KTM RC390 Street Review

THUNK,THUNK,THUNK,THUNK,THUNK… Is that a single I hear? A large displacement thumper? But how come its revving so quickly? The revs pound up and down unlike a big single pistoned engine. Turn your head around and gaze at the brand stonking new KTM RC390!

This bike has stirred up quite a bit of a mini storm around the world, even for non-bikers. Lo and behold, its in front of me now, ready for my eager hand to start piling on the gas. I tell you, even the under the gloomy street light where I’m picking it up, this baby looks not only sensationally fast even standing still, it oozes sexiness! Way different design theory has been applied here, with the right dose of angledness, and pointy futuristic styling that really presses the right buttons. One word. FRESH!

I board the bike, and immediately the feeling is of fitting in to the bike. The seat height and width fits naturally and the seat and tank meeting point is slim, it doesn’t make your thighs spread, and you’re hugging the tank nicely without squashing your crotch. The handle bars are high and angled quite flat, with a good width that gives good comfort and leverage. You’d think that by looking at the bike it’s kind of tall, but getting on it everything fits like a custom made glove. So far so good !


Blipping the throttle, I pull the clutch in, surprisingly super light pull, clicked the gear lever into first, I say click because the lever throw is short and precise, and away we go! The twin head light design houses one high and low beam in each other, and is really bright, illuminating the unfamiliar street that I’m riding on now. What I felt was a motorcycle that seems a couple of hundred cc smaller than what I thought I would feel. This is of course a complement, because although designated and designed as a 400 class motorcycle, it feels like half the size and weight. And this is a very good impression on me, because I’m now riding a new bike in unfamiliar roads at night! The ergonomics feels immediately natural, and this helps feel riding the bike, instead of focusing on learning the bike. My attention is less spent on the machine, and more enjoying the ride.


Took the long way back, maybe a few miles more, through a little bit of freeway and into some close quarter town roads. The RC feels good! It feels like I ridden it before, a familiar and similar feeling of riding something I’ve always been used to, but at the same time the view from the cockpit and engine sound tells me I’m on something totally new. The bike feels so neutral, no hint of top heaviness, wallow or pitching at all. Really calm and pussy cat like, safe and quiet. So far really good!


I’ve now passed the town area and into the freeway. Gas it a bit and the rear suspension squats slightly. Not too concerned, because its adjustable so I’ll adjust it when I get home. A rush of mid-range and the revs rise quickly, at a rate I didn’t expect!  Really strong mid-range with such a quick rise in revs, it was flinging me forward at a pace that could catch one unawares. Roll off, and this time coming into the intersection, I turned left 45° turn, and readied for the next turn exit.


Grabbing a handful of throttle, the bike hurtled at an amazing rate! This engine is really, really punchy! Revs at 12K rpm for a single? NUTS! I felt the front wheel going light, and I rolled off the throttle, this is after all a test on the street, but I’m seriously impressed. The engine’s linear but strong burst of horses, coupled with what I felt is 125cc level weight, made me feed bike a MOTO3 racer briefly.

So, I continued at a brisk pace for the next few miles in getting home. Fast flowing corners with slight ascend feels really planted. Getting to a few traffic lights, the light and sensitive clutch, coupled with the slick gear shift and good ratio-ed gearbox, made spirited get-aways second nature. I can’t believe I’m just into 15minutes riding this bike! Everything is just gelling!


Reached home and a few friends were there. Their reaction, silence. I know why, the bike looks terrific! There’s a few race prepped Kawasaki ZX150RR in my drive way, but the RC is really the dog’s bullocks. It’s stunning and just blows away anything else, the look and details totally different yet captivating and compelling at the same time. More stares and discussions on this beauty, and all of we decided to call it a day, with me barely able to sleep in anticipation of tomorrow’s ride!


Sunrise, sunshine, daylight at last! Had a quick shower and grabbed my riding gear. Hmm, lets see, where do we start thrashing, …errr I mean testing.. hehe.. Ok I decided to try around the urban area where I live, that would be good to gauge how the RC will perform in familiar territory and conditions. It’ll expose and confirm whatever feelings I felt last night, whether it was a spur of the moment feeling or the RC was designed with a low learning curve capability!

Stabbing the starter button, I let the engine warm up a bit. The fuel injection is spot-on, the engine comes to life easily in one start. As soon as the throttle response is good, I rolled her out of my drive way and onto the street, easily, the nimbleness and low weight making it maneuverable well beyond its superbike looks.


BRAAAAPP, BRAAAPPP!! This engine is great! Low end power is smooth leading to a stonking mid-range. Revs so quickly, it feels like a race prepped engine, able to reach the 12K cut-off oh-sooo quickly! The first two gears feels slightly tall, while third, fourth and fifth feels short and close together. Sixth is more like an overdrive, rolling on to flatten the revs onto higher speeds.

The start of the power can be felt at 4-5K rpm, where there’s a nice smooth surge of torque lifting the bike, pushing on to 7k rpm range linearly. The red line is reached quickly, and surprisingly doesn’t tail-off, like a single or twin usually would. But the rpm limiter also is not crazy abrupt, more like smooth but quick step down of power, to let you seamlessly shift up, not only in power, but also continuously to keep feeding the power itself. It’s buttery smooth, no frantic clutch slipping or ham fisted throttle grabbing to keep the momentum going. This engine is a gem, or do you know that already by reading the above.


If I am to add anything about the engine, is its multiple personality, or rather how it can adapt to different riding personalities. Ride it like a gentlemen, the predictable and linear power delivery will reward you with a smooth cruise and enough power for overtakes and roll on, no-need-to-down-shift convenience that rewards you with a relaxed ride.

However, in racer boy mode, the huge dollop of torque lets you pick the front wheel into the air while shooting forward at a really brisk, racer type of thrust that continues into five digits RPM! Slam the throttle and the engine simply throws you into chosen direction like a big displacement bike can, and both situation / riding styles leaves a HUGE grin on your / my face! Did I mention this engine is a gem?


A good/great/magical engine is pretty much useless if the chassis isn’t capable or not in cahoots with it. My take on it is if a chassis has to tame the engine, rather than be in synchrony with it, then there’s bound to be hidden trouble. Here I mean the chassis job is to get and feel as one in function and harnessing the strength of the engine, and complement the weakness. I have to say this, out of the box, the chassis is already super impressive. The feel and damping from the frame, and stiffness of the swing arm, is already at par with my with my race tuned bike. It feels stiff but appropriately flexing in riding conditions such as long sweeping corners and undulating roads, rewarding the rider with stable and controlled road holding with tons of feed back from the road. And I haven’t begun talking about the suspension!


Huge 43mm White Power front upside downies grace the RC frontal suspension duties. At first sight, its really big and stiff looking, giving you the impression of sure footedness and stability like race suspension can. However, upon closer look, there’s no adjustability whatsoever! Darn! I was expecting at least pre load adjusters. All the same though, I didn’t need any adjustments, as the spring rate and damping was perfect. I’m 5” 11 ½’, and at 82 kg, is certainly no wee teenager. The front suspenders were loading beautifully, and damping all road imperfections with a comfortable thump, instead of the harsh metal to stone feel. However I did find the rebound to be a bit slow/hard. A softer rebound rate would return the travel a smidge quicker, making for a sprightlier and more responsive feedback. But as it is, if you’re on really smooth roads it’s really, really good stuff, in feel and feedback.

The rear shock has a good progression in absorbing the road. Initial stroke is a little bit plush, and as it gets to its middle stroke, it’s quite stiff. I reckon its good for handling pot holes and bumps from disintegrating your bum and spine, yet if you turn up the pace, the engine compressing the shock tend to keep it in that mid stroke where its quiet and stable. Versatile, but if you want to adjust it, which I did, there’s a collared ramp to suit your riding and comfort needs.


All in all, a very balanced set of suspension front and rear, with a quality feeling to it. I guess White Power, a subsidiary of KTM, designed a very good solution, fitting the RC’s purpose nicely indeed.

Again, good/great/magical engine, balanced/ plush chassis and suspension, will mean naught if the rider don’t fit well on bike. The riding experience in the end, will be deeply affected and influenced by the ergonomics. How does spacious leg room, high handlebars, slim tank, firm yet plush seat and short reach front to rear sound like? Can you spell COMFY? Yup, that’s exactly the ergos of the RC. The bars are wide and angled flat, making U turns through tight, and I mean drive way tight spaces, coupled with a tremendous amount of steering lock, a cinch! I could turn the bike through any situation easily. On longer distances that require a constant hold of the bars, the reach, angle and height is geared towards comfort, with no wrist heavy inclines. And because the position is mostly upright, your neck and shoulder is sure to stay chiropractor free. The slim but high fuel tank, a dummy, accommodates your tummy and torso like a support. Resting on it helps alleviates further weight from your arms and hands. It also helps in situation where you want to stay out of the wind by easily placing your chest and chin on the tank. The whole feel of the RC is one of extreme nimbleness and agility akin to a bike smaller than its CC sticker appears to be.


The lowish foot rest and pegs gives generous amount of leg room and fairly straight knee and hips position. Very comfy but still angled and placed at a height where you’d get good leverage and weight loading of your feet to help steer the bike. The seat is quite low. I and some of my mates sat on it, all able to flat feet on the ground. The seat and tank is slim where they meet, and this helps you to place your feet on the ground because your legs are not splayed out. The seat itself prove really comfy, even 1 hour rides did not make my butt cringe. The texture, suppleness and plushness feels just spot-on, with a grippy and nicely absorbive feel clinging to your butt. Again I have to repeat, this all lends to a very easy to manipulate bike without using and focusing a lot of strength in either fast or slow riding situations.


All of this techy talk is the result of my ride through various situations. Town, suburban, freeways and also the true street test-winding mountain roads. A test ride of a sport bike without going to Genting and back? No way! So at around 3.30pm, I shot off to Gombak to take the Ulu Yam Route to Genting.

The roads were wet! That’s what I can say. Although not pouring, it was lightly drizzling and the road can be seen glazed with water. Well this would a perfect condition to test how well the bike would really handle!


The first part of Ulu Yam is made up of sweeping medium speed corners with up and down elevation, most of them blind. I grabbed some throttle and leaned the RC into the corners. The balance is very good as I could feel the front working and loading. Yet the rear was not moving and subtle. Keep the engine in the sweet part of the lower to mid RPM region, and the mechanical grip is just pure heaven! Keep a constant throttle near 4-7k rpm and the RC just keeps on gripping, and these are wet roads! Keeping the speed on corner entry controllable just needs a slight opposite turn of the throttle, the engine brake smoothly and quite lightly drags the engine slower, generating a predictable and grippy feel. Open the throttle to 4k RPM and the smoothness generates huge grip while linearly launching you out of the corners. Repeat this for the next 50 miles!


All the while the rather non aggressive (read great damping) suspension is keeping itself in the mid stroke section without you really concentrating on modulating it. The engine and chassis work with suspension to stay stable, almost automatically, during leaning into corner to corner exit, flip-flop and chicanes, as well as fast sweeping corners. All are taken confidently, the engine working in unison with the front and rear suspenders, keeping them in the location of their optimum stroke with virtually any application of the throttle. I’m a very happy camper here!


On the way back to KL, I took the Karak Highway route, with really fast sweepers and increasing radius corners taken at high triple digit speeds, and serious ascends and descends. The RC took it all in its stride. In the fast descending sweepers, on the edge of the tires, the RC was flat out stable, I was very happy with the stability due to the fact that I was cornering in between cars and trucks going downhill at 100++ mph speed! There was no hint of top heaviness pitching, wallowing or rolling around on its tires. Just a serene smoothness and throttle continuity that eggs you to go FASTER! On a clear stretch I managed to get 173kmh on the clocks, but still had 2k RPM to go! I’m estimating 190kmh is easily attainable on a clear road with no traffic, something that I had for only a few hundred meters at a time.


Reading all the positives about the RC makes you wonder if there are any weaknesses. Surely there are some things which are not perfect on the bike. Yes, number one, the brakes. Both front and rear brakes are to me, seriously weak up to the point of probably being flawed. The rear brake, wooden feel and then would suddenly bite and grab, but not much stopping power. The front, same, halfway through the lever travel nothing, then wodden feel all the way to your fingers! It will stop the bike but you’d be scared thinking that it was brake fade, while it was not! The ABS cuts in for both ends, so, you can brake all the way as hard as you want without locking it, and you might as well grab the brakes as maximum as you can, because that is the only way you’re going to slow down before the corner. Maybe I’m missing something here, but the lack of braking power means you can late brake and trail brake into the corner, although you really need to in order to scrub off speed. For newbies its probably good, but it just makes me, an experience racer, nervous. Plus there no adjustability for the lever whatsoever.


Problem no 2 is a snatchy throttle from zero to the first 20% of throttle opening. There’s a slight lag from 0%, then as you wind up to 70%, the fueling creates a thunk…thunnk…brrrrraap, braaap, braaaaaaap. This translates to a 3 tick lag before the smooth low down torque comes in 4K RPM. In really tight corners you have to keep a considerable amount of throttle opened to get it in the sweet zone, or completely shut it off to avoid the triple lag that brings snatchy pitching of the bike’s front and rear mid corner! Throttle control is essential at the low openings and also sub 4k RPM situations.

Problem number 3 is probably nit-picking, but I seriously couldn’t read the tacho meter, whether it’s the number or amount of RPM since both are so small and slim! The progression of the digital LCD RPM seems too small and when the revs rise the line stay the same size, can’t catch the position of the RPM! There’s a shift light available, but in situations that you want to read the RPM, you have to stare a little longer, and you still might not see what RPM you’re at.


Fuel economy wise, a full tank at ham-fisted, racer boy right hand settings will get you 160kms. I feel its ok, I wasn’t holding back, and whacking the gas up and down the mountain all the way! Instrumentation includes your basic needs, although it looks different in a way because everything is digital. The standard trip 1 and 2 modes, plus remaining fuel and estimated distance is there, and there’s also low fuel level warning with estimated remaining distance that comes on automatically once you’ve reached the last bar on the fuel gauge. The back light is in your typical KTM orange.


Lighting is great, high beam shoots high enough to cover well into the distance. The turn signals are nice bright LED units that’s visible from a good amount and angle. All in all, a very modern and high tech feel that gives good outlook for the rider and a futuristic aesthetics look.


Summing up all this, The RC is a wonderful corner carver, is a comfortable freeway cruiser, and an agile and nimble urban runner. Fantastic up-to-date looks, with modern instrumentation and funky color schemes, lends excellently to the I-want-it factor, especially for younger riders, and even experienced riders who want a really satisfying thrasher/racer which they can take to the limit safely. If you ever need a bike for a lot of purposes, or can only afford one, where those purposes are as mentioned, the KTM RC390 will fit nicely in your garage. I’m getting one soon, nuff said..   




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A veteran rider of 33 years,he also races as an amateur,taking part in numerous championships in Malaysia and also one of the mentors in The School of Knee Down - Malaysia.

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