KTM RC390 Road Test Review

The KTM RC390 was made with one thing in mind – to be the best possible learner restricted sportsbike in the world. After decades of Kawasaki having the playground to themselves with the baby Ninja, the last few years have really hotted up in beginner sportsbike category and after riding the KTM RC390, we think they may very well have gone to the top of the class.

To understand why KTM developed the RC390 with the specifications it has, we need to go to Europe, home of the A2 license. Europe is obviously KTM’s biggest market and in the European Union, newly licensed riders are restricted to what bikes they can ride for two full years. Bikes can be no bigger than 395cc in capacity and have a power to weight ratio no higher than 0.26hp per kilogram. KTM were a bit crafty here – they interpreted the rules to mean a power to wet weight ratio, not dry weight like most other manufacturers have done. That means that without fluids, the RC390 pumps out 0.29bhp/kg.

In real world terms, it translates to a much quicker bike than you may have initially expected and more importantly, you’ll find this is a beginner bike you can actually grow into more than say the Honda CBR300R which starts to feel sluggish to new riders after just a few months of ownership.

At the heart of the KTM RC390 is a 373cc single cylinder power plant as used in the Duke 390. Same power, same gear ratios, same air box and same exhaust as it’s naked brother. Like the Duke, it pumps out a modest 32Kw (43 hp) with redline at around 10,000rpm. Despite improvements in engine layout and configuration over time (and the inclusion of a balance shaft), you definitely know it’s a thumper. You really need to get the revs above 6,000 rpm before the bike begins to hustle and at that speed you do start to feel the vibrations transferred through the bars to your hands. It’s not terrible, but it will fatigue you over long distances.

You definitely get a nice surge in power as the motor spins up, much more than a bike of this size should have any right to do. Acceleration wise it’s no superbike, hitting the metric ton (62mph) in around 5 seconds. But it blasts off the line quickly, the punchy thumper motivating the lightweight bike with ease. Overtaking is generally a breeze two, just kick back a couple of gears and you’re away.

The gearbox is silky smooth, almost to a fault. Many times I wasn’t even sure that I’d properly shifted because there’s so little feedback from gear selector. Thankfully KTM has included a gear position indicator on the dash to let you know where the cogs are sitting. In another nice addition, a red shift light sits at the top of the dash, coming on at 9,500 rpm (but programmable to whatever you like).

The display is actually one of my main gripes with the RC 390. While many might say it’s upmarket for KTM to have included an all-digital dash for an entry level bike, in my opinion it not only looks cheap and tacky, it fails in its primary job – to quickly give a rider the information he or she needs. The tacho takes the form of a horizontal band across the top of the dash and it’s tiny. There’s almost no way you can quickly glance down at it and get an accurate idea of revs (especially in direct sunlight) – you’ll instead need to play it by ear and feel as you get used to the bike.

And while the display provides you with a good deal of information such as ambient temperature and fuel remaining, the buttons you need to press to change the display require a lot of force to register inputs – I ended up pulling over to the side of the road to change the display. Hardly user friendly.

Despite KTM aiming this machine at those who want as quick a bike as their license will allow them, it’s still a comfortable motorcycle to sit on. Upon first glance, I thought I’d be extremely uncomfortable on the RC390 with my 6’3” frame, but it’s surprisingly roomy. The sitting position is aggressive without being painful. The foot pegs could probably do with being slightly higher to avoid scraping them with spirited riding, but overall it’s a good compromise between comfort and outright performance.

The rider’s seat is quite high for a bike of this size at 820mm – a surprising 35mm higher than the Kawasaki Ninja 300. But shorter riders don’t need to fear as it’s fairly narrow, meaning only the most vertically challenged will struggle to touch their feet on the ground. The rider’s pew isn’t the most comfortable in the world, but at this price and class it’s to be expected. Behind the rider is something very interesting, however. What looks like to be a rear seat cowl is actually the pillion seat. The entire unit is made from a mix of foams and plastics with the grab handles underneath, hidden from view. Score one for KTM for “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?”

Apart from the obvious looks and riding position, the KTM also differs from the Duke 390 in suspension geometry. Upfront, suspension travel is 125mm (150mm on the Duke) while rear suspension remains at 150mm. The rear shock mounts directly to the frame, something KTM has brought over from its experience in offroad bikes. The steering head angle is reduced by 1.5 degrees and the wheelbase is shortened slightly too, down from 1,367mm to 1,340mm. That translates into a slightly sharper package than the Duke, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it better – just different.

As you’d expect from a bike at this price point, suspension adjustments are limited to rear preload (10 settings) and nothing else, so if you’re on the heavy side you may find the bike not exactly comfortable on rough surfaces. The front end of the bike is confidence inspiring though and is happy with quick directional changes. Just don’t come in expecting to get Yamaha R1 quality ride and handling from this bike – it’s made to a price but it does well with what it has.

Despite only wearing a single 300mm disc up front, the brakes are fantastic. Steel braided brake lines connect to a four-piston radial caliper unit from ByBre, which is actually engineered by Brembo but manufactured in India (where the RC390 is bolted together). Initial feel isn’t great but once you really pull the lever in, you’ll feel them bite and bite hard. They should be brilliant for track days. Not so brilliant is the lever. I realize cost is always a factor at this end of the market but considering how good the brakes are it’s a shame that KTM couldn’t have included adjustable levers. I wasn’t able use two fingered braking because of this – you’ll want to replace the stock levers as soon as possible. ABS is standard with the KTM RC390 but can be switched off.

Visually, not only do I think the RC390 is the best looking of the beginner bikes, I think it ranks up there with the best looking sportsbike, full stop. The under slung exhaust that is incorporated into the fairing and belly pan looks brilliant and as mentioned before the rear pillion seat that looks like a cowl is also very attractive. The front of the bike is unique with its twin bulbs up front. KTM’s signature orange frame also stands out as do the orange wheels.

KTM have a winner on their hands with the RC390 and this could well be the bike that knocks the Ninja 300 off of its throne. It’s stylish, it’s fun and despite its engine size, it has decent pace. Sure, it’s more expensive than the Ninja 300 and CRB300R, but if you live anywhere with licensing restrictions and are set on buying a new bike then I think it would be money well spent.

US: $5,499
UK: £4,999
Australia: $8,295
Canada: N/A


Engine Type373.2 cc single
Bore And Stroke89 mm × 60 mm
InductionBosch EFI (throttle body 46 mm)
Compression Ratio1:12.5
Valve TrainDOHC, 4 Valves
Horsepower44 hp @ 9,500 rpm
Torque25.81 lb ft @ 7,250 rpm
Drive Train
Chassis / Suspension / Brakes
Front SuspensionWP-USD Ø 43 mm
Rear SuspensionWP-Monoshock
Front BrakeSingle 300 mm
Rear BrakeSingle 230 mm
Front Tire110/70Z R17
Rear Tire150/60ZR17
Rake23.5 degrees
Trail98mm (3.9 inches)
Wheelbase53 inches
Seat Height32 inches
Wet Weight340 lb
Fuel Capacity3.4 gallons


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