Video: 2015 KTM RC 390 First Ride Review

KTM's new RC 390 packs a lot of fun in a little package

KTM landed a few devastating blows in 2014, the first coming from its Adventure models and the second from the absolutely phenomenal 1290 Super Duke R, which almost immediately turned the naked bike category on its ear. But now KTM has its eyes on an entirely different segment, that being the small-displacement supersport category, a class that has up until now been run by the Kawasaki Ninja 300 and Honda CBR250R (recently updated to a CBR300R so that it can better handle the competition). Can KTM's RC 390 prove just as effective as its kin at knocking the competition off the top spot? To get a better idea of the bike's chances, the Sport Rider staff recently headed oversees for a full day in the RC's saddle.

KTM suggests that the RC 390 was envisioned as a race-style bike, then made to meet restrictions that would enable it to be street legal. To this end, the RC 390 gets a steel-trellis frame that looks surprisingly similar to the RC8’s chassis from afar, plus aggressively-designed fairings and a passenger seat that’s uniquely disguised as a racebike fairing, with grab handles on the underbelly for added insurance. A new headlight and front beak isn't necessarily easy on the eyes, but KTM says that this design was necessary if it wanted to retain the race-style fairing shape—compare a stock RC 390 to the RC 390 CUP bike being used in the ADAC Junior Cup or MotoAmerica RC Cup class, and you'll immediately see the similarities. LED brake and position lights are a nice touch, while integrated turn signals keep the RC as sporty looking as possible.

The RC 390’s chassis is a derivative of the Duke 390 chassis but with more aggressive steering geometry so that the bike’s handling manners befit its sportier design brief; Steering rake is steepened by 1.5 degrees, trail is reduced by 12mm, and the wheelbase shortened to just 1340mm (52.8 inches). A 43mm non-adjustable fork has less travel than the fork on the Duke (125mm on the RC versus 150mm on the Duke) in addition to different (read: more aggressive) damping settings, while the shock is adjustable for spring preload only. To further its cornering potential, KTM have also moved the footpegs inward, when compared to the Duke's pegs. Tires are Metzeler M5s in 110/70-17 size at the front and 150/60-17 size at the rear.

The footrests are placed low enough that a 6-foot-tall rider can ride for 50-plus miles and not feel like they just got off a pocket bike.

KTM’s 373cc DOHC single-cylinder engine produces a claimed 44 hp at 9,500 rpm, 26 foot-pounds of torque at 7,250 rpm, and .2 kilowatts of power per kilogram (about 0.12 hp per pound), or just enough for the bike to meet Europe's A2 license restrictions. Engine components— including Nikasil-coated cylinders, a balance shaft, and DLC-coated aluminum finger followers—are as they are on the 390 Duke. Similarly, the RC 390 has the same 89 x 60 bore and stroke spec as the Duke.

The braking system is an area of interest for American consumers as it consists of a ByBre four-piston caliper biting on a 300mm rotor up front, and ByBre caliper out back. ByBre—an abbreviation of “By Brembo”—is a Brembo-owned brand known for manufacturing braking systems for small-to-mid engine size (up to 600cc) motorcycles meant for BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other countries in South East Asia (ASEAN), but this is the first time we’ve seen the brakes on a US-bound model. ABS comes standard but can be switched off by pressing down on a button outside the digital display.

Brake calipers are produced by ByeBre and have an acceptable amount of power, but no more. ByBre—an abbreviation of “By Brembo”—is a Brembo-owned brand known for manufacturing braking systems for small-to-mid engine size (up to 600cc).

The RC 390’s sporty design and the enthusiasm its engineers show for on-track potential would lead you to believe the bike has some overly tight rider triangle meant for up-and-coming racers, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. The clip-ons are part of the top triple clamp but place little weight on your wrists, while the footrests are placed low enough that a 6-foot-tall rider can ride for 50-plus miles and not feel like they just got off a pocket bike. The rider seat feels more and more firm with each additional mile, but outside of the 32.3-inch seat height (not exactly short-rider friendly) and tiny numerals for the tach which made it difficult to concentrate on revs, this was really our only concern as far as the rider interface goes. Like the digital displays elsewhere in KTM’s supersport model lineup, the RC 390’s gauge cluster is overflowing with pertinent information, including gear position.

A WP rear shock is adjustable for spring preload only, while the front fork is non-adjustable. The RC 390 has less suspension travel in the front and stiffer damping settings, when compared to the Duke 390.

The RC 390 is spirited but not as seamless as we remember the Ninja 300 and CBR300R being. Fueling at real low rpm is not as smooth, for example, and the clutch has a slightly stiffer pull than the Japanese models have had in years past. The close-ratio, constant-mesh six-speed transmission is KTM coarse, especially as you shift between third and fourth gear. That’s not to say the RC 390 isn’t new-rider friendly, just that the bike is not as placid as what’s coming from Japan. Call it character…

The RC 390's rider triangle is great for riders of varying heights, though a 32.3-inch seat height is admittedly high for a beginner bike. What looks like a racebike tail section is actually a passenger seat(!)

The engine pulls moderately well from low rpm but comes on strong at 6,500 rpm and pulls hard (relatively speaking) until the 10,000 rpm rev limiter, endowing the bike with a sizeable rev range. Vibrations start to find their way to the handlebar and footrests as you near the 70-mph mark on the highway, but the powerplant still impressed with its ability to run an indicated 110 mph on the same stretch of interstate. Gear shifts are recommended for quick passes but are not nearly as vital as you’d expect from a sub-400cc machine, another testament to KTM’s efforts on the engine front.

The ByBre front brake calipers aren’t strong enough to overwhelm newer riders, but have enough power through the middle of the pull to get the 324 pound (claimed dry weight) RC 390 slowed down on the opposite end of a straightaway. Grab the lever harder and you’ll notice that there’s very little stopping force in reserve, but for panic scenarios, there’s ABS which works well to bring the bike to a controlled stop. Steel braided brake lines are another plus, and were most notable for their ability to keep the brakes from fading during elongated sessions on the track.

WP suspension is developed for riders weighing around 170 pounds and is admittedly soft, yet as a result, the bike is plenty compliant on imperfect roads. The rear shock is best when the ramp-style spring preload adjuster is turned in at least two positions from stock, ultimately providing some support but not the composure that a damping adjuster would. Even still, the front fork is nicely suited for a mix of riding situations and even handled aggressive track riding with aplomb. And that’s with the stock Metzeler M5 tires, which had decent grip in the canyons but also chased some cracks in the road and got greasy on the track. Handling is light as a result of the geometry changes, but not so quick that the bike falls into the corner without warning.

Who said small-displacement entry-level bikes can't be fun? KTM has managed to make the RC 390 as entertaining for advancing riders as it is welcoming for new riders.MarcoCampelli

KTM is not afraid to admit that its RC 390 is the byproduct of the company’s interest in racing, but also very aware of the bike’s potential impact outside of the track. And in many ways, this could very well be the bike that gives the street-going entry-level bikes that currently dominate the small-bike category a run for their money.

Price has yet to be announced, but with KTM producing the RC 390 in the India-based Bajaj Auto plant, it’s assumed that the manufacturer is looking to cut costs and then pass those savings along to the consumer (Update: KTM has announced that MSRP for the RC 390 will be set at $5,499).

For more on how the RC 390 stacks up against the competition, you can also read Sport Rider Magazine's comparison test between the KTM, Honda CBR300R, and Kawasaki Ninja 300, here: Balance Bikes—2015 Lightweight Sportbike Comparison Test.

Specifications
2015 KTM RC 390
MSRP: $5,499
Engine
Type Liquid-cooled DOHC single-cylinder, 4 valves/cyl.
Displacement 375cc
Bore x stroke 89.0 x 60.0mm
Compression ratio 12.5:1
Induction Bosch EFI, single-valve 46mm throttle bodies, single injectors/cyl.
Chassis
Front Tire 110/70ZR-17 Metzler M5
Rear Tire 150/60ZR-17 Metzler M5
Rake/trail 23.5 deg./ 3.5 in. (88mm)
Wheelbase 52.8 in. (1340mm)
Seat height 32.3 in. (820mm)
Fuel Capacity 2.6 gal. (10L)
Claimed dry weight 324 lb. (147kg)

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MarcoCampelli