Accessible‌ ‌Adventurer‌

Story by Alan Cathcart// Photos by Heiko Mand
June 9 2020

A‌ ‌smaller-displacement,‌ ‌full-size‌ ‌adventure‌ ‌bike‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ ‌masses‌.

Since KTM began production back in 2011 of its smaller Duke models, no fewer than 515,000 KTM motorcycles have been built by Bajaj Auto, KTM’s partner, in Pune, India. According to Stefan Pierer, KTM’s president and CEO, volume gradually increased throughout this decade until more than 100,000 such bikes left the Pune production lines in 2018, around half of them for India and Indonesia, two of the top three bike markets globally. The rest went to countries all over the world, from Austria to Australia, from Ukraine to the U.S. More than 20 per cent of KTM’s total 2018 production of 261,454 bikes headed to the U.S., split between its eponymous brand and Husqvarna,

None of those Indian-built KTMs, however, were directly descended from the kind of dual-purpose on/off-road bikes that have made Austria-based KTM so successful in the marketplace since introducing its first 620 Adventure multi-purpose single-cylinder back in 1996. That absence is widely attributed to Bajaj boss Rajiv Bajaj’s lack of conviction that any real demand existed for such machines in his company’s massive home market, which is the largest in the world for combustion-engined motorcycles. That’s despite the challenging road surfaces found throughout India, which a street Enduro’s longer-travel suspension ideally would cope with, and the traffic-clogged cities through which a taller seat height is beneficial in helping plot a course – let alone the glorious adventure riding possibilities throughout the subcontinent. One can only conjecture that the advent of the 411 cc Royal Enfield Himalayan and the Indian-built BMW G310GS in the past two years may have helped change his mind – that, and Stefan Pierer’s talent for persuasion.

390 Adventure’s Introduction

That absence has now been addressed with the launch of the first small-displacement KTM go-anywhere bike at the 2019 EICMA Show in Milan. The KTM 390 Adventure, developed primarily in KTM’s R&D Centre at its HQ in Mattighofen, Austria, will be entirely manufactured in India. Using the 390 Duke as a platform, the Adventure’s distinctive design is also derived from the company’s dominant KTM rally bike, which won the iconic Dakar race 18 years in a row, from 2001 to 2019. Indeed, with such rally events limited to 450 cc bikes since 2011, KTM can justly claim that the 390 Adventure is more closely related to the company’s serial race-winning off-roaders than its larger-displacement parallel-twin 790 Adventure and V-twin 1290 Super Adventure models are.

I was the first outsider to ride the preproduction version of the new model and the bike promises to be a genuine multi-purpose entry-level motorcycle rather than a look-alike styling exercise or a neo-retro nostalgia bike.
“We’d been talking about producing an Adventure based on a Bajaj-built model for many years, but there was not much appreciation or acceptance of this on their part,” says Joachim Sauer, KTM’s senior product manager, off-road and adventure. “Finally, though, there was so much demand for a smaller Adventure, especially from our emerging markets, that we developed a concept bike here in Austria that we were prepared to put into production ourselves with engines sourced from India, even if the price would inevitably be higher. But in the end, we managed to persuade Bajaj to make an affordable all-rounder with a smaller engine based on the 390 Duke. [The 390 Adventure] offers all the major attributes of its bigger sisters, including electronic rider aids, while providing easier rideability due to its lower weight and less demanding engine characteristics – all combined with lower purchasing costs, thanks to being built in India.”

Design Objective

To create the 390 Adventure, KTM essentially employed the same broad platform as the 390 Duke, especially its mechanical package, which is relatively unchanged except for the chassis, which was extensively modified for dual-purpose potential. “We’ve tried to use the 390 engine to make a proper small-displacement Enduro for the entry-level segment that’s a full-size motorcycle, not a kid’s bike,” says Michael Landsiedl, KTM’s 390 Duke project leader. “Our objective was to make an affordable all-rounder with truly versatile performance both on and off-road. [The new model] had to be made for everyday riding on the street with proper space for a passenger, but also had to have genuine off-road capability on all kinds of terrain, and especially on dirt roads.”

This means the liquid-cooled 373 cc four-valve engine running a high 12.6:1 compression and measuring 89 x 60 mm with chain-driven DOHCs and DLC-coated finger followers, plus a single gear-driven counterbalancer, delivers the same 44 hp at 9,000 rpm as the 390 Duke does. Maximum torque of 27 ft-lb is delivered at 7,000 revs in a bike weighing 158 kg dry or 172 kg with a full 14.5-litre fuel load that offers a range of more than 400 km, according to Landsiedl. That’s despite the addition of twin catalytic converters in the stainless-steel exhaust, which will allow the 390 Adventure to meet Euro 5 emission regulations.

The cooling system is all-new, with a curved radiator and dual fans. “We’ve tried to keep the rider comfortable even in extreme conditions by keeping temperatures down,” says Landsiedl. The same six-speed transmission with cable-operated oil-bath slipper clutch from the Duke was retained, but the Quickshifter fitted to my test bike is available only as a KTM Powersports option.

Electronics

The 390 Adventure’s Bosch ECU offers ride-by-wire control of the 38 mm Dell’Orto throttle body, and the airbox is mounted under the seat to help deliver a lower seat height and more compact packaging. The ECU also was remapped for more versatile on/off-road use, albeit still with just a single riding mode.

Switchable lean angle-sensitive traction control comes standard, together with Bosch’s 9.1MP Cornering ABS, which can be switched to Off-road mode if needed, wherein ABS is deactivated on the rear wheel and reduced on the front, with data from the lean angle sensor no longer active. This allows you to lock up the rear wheel to steer into turns if you’re expert and/or brave enough while reducing the front wheel’s ABS effect on loose surfaces, thus providing more stopping power while offering more secure braking in the dirt. “The ABS settings have been developed to ensure maximum braking power and minimal intrusion,” says Landsiedl.

This engine is installed as a fully stressed member in a tubular-steel trellis frame with detachable subframe that KTM claims to be derived from its Dakar-winning 450 Rally model, although the 390 Adventure’s wet sump format means its taller motor inevitably sits higher relative to the wheel axles. This makes the frame design closer to the 390 Duke chassis that was updated in 2017, but with a 15 mm longer cast-aluminium swingarm to give space for deeper-section off-road tires if necessary.

Continental’s well-proven TKC 70 tubeless dual-purpose rubber is fitted as standard to what KTM claims to be extra-robust 19-inch front and 17-inch rear cast-aluminium wheels specifically designed for off-road use. The large 320 mm single front brake disc with four-piston radial caliper speaks clearly to the bike’s dual-purpose nature, with a 230 mm, twin-piston floating caliper on the rear. These are street brakes produced by Brembo’s ByBre Indian subsidiary, so the off-road ABS will be a welcome feature for riders less experienced in the dirt.

Suspension

However, for an entry-level go-anywhere bike, the 390 Adventure’s specially-developed WP APEX suspension is pretty upmarket, with the direct-action cantilever rear shock that’s adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping and delivering 177 mm of wheel travel. Up front, the 43 mm upside-down fork offers 170 mm of travel and is fitted with compression damping only on the left and rebound on the right, each adjusted via a dial on the top of the leg.

This overall package delivers a 855 mm seat height, although there are two seat options (including a one-piece rally design) to lift the seat height by either 10 mm or 20 mm. There’s also an optional suspension lowering kit that includes a shorter side stand (there’s no centre stand) to reduce seat height by 25 mm. The standard seat comes in two parts for extra passenger space, with a small storage compartment beneath the rear section.

There’s heaps of luggage options for city or dual-purpose use, while the crash bars fitted to my test bike are standard in India but optional elsewhere, although the hand guards are standard everywhere. The very high specs for an entry-level model also feature LED lights front, rear and for all direction signals, with the headlight incorporated in KTM’s distinctive “mask” styling for the bike’s front pod. This incorporates a two-position adjustable windscreen, although you need a screwdriver to vary it by 40 mm either way.

The 390 Adventure also comes equipped with an easily readable full-colour five-inch TFT dash, which automatically adapts to variations in ambient light. The menu switch on the left side of the taper-section aluminium handlebar lets you change ABS or TC settings and scroll through the screen info, and you can connect your smartphone to the bike via the optional KTM MY RIDE system, as well as select turn-to-turn navigation via the app. Nothing stays still, of course, but at present this makes the 390 Adventure likely to stand out as the best-equipped entry-level dual-purpose model from any manufacturer.

Riding Experience

My chance to find out how well the 390 Adventure performed during real-world riding came as I followed Joachim Sauer, two-time European Enduro champion and ISDE Vase winner, on a 120-km tour of the glorious Upper Austria countryside in KTM’s backyard, including a good stretch of gravel road and just a dash of genuine off-roading. I’m 5 foot, 10 inches tall, and the bike felt über-comfortable once I stood on the left footrest to hoist myself aboard to find that taper-section handlebar had been pulled back for a super-controllable stance. The seat narrows nicely where it meets the fuel tank to help make you feel at one with the bike as well as to put a leg down at rest, and although the padding is pretty firm, for my short ride on tarmac I had no complaints from my posterior.

But the most immediately noticeable thing was that the 390 Adventure is a proper full-size motorcycle, arguably even more so than its 390 Duke sister bike. The Adventure feels substantial and spacious, thanks also to the lower-mounted footrests, which nevertheless aren’t low enough to become an issue in ground clearance. Yet, paradoxically, the steering feels light and the bike is easy to ride off-road, especially on the high-speed gravel tracks Sauer led me along, where switching to the Off-road ABS provided a sense of real control.

This bike is more than merely safe to ride in the dirt for the less experienced – it’s also fun! But transferring to tarmac proved the 390 Adventure is a true dual-purpose bike that’s both stable in fast sweeping turns despite the skinny 100/90-19 front tire, yet agile and eager to change direction almost before you’d thought of doing so when swooping from side to side through a series of curves.

Continental Tires

I hadn’t ridden on Korean-made Continental tires before, but they provided heaps of confidence, thanks to the way their smoothly graduated profiles delivered a sense of predictability when changing direction at any speed, and in tighter turns I became increasingly more impressed with the level of grip at both ends. I could trail-brake into the apex of successive hillside hairpins without the ABS cutting in too obviously, then power out of them in a way that was quite unexpected for a 44 hp motorcycle. That’s because the lean angle-sensitive TC’s chosen setting and the surprising amount of grip from the chunky block-tread rear tire let me get hard on the throttle while still leaned over in a manner I’d have been impressed with on a Supermono road racer.

The harder I rode in pursuit of Herr Sauer, the stickier the tire seemed to be and the better the grip I had without any trace of the tire squirming. And arguably even more surprisingly, there was little hint of the tires drumming when running along straight stretches of tarmac, unlike some other much noisier dual-purpose knobbies will.

Well-Mannered

I was equally impressed with the 390 Adventure’s WP suspension package, which, thanks to the extensive wheel travel at either end, offers a welcome degree of suppleness allied with control over lumpy, bumpy, frost-ravaged mountain roads. That big front brake didn’t grab, even when I used it increasingly less gingerly on gravel before I realized fully how well the Off-road ABS is set up. On tarmac, it delivered benchmark braking by entry-level standards – yet this won’t frighten newbies – and the rear brake has lots of feel when riding off-road too.

But that great engine I was already well familiar with from streetbike use in the Duke and RC variants is a key ingredient in what makes the 390 Adventure such a good motorcycle, and anyone who’s ridden a 390 Duke will know how good an engine it is. It whirrs instantly into life at the thumb of the starter button before delivering really punchy acceleration up through the gears, although you must keep it revving above 4,000 rpm for smooth pickup on a wide-open throttle without any trace of transmission snatch. With 22 ft-lb of torque already on tap at 6,000 rpm, you don’t need to use the smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox too hard, although the light, progressive-action clutch feeds out very controllably during city use. And both the clutch and brake levers are adjustable – not something you see on other such entry-level products.

Elsewhere, the optional two-way powershifter was perfectly set up with just the right amount of pressure needed to operate it in either direction, which is hugely advantageous off-road too – you have a greater sense of control when you don’t have to use the clutch on loose surfaces and can hold on tight to the handlebar grips to steer your way out of trouble.

Revs mount steadily rather than hurriedly, though, but up above 6,000 revs acceleration is even more zestful and there’s a good sense of flywheel effect, with a long-legged feel to its performance – unexpected from an engine with just 373 cubes – thanks to what seems to be a very flat torque curve. Roll-on response in the higher gears is quite good, and immediate, without needing to hook down a ratio and rev the engine hard to get any sense of zest – a crucial feature in many markets where riders resist using revs to save fuel and so get used to short-shifting all the time.

This super-flexible eager-revving engine’s performance makes the 390 Adventure invigorating to ride: the bike literally pulls off its 1,300 rpm idle speed mark without excessive use of the light-action clutch, making for an excellent town bike. It’s pretty forgiving as well as torquey, with a totally linear acceleration all through the rev band, with that extra little kick above 6,000 rpm when revs begin to pick up a bit faster. There’s no vibration at any speed, thanks to the counterbalancer doing its job, and also no need to flirt with the soft-action 10,200 rpm limiter – I shifted up at 8,000 rpm and didn’t seem to sacrifice momentum. But this is also a surprisingly fast 373 cc motorcycle – 8,200 rpm in top gear produced 150 km/h on the digital speedo, with the bike tracking dead straight and still with no undue vibration, and with pretty good protection from the windscreen set at its higher setting.

In the ultra-accessible 390 Adventure, KTM and Bajaj have together produced what’s likely to be a very significant motorcycle in the global marketplace. This is a small(er)- displacement full-size motorcycle that punches way above its weight, and in doing so is certain to bring the wide-open world of adventure touring to a vast new audience in terms of their age and/or income. This is the modern-day version of the first Yamaha Ténéré XT600Z, which essentially invented adventure biking back in 1983 when it was first produced.

The KTM 390 Adventure is that significant a model – and just wait until you ride it before telling me I’m wrong.

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