Little Orange Devil
The small-displacement sportbike category is now sharply defined and that much stronger with the arrival of the KTM RC390 – a performance bike first and streetbike second.
For a dirt bike manufacturer, as many still perceive the “small” Austrian brand, KTM is sure making some bold and interesting street moves—the latest being a cute, miniature sportbike called the KTM RC390. On paper at least, the 2015 Race Competition (RC) 390 is direct competition for the latest crop of small displacement sportbikes. Actually, with Yamaha having announced it too has joined the festivities with a brand new 321cc parallel twin YZF-R3 for 2015, and with Suzuki now offering both naked and faired versions of its GW250, Honda and Kawasaki are definitely no longer alone in what is now a legitimate small bike category.
So, is this new KTM RC390 just an orange CBR300R or Ninja 300? A quick glance at the KTM’s specs would have you believe it’s pretty close to that, but throw a leg over it and immediately differences become obvious.
What surprises first and foremost is how biased the little KTM is toward the sport side of the equation. Normally, these models are street bikes first and sportbikes a distant second. They have decent seats and upright ergonomics and softish suspensions that make them fun and practical and user-friendly for everyday use.
However, the RC390, in typical Supersport fashion—à la YZF-R6, CBR600RR, etc.—is equipped with low clip-ons that place a lot of weight on the rider’s hands. Bring the raspy single to life, hit the road and it quickly becomes clear you’re not sitting on a touring seat. It’s round, hard and simply not made to enjoy on the open road for hours on end but, rather, is formed to let the rider move around freely on a racetrack.
But, the average observer of this recent class of entry-level motorcycles might ask, what do track-riding characteristics have to do with the RC390? As it turns out, everything.
Other manufacturers seemingly believe a 300cc-class motorcycle should prioritize being affordable and easy to ride in everyday environments, but KTM sees things differently. After all, this is a brand that is heavily involved in the Moto3 World championship where its 250cc race bikes often finish high on the podium. It’s also a brand with a slogan that says “Ready to race.” Sure, like the 300cc Honda, Kawasaki or Yamaha, the KTM RC390’s main goal is to bring in new customers, but how it goes about achieving this objective isn’t just by selling affordability and friendly manners, but also by banking heavily on the aura of racing. Simply put, the RC390 is a performance bike first and streetbike second.
Which might not make the RC390 the most appropriate choice for someone looking to acquire a comfortable, multi-tasking ride, but if the potential buyer is a young racing fanatic who dreams of one day tearing up the race track like his Moto3 heros, the RC390 becomes the real deal: it is a machine genuinely built to lap circuits.
Teenage racing fans aren’t the only ones who might find the RC’s nature attractive: to an experienced motorcyclist looking for a cheap, fun track day tool, the RC390 is essentially unique. Without stretching things too much, it can be seen as a modern day equivalent of exotic 400s such as the Honda RCs, Yamaha FZRs or Kawasaki ZXRs of the 1990s.
In all fairness, the 390 does produce less horsepower than these 60-hp bikes and is powered by a single instead of a four but as for the rest, it really is built that seriously: from its steel treillis frame to solid suspension components, aggressively styled full-fairing, decently-sized 17-inch wheels and tires, and full-digital instrumentation, the RC390 gives a lot of credibility to its track-ready sales pitch. Although KTM had not released the 390’s price at press time, it’s rumoured to be around the $6,000 mark, with standard ABS.
To demonstrate the 390’s capabilities, KTM flew the world press to Italy and after a morning on the streets around the Maranello area, everyone was let loose on the tight and fun layout of the Autodromo di Modena for an afternoon of Moto3 impersonation.
Just as the low clip-ons and hard seat are immediately noticed on the street, on the track, the KTM RC390 feels at home right away. Every maneuver from trail-braking hard during corner entries to stability along fast bends to precision while aiming for a specific part of a turn is accomplished just as it would be on a bigger displacement, track-focused model. One unusual aspect of the 390 in the track environment is an almost total absence of resistance when entering corners or changing directions—to the point where it’s something the rider has to adjust to.
In terms of comparative performance to what the rest of the class offers, the KTM’s 44 hp are pleasantly adequate. On the street, lower and mid rpms are perfectly usable, making high revs unnecessary in normal riding, while on the track, mid range is actually usable, which means the highest revs aren’t the only appropriate ones, as is often the case with very small engines. The Austrian single has more cubic centimetres and it feels like it.
There is, however, a limit to the KTM RC390 prowess on the track. First is somewhat limited ground clearance. Within just a few laps, I had the pegs digging the tarmac hard enough to encourage me to change my riding position and hang out more in order to reduce lean angle. I didn’t realize this while riding, but I also dragged both lower edges of the bottom fairing—all during a couple of 20-minute sessions. Anyone wanting to seriously go fast on a 390 will have to first improve cornering clearance, then switch the stock tires for some stickier stuff: the Metzeler Sportec M5s were decent in every other circumstance than full out Moto3 mode, but often lost grip on the track. This being said, it definitely was a hoot chasing fellow motorcycle writers down around the Autodromo, and there is no doubt the RC390 can either be a very competent track initiation tool or, with minimal modification (see KTM’s Powerparts catalogue), become a seriously fun little screamin’ single. Which, again, is something unique in today’s market.
As for regular motorcyclists, those not blinded or obsessed by the racing aura of the RC390, it wouldn’t take much to suit their needs. Higher hand grips and a real seat would go a long way in that regard. Already powered by a surprisingly fun and satisfying single, offering decent suspension action in real-life conditions, and blessed with super light steering, the 390 is just a few easy tweaks away from being as amusing and usable on the street as it is competent on the track.
-Bertrand Gahel, Issue #307 December 2014