2016 KTM 390 Duke Long-Term Review

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

A superb little tearer

Creating a nice expensive motorcycle is almost easy – just throw the best technology at it and charge wealthy owners accordingly. Much more vexing is how to design and build a stylish and entertaining streetbike at a low price.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job of that value equation than KTM, which recently had its 390 Duke returned after enduring several months of being passed around to neglectful MO editors who ruthlessly tried to twist the nuts of this eager funster. Despite being forced to ride every new motorcycle on the planet (a regular part of our jobs) we were able to amass nearly 2,000 miles on the littlest Duke, and it fully legitimized itself as the rightful owner of our Best Lightweight/Entry-Level MOBO award of 2015.

In fact, considering its surprisingly low $4,999 MSRP, the 390 Duke also makes a great case for itself as a winner in our Value category. Check out that number again. For just $5k, the KTM is equipped with desirable features like a robotically welded tubular-trellis frame, aluminum swingarm, tapered aluminum handlebar, stout 43mm inverted fork, radial-mount front brakes, braided-steel lines and grippy Pirelli tires – nice stuff not available on its rivals. Oh, and that price includes ABS, a highly attractive feature for a bike catering in large part to junior-level riders – and one that’s optional or not yet available on its competitors.

Few would guess this attractive street machine retails for less than $5,000. The windscreen seen in this photo is from KTM’s PowerParts division, which replaced the teeny little stock deflector to provide a modicum of wind protection for $40.

Despite the shockingly low price, KTM hasn’t been able to rewrite the rules of economics. Production costs have been reduced by building the smallest Dukes (125 and 200cc versions in other markets since 2011-12) in India at Bajaj, a 49% stakeholder in KTM. This is the new state of play in the moto industry, as the Japanese Big Four builds its price-point models at factories in Thailand, Indonesia and China. Heck, even lauded Euro OEMs Ducati and Triumph build bikes in Thailand.

But back to what’s made the 390 Duke a star player in the lightweight category. It’s faster than most of its rivals, and if it isn’t, it’s a better handler.

“The little 373cc Single powering the Duke 390 punches way above its weight class,” notes Content Editor T.Roderick, who was the last of the MOrons to put miles on the KTM. “Around town it motors away from stop lights like a more powerful bike (also thanks to its low 326-pound weigh-in full of fuel), but it’s at freeway speeds where the mini-Duke really shines. The bike has no problem keeping up with speedy SoCal traffic, and when the time comes to pass slower-moving drivers, the Duke 390 has a stash of available power that enables it to easily get around those troublesome four-wheelers. And even though its lone piston is spinning furiously at 80 mph, the bike remains remarkably smooth.”

Yep, the Duke’s 373cc single-cylinder mill is either punchier or smoother or both than any sub-400cc street engine. It has considerably more torque than its 300cc rivals, and it kicks out a relatively robust 40 horses to its rear Pirelli, which is enough to spin its speedo up to 110 mph or so if given enough room.

“Its Single is more than enough for most riding situations, even freeway riding,” Trizzle allows. “It’s sporty and likes to rev, making it fun in the canyons and useful around town when trying to get away from traffic.”

The Duke 390 motor is identical to its RC390 KTM brother, and this chart shows how it cranks out more power sooner and bigger than its competitors.

While the 390’s motor received universal praise, its front brake setup was the subject of derision. The made-in-India ByBre brakes deliver wooden feedback via its stock pads, not measuring up to the implied promise of the radial-mount caliper design from Brembo and steel lines. However, a major step up in performance can be had by a simple brake-pad swap. We were more than pleased by the improvement offered by the SBS 877RS pads we installed – an enhancement of feel and power easily worth twice the cost of the $45 pads.

MO Better: SBS RS Brake Pad Review

“Yeah, the new pads are a definite step forward,” admitted Troy, a vocal complainer about the KTM’s brakes since our Beginnerish Sportbike Shootout. “The improvement was a night-and-day difference. Now I could charge into a corner and only use one finger to scrub off the necessary speed.”

Another sore spot – literally – was the stock seat, which isn’t especially compliant and uses a plasticky cover. KTM”s PowerParts catalog provided relief in the form of the Ergo Seat, which uses much nicer material for its cover and plusher, thicker foam. It’s vastly more comfortable than the stocker and remained so even after nearly 200 miles in the saddle when I rode it out to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway for a trackday.

“Its 20mm of increased seat height certainly helped increase comfort in the legroom department for my 5-foot-11 chassis,” T-Rod lauds. “I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on a longer ride.”

KTM’s Ergo Seat uses much nicer materials (note its softer textured surface next to the plasticky pillion saddle) and is well worth its $130 price as long as your legs aren’t especially short.

Although I had a riotously good time piloting the 390 around Chuckwalla, its preferred playground is on the street and in the canyons. The bike’s extreme light weight makes easy for any person to manhandle, and its upright riding position is preferable and more versatile to sportier riding positions like fully faired little sportbikes, giving a rider an advantageous helm to maneuver through traffic or dissect canyon roads.

“For its engine displacement and price range, I can’t think of another bike that’s better at slicing through tight city traffic,” Roderick praises. “The combination of narrow width, upright seating position, strong stopping power and well-balanced suspension add up to a motorcycle worthy of consideration. Kudos to KTM for getting the package right.”

Indeed, for a $5k package, the 390 Duke can’t be topped in terms of versatility, style and performance. Most sub-400cc bikes feel weak in the lower part of their rev ranges, but the 390 Duke’s bounty of low-rpm torque means that its rider isn’t always hunting for the meat of the engine’s powerband. The Duke even held its head high when compared to Honda’s excellent CB500F, a bike that costs $1,300 extra when equipped with ABS brakes.

Little Tearers Comparison: Honda CB500F vs. KTM 390 Duke

Flaws are minor and mostly easily rectified. Handlebar grips are hard and feel cheap, but a swap to nice aftermarket grips would be inexpensive and simple. Instrumentation is fairly comprehensive for a machine in this class, but larger readouts on a few of its displays would be helpful. Lastly, we weren’t impressed by the sometimes-balky gearbox, which seems a bit crude relative to other bikes in the class. On the plus side, its slipper clutch is a desirable feature for newbies and aggressive pros. Riders who are especially tall or particularly heavy might feel cramped or wish for a stiffer suspension, but that’s not unusual for any motorcycle in this class.

Overall, the 390 Duke looks and performs like a more expensive bike, and it’s hard to imagine a better junior-level sporty bike for riding of all types. Its smiles-per-gallon and grins-per-dollar metrics are off the charts, and its combination of value, style, equipment and fun factor is impossible to beat.

Yep, you can do it all on KTM’s smallest Duke.

2016 KTM 390 Duke

+ Highs

  • Style
  • Value
  • Playful

– Sighs

  • Gearbox a bit crude
  • Mediocre stock brakes and seat
  • Small for the Big ‘n’ Tall crowd

Related Reading
2015 KTM 390 Duke First-Ride Review
Beginner-ish Sportbike Shootout
Best Lightweight/Entry-Level Motorcycle of 2015
Duke’s Den – The Joy Of Riding Slow-ish Bikes Fast
MO Better: SBS RS Brake Pad Review
Little Tearers Comparison: Honda CB500F vs. KTM 390 Duke

Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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6 of 23 comments
  • Antonio Alvarado Antonio Alvarado on Jul 07, 2016

    This article claims the KTM 390 Duke has "grippy Pirelli tires". Maybe the European version or the 2015 model, but KTM's website says this motorcycle has Metzeler tires (German) and NOT Pirelli (Italian). This information is WRONG! Do your homework better next time MOTORCYCLE!!!

    • See 3 previous
    • Appliance5000 Appliance5000 on Dec 17, 2016

      They're owned by Pirelli.

  • Paul Bass Paul Bass on Dec 12, 2016

    I've put ~ 500,000 miles on 3 beemers since 1977, traded in the K75S and got this little jewel. And I smile every time I'm on it. Just ride one, Harleys, BMWs, and all Japanese bikes will seem tame.

    I don't see a single comment from anyone who has ridden one.

    I rode this little beast on the "Dragon's Tail" last year, only 2 superbikes and a stripped sportster ever passed. (well, a couple of new corvettes toasted me also, but 500 ponies and 4 wheels are a different league...!)