Can I lean it further? Is it safe to do this on a public road? Even one as empty as this? I’ll feel better if I look further ahead… But can I turn my head back and up any further? The questions pile up fast and heavy. Ahead, ride leader, Andreas of KTM R&D is an indistinct spec. Both of us are in the middle of a long, fast, sweeping hairpin (yes, the Austrians make these really fun hairpins that last forever in the mountains around Salzburg), heeled well over. The pace is up, the sun is warm, the bike is hot and we are out playing.
The questions are coming because the new Metzeler Sportec M5 tyres feel unfamiliar while the rest of the KTM 390 Duke feels familiar but different. Like an old buddy who grew up and matured all of a sudden.
When I hopped on at the hotel porch, I allowed the feel of the 390 to come to me. And my first impression was that this was a stiff feeling motorcycle. Very rigid, indeed. And in the first few meters of riding it became obvious that the first impression was correct. On the brakes, it seemed to dive less, on the gas it pitched up noticeably less, it felt less absorbent over manhole covers and generally felt like someone had taken a wrench and just tightened everything more than a few notches.
And now, two hours and some 150km in, I’m liking the stiffness and have gotten a hang of these tyres. R&D manager (street) Sebastian Sekira explained it to me later. “The chassis is identical to the 200 Duke.” As in the trellis frame, upside down front fork, radially mounted callipers, rotor sizes, rim and tyre sizes are all exactly the same as the smaller Duke. “But there are three critical differences. First, the bike you are riding is European-spec, which means the spring ratings and damping fluid spec is the same as what you will get in India but we use different shims in the suspension for a stiffer, sportier ride. In India, you will get a softer [damping] setup for your roads.”
This variation in suspension setup is true of the 200 Duke as well and a good thing for us. In hindsight, it dawns on me that if we had to ride a motorcycle this stiffly suspended on our roads, even the most hardcore of us would be annoyed by the jittery, harsh ride quality that would inevitably result.
“The second difference are the new Metzeler Sportec M5 tyres which will come to India as well.” Why? Is something wrong with the MRFs? “No, the MRFs are actually excellent. But when we decided to make the 390 Duke we realised it would be a premium product and that it would hit as much 160-170kmph flat out. So we specified these new Sportec M5 tyres for the bike. They are better overall than the MRFs by a small margin, but have significantly better wet weather performance.”
Despite near-zero snow/rain conditions through the two week media preview, our group were the lucky ones to enjoy fully sunny weather and had no chance to test wet grip. Or, thankfully, the warmth of our, ahem, winter gear.
But this much was clear, the Sportec is a stiff tyre that takes a bit of getting used to in terms of reading feedback and interpreting it. But once you sync up, it has immense grip, both when upright and when leaned over to the edges.
The MRF is excellent and it has proved to be hard wearing too – we see 200 Dukes at OVERDRIVE’s track school all the time which are doing their fourth or fifth track weekend on the same tyres without significant degradation. We will see how the Sportec M5 holds up, but if the long sweepers are any indication, this tyre is going to be immense amounts of fun. And 200 owners should be able to buy them at KTM service centres and upgrade their bikes at will.
“Finally, we have ABS. This is the latest generation Bosch ABS, and will be standard.” And you can see the hardware on the bike. Each caliper has two cables running out of it — one braided hydraulic hose coated in black plastic and one that reports wheel speed data to the ABS ECU — and slotted discs mounted on the rotor carriers. KTM have given the bike a ‘secret’ ABS toggle switch (unmarked on bottom left of instruments) that will turn the ABS off at standstill should you want to.
The chassis, of course, is the easy bit to grasp. The engine is a more involved exercise. Sekira says the engine was originally set to be based on the 200’s unit, but as the design progressed, the two engines became more and more different. Now only the finger-followers in the valvetrain are identical to the 200 in the whole of the engine.
The 375cc engine is very, very oversquare featuring a wide 89mm bore and a short 69mm stroke, which means a whole new block. With due regard for the intended performance, the piston is now forged rather than cast like the 200. The block is Nikasil coated for high performance and longevity. It also removes the need for cylinder liners making the bore unit lighter and more compact.
Feeding this is a new fuel injection system (new ECU plus bigger throttle body) as well as an all-new engine head. And at the bottom is a new crankshaft leading to an all-new gearbox.
All the ratios are different to ensure all that power is used effectively. KTM have also added the one suggestion we had for the 200 from the off. Sixth gear is really tall and that allows the KTM 390 Duke to settle into a highway groove and munch miles. We believe the 200 Duke will also shortly receive this kind of a gearing change.
If you follow motorcycles with any interest whatsoever then you know the numbers already. The new engine weighs just 36kg, which gives the bike a dry weight of 139kg. As in this whole shebang weighs just 10-odd kg more than the 200 Duke. On the other hand, a 1:12.9 compression ration, bigger displacement etc allow the engine to make 44PS at 9500rpm as well as 35Nm at 7250rpm. Redline is 10,500rpm. I believe the technical term here is “Holy Cow!”
But allow me to tell you that the initial impression isn’t holy cow, it is more like, “Well, fast but not as wild as I expected.”
First, there are now big single vibes at idle. Which are damped well enough by the bar-end dampers. But you will notice them as a rhythmic vibration in the bars. And at 3,000rpm they will disappear leaving you with a smooth, more authoritative sounding engine. When I came back and rode the 200 Duke my first impression was that someone had turned the bass and power on the bike off.
At 4,000rpm, you can already feel the extra urgency of the bigger motor and by 5,000rpm the sound deepens and the engine is properly beginning to pull. The thrust keeps increasing all the way to about 10,000rpm, allowing you 500rpm more headroom before you must shift up. The way the bike arrives at 130-140kmph says that in India, this will be a fearsome thing to ride.
We saw about 155kmph on the deserted mountain roads and official top speed is 160kmph. Sekira points out that this speed arrives in sixth but before redline. The motor (with this gearing) simply cannot cut through the air beyond that speed. In other words, if you are light or exceptionally aerodynamic, there is more speed to come. Indeed, the slim Sekira himself claims to have seen 170kmph on the speedo.
Now to the “not as wild as you expected” bit. The 390 Duke has changed in nature from the frenetic 200. Each gear, for example, lasts a while and you aren’t changing up and down the box in the staccato fashion a la 200. Sixth is a great highway gear – 100kmph is just 5000rpm and 120 is only 6500rpm. And even in sixth, passing Austrian cars going 130-ish on the highway usually needs only more gas and only occasionally a downshift.
And that is what I missed in what is otherwise a deeply impressive motorcycle. I personally loved the frantic nature of the 200 and I am waiting to ride the Indian spec in India to see if I like the grown-up nature of the power delivery of the 390 in our environment or not. That is the only remaining question for me. Because the rest of it is obvious.
That a motorcycle this quick, this light, this responsive, with this kind of alert handling is likely to be priced at Rs 2.2-2.5 lakh is a no brainer for any serious motorcyclist. And Bajaj should confirm the final price and delivery schedule in the first week of June is our estimate.
Visually it does look like the 200, only flashier, but the rest of the package is extremely persuasive. It should also have enough power and capability to keep up with much larger machines on your favourite mountain road and absolutely blitz anything short of a well-ridden sportsbike at the racetrack.
Then again, the RC390 comes out next year…