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Motorcycle Review: 2020 KTM 390 Adventure

Motorcycle Review: 2020 KTM 390 Adventure
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St. Hippolyte, QC — KTM’s new 390 Adventure vibrates at speed, has a seat only a dominatrix could love and, despite its off-road(ish) silhouette, rides on cast aluminum rims seemingly inappropriate for  serious dirt donking. What I’m saying is that, individually detailed, the little Katoom doesn’t particularly stand out in the increasingly crowded junior adventure segment.

BUT — and this particular “but” truly deserves to be all caps — the little Austrian single lunger is proof positive that the whole really can be a greater than the sum of its parts.

Not that its parts are all too shabby. The KTM, despite its diminutive displacement, has some top-flight technology. The WP suspension is adjustable for damping, the TFT dashboard is bluetooth-ed so you can hook it up to your phone and its ABS brakes are cornering-friendly. More importantly, the littlest KTM, again despite its entry-level status, feels like a real motorcycle, a sensation not exactly common in the sub 400-cc segment.

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The first thing you notice on climbing aboard is that the 390 Adventure, unlike so many budget bikes, is full-sized. The seat height is an adult-like 855 millimetres, seat-to-peg distance is sufficient to accommodate even tall riders and the reach to the wide, dirtbike-like handlebar feels like it might for any other adventure touring ride. Now, on the one hand, said full-sized status will prove a roadblock to some beginners looking for something a little more authentic than Honda’s CB500X. On the other hand, its relatively rangey seating position means the 390 won’t be quickly outgrown.

Ditto KTM’s willing little engine. Sporting one piston, the 390 is nonetheless good for 44 horsepower. More impressive is the eagerness with which it wants to transmit said 44 hp. Most single-cylinder engines are reluctant revvers, not at all happy when twisted to redline. Not the little KTM. Not much happens below 5,000 rpm, but somewhere around six grand the 373.2-cc single seems to grow an extra valve.

Indeed, keep it on the boil and the 390 can keep up with many a big-bore bikes as long as the riders aren’t too serious with their right hand and the distance between hairpins isn’t gargantuan. I saw 160 kilometres an hour on the digital speedo, and more impressively — compared with the other bikes in this segment — I was sitting bolt-upright, my bluff body totally unaerodynamic. There is, in fact, enough power to cruise all day at a buck-thirty without the engine seemingly straining. Not bad at all for a little one.

The price for all that high-rpm happiness, however, is some vibration above 6,000 rpm. It’s no paint-mixing rigidly-mounted Harley, but there’s a noticeable buzz as you drone down the highway. The 390 has an auxiliary balance shaft that does quell some of the quaking but could use the superior balancing mechanism of its bigger — i.e. more expensive — parallel twin siblings. That said, the vibration is not an impediment to long-distance comfort.

The seat certainly is. I’m not sure if KTM’s designers have some sort of fetish for ball-busting seats or if CEO Stefan Pierer has a significant position in Corbin or Saddleman, but the company’s perches are traditionally board-like. And, even if the 390’s is better than most — we tested a Duke 890 along with the 390 and its seat would have done a medieval dungeon proud — you’ll still be squirming after an hour. The good news is that it is the only thing standing in the way of touring(ish) comfort. As I said, the seating position is exemplary, the vibration passable and the protection from the minimalist fairing surprisingly turbulent-free. Fork over a couple of hundred for a custom seat — don’t bother with KTM’s accessory gel seat — and the little 390 is ready for a long-distance adventure.

I’m not sure if KTM’s designers have some sort of fetish for ball-busting seats...

You’ll also have fun getting there, the on-road handling nothing short of excellent. There’s a surprising amount of stability built into KTM‘s trademark steel trellis chassis, though no surprise this time, its light 158-kilogram dry weight and steep 26.5-degree rake make for an agile corner carver. Even the Continental TKC 70 tires, ostensibly a 70/30 street/trail compromise, grip tenaciously when the little orange flash is healed over. And the ByBre (made “by Brembo” in India) front four-piston caliper is well up to the job of stopping a lightweight, moderately paced touring bike, its radial-mounting no doubt more for bench-racing bona fides than any real performance need.

Perhaps just as impressive is that the 390 retails for $6,799. Now, that’s not a screaming bargain compared with its competitors in the segment, but when you consider that it has switchable ABS — something even my V-strom 1000 lacks — traction control and Bluetooth TFT screen, not to mention a slipper clutch, a ride-by-wire throttle and LED headlights, that price looks more than justified. There’s even a — bless KTM’s soul for being so optimistic — a built-in GPS mount above the dashboard, a feature that remains a luxury even on the most expensive of touring bikes.

Not without its flaws, the new 390 Adventure is nonetheless one little bike that rides big. For those new to the sport, anyone looking for a truly lightweight adventure bike for (mild) off-roading or even the older, experienced rider looking to downsize from the heft that seems to be creeping into new adventure bikes, the KTM 390 is a fun little alternative.
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