2017 KTM 390 Duke first ride review

The Devil is in the details, or so they say. If that’s the case, then KTM must have gone through the pits of hell to redesign the 390 Duke.

Changes to the brakes, suspension, dash, ergonomics, frame, engine, seat, controls, styling, lighting, and handling need to be addressed in order to discuss why this bike is so different.

The outgoing 390 Duke was introduced internationally in 2013 but we didn’t see it hit American shores until 2015. I rode that original bike for nearly three weeks straight upon its release, which resulted in a full ride review for Common Tread. KTM has pursued perfection with this new machine by sanding down and polishing all of the rough edges of that original motorcycle. If I had to sum up the new bike in one word it would be “refined.” KTM tackled the update of this baby Beast by addressing all of the small problems plaguing the old bike, one by one, until they ended up with the new 2017 KTM 390 Duke.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

In order to give the new bike a spin, I headed to Turin, Italy for the international press launch. While our time with the new bike was limited, we got a chance to try it out in a variety of environments, including riding laps on the historic rooftop testing track of the old Fiat factory, battling city traffic on our way to lunch, and then heading out for a quick romp through the foothills of the snowcapped Alps. KTM packed a decent ride into our very truncated timeline.

For the purpose of this first ride review, I am going to break down the detailed changes KTM made to this bike over the previous 390 Duke and what they mean for the new machine. 

Updated styling

The first thing you’ll notice about the new bike is the updated style. Keep in mind that while this is seen as a beginner bike here in the United States, in other countries this is a motorcycle that riders work up to. KTM has both a 125 and 250 Duke for riders outside the United States to start with. So KTM had to create a bike that looked more like its brawny and muscular older brother, the 1290 Super Duke R, to project a premium appearance over the smaller displacement models for foreign riders while setting the 390 Duke apart from any other “entry-level” machines here in the United States.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

The new lines start with a six-LED headlight, a revised frame and an all-new bolt-on sub-frame. Its exposed trellis design, painted in contrasting orange and white, shortens the wheelbase by 10 mm and the trail by 5 mm while the steering head angle remains the same. It also ushers in a change in rider ergonomics.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

I now find myself sitting over an inch taller in the saddle, with a seat height of 32.7 inches compared to 31.5 inches of the older machine. The seat itself has also been redesigned to be a bit wider at the back and narrower at the front. It’s night and day more comfortable than the previous version, which felt like sitting on a 2x8.

Coupled with foot pegs and controls that are now higher and more rear set, the new Duke’s seating position is much more aggressive. The reshaped gas tank fit my knees much better than the old bike and at six feet, three inches tall, I felt much more comfortable on this bike than the previous version. With that being said, I talked to other taller riders on this launch who felt the new foot pegs were too aggressive and they felt cramped from the waist down. My personal concern would be for shorter riders, especially if they’re just starting out, who will now have an even longer reach to find sure footing.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review Spurgeon Dunbar

The new gas tank is made from steel and holds an extra 2.4 liters (just over half a gallon) of fuel for an extended ride range, which can be monitored using the new dash system.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

The TFT dash is a huge upgrade over the old version found on the original 390 Duke, which I found to be cluttered and hard to read. The new dash offers riders a litany of information that is clear and easy to read without looking cluttered. Riders can program the dash to highlight the information they deem important and hide the readouts they don’t wish to see. They can also link their phones and Bluetooth communicators to control phone calls and music through the control panel in the dash. Whereas the ABS kill switch was hidden on the previous dash, riders now have a sophisticated drop-down screen built into the display that allows them to choose between three different levels of ABS interference.

Improved brakes

While the new 390 Duke still utilizes the same ByBre calipers manufactured by Brembo, they now house sintered pads clamping down on a larger 320 mm rotor at the front wheel. Combined with a revised master cylinder, braking is vastly improved over the previous version, with more bite and less fade.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

Some of the improved feel comes from the updated levers on this motorcycle. If you remember our original 390 review, I recommended upgrading the stock levers to something that offered better feel and some level of adjustment. With this new bike, KTM has done it for you and these new levers are vastly improved over the previous iteration.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

As I mentioned earlier, the Bosch ABS system can now be easily configured three different ways via a drop-down menu on the TFT dash. Riders can choose among “Road,” with ABS fully engaged, “Off,” which completely disables ABS, or “Super Moto,” which disables ABS at the rear wheel while allowing it to remain engaged at the front wheel. This allows new riders to opt for the extra level of insurance that ABS provides while more advanced riders can disable this safeguard in order to treat the 390 Duke as a mini-hooligan machine.

Revised suspension

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review The suspenders on the original Duke were aggressively sporty to the point of being harsh. Whether on rough roads in less developed countries or the bombed-out, pothole-laden streets of Philly, this equaled a rough ride. Externally, the suspension looks nearly identical to the previous version, but internally everything is new.

The 43 mm WP fork no longer features a “big piston” design, opting instead for an open cartridge design with a pair of progressively wound springs. While an open cartridge design is less “tunable” than a closed cartridge set up, it works better for a wider audience. It’s also lighter and requires less maintenance.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

The rear shock is still adjustable for preload but internally the oil and gas are now separate. Officials at KTM claim this is to address concerns surrounding overheating and will lead to a more consistent performance. I have my doubts. On the previous bike, the shock sat close to the catalytic converter, while the new shock is positioned directly next to the exhaust header leading into the catalytic converter. I am left wondering if the position of the exhaust will heat the shock oil and affect suspension performance.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review Spurgeon Dunbar

My initial thoughts here are that damping is vastly improved and the new bike does a better job of splitting the difference between comfort and performance. In the city, the new 390 Duke felt much more refined as it soaked up bumps, while on the tight mountain roads it remained poised, even with a 205-pound rider at the helm. I would have enjoyed an opportunity to play around with the rear preload a bit as the rear shock felt a bit under-sprung for heavier riders, but for an entry-level machine, KTM provided riders with a much more thought-out suspension than that of the old 390.

Retuned engine

In order to meet Euro 4 emissions standards, changes were made to help the new bike breathe cleaner; hence the redesigned exhaust and catalytic converter. In addition to the exhaust, the 390 Duke got a larger airbox, a retuned fuel map, and a throttle-by-wire system.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

Normally, when we talk about emissions regulations the result is strangled performance, but here we saw the opposite effect. While peak horsepower remains the same at just under 44 ponies at 9,000 rpm, peak torque has increased from 25 foot-pounds to 27, and it now comes on about 250 rpm sooner, at 7,000 rpm. The result is more of a mid-range “pop” that pulls strong all the way to the rev-limiter. I found myself bouncing off of the rev ceiling more often than not because the little 373 cc engine gives no indication that it’s done pulling as the tachometer starts flashing red on the TFT dash, just north of 10,000 rpm.

The real story is how refined the throttle is compared to the old bike. One of my biggest problems with the old 390 was choppy throttle response. It had a very on/off abruptness when starting from a stop and the fueling in general was spotty. We addressed possible fixes on that original machine, but with this bike, KTM did all the work for you.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

The new exhaust, combined with the new steel gas tank and mounting bracket for the LED headlight, are the major factors in the 22-pound increase in weight. The new bike weighs in with a dry weight of 328 pounds compared to the previous 390 Duke’s 306 pounds. When you factor in fluids, I am guessing you’ll see a curb weight of somewhere around 365 pounds, when it’s all said and done. Even with the additional weight, this is still a very light machine and the improvements to the bike’s brakes and suspension hide the increased load to the point where it’s almost unnoticeable.

Riding the new 390 Duke

Thumbing the one-hit starter, the new bike easily cranked to life in front of the original Fiat auto factory in Turin, Italy. The building that was once home to one of Europe’s most iconic automotive brands now houses a hotel, offices, and a shopping mall. But the historic rooftop track remains intact.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review Spurgeon Dunbar

We rode up the spiraled ramp leading to the asphalt paved straightaway on the eastern side of the roof. From there we got to try our hand riding the 390 Duke on the famous banked turn done in brick, which was surprisingly grippy, but also bumpy. It reminded me of some of the old cobblestone streets here in Philadelphia and it provided us our first opportunity to see how the revised suspension handled real-world street surfaces.

Through the city, the KTM was light and nimble and the revised fueling made stop-and-go driving a breeze. My biggest complaint was with the radiator fan, which I felt was running continuously. Its droning buzz was loud enough to mask the engine and exhaust note when stopped at traffic lights.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

Out of the city and climbing through the foothills of the Alps, the engine seemed to pull stronger in the middle of the rev range than I remember on the old 390. It was more spirited and fun. The suspension, which proved more refined in town, remained competent and sporty on the twisted alpine roads. For an entry-level machine, it was quite impressive in the way it performed, especially compared to the harshness of the previous bike.

The slipper clutch, introduced in 2015, remains in this new bike and it made for seamless downshifts. I was still able to get the rear wheel to slide a bit during aggressive downshifts but it is a welcomed feature on such a small machine.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

The redesigned ergonomics worked better for me than the previous version.  Like I mentioned earlier, I like riding smaller bikes and this new 390 Duke was much more inviting than the previous version. My knees fit the recesses of the tank perfectly and the taller seat height had me sitting with a bit more weight carried on the handlebars. Even though they received some complaints from other taller riders, I liked the new position of the foot pegs.

Coming back into town, everyone was getting more comfortable with the bikes, riding wheelies and slamming out stoppies in an effort to test the performance of that new front brake setup. By the time we made it back to the hotel, it was hard to find a rider who wasn’t smiling. That's due in no small part to the new seat, which didn’t leave us in tears after an all-day ride.

Final thoughts

KTM has raised the MSRP of this bike $300 in the United States, from $4,999 to $5,299. But stop and think for a second about what you’re getting for that extra coin. Better brakes, suspension, fueling, and power delivery, a TFT dash that is normally reserved for high-dollar machines, an LED headlight, adjustable levers, more torque, and a facelift to bring it more in line with its beastly older brother, the Super Duke R.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review

In my opinion, this more than justifies the $300 price bump. If you spent $300 modifying the old 390 Duke, you wouldn't get much further than a new set of levers.

That’s not to say I don’t have my reservations about this new bike. In addition to my concerns surrounding the new seat height and rear shock placement, I am interested to see if the radiator fan problems prevalent on the older 390s have been addressed on this bike. There were many reports of failed radiator fans on the previous model. It seems like that fan is running continually now. It’s almost as if the engineers have tried to overcompensate by having the fan kick on even earlier in the temperature range, but I’m unclear as to how that would prevent potential fan failure.

KTM 390 Duke First Ride Review Spurgeon Dunbar

All things considered, I think KTM knocked it out of the park with the new 390 Duke. They literally addressed all of the rough edges found on the previous bike and gave us a bike that is simultaneously better for beginner riders and more fun for experienced ones.

When I wrapped on the review of the original bike, I was ready to be done with it and move on to something else. When this ride came to an end, I found myself wishing I had more time with it. Whether you’re looking for aggressively styled entry-level motorcycle, a city commuter, or a fun, lightweight corner carver, this new 390 Duke ups the ante for what you can expect from a sub-400 cc machine.

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