When KTM revealed its RC390 back in July 2013, the company’s CEO Stephen Pierer described the machine as meeting “a big demand for affordable, quality sportbikes for the lower displacement class.” In addition to that however, it was also revealed that the new RC390 would be the motorcycle used for the ADAC Junior Cup powered by KTM, an entry-level racing series in Germany. Since then KTM has also partnered with MotoAmerica in the States for the five-round RC Cup Series. The point being that since its introduction, the RC390 has been directly intertwined with pro racing more so than any other bike in this shootout, and its credentials as an entry-level racer are immediately apparent.
To start with, the 375cc engine is the largest and most potent of the bunch. At its peak, the liquid-cooled Single puts out 42.31 horsepower at 8900 rpm and 25.34 lb-ft of torque at 8500 rpm. That’s five ponies more than the second-most powerful Yamaha and an additional five lb-ft of pull. Off the bottom, the KTM has more grunt than the uppermost torque figures produced by the SYM, Kawasaki and Honda. In comparison to the rest, the KTM’s power delivery is immediate and satisfying, pulling hard out of the corners and accelerating quicker than any other down the straights.
“The KTM is probably the raciest feeling bike in this group, which is fun” explains Waheed. “I had the most sheer exhilaration while I rode it. It feels like a slimmed-down RC8R. It comes off the corner really well, has the most amount of torque. That engine’s got a really fun-loving character.”
(Above) The KTM RC390’s body work won the vote of some testers, with others not so keen on the sharply angled machine. (Below) KTM offers a variety of information on its digital instrument panel.
“The motor is amazing,” adds Abbott. “It just pulls from bottom to top and I definitely had the most fun and felt like I was on the racetrack when I was riding the RC390.”
In 0-60 mph acceleration testing, the RC390 was the clear winner, getting up to speed in 4.9 seconds. The Yamaha finished second in this category with a time of 5.7 seconds. The story’s the same in quarter-mile testing, the KTM covering the distance in 14.21 seconds compared to the Yamaha’s 14.74 seconds.
The main issue testers found with the powerplant had nothing to do with output, which earned top scores in subjective and objective assessments, but with vibration.
“The only problem with the engine is that it vibrates a lot, just like the RC8R,” adds Waheed. “I think if you were riding that bike all the time it would, maybe, get a little old just because of how much it vibrates.”
Its transmission earned the KTM second in subjective rider assessments, its smooth-shifting gearbox and actuation at the lever barely edging out the Honda.
In terms of chassis and handling, the KTM fell a bit short compared to the other machines, our testing crew rating it third behind the top-placing Yamaha and Honda. On the positive side, the RC390 felt like it carried more weight on the front end which allowed for sharp, nimble handling through corners.
“The chassis is really good on it, really sporty and delivers good feel,” says Waheed.
On the other hand, some testers found the KTM to feel a bit heavy, despite being the second-lightest machine at 366 pounds behind the Honda.
“The handling was a little bit tough to feel at first,” says Dunstan. “This bike feels a little bit heavier, like there’s more weight to pull around.”
What really cost the KTM higher marks in this regard, however, is its suspension. The 43mm USD WP fork and WP monoshock just didn’t deliver as smooth a ride as the Yamaha, Honda or Kawasaki.
“The suspension is just a little too budget in my opinion,” adds Waheed. “The shock has almost no damping and it just gives the bike a really cheap feel compared to the other motorcycles.”
Braking is another area in which the KTM earned some criticism, primarily the front binders.
“The front brake, I’m not impressed with it at all,” says Abbott. “I just felt like the stopping power wasn’t there. A bike that goes so fast and has a lot of power, you want good stopping power and usually KTMs have it, but (the RC390) doesn’t meet my expectations.”
On the plus side, the KTM does come with Bosch Two-Channel ABS, which can be disengaged. We rode the bulk of the day with ABS on and didn’t find its engagement all that noticeable, only coming on under hard braking. Later in the day we switched it off and were able to lock up the rear end fairly easy, so there’s nice balance in the system. Riders that want the safety net of ABS have the option while it also suits more experienced riders who like to back it in on the racetrack. It makes the RC390 slightly more versatile than some of the other bikes which either have ABS 100% of the time or don’t have it at all.
Ironically, having ABS off brought the KTM to a stop more quickly than with it on. In 60-0 mph testing, the RC390 reached full stop in 148.2 feet without the aid of ABS, and 151.7 feet with the system on. That places the KTM second to last in front of the SYM with ABS engaged versus third overall without ABS on.
The KTM also has the most tech-forward instrumentation, going all digital with a number of indicator lights surrounding the display. There’s a tachometer, speedometer, gear position indicator, fuel gauge, odometer, trip meter and other information like shift alert and average speed. It definitely offers the more information than any other bike in the test.
Overall comfort was an area in which the KTM fell behind the competition, the high, hard seat and racy ergos making it fun for throwing around in the twisties but taxing on the body after a full day’s ride.
Other areas in which the KTM fell short of the top-spot are fuel economy, sound and price. The RC390 averaged 48.3 miles per gallon, just slightly ahead of the 48.1 achieved on the Yamaha. But KTM has only given riders 2.64 gallons of total capacity on the RC, resulting in a scant range of 127.5 miles between fill-ups. In terms of sound, the KTM has a raspy note but is the loudest of the lot, hitting 94 dB at its peak. And finally, its price is the steepest at $5499, $200 more than the Kawasaki.
Though some areas of improvement were revealed when put in competition with other bikes in the class, the KTM’s racy appeal and power dominance placed it second-overall in our shootout. A more refined suspension and braking package would likely be enough to push the RC390 to the top of the list. Unfortunately for the orange bike, another machine proved to be better-rounded overall. And if you’re doing the math, you already know which bike that is.
2002 Honda FourTrax Foreman Rubicon 500
2002 Honda FourTrax Rancher 350 4×4
2002 Honda FourTrax Rancher 350 4×4 ES
2002 Honda FourTrax Rancher 350 ES
2002 Honda FourTrax Rancher 350 S
2002 Honda FourTrax Recon 250
2002 Honda FourTrax Recon 250 ES