Common Tread

What happened when I downsized by 600 cc

Dec 14, 2015

Big motors, big rigs. Breast implants, penis enlargement. We Americans like our stuff large. We like bigger.

It just seems... normal. Things in nature grow, so our hobbies should grow in kind. You start small, you move up. But what if there’s another way? Not better, not worse — just different. Small can be big, too.

Or at least this is what I’ve convinced myself after trading in a big KTM 990 SMT for a wee 390 Duke.

It was partly due to cost, partly due to boredom, and partly due to... I don’t know, I just wanted to do it. At a measly $5,000, KTM’s new 390 Duke was a steal. My bike loan was cut in half, but so was my ego. Right? I can’t be a man with a small bike, can I? Or did I just become spontaneously allergic to horsepower? Maybe it was a bit of both.

KTM 390 Duke
In this environment, there's a lot to be said for a nimble naked bike. RevZilla photo.

So far, my switch has been great. The adage “It’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow” rings in my ears as I wring the neck of my 390 Duke down residential streets. I think most riders, if they were honest with themselves, would have more fun riding like this. On a normal commute to work, I can ride balls-to-the-wall, while still remaining relatively legal. Compare that to my week riding a Yamaha YZF-R6 to work, which is like taking your driver's license test in a McLaren F1. You can do it, sure. But is it really the best tool for the job?

And I think that’s what it comes down to. Having the right tool for the job makes me infinitely more happy. You can commute on an R6, and you can tour on a scooter — but when it comes to commuting, a small, nimble, lightweight naked bike is just heaven. Of course I may be singing a different tune when I try to tour on my 390, sure, but that’s for another time.

I’ll admit it, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. A downsize in engine size generally means a downsize in quality, too. The 390 Duke is made in India by Bajaj, whereas my 990 (and the other larger-displacement KTMs) are still made in Austria. Standing on its own two wheels, or compared to other similarly priced bikes, the Duke looks great. But coming from a proper wallet-emptying Euro bike, my 390 is a heap of bent plastic.

I recently installed an R&G Tail Tidy and the job went terribly. The seams didn’t line up, the bolt holes weren’t spaced exactly right, it was just a mess. I don’t blame R&G. They make great stuff. But the bike just isn’t designed with very tight tolerances in mind.

And you know what? That’s okay. Churning out cheap bikes on an assembly line has some benefits for huge swaths of the world, but it has some problems, too. Put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig. The 390 is still a KTM, but it’s a KTM lite.

KTM 390 Duke
KTM 390 Duke. RevZilla photo.

All in all, I’m happy with my downgrade. I enjoy doing the opposite of what I’m supposed to, and I think it can be rewarding.

Should you go against the grain and downsize? I don’t know. We’re all too quick to make decisions for other riders, but we can really only decide what is best for us. But as the Daoist saying goes, there is virtue in the small.

All I suggest is that you ponder your decision about getting that new liter bike a little longer before you pull the trigger. There may be another way.