New riders are always encouraged by more experienced hands to start small and work their way up as their skills improve. Sport bikes like the Yamaha R1 and Kawasaki ZX-10 have phenomenal power, but they need a highly skilled rider to master. And this is where the KTM RC390 comes in. Even though it’s been around for several years now, its rakish lines still look cutting edge. Proudly displaying its light but stiff trellis frame, orange alloy wheels, and graphics, it looks fast even if it’s standing still.
On paper, its engine isn’t particularly exciting if you’re expecting big numbers: 44hp at 9,500 rpm and 35Nm of torque at 7,250 rpm. It’s the same 373cc engine shared with the bestselling 390 Duke and upcoming 390 Adventure. Here’s the thing: the bike weighs just 328 pounds (dry), giving it a weight-to-power ratio of just 7.45 pounds per horsepower. A 2018 Chevrolet Camaro 1SS must pull 8.1 pounds per horsepower, for example, making this single-cylinder “learner” bike plenty fast for the novice rider.
Priced at an affordable P300,000, the RC390 comes with the stuff you need to hone your skills: six-speed slipper assist clutch, ride-by-wire throttle, ample stopping power with a front four-piston caliper and 320mm disc, and rear dual-piston caliper and 230mm disc by ByBre (Brembo’s subsidiary), sticky 110mm front and 150mm rear tires on 17-inch cast-alloy wheels, and a track-ready WP suspension. You can deactivate the ABS for track days (if you’re brave).
Rolling out of KTM’s Quezon Avenue dealership, it takes a while to adjust to the aggressive seating position. You sit low “in” the bike rather than “on” it, with rearset foot pegs to get you into a natural crouch. The clip-on handlebars are low, and you’ll quickly tire out your wrists if you don’t engage your core and lean too much on the front for balance. In traffic, you’ll quickly get exhausted of this setup, although the bike is low enough that you can flat foot at stoplights. The water-cooled engine runs a HOT 13.5:1 compression ratio. While engine temps are always high, it doesn’t overheat. The fan quickly spins up and blows hot air to your lower legs; at longer stoplights I switched off the engine to save myself the discomfort.
It’s on the open road that the bike comes alive. The bike shoots forward like a rocket, engine revving to the redline with abandon, gears engaging with a light but solid feel as you get to work. The riding position naturally tucks you down onto the bike for aerodynamics. Top speed is a mere 170km/h, but anything below that is a joy to work with. It has lots of midrange thrust for acceleration from corner to corner. The thumper motor sounds raspy and not-at-all refined, but it is what it is and you’ll just have to get over it.
The bike feels very basic and raw, and all in a good way. Once you get accustomed to the ergonomics and in tune with the vibrations (which are very prominent above 6,000rpm), the bike feels bonded to you.
Attack a set of curves and all you need to do is look at where you go, throttle and shift accordingly, and it’s one apex after the next. All the controls feel precise and responsive. I was expecting a super stiff ride but that’s not actually the case. The chassis has just a little bit of flex, and the suspension is damped very well for the type of road surfaces you’ll be riding on. The bike absorbs tiny imperfections rather than bouncing you all over the road so you can hold your line. I can understand why the little KTM has quite the reputation among track riders.
You can’t expect too many shiny gizmos for its price, but there are some notable highlights. The levers are adjustable for reach, the pillion pad doubles up as a sleek cowl, the buttons are backlit, and you have a shift light on the LED screen. The latter is hard to read at a glance while you’re at speed, and the bar graph tachometer is so tiny I relied on the shift light and the level of vibration tingling through the bars and foot pegs to cue my upshifts. It badly needs the TFT display of the Duke 390. Finally, the 9.5L fuel tank limits your usable range between fill-ups to 150km at best before the “Fuel Low” warning comes on.
With spy shots of the incoming 2021/22 RC390 circulating on the Internet, it’s very likely that these shortcomings will be addressed. For now, though, the RC390 is a bargain with some great deals from KTM on their current stock. And as its nearest brand-new competitor is the P335,000 Kawasaki Ninja 400, the RC390 brings track-ready performance, bags of character, and the honor of being “Proudly Assembled in the Philippines” to the table.