Cape Town – One of the benefits of going to work at 5am is that I usually have the road pretty well to myself.
I stay off the freeway to avoid the time-over-distance cameras, taking a secondary route that twists and turns along the flanks of the mountains surrounding the city bowl before dropping through a sequence of steep downhill corners into a built-up area and on to a straight with a permanent camera trap. Game over, in more ways than one.
On a dry morning it’s a little bit of biker heaven, especially on a light, agile, motard-style machine with accurate steering and a short-stroke fuel-injected single that’s as addicted to revs as the teenage hooligan riders it’s aimed at - such as KTM’s 390 Duke.
Built in India by scooter giant Bajaj - which owns a 49 percent stake in KTM - the 390 shares its frame and cycle parts with 125 and 200 Duke, as well as their sportier-styled RC stablemates.
That could have been a recipe for disaster but, with suitably tweaked spring and damping rates - and an astonishingly compact liquid-cooled DOHC single that weighs just 36kg complete with vertically-stacked gearbox - the result is a remarkably cohesive design with a character all of its own.
The only evidence of the bike’s modular construction is a number of unused frame tabs on the naked Duke, which one assumes are for the body panels on the RC models.
There is, however, only one way to get 32kW out of 373.2cc - rev it. Peak power is produced at a dizzy 9500 revs and peak torque (35Nm) at 7250rpm. The 390 Duke is a little flat below 6500rpm; the bulletproof scrambler-style clutch has an unexpectedly heavy pull and a narrow engagement point, making the bike embarrassingly easy to stall.
But above that distinct step in the power delivery your helmet - inevitably low over the tank as you assume the urban warrior stance, shoulders hunched and elbows akimbo - is filled with a harsh, flat howl as secondary vibration begins to overpower the balance shaft and the bike starts throwing attitude at you.
Wring its neck for long enough and this little hooligan tool will hit a genuine 169km/h, at which speed it becomes very light on the road, but without any headshaking or similar misbehaviour.
Handling and road-holding are commendable all round, as well they should be on top-drawer WP suspension and Metzeler tyres. The 390 Duke coped easily with our bumpy test track, its 43mm upside-downies and piggyback rear shock soaking up the worst thumps without excessive jarring or patter at either end.
The bike then sliced through our ride and handling section at 131km/h, where 120 is the threshold for a sports bike, peaking in fifth with the shift light blinking furiously and tracking smoothly on our long, long left-hander.
My only reservation concerns the brakes; given that the front wheel sports a four-piston radial-mount monobloc calliper by Indian Brembo subsidiary Bybre, as well as (switchable) two-channel Bosch ABS, I was expecting hair-trigger braking. Sadly, initial bite was lacking and it needed a (very) firm squeeze (as well as a size 10 on the right pedal) to bring about any dramatic speed-shedding.
Yes, they work, but not well enough to bring the ABS into play on dry roads and certainly not accurately enough to adjust the bike’s attitude going into a (slightly too-tight) corner.
I was also sceptical initially about the 390 Duke’s 11 litre fuel tank, but it returned a creditable 4.48 litres per 100km over a week of non-stop thrashing, giving it a theoretical 240km tank range - further than I would be prepared to ride non-stop on its reasonably well-padded but narrow saddle.
Surprisingly, given its compact dimensions, the Duke’s accommodation is more than adequate for my 1.78 metres and 106kg; comfort levels, as befits a road bike designed by off-roaders, are acceptable rather than plush.
The instrument pod, a single liquid-crystal display with a few warning icons along its top edge, looks very much like the touch-screen of a smartphone - a clear indication of this bike’s target market.
The speedometer readout is large and legible, the rest less so, in particular the bar-graph rev counter. But that’s unimportant anyway - the only instrument you need to be able to see is the big ice-blue shift light in the centre, as you rev the nuts off the willing little KTM, keeping as close as possible to the limiter without the blue light flashing in your face all the time.
Ridden like that, the 390 Duke’s performance remarkable, the ride intense. The bike changes direction with the suddenness of a door slamming and accelerates hard enough to leave most hot hatches in its dust, dust, making the most of a superb chassis set-up when it comes to the twisties.
At R56 999 the KTM 390 Duke is a well-made, competent and impressively fuel-efficient lightweight streetbike - but, in the final analysis, none of that really matters. Resistance is futile, as the Borg said; you will ride it like a hooligan.
KTM 390 Duke
Engine: 373.2cc liquid-cooled four-stroke single.
Bore x stroke: 89 x 60mm.
Compression ratio: 12.5:1.
Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 32kW at 9500rpm.
Torque: 35Nm at 7250rpm.
Induction: Bosch digital electronic fuel-injection with 46mm throttle body.
Ignition: Bosch digital electronic.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension: 43mm WP inverted cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Semi-cantilever WP monoshock adjustable for preload.
Front brakes: 300mm petal disc with Bybre (Brembo India) four-piston radial-mount monobloc calliper and two-channel Bosch ABS.
Rear brake: 240mm petal disc with Bybre single-piston floating calliper and two-channel Bosch ABS.
Front tyre: 110/70 - 17 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 150/60 - 17 tubeless.
Seat height: 800mm.
Dry weight: 139kg.
Fuel tank: 11 litres.
Top speed (measured): 169km/h.
Fuel consumption (measured): 4.48 litres per 100km.
Price: R56 999.
Bike from: KTM Cape Town.