2020 KTM 390 Adventure Review – First Ride
In the spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of lightweight love. Also a crusty old guy's.
I don’t know why I assumed the new baby KTM 390 Adventure would be more of a milquetoast little beginner bike, like most of the other wannabe ADV bikes in its class, but I kind of did. It’s nothing of the sort. We’ve seen the photos (and maybe I failed to read the words), but in the flesh at KTM’s Murrieta, California, HQ, I was a little surprised. Say, this mini-Adventure looks like a full-size ADV bike, not a kiddie toy. Personally, I’d prefer something a bit lower, but as it turns out, looks can be deceiving. Though the 390 looks a lot like the acclaimed new 790 Adventure, it is way lighter.
2020 KTM 390 Adventure
KTM claimed a ready-to-ride wet weight of 460 pounds for the 790 and the official MO scales later read 467. For the 390, the Austrians say 379 all gassed up. If the margin of error remains 7 lbs, that puts the 390 at 386 lbs – that’s 81 lbs lighter than the already-flyweight 790. (Well, the 790 holds about 1.5 more gallons of fuel, which accounts for about 10 of those pounds.)
That seems impossible, really, given that the 390 uses a chromoly frame much like the one in the 790, with 450 Rally overtones, the same overkill WP Apex 43mm fork and shock linked directly to the diecast aluminum swingarm (a thing KTM says saves weight and enhances feel). The wheelbase is about 3 in. shorter than the 790’s, at 56.2 in., but the seat’s just as high, at 33.6 inches. This is not a kiddie ride; we’re sat atop 6.7 in. of front suspension travel, and 7 in. out back.
That’s still kind of tall, but the seat is narrow toward the front; my big toes can touch on both sides at the ends of my 30-inch legs. Critically, the bike’s so lightweight that being that high off the ground somehow feels less precarious. She’s easy to balance. And so we blasted homeward from KTM HQ the back way, on a beautiful spring day through scattered showers. I was gonna go over the mountain and through the woods, but the EXPECT DELAYS sign at the bottom and the rain clouds I could see up top convinced me to just go the rest of the way home on the freeway. Riding in the rain on a chilly day is cool, being delayed in the rain is not.
Taking the freeway wasn’t that much of a sacrifice, in spite of the lack of cruise control: The throttle’s nice and light, as is the slip/assist clutch, and the gearbox is so slick I kept meaning to check if my bike has the optional quickshifter? (It does! But it’s a slightly sticky one.) We loved the Royal Enfield Himalayan’s comfortable seat if not too much of the rest of it. The 390 Adventure’s seat is almost as swell: broad, flattish and nubile, yet firm in a serious performance kind of way that keeps your coccyx from bottoming out.
You’d expect a cheap steel handlebar, but the 390’s is tapered aluminum, and its wide off-roady footpegs come with rubber inserts for when you’re not riding to Dakar. It all works together to give you that nice upright in-control rider triangle that’s made ADV bikes the choice of old guys everywhere. Everybody everywhere, really. When you look down, there’s even a 5-inch TFT screen with Bluetooth capability.
Powerwise, you won’t mistake the 390 for the 790, but every other 390 we’ve dynoed (Duke and RC) have made around 42 horsepower and 27 lb-ft of torque, which is outstanding for a 373 cc single. It’s not a lot of power, but for most of us most of the time it’s enough. Southern California freeways are weirdly nearly empty, and at one point, it was my duty to lean down behind the windscreen and give it the berries in top cog: 90 mph arrives pretty quickly, 100 got there eventually on the bike’s 5-inch TFT display. Not bad for a lone 89mm piston. Some reviewers complain about vibration with this engine; personally I’m not feeling it – not enough to complain anyway. At 80 mph and 6500 rpm, things feel reasonably smooth to me.
Suspension-wise, KTM and its subsidiary WP seem to have things dialed lately. The Apex fork and shock are decidedly firm, but also sophisticated enough over lumpy pavement in the first part of travel to absorb bumps and maintain an even keel. You can reach out with your left hand and adjust compression and rebound damping on the fork on the fly if you feel the need to experiment.
The Bybre four-piston caliper and 320mm disc up front will get the front tire howling before the ABS (lean-sensitive) kicks in, which feels like stopping hard enough to me that I never got to the ABS threshold.
Basically, I was falling head over heels with a cute little bike much younger than me, and then tragedy struck. When we strapped the little 390 onto the dyno the next day, after the first run or two, she would no longer pull past 6500 rpm. Is traction control off? Yes, it is. ABS off? You can’t turn it completely off. No dice. Strange, yet this new 390 is now ride-by-wire, with an all-new computer, etc. – and weird things sometimes happen lately in the wake of the Volkswagen diesel scandal.
Back on the road, she still wouldn’t pull past 6500 rpm most of the time but would rev all the way to 9000 and peak power some of the time, seemingly at random. That randomness convinced us to go ahead and ride the bike for the photo/video shoot we’d already scheduled for a couple of days later, hoping it might fix itself. Some online experts speak of previous 390 computers having a 600-mile break-in programmed in, and ours wasn’t there yet. Maybe that was it? Now we realize that our dyno attempt had somehow just caused the little motor to go into limp-home mode. Maybe it thought we were the EPA?
It was probably a bad idea to try to climb that little dirt hill in limp mode, but I think if I’d been in second gear and carrying more speed instead of in first, I would’ve made it no sweat; as it was, I ran out of revs halfway up since it was game over at 6500 and couldn’t keep from rolling backward down the hill; my attempt to cut her sideways in the soft dirt resulted in an unceremonious downhill high-side backflip. Luckily the dirt was soft and the camera was not yet rolling. What I’m trying to say is, I was having so much fun riding the little KTM around on dirt roads amongst the poppies, that even in limp mode, I was attempting things I wouldn’t even consider on a heavier ADV bike. If you get stuck, you can almost always just put a foot down and save yourself since you’re only 386 pounds. And if you had full power and 10,000 rpm, it doesn’t feel like you’d get stuck much.
Maybe those new Continental TKC70 tires have something to do with it. Conti says they have a lot in common with its ADV-beloved TKC80 but are designed to last longer, with a 60/40-street/dirt bias. Them and the bike’s excellent suspension. Later, I assaulted a pretty steep rocky hillside in second but ran out of revs again halfway up dammit, 6500 rpm. That time, it was easy enough to turn around and head back down and be impressed by the bike’s brakes. Its ABS has a Road mode and an Offroad one; in Offroad you’re allowed to lock the rear as needed. And the front disc, which we learned earlier is plenty powerful on pavement, is also really effective and easy to modulate with one finger crawling down steepish rocky trails. Technology.
Headed homeward post-shoot, up the back side of the San Gabriels on pavement, was not optimal in limp. But rolling down the coastal side into LA was excellent. Being taller and with more suspension travel than 390 Duke or RC390, the Adventure doesn’t transition side-to-side quite as quickly, and the Contis don’t encourage you to lean quite so far. Still, the Adventure’s not going to be far off the pace. And anything that only weighs 386 pounds is a hoot to ride around those curves. The limiting factor is only your sightlines and sense of self-preservation. With the lockdown in place, there are a lot of Fast & Furious types on the Angeles Crest these days. One white Challenger would get close on the straights but always grew tiny in the KTM’s mirrors in the curves. Sad.
Once on the freeway and headed back to the County of Orange, it was limp-homeward at about 68 to 70 mph for 50 miles. How ironic: empty freeways and a bike that’ll only do 70. Keep an eye on those mirrors…
I’d left the house at 8:30 am, and got home at 7:30. I think that’s 11 hours in the saddle, a few of them on dirt roads, one backward somersault crash – and I felt fine, in spite of the seat being on the firm side. Stoked even. Crazily, I actually felt like I’d had a really fun day of riding, and that was in limp mode. Imagine how much fun this little bike will be when it runs right.
[THIS JUST IN!!!!: Turns out we’ve been barking up all the wrong trees. KTM repo’d our bike to diagnose the problem, then gave it right back the very next morning. The word is it’s our own damn fault: We somehow loosened the sparkplug cap, maybe when we were attempting to dyno the bike, and that loose plug cap was what was causing the intermittent spark. Blasting around the ’hood for a few miles this morning, all is swell again and 9500-rpm service has been restored. Our bad. Unless, maybe, the Deep State intervened… we can’t rule it out. – JB]
For God’s sake, can someone please explain the math to me. KTM wants $6,199 for a 390 Adventure, but over twice as much – $12,699 – for the 790. Is adding one more piston that much more expensive? OK, I get it, as you get better at riding you can always use more power, but at the same time if you’re like me, and were done getting better quite a while ago… or, if you aren’t super interested in being able to go faster than 100 mph across the burning sands anyway, I mean WTF, what a great little motorcycle this is. Really it’s not all that little; six-feet tall people are also okay on it. It’s a great light motorcycle. The more experienced I get (older), the more I’m willing to trade more horsepower for fewer pounds, and that goes double for adventure bikes. The more fun they are to ride, the farther they suck you into places where angels fear to tread. On this one, I feel like I stand a good chance of being able to get back out.
KTM lists both the 390 and 790 Adventures under the “Travel” heading on its website. If you’re really going places, bigger can be better. But for throwing open the garage door and going for a few hours or a day-long expedition, this thing blows the competition out of the water. There really isn’t any. Kawasaki will probably counter with a Versys-X 400; it better be really good to beat this KTM. The BMW G310 GS is your father’s Oldsmobile, the RE Himalayan is a Maytag appliance, the Honda CB500X is your conservative overweight older sister…
KTM seems to have struck again.
2020 KTM 390 Adventure
- The price is right, Bob
- Does not get soggy in milk
- Crash guards are standard; our bike was unscathed except for (see below)
- Hope you like orange
- Need better handguards; our left one broke in soft dirt along with our clutch lever
- Will the old 690 motor fit in here?
2020 KTM 390 Adventure Specifications
|Liquid-cooled, four-valve, DOHC Single-cylinder, 4-stroke
|Bore x Stroke
|89 mm x 60 mm
|Starter / Battery
|Electric starter / 12V, 8 Ah
|Bosch EFI (throttle body 46 mm)
|Motorex Formula 4T 15W/50
|PASC slipper clutch, mechanically operated
|Ignition / Engine Management
|Bosch EMS with Ride-By-Wire
|Steel trellis frame, powder coated
|Steel trellis frame, powder coated
|Aluminum, tapered, Ø 26 / 22 mm
|WP APEX, Ø 43 mm, adjustable compression / rebound, 6.7 inches of travel
|WP APEX shock absorber, adjustable rebound and spring preload, 7.0 inches of travel
|Four piston, radially mounted caliper, brake disc Ø 320 mm
|Single piston, floating caliper, brake disc Ø 230 mm
|Bosch 9.1MP Two Channel (incl. Cornering ABS and Offroad mode)
|Cast aluminum, 2.50 x 19”
|Cast aluminum, 3.50 x 17”
|100/90 x 19
|130/80 x 17
|Stainless steel primary and secondary silencer
|Rake / Trail
|26.5° / 3.9 inches
|56.3 ± 0.6 inches
|348.3 pounds (claimed)
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More by John Burns