The Lightweight category of motorcycling is growing like a wildfire, with tons of cool bikes that offer style and performance that’s readily accessible for a new or inexperienced rider. But to us, the motorcycle topping the list of all those competent performers is the Kawasaki Ninja 400. Some May claim that the “small-displacement” moniker no longer applies, but to get hung up on 100cc is a waste of time for what’s otherwise an excellent motorcycle. The increase in size from the previous Ninja 300 brings with it a modest bump in power suitable for newbies, but also entertaining for experienced riders. Combine that with styling inspired by its bigger Ninja siblings, and new riders no longer have to feel self conscious about their beginner bike looking dated and ugly. This, in turn, helps keep riders from graduating to bigger, sexier machinery they may not be ready for.
Of course, the Ninja 400 isn’t without its warts – as here are 8 things I’d change about it – but in the grand scheme of things, those little complaints are just that, little. When compared to possibly its closest rival, the KTM RC390 (whose cousin, the 390 Duke, won this title last year), it excelled both on the track and the street in our 2018 Lightweight Sportbike Shootout, which also featured the Honda CBR500R. We’ve written extensively about the Ninja 400, and that’s for one reason: it’s excellent. So when it came time to choose a winner for this Lightweight category, this was one of the few times the decision was easy.
Well, don’t feel too bad for the little KTM having to lose to the Ninja this year, since it won the category ever since its inception in 2015. We loved the Duke’s spunky little 373 cc Single from the get-go – a torquey beast that expectorated 39.1 horsepower on the dyno, a few less than the Ninja 400 when we ran the Duke’s sister ship RC390 against it last June. The other thing it has a bit less of than the Kawasaki is weight; a fueled-up weight of just 362 pounds is really the key to what makes the little KTM such a great ride, really no matter your skill level.
Light weight is great when you’re just learning. And as you become more experienced, well, there’s a reason why MotoGP bikes and other ultra high-performance machines are made of carbon fiber and titanium. Light weight, in fact, is the most expensive ingredient; with the Duke 390, though, you get lots of it for just $5,299.
You also get a very cool motorcycle that looks like it should cost more, complete with a 5.2-inch TFT instrument panel that lets you select three ride modes, an LED headlight and an architectural digest steel trellis frame housing the little engine that can. It’s all covered in sharp bodywork and thanks to the broad supportive seat and nature of the naked standard, is a surprisingly comfortable place to sit for miles. Aside from its power (and anybody who tells you 40 hp isn’t enough for a streetbike is full of beans), the Duke’s little thumper is notable for its lack of vibration.
To sum up, the Duke’s light weight and torquey motor let it burn down (not literally!) our favorite backroads like few other motorcycles, its upright ergos and comfy seat make it great for commuting or even sport-touring, and its $5,299 price tag means just about anybody can scrape up the entry fee. Thank you, KTM. Still a fave.