This is the kind of review I enjoy.
I’ve lived with the bike for almost 3 years, done more than 50,000 kms on it. I know it, I know its after sale service and support, I know how it feels on every different kind of surface, I know what it would do before it does.
It’s of course stupid to expect every review to be of this kind, who would want to wait 3 years before buying a bike? However, I do believe that you can “KNOW” a bike only once you’ve lived with it for a few months, gone through at least 2 service intervals. After-sales support and service are a major component of any motorcycle ownership experience.
It’s easy to buy a bike, not easy to live with one.
Here’s my review of the KTM Duke 390. There is far too much I can say about this bike, but I’ll try and structure my thoughts, simplify it all. First up is a short video to give you a slight idea of all the insanity I’ve been through on this thing.
KTM Duke 390 review: Positives
Even after like 4 years since the little Orange machine was launched, nothing else comes close to the price point. I don’t know how KTM-Bajaj are doing it, selling such a light-weight bike that comes with ABS, Metz tires, EFI, the works, for so cheap.
You take any bike in the 1.5-4 lac range, and the first comparison that comes to mind is against the Duke 390. No other bike has created more confusions in the minds of such a large number of buyers as this one has, the fact that it trumps most others in terms of power and equipment doesn’t help either.
In some ways, it’s a bad thing that it’s priced so cheap. Even though I’m grateful to KTM for the personal favor they did to me, I would never have been able to afford anything costlier, the price tag also means that the bike is accessible to an entire army of wannabes, too many cunt Squids whose cunt parents are stupid enough to buy their sons 2-lacs worth of suicide. They go and smash into a wall somewhere, die because of no protective gear, and give a bad name to all bikers in general, KTM owners specifically.
Until we have some sort of a tiered license system, where you simply can’t ride a bigger bike before you’ve ridden the smaller ones for years, this will keep on happening.
2. Cost of Ownership
Not only is the 390 cheap to buy, it’s hilariously cheap to maintain. The spares cost of the Duke is ridiculous, you can change all the damn parts, and build a brand new machine in the same amount of money as it takes to service a superbike.
I’m generally a careful guy when it comes to getting my bike fixed. I never leave it at the service center, always stay around and keep an eye on what’s going on. With my old Pulsar, I always asked the mechanic to check with me first before putting anything new, with the Duke, you don’t have to give a single fuck.
Busted chain set? 2000 bucks. Leaking fork seals? 1000 bucks. Dropped the bike and destroyed the leg guards? 250 bucks. Every time I had a major trouble with the bike and went to got it repaired, I always laughed at the final bill. A friend of mine once bought a set of every possible spare he could need on a long ride, pads, levers, cables, filters, and it cost him less than a 1000 bucks for the whole shazam.
Any Hero, any Honda, any Kawasaki, any Yamaha bike is costlier to maintain than the Duke. The 5000 km service interval helps as well, not to mention the fact that the newer 390s come with a service interval of 7500 kms. I’ve pushed my bike beyond 7500 on many occasions without an oil change, no harm done, it’s just an extremely care-free thing to own.
A few months ago I’d gone home. My old Pulsar 150 was there, and I took it for s spin through some highways and a lot of off-road. When I came back to my 390, I nearly killed myself on the first ride.
One of the ways KTM keeps the cost of the bike low is by sharing parts with cheaper Bajaj bikes. The Pulsar 150 and the Duke 390 share the exact same throttle and clutch grips and switchgear, so much so that I forgot which bike I was on. I twisted the 390s throttle like I had become used to for the Pulsar, and found myself accelerating like a bullet towards a giant white wall.
The way this thing catches speed is astounding, nothing much happens at the lower end, just a bit of shudder and moaning, and then the mid range punch comes. When I first test rode the 390, my ass actually shifted backwards as I throttled away. Since then I’ve become more aware of how to put that power down, but it’s still a hell lot of fun just to punch through all the 6 gears and find yourself nudging 150 kmph.
I’ve done 176 on it, with luggage, but I had help from a strong tailwind, a bit of downhill road, and bean farts. It feels the most comfortable at something around 130, although you can easily sit at 140-150 all day without any trouble. The faster you go, the cooler the engine stays, the happier the bike feels.
The chassis on this bike is a thing of beauty, you get so much feedback, both from the bars and your ass, that you know exactly how much more you can push before something will go wrong.
On top of that, the ultra-light weight makes it feel like a toy bike on steroids, flipping it from side to side is entirely effortless. The same zombie-squirrel like reactions work while accelerating and braking too, you need to be fit and on your A-game if you want to be able to use the bike’s full potential.
The combination of hard suspension, trellis frame, sticky tires and a semi-sporting riding position means that it’s a hoot to ride on the track. The sheer number of Duke and RC390s you’ll find on any track day anywhere just helps prove my point.
The thing I like most about the Duke is its character, the personality. I am not romantic enough to believe that bikes are alive, I’ve never named any bike I’ve owned, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the human-like qualities that some machines have.
To me the 390 feels like one of those close friends who always gets you into shitloads of trouble. The guy who introduces you to drugs, the guy who makes you breakup with the girl of your dreams, the guy who helps you break a bone or two. It’s mischievous, young, prone to making mistakes, and that’s exactly what I want my motorcycle to be.
Riding a motorcycle is a very personal experience. Although there are billions out there who commute on 2-wheels on a daily basis, for me bikes have been the easiest way to take some risks, do an adventure, explore the world. You can get used to a bike, you can adapt your style to suit the bike’s needs, but that’s not always a happy marriage.
My bike fits my character, and it helps me in the greater purpose of following my heart. There’s nothing more I could ask for.
Unlike all other manufacturers, who launch a bike and then sit on it for decades, bringing out “new” versions that have nothing different except some paint and stickers, KTM has kept updating their bikes with surprising regularity.
The first batch of bikes had major issues, engine troubles, fragile rims. In the second batch, some of these issues were resolved. In the third batch, to which my bike belongs, the rims were fine, the engine didn’t leak too much, and it felt far more like a finished project than a work-in-progress. However, the bike still had a lot of problems, hard clutch, overheating, and stalling being a few of them.
KTM then brought out an upgrade with a hydraulic slipper clutch, changed the radiator design, and did some other bunch of things to bring out a decidedly improved product. The argument can be made that they should’ve fixed all these problems before the bike was even launched, but that’s not practical. All new bikes have problems, the 390 had a bit more than usual.
Even now there are numerous spy shots of better looking 390, if it’ll be sold in India or not remains to be seen. The point here is that KTM gives a shit about its customers, and that’s not something that can be said about any other manufacturer out there.
KTM Duke 390 review: Negatives
1. Fuel tank
It’s a practical joke. Some jackass engineer thought it would be funny to put in a tank that looks huge from the outside, but holds just a piss worth of fuel on the inside.
My place is roughly 40 kilometers away from the track that I regularly go to. I generally start on a full tank from my house, and by the time I reach the track, the fuel gauge says it’s close to half gone. I can’t risk riding on an empty tank, the instrument console is completely inaccurate, and I don’t want the fuel pump to blow up running dry. So I fill up just before I get to the track, which means that I end up riding with unnecessary load between my legs.
Even 15 liters would have been respectable, I don’t expect you to do what Mahindra have done with the Mojo, but 10 liters is just fucking ridiculous. You rarely get a mileage of over 30 kmpl, and thanks to that vague “Low Fuel Level” warning, you are always scared of running out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve done it a few times, the only reason I didn’t get stuck was because I had expected this to happen, and always carried spare fuel.
It’s just stressful to ride with such a small tank, especially while touring. You are constantly worried about petrol, and have to plan too far ahead, and carry too much extra fuel to feel safe mentally. I really hope the 2017 version has something bigger, otherwise it’s going to be another massive disappointment.
2. Lack of Refinement
If you’re used to Japanese beauties, you’ll probably not even be able to ride this Indian twat. The throttle response feels more like you are torturing someone, you don’t know if something is happening until the dude screams in pain. The gearbox is vague, I’ve hit far too many false neutrals, both while upshifting and down.
My bike has a peculiar problem of its own that only plagues a small number of 390s.
Imagine that I’m riding in the city, and I see a speed bump up ahead. What you’d normally do is clutch in, downshift, clutch out and then go. What happens is that the moment you clutch in, the revs drop down too quickly, and the damn thing stalls. So while there are people honking away behind you, you gotta bring the thing into neutral, then be careful not to flood the engine with too much starter or throttle, get it started and get going. There have been instances of people’s engine stalling out in corners, and their anger with the company is completely understandable.
To handle this flaw, I’ve had to completely change my riding style. Now I blip every time I downshift, that’s the only way to keep the engine going. The problem is that this habit is so ingrained in me that I do it on every other bike that I ride, even something like the Navi that doesn’t even have any fucking gears.
When you ride someone’s Kawasaki, and then you ride your own, you’ll probably not be able to tell them apart by much. Their quality controls are far stricter, all their machines feel and ride more or less the same. On the other hand, all KTMs are different, all of them make different weird noises, all of them have different exhaust notes, all of them have different throttle response. I’ve seen 390s that smoke in the morning, that sound far smoother than my bike, that don’t make the weird irritating high-pitched noise that mine does at idle. This leads to a lot of people taking their bikes to the service centers to get these phantom issues fixed, and then coming back with 3 more new problems.
3. Lack of Comfort
No wind protection, hard seat, hard clutch, hot engine, there wasn’t even a single thought wasted on comfort as far as designing this bike goes. The rear seat can actually be used as a torture device, make any ISIS member sit on it for a few hundred kilometers, and they’ll tell you secrets they themselves didn’t know they knew.
I am all for a bike with purpose, the 390 is supposed to be a hardcore bike, KTM take “Ready To Race” a bit too seriously I guess, but you didn’t have to go and purposefully make things worse. If you really didn’t want anybody to sit on the rear seat, why not just axe it away, rather than give people false hope that end up with their girlfriends jumping off their bikes at high-speed?
The throttle response did not need to be this manic, so jerky. There are many after-market ECU remaps available that make the bike far smoother. If a tiny company can do it, KTM definitely can.
The suspension is another example, it didn’t have to be rock solid. Yes it’s great fun on the track, but you end up spending far more time riding to and from the track, where it’s quite a pain in the ass.
Overall, the hardcore-ness of the 390 could be dialed down a slight bit. Nothing too major, softer seats, slightly softer suspension setup, smoother throttle should do the trick very well.
4. Bad Brakes
The brakes on the Duke 390 are just plain shit, and they are the bad kind of shit, which means that not all brakes on all 390s are shit. Some are shit, others are extra shit.
It also keeps changing from time to time. My brakes had been bad till quite recently, but the last time I got the bike serviced, I also got the pads changed, and the front brake has become completely useless since then. I almost crashed into my trainer on the track one day just because I couldn’t stop in time.
On some bikes, the brakes start out fine, but as you use them, the action keeps shifting farther and farther towards the throttle, until your lever almost needs to touch the grip before anything happens. At that point you need to bleed them out, which makes them better, and then the cycle repeats.
The only reason 390s brakes aren’t completely useless is the ABS, you can just grab a handful without worrying about folding the front. There are people who’ve changed the brake pads, lines, and even the master cylinders to improve the braking, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for KTM to give us better stopping power.
5. Erratic Service Experience
Not all KTM Service Centers are born equal. Some have bad mechanics, others are always out of stock, and a few have both.
I’ve been to KTM service centers all over the country, and their level of quality is more or less the same as is with the bike. Some are awesome, have stuff in stock, have trustworthy mechanics, like the KTM Seawoods in Navi Mumbai, some are completely useless, don’t even keep clutch cables in stock, like KTM Begumpet in Hyderabad.
I once got some bad fuel while riding from Mumbai to Goa, the bike was sputtering and coughing like a nanny, and I couldn’t go past 116 kmph. Found on Google Maps that there was a KTM service center in Kolhapur. I went in there, and it was like a deserted shed, people were just sleeping around. They first waited for the engine to cool down, then checked the oil level, took a test ride and said it’s all good, nothing to worry about. I ended up riding in the dark, losing my way, and made it to Goa after midnight because of the hours wasted in that shop.
I’d even picked up the KTM Orange Assist thingy, which claims to help you out with a tow-truck if you ever face any issues. I bent both my rims roughly 25 kms from Kota, which was well within the stipulated 100 km radius of a service center, and they still weren’t able to do jack shit. They first claimed no flatbed was available, then said they’ll send a normal truck without any ropes, and then said even that’ll only be able to take your bike into the service center past 10 PM. I ended up patching the blown tire with a piece of tube, put in a tube between the tire and the rim, and rode on.
The good thing is that there’s a giant list of KTM service centers throughout the country, so if you don’t like one of them, you can always go to the next one. Having said that, differences between levels of after-sales service shouldn’t be so vast, KTM can’t afford to let crappy mechanics ruin their brand image.
6. Low Quality Parts
The chain set barely lasts 10,000 kms, the pads even lesser, and blowing fuses is a very common occurrence. Even if you’re involved in a tiny little fall, one of your rear brake lever or the gear lever will snap in half, depending on which side your bike landed on.
Yes, their cost is just too cheap, so you can’t complain much, but seriously, some of the things are just downright absurd. A vast majority of 390s suffer from the speedometer zoning out for no good reason, one moment it shows 140 kmph, the next moment it’s 0. I’ve tried so many different things, people have even changed consoles, but nothing has worked till now, at least not for me.
Burst fork seals is far too common, the alternator coil goes kaput regularly, and there have been instances of water seeping into the fuel tank in rains, thanks to the filler cap design that’s borrowed from the Pulsars.
I doubt KTM can do anything about this, the entire reason the bike is so cheap to buy and live with is because the parts aren’t precision made, and their QC level is laughable to put it mildly. Having said that, this is something any potential customer must be aware of, finding out later that you’ve bought a giant mess of parts slowly falling to pieces makes people feel cheated.
KTM Duke 390 review: Verdict
A motorcycle is a nothing more than a tool, something that helps you do things that you want to do, in the easiest possible way. The motorcycle can make your life interesting, or boring, based on how capable it is in keeping up with your mind. By itself, a bike is nothing more than junk, a collection of parts that fit together, and don’t do much else on their own.
With the right set of hands, the right set of intentions, and the right set of wheels, riding can be a transcendent experience. Even though they are only meant to make your journey easier and faster, they can actually make the journey far more interesting than the destination.
I am acutely aware of everything that’s wrong with the 390, and yet I’ve owned one, happily, since the last 3 years. I am bored of it in some ways, I’ve slowly caught up to the bike’s capabilities with my own, but I don’t have any other option. No other bike in the market can give me what this thing has, not at this price.
But the biggest reason I’ve stuck with my Duke, even with all the troubles and issues, is the peace of mind that owning one brings to you. Right now, the bike is parked downstairs. Its chain set is gone, it badly needs an oil change, and I may even have to replace the clutch side engine casing, and yet I don’t care.
You are never worried about your 390, it doesn’t matter if you drop it, if doesn’t matter if you crash badly, everything can be fixed at an extremely reasonable price. When I’m on the track, I can focus on myself, rather than worrying about how much it’ll cost me if I fold the front. When I’m on the highway, I can just think about nothing, rather than being angry about the bill coming up after the next service. It’s not a perfect bike in any sense of the word, but it still manages to be something better.
It is the perfect girlfriend, extremely low maintenance, extremely high fun, and always happy to try the kinky stuff.
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