honda’s sweet little 471cc parallel-Twin, but just can’t make up for the Honda’s extra 98cc. Il Duke’s 88 less pounds more than makes up for the shortage, though. (These are actually the charts from our 2015 CB500F, since Honda tells us the engine hasn’t changed and the new exhaust doesn’t increase power. And that’s the graph from our last KTM RC390, said to be in the exact same state of tune as the Duke.)

050616-Little-Tearers-Honda-CB500F-0845050616-Little-Tearers-KTM-390-Duke-0785

Honda’s colorful panel is more attractive and easier to read, but the KTM has a GPI, trip computer and programmable shift light. Who could complain for $5K? Me. Where’s the cruise control?

When it comes time to pick the winner, we MOrons try to be responsible adults, but we seldom succeed. We can’t help being attracted to the brighter, shinier object, and the MO Scorecard does not lie: Actually, Troy’s and my subjective scores were extremely close, the KTM beating out the Honda by a scant ⅕ of a percent. However, once the objective scores were added, the little orange ripper’s amazingly light weight and low price tag blow the Honda out of the water. The KTM 390 Duke is the irresponsible choice we’d chain up in the MO garage. What a sweet little maniac of a bike for $4,999.

If you do buy one of these and you’re not particularly short, do yourself the favor of investing in the Ergo Seat from KTM’s accessory catalog. It adds 20mm of height, but it feels 10 times comfier than the dismal stock seat. Looks good, too, and well worth the $120 or so.

If you do buy one of these and you’re not particularly short, do yourself the favor of investing in the Ergo Seat from KTM’s accessory catalog. It adds 20mm of height, but it feels 10 times comfier than the dismal stock seat. Looks good, too, and well worth the $120 or so.

2016 KTM 390 Duke
+ Highs

  • Lightness is rightness
  • A lot of motorcycle for $4,999
  • Many fun parts to ogle
– Sighs

  • Has a slight Harbor Freight-but-effective overall feel
  • Harsh rear end
  • Shut up and buy one
2016 Honda CB500F
+ Highs

  • Seamless systems integration
  • Futuristic fun engine and 250-mile range
  • Looks more expensive than it is
– Sighs

  • A helmet lock would be nice
  • Do you want the CB500X for $500 more?
  • What to do with the rest of your disposable income?

050616-Little-Tearers-Group-0349

2016 Little Tearers Comparison Scorecard
Category Honda CB500F ABS KTM 390 Duke
Price 79.4% 100%
Weight 78.8% 100%
lb/hp 85.3% 100%
lb/lb-ft 93.1% 100%
Total Objective Scores 82.4% 100%
Engine 87.5% 87.5%
Transmission/Clutch 87.5% 80.0%
Handling 80.0% 90.0%
Brakes 82.5% 80.0%
Suspension 80.0% 80.0%
Technologies 72.5% 75.0%
Instruments 80.0% 75.0%
Ergonomics/Comfort 87.5% 82.5%
Quality, Fit & Finish 87.5% 82.5%
Cool Factor 85.0% 85.0%
Grin Factor 77.5% 90.0%
Troy’s Subjective Scores 80.4% 82.5%
John’s Subjective Scores 85.4% 83.3%
Overall Score 82.8% 86.3%
Little Tearers Comparison Specifications
Honda CB500F ABS KTM 390 Duke
MSRP as tested $6,299.00 $4,999.00
Engine Capacity 471cc 373cc
Engine Type DOHC liquid-cooled Parellel Twin; 4v/cyl. DOHC liquid-cooled Single; 4v/cyl.
Bore x Stroke 67.0 x 66.8mm 89.0 x 60.0mm
Compression Ratio 10.7:1 12.5:1
Horsepower 43.0 hp @ 8400 39.7 hp @ 8900
Torque 29.1 hp @ 6800 24.6 lb-ft @ 7000
lb/hp 9.63 8.21
lb/lb-ft 14.23 13.25
Fuel System Fuel injection; two 34mm throttle bodies electronic fuel injection
Transmission 6-speed 6-speed
Final Drive Chain Chain
Front Suspension 41mm fork; 4.3 in. travel,adjustable spring preload 43mm inverted fork, 5.9 in. travel
Rear Suspension Pro Link single shock, preload adjustable; 4.7 in wheel travel Singleshock; 5.9 in. travel, preload adjustable,
Front Brakes One 320mm disc, two-piston caliper, ABS One 300mm disc, four-piston radial-mount caliper, ABS
Rear Brakes 240mm disc, single-piston caliper, ABS 230mm disc, single-piston caliper, ABS
Front Tire 120/70-17 110/70-17
Rear Tire 160/60-17 150/60-17
Seat Height 30.9 in. 31.5 in.
Wheelbase 55.5 in. 53.8 in.
Rake/Trail 25.5°/ 4.0 in. 25°/ 3.9 in.
Curb Weight, MO scales 414 lb. 326 lb.
Fuel Capacity 4.4 gal. 2.9 gal.
MPG 57 mpg 54 mpg

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  • Born to Ride

    I wish this class of bike existed when I turned 18. Not that my first bike was a dog by any means, everyone loves an SV650. I just think that either of these bikes would have been better to learn on. Also, want to point out that the over-a-grand cheaper KTM has a much more aesthetically pleasing 43mm inverted fork. C’mon honda, the spindly front end is the only thing holding that little roadster back from being a beauty.

    • Kenneth

      Mentioning the SV650 brings to mind that it will soon be returning, and unlike the FZ, it will offer ABS, along with its wonderful V-twin. ‘Lots of competitive, high-value, smaller bikes.

      • Born to Ride

        While I hate to be the luddite of the group, I would rather have the 6999$ MSRP than ABS. I don’t think the pricing for the SV has been announced, but I gotta imagine that it is going to be at least 8 grand and 30 lbs heavier than the FZ-07, with 2 piston sliding calipers instead of 4 piston fixed units. We shall see when the inevitable MO comparo shakes down.

        • Kenneth

          Suzuki’s Canadian website is currently showing $7,799 for the 2017 SV with ABS, and Canadian prices are typically higher than for the U.S., though I’m not sure that price is finalized. As far as the purchase price of ABS, it’s easy to understand that one single crash is much more costly (but that’s only if one makes a certain mistake in a panic-type situation, of course, which none of US would ever do).

        • c w

          By my unqualified calculation using the released UK prices as an example, about $6500 US for the non-ABS and $7200 with.

          434lbs wet. vs FZ-07 397 (both claimed weights)

          several European journos have already reviewed it and some claim favorable aspects (chassis, suspension, motor “character”) compared to 07

          http://www.motorcycledaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2017-Suzuki-SV650.pdf

          • Kenneth

            Thanks for the link, cw. The new SV looks a lot sleeker than my gen-2 (alum-frame) SV was. Suzuki repeatedly mentions increased low-to-mid torque, then lists the torque peak as moving upward from 6,400 rpm to 8,100. Dyno charts will reveal the truth.

          • c w
          • Kenneth

            “Forbidden: Access Denied” — ‘Guess I’d have to be a subscriber. Thanks, anyway!

          • c w

            syntax error in link – corrected now.

            They also have a video review on YT.

            There’s few others if you search “2016 SV650 review” (not 2017 as it is labeled in the states).

            My suspicion is that the change in tuning is the desire to compete with the 07’s peak hp claim without having to design a new engine.

  • spiff

    I haven’t ridden either bike, but the Duke seems like it would make the ride to work more fun. I seems like other riders I talk to don’t figure the grin factor as you swipe your time card for an 8 hour shift. Then you get to ride home.

  • Randy Pancetalk

    “but the KTM has a GPI”

    what is a GPI?

  • http://motoroids.com/ Harkamal Singh

    A little correction. KTM Duke390 has a 4 piston caliper upfront, not two.

    • john burns

      you are correct. I corrected the spec chart. Thanks!

  • JMDonald

    I love Honda. I know I know I know already. The Duke even with its smaller engine appeals to me more. Why are Hondas so GD heavy?

    • Kenneth

      If we can acknowledge that Honda isn’t purposely making their bikes “…so GD heavy” just to make them slower, and that every manufacturer has to limit production costs for a given profit margin, I’d say Honda has always biased their resources a bit more toward maintaining their reputation for long-term durability under conditions of abuse / neglect. If you’re buying a bike for a year or two of thrills, it’s irrelevant, but for long-term ownership, it’s pretty well established that Honda products are a safe bet.

    • Kenneth

      I’d say Hondas are not “so GD heavy” at all. They’re not extra-light products, of course, but I think Honda allocates more of their production costs toward maintaining their conservative reputation for long-term durability under conditions of abuse / neglect. I’d also guess their owners have many fewer problems than KTM’s.

  • priap1sm

    But what is the handling like on that little KTM? Is it a scaled up dirt bike that you toss into corners sideways with the rear brake, or is it a scaled down RC8 that you tuck down low and behind, slap your knee gingerly down to carve through a fast sweeper?

    • TroySiahaan

      Both!

  • SRMark

    Might have to go get the KTM. Sure would be a fun bike to ride to the next, nearby, FSSNOC Thumper Cafe.

    • DickRuble

      Get a lightly used 690 for the price of a new honda 500 and don’t look back, ride on.

  • DickRuble

    The real lb/hp (bike+rider weight) should be used as it is more relevant than the ratio for bikes alone. When rider weight is considered, the ratios are a lot closer and KTM’s advantage not so big.

    • john burns

      at last I agree with Dick Ruble!

  • mugwump

    Will the RC 390 suspension fit in this?

    • Kevin Duke

      I believe the RC suspension is exactly the same as the Duke’s.

      • mugwump

        Thanks!

  • D. Paul League

    One is built in Malaysia and I think the other is made in India. Now I have nothing to say negative about those two countries, but these bikes are suppose to be made in Austria and Japan. You get what you pay for.

    • Kevin Duke

      Actually, the Honda is built in Thailand; the KTM in India.

  • Paolo Amato

    So which is the faster between the two bikes?