KTM 390 Duke India track test
I flick the bike from full lean on the right to full lean on the left and immediately sneak some throttle back on. The bike changes direction rapidly, I start to lift it back to vertical adding more and more gas. Then that greasy sensation from the rear says we're spinning. The bars start turning into the slide and I just let them. Then comes hook up and we're off to the next corner in a tearing hurry.
Before you think I'm boasting and gloating, I return to the same turn on the next lap and discover that the intense sun has melted a patch of tar where I've left a dramatic little wet-tar groove. So my only contribution to this intense sensory moment is that I remembered to not close throttle mid-slide or obstruct the handlebars from steering into the slide. And to note that I would be wise to not push the pace through this corner for the remainder of the weekend.
Not that I missed this one corner because the KTM 390 Duke is an absolute demon everywhere. Like the 200, it is able to change direction very, very easily but is stable enough mid-corner and accurate enough for you to be able to place the bike wherever you choose with great confidence and precision. It makes such impressively light work of cornering that nearly every other motorcycle seems like hard work.
But while the chassis, suspension setup and steering geometry obviously get lots of credit, I can't thank the Metzeler Sportec M5 tyres enough. They offer such amazing grip that both Alan and I ground pegs out harder and harder without even reaching the edge of the tyres. More pace came from upping the preload to raise the ride height. Within five laps, we'd moved only a millimetre closer to the edge of the tyre and the pegs were down once again.
The beauty in this is that the KTM never feels like it is working hard. Power from the 43.5PS 375cc engine is always abundant and the throttle response is instant without being hair-trigger. Hook up and drive out of the corners is wonderful and rocketing out of the corners is easy. The gearbox is also a pleasure to use, requiring no effort to change up or down but hardly ever missing a shift. Unlike the 200, the 390 likes you to be more precise about what gears you choose for the corners, but if you do, the progress is eye-wideningly swift and extremely rewarding. You do have to be extra-gentle when you transition from a closed to an open throttle, but that aside, the throttle response is marvellous.
As are the brakes. At the end of the straight at Kari Motor Speedway, the KTM is nearly at top speed and needs to be brought down to about 90kmph normally and 55-60kmph on our track weekend, thanks to construction. You can lean hard-hard-hard on the brakes and get strong, unfading retardation every single time.
The weakest link in the KTM Duke track story are the ergonomics. The tank is hard to grip and the heel plates are useless while making holding the bike securely when hanging off needlessly tough. The tall and wide handlebar is excellent for most situations, but you cannot help but feel that a narrower, lower set of clip-ons would make the KTM (still) more feelsome and track friendly.
But if you haven't taken your KTM 390 Duke to a track yet, you absolutely must. The ergonomic issues are minor niggles in what is otherwise an amazingly intense, controllable and fast motorcycle to be on track with. The RC390, undoubtedly, would be better at this than the 390 Duke. But take it to the track anyway. You'll be glad you did.
Things which make the 390 Duke a better track tool
The KTM 390 Duke doesn't naturally fit into the racetrack that the RC390 is supposed to do, right? There are three things you can change that do make a massive difference.
R&G Racing and Stompgrip both make grip pads that you stick on the side of the tank to give your thighs and knees more purchase on the tank. This simple addition allows you to hold the bike better in corners and makes it feel more responsive and more stable. Worth every penny. Available at performanceracing.in
You use your lower body to hold on to the bike and the KTM offers you very little in terms of places to do this. Adding a heel plate is a matter of purchasing a set of Yamaha YZF-R15 heel plates and carefully drilling two holes on the KTM's stubby (useless) heel plates and mounting them. Just be careful not to drill through any cables or hoses.
You set preload to ensure that once your weight is on the bike, the natural compression leaves the bike to operate in its suspension's natural sweet spot. At the racetrack, harder acceleration and braking than normal can require more preload than the street. On the 390, it became critical because both Alan (100kg) and I (87kg) started running out of cornering clearance thanks to the amazing grip from the Metzeler tyres. All you need is a C-spanner.
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