Little Tearers Comparison: Honda CB500F Vs. KTM 390 Duke

John Burns
by John Burns

It's not quite apples to oranges, but it is Big Red vs. Big Orange

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)
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.

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?

2016 Little Tearers Comparison Scorecard

CategoryHonda CB500F ABSKTM 390 Duke
Total Objective Scores82.4%100%
Quality, Fit & Finish87.5%82.5%
Cool Factor85.0%85.0%
Grin Factor77.5%90.0%
Troy’s Subjective Scores80.4%82.5%
John’s Subjective Scores85.4%83.3%
Overall Score82.8%86.3%

Little Tearers Comparison Specifications

Honda CB500F ABSKTM 390 Duke
MSRP as tested$6,299.00$4,999.00
Engine Capacity471cc373cc
Engine TypeDOHC liquid-cooled Parellel Twin; 4v/cyl.DOHC liquid-cooled Single; 4v/cyl.
Bore x Stroke67.0 x 66.8mm89.0 x 60.0mm
Compression Ratio10.7:112.5:1
Horsepower43.0 hp @ 840039.7 hp @ 8900
Torque29.1 hp @ 680024.6 lb-ft @ 7000
Fuel SystemFuel injection; two 34mm throttle bodieselectronic fuel injection
Final DriveChainChain
Front Suspension41mm fork; 4.3 in. travel,adjustable spring preload43mm inverted fork, 5.9 in. travel
Rear SuspensionPro Link single shock, preload adjustable; 4.7 in wheel travelSingleshock; 5.9 in. travel, preload adjustable,
Front BrakesOne 320mm disc, two-piston caliper, ABSOne 300mm disc, four-piston radial-mount caliper, ABS
Rear Brakes240mm disc, single-piston caliper, ABS230mm disc, single-piston caliper, ABS
Front Tire120/70-17110/70-17
Rear Tire160/60-17150/60-17
Seat Height30.9 in.31.5 in.
Wheelbase55.5 in.53.8 in.
Rake/Trail25.5°/ 4.0 in.25°/ 3.9 in.
Curb Weight, MO scales414 lb.326 lb.
Fuel Capacity4.4 gal.2.9 gal.
MPG57 mpg54 mpg
John Burns
John Burns

More by John Burns

Join the conversation
2 of 26 comments