Best Lightweight / Entry Level Motorcycle of 2021

John Burns
by John Burns

Best Lightweight / Entry Level Motorcycle of 2021: KTM 390 Duke

If you’re tired of hearing us gush over KTM’s second-smallest Duke, imagine how tired we are of gushing. The 390 Duke took its first Best Lightweight title following its 2015 introduction, and it’s won the class every year since except 2018, when we gave the award to Kawasaki’s new Ninja 400. And okay, last year the award went to the KTM 390 Adventure, which is almost just a longer-legged Duke. That 373 cc counterbalanced single-cylinder just keeps shining through. The Duke’s engine is light, compact, torquey, powerful – and most importantly, it’s smooth-running enough that you’d never know it’s only got one cylinder. We used to call them “thumpers” for good reason; that descriptor really doesn’t fit the 390 Duke, or the 690 either.

Twenty-five years ago, the exotic Ducati Supermono required an entire dummy cylinder and connecting rod to control vibration enough to spin its lone 550 cc piston to 10,000 rpm and around 60 horsepower. Now, the 390 Duke single can perform the same trick all day long with its ingenious counterbalancer, even if its 373 cc displacement only makes around 42 rear-wheel horses. It feels like more.

KTM updated the Duke in 2017, refreshing it with edgier styling, a swell TFT display, better suspension, bigger brakes, and a revised exhaust for a smidge more power. That equipment is still enough to keep it on top of the class – especially the edgier styling part. If you didn’t know the Duke was a $5,699 motorcycle, its fit/finish and overall demeanor would have you thinking it costs a lot more.

Though you can’t help but think of it as a small bike, the 390 is in fact almost a full-size motorcycle that accommodates even large-ish adults pretty comfortably, even two of them at a time, but only weighs 363 pounds full of fuel. On tight backroads, that means the Duke can hang with almost any sportbike and leave many in the dust. The rest of the time, when you’re just using it for transportation, it makes light work of gnarly traffic and cruises happily at freeway speeds too – all to the tune of 50+ mpg.

It’s not a lack of competition that’s kept the Duke on top of the lightweight naked class; all the manufacturers would love to break into this $5 – 6k market and hook ’em while they’re young. But as we learned again in our 2021 Lightweight Naked Bike Shootout Smackdown, it’s not near as easy as it looks to produce a motorcycle that, in the KTM’s case, really is more than the sum of its really good parts. None have succeeded so far, and a couple of manufacturers have failed miserably in trying to copy the Austrian recipe. But let’s hope they keep after it; in the meantime, let’s enjoy watching the 390 Duke raise all the entry-level/ lightweight boats. Er, bikes.

Best Lightweight / Entry Level Motorcycle of 2021 Runner-up: Kawasaki KLX300 SM

“The 2021 Kawasaki KLX300SM might be the best new beginner motorcycle on the market.” That’s how I began my KLX300 SM review, and when discussing the MOBO for the lightweight/entry-level category, Dennis reminded me of it. I stick behind that statement, and because of the following reasons, I was able to convince the rest of the staff that it was worthy of at least the runner-up accolade.

Dirt bikes are made to take abuse. Tipping over on the KLX300 SM will likely result in only damage to your pride – and maybe a lever, I’d suggest handguards. But really, Kawasaki’s 292cc supermoto makes itself an enticing option for new riders for the aforementioned point and also because the bike feels incredibly light and flickable with its 17-inch wheels. Plus, it doesn’t deliver the kind of performance that can get the uninitiated into trouble. Top that off with a little ground clearance for off-piste exploration, and I can’t decide why every 16-year old doesn’t have one. At $5,999, it’s not the cheapest lightweight/entry-level machine, but it will fare far better when it hits the ground than the Kawasaki Ninja, and will deliver a more versatile ride. Best of 2021 Categories

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John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 18 comments
  • Greybeard1 Greybeard1 on Dec 03, 2021

    Will you look how much stress that poor riders knee is under in the lead picture!
    I can genuflect far enough to ensure a spot shooting eternal 9 ball with the heavenly host
    of your choice but couldn't suffer that riding position long enough to catch 3rd gear.
    KTM, have pity!

  • Kathy Place Kathy Place on Dec 04, 2021

    Why do you give the price for the Honda, but not the Harley? What's the price?