We Rode This Small, Bizarre Street Bike From Austria

It may be scrawny, but it’s the most exhilarating small motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.
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It may be scrawny, but it’s the most exhilarating small motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.
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The 2015 KTM 390 Duke is as elegant as a leather-tanned, PBR-sipping girl named Claudine wearing chaw-stained daisy dukes, but it has the benefit of being just as fun to fool around with. I’ll tell you why if you don’t ask how I know.

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Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM has deep roots in motocross, but the company makes three of the hottest street bikes on sale in the States: the awesome two-cylinder 1290 Super Duke R, the agro one-cylinder 690 Duke, and this, the little 390 Duke. All are über-aggressive nakeds with exaggerated features, all come on strong with garish color schemes that revolve around KTM’s signature pumpkin orange paint, and all are entertaining and exotic machines that turn every head they pass.

The 390, the newest, smallest Duke to see our shores, costs $5,000 and has a 371-cc single-cylinder engine elbowed into its tight lattice frame. At 9,500 rpm, said single produces 44 horsepower that is sent to a six-speed transmission and goes to the ground through a skinny Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tire wrapped around a bright-orange wheel splattered with black road grime. The 390 Duke looks complex but is exceptionally un-intuitive; its most high-tech system is anti-lock braking, which you can easily defeat.

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Ever hear a bulldog snore? That’s the awful noise coming from the snub-nosed exhaust when you start the Duke, and you know what? It works. It’s somehow fitting for a bike you hop onto like an oiled up warthog, holding on like hell, knowing you’re probably about to piss off a lot of drivers. The KTM 390 Duke may be simple, small, and scrawny, but it’s the most exhilarating small motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.

Juking through traffic, the KTM 390 Duke is a bit twitchy but feels surefooted, and its little engine, grunting like a chubby asthmatic, has on-tap torque that can flick the lightweight street bike forward effortlessly. The KTM engine’s wide powerband comes on low, builds smoothly, and only falls off just before redline, just north of 10,000 rpm. Short gearing means continual shifting, which isn’t such a bad thing since the KTM’s switchgear feels damn good, like it’s been plucked off a far more expensive bike. The hand and foot brakes levers are very communicative, the clutch lever is progressive, and the throttle has the perfect amount of resistance.

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The KTM 390 Duke is a fantastic urban commuter but an even better back-road terror. Its Brembo-developed brakes grip the front and rear rotors tightly as I lean forward over the satin aluminum handlebars and hug the wide, geometric gas tank with my thighs. Holding onto the anvil-shaped tank with my knees, I slide off of the KTM’s seat, which is wrapped in some super slick, low-mew, military-spec vinyl meant to encourage continual side-to-side movement, and smoothly lacing together switchbacks. It’s a savagely exciting ride, and I’m uneasily comfortable tossing the little Duke into curves with complete abandon for the wellbeing of both it and myself.

The 2015 KTM 390 Duke is not only a fantastic, standout machine in the whole of the motorcycle world, but it just might be the best lightweight street bike to date. It’s the right blend of bizarre and capable that is, at first, repellent but soon becomes interesting and absolutely alluring. A lot like Claudine.

Photos by KTM