New vs old: KTM 390 Duke vs Yamaha RD 350
Manufacturers are constantly trying to eke out that last bit of performance they can from the smallest of engines. There is no dearth of tech-laden, hyper-powered, lust worthy machines that would make enthusiasts go weak in the knees, but let’s face it – these are not within reach for most of us. Not everyone can afford a litre-class bike, but everyone does want a machine that is fast, fun to ride, and invokes a sense of awe. And I firmly believe that is how a motorcycle should be, unless you are Marc Marquez. A motorcycle should have the ability to command respect. And machines back then did just that – motorcycles like the Yamaha RD350 were seemingly deceptive as they had the ability to scare even those accustomed to much larger machinery. With a kerb weight of around 150kg and a power output of over 30bhp, the RD350’s formidable power delivery invoked fear and awe. Two-strokes were a different breed, and though it isn’t really possible to recreate the magic with four-stroke engines, we are getting close. Motorcycles are getting increasingly compact, offering performance that leaves you smiling. The closest to the RD350 if you ask me, is the newest kid on the block, the KTM 390 Duke.
The 200 Duke charmed enthusiasts with its abilities. It offered ample performance from a 200cc single, smoking everything that came its way. And when KTM announced the 390 Duke, bigger, faster and meaner were the words that first came to mind. Not to mention, scary. Based on the same platform as the 200, the 390 offers almost 100 per cent more performance! Who would have thought the 200’s chassis and cycle parts could handle nearly double the power? Given the rave reviews the 390 has received, the only question in mind when I thumbed its starter was – how explosive will it be? It was just a matter of seconds before I was grinning inside my helmet. I have ridden some of the fastest machines on the planet but the 390 was an instant hit in its own right, just like a highly anticipated sequel that betters the original movie.
Mid range punch is serious – crack the throttle open and acceleration is urgent, for a moment your mind wants to revolt, asking you to slow down. A few minutes in the saddle and I knew the 390 was my kind of a motorcycle: exciting, fast and one that lets you have bucketloads of fun. Wanting to explore the bike’s abilities better, I couldn’t wait to take the 390 to one of my favourite riding roads, the one leading to Aamby Valley near Lonavala. The ride involves a highway run on NH4 (the old Mumbai-Bangalore Highway) which is mostly devoid of traffic, before you get to the hill station. The ride up from Lonavala to Aamby is more of a proving ground, with long twisting sections. The route is popular with bikers, and having ridden and driven there countless times, it was perfect to assess the 390’s widely acclaimed dynamics too.
On the open highway I got to crack the whip and give the 43 ponies free rein. Crisp throttle response and a cracker of an engine sounds fun? That is exactly what the bigger Duke is on the highway. Gear ratios are a smidgen taller than the 200 and overtaking is a breeze, without the need for too many downshifts. The 390 Duke is adept at tricking your senses into thinking that you are slower than you are. It is easy to assume you are doing 90-100kmph when you are at 120kmph or even more. Despite the speeds the engine feels calm, and performance is strong throughout the rev band. Revs build up so quickly that it is easy to hit the rev limiter in first and second gear. The engine feels slightly gruff, but that is part of the KTM experience.Conditions permitting, the 390 Duke should do 130-140kmph all day without breaking into a sweat. The wider handlebar and lowered seat (10mm lower than the 200 Duke) should ideally aid in the munching of distances, but the 390 feels as cramped as the 200 given its dimensions.
Around twisties the 390 was an absolute revelation – it handled beautifully, egging me to push harder. The chassis offers loads of confidence in sync with the able suspension, but the star attraction on the 390 are the Metzeler tyres. The tyres feel vastly superior to any production motorcycle in the country, and it is near impossible to lose grip on a dry surface, not to mention exceptional grip in the wet. On the flip side, the 200’s performance was known to chew its fabulous MRFs in under 10,000km. It remains to be seen how the Metzelers take the 390’s explosive performance. Thanks to the 200’s proven chassis, the 390 feels light and nimble, and is eager to change direction. Brakes work well too, but I found the ABS to be a bit too intrusive – it kicks in a tad too early, robbing you of some feel. That said, with a radial mounted, four-piston 300mm disc up front and a 230mm single disc on the rear wheel the 390 Duke boasts some of the best braking equipment in the country today. A couple of hours in the saddle and the 390 Duke seemed to tick all the right boxes for me, and I was beginning to believe that this is the ideal motorcycle for a whole range of motorcyclists – perfect for someone upgrading from a 250, and a great motorcycle for a superbike owner to have in the garage as well.
On the way back to Lonavala, a coffee break had a surprise in store. As if in response to my thoughts and the obvious comparisons, a well-maintained, visibly fresh from restoration RD350 stood in the parking lot. The icing on the cake was it belonged to a friend, who had bought the bike after restoration just a couple of weeks back. All was good until I asked him the price – he bought the bike (nearly as old as I am) for a staggering 1.7 lakh rupees! This, without doubt, is a classic example of the reverence the RD350 evokes even today. The bike was ship shape and, as I was told, properly scary to ride. And the exorbitant pricing only added fuel to my thoughts – is the KTM 390 Duke a worthy contender to the RD’s throne? Then began the innumerable calculations over a few cups of coffee. To begin with, the 390 Duke did remind me of the RD350’s fearsome performance. It is said there aren’t many who have tamed the iconic RD350 – the instant surge of power to the rear wheel is known to enable the RD to wheelie in first, second and third gears! The 390 Duke, though it didn’t feel as potent, I can say with pride, that it is the first production motorcycle after the RD that can do a power wheelie in first gear.
In retrospect, such is the RD’s manic performance that every time I have tried to drag with an RD350 on a production motorcycle in the past, I have only found myself gasping in the cloud of smoke from its twin exhausts. Oh, two-strokes! The actual acceleration numbers of the RD350 are lost somewhere deep in the mysteries of motorcycling, but in my earnest knowledge I have heard a few. I am told that a primed and proper RD350 will hit the ton in less than seven seconds, going
on to register over 160kmph. Gulp. The Duke is the only machine that till date seems to get close with near matching figures – it hits the
ton in about six seconds and goes up to 160kmph. A true match for
the RD? I think so.
The acceleration on the 390 can cause you to lurch quite literally with its strong mid range, just like the RD350. Also, the 390 Duke can be quite scary in the hands of the inexperienced, your senses do not let you get a feel of the acceleration given its quick-revving 375cc four-stroke, liquid-cooled single-cylinder engine. The 390 may produce over 10bhp more than the RD, but that is inconsequential when you consider the way the two motorcycles can scare you. The RD was known for its power surges – there was a hint of uncertainty that scared riders. The KTM, as I mentioned, belies you into thinking you are not as fast as you actually are. Also, on the KTM, past 4000rpm is when the mid range punch literally kicks you in the backside and thrusts you forward.
The RD in the RD350 stands for ‘race derived’ – and true to the name it wasn’t a motorcycle to be ridden slowly or to be used for pottering around town. The KTM feels similar and enjoys being thrashed, and how! You can simply crack the throttle open in any gear and be assured of accelerating very quickly. It despises slow speeds, especially in traffic and revolts by spewing bursts of hot air on to your legs. You have to ensure you are above 4000rpm to keep the engine singing its song. It makes you want to avoid dropping your pace and instead search for gaps to squeeze through and with its diminutive size it also gives you the confidence to do so.
The RD350 prods you to do the same, but in a different manner, for a different reason. One of the worst nightmares of an RD350 rider has always been not being able to stop in time due to its horrid brakes. It made riders search for gaps simply because they knew they had no brakes to slow down! Ask any rider who has ridden the Yam in traffic and he will lament the lack of stopping power and dread riding hard just to not go into the back of a truck that is braking suddenly. The saving grace was its nimbleness that allowed riders to take a risk. But it made you work the brain continuously – like a rapid fire session – calculate the size of the gap, ensure you are on power to make it through and shoot. The 390 Duke also makes you work the brain in similar fashion, but is much more confident.
Coming back to the brakes, 390 Duke is pretty obviously leagues ahead. There is no comparison between the braking prowess since the RD is decades old, and the 390 Duke not only boasts of ample stopping power but gets ABS too. And as a special treat you also get a switch to turn the ABS off! The stoppie artist in me has always despised ABS, but new generation systems allow you to switch it off and hoist the rear wheel up as much as you want. The touch button for the same is a ‘hidden’ or unmarked one, in the bottom left of the 390’s digital display. A true hooligan.
In a nutshell, I can safely say that a worthy successor to the RD350’s performance throne has finally arrived. The 390 Duke’s power delivery feels equally explosive if not better, apart from offering an experience close to what the RD350 did. I even remember a fellow journalist and ardent fan of the RD350 stating that the KTM feels like a two-stroke. I couldn’t agree more. It possesses the ability to scare you, but that fear is also what makes you want to push harder. It cannot sound as epic as the RD 350’s two-stroke parallel-twin but the KTM sounds good in its own right. Well, at least for me. Also, just like the RD, the 390 Duke needs focus, attention and control to ride fast and enjoy.
For a newbie, it is scarily fast – it’s easy to get carried away with its power. But in the hands of the experienced, the 390 is immensely rewarding; it will have you smiling inside your helmet each time you twist the throttle. All this for just Rs 1.8 lakh ex-showroom, sounds like a dream come true, since this is more or less the asking price for a well-maintained RD350. Yes, the KTM 390 Duke is here to usurp the RD350’s throne of being the performance king as it ticks the two most important words in the dictionary of a biker – affordable and fun – just like the RD350 did in its heyday. And, best of all, it will scare you.
KTM 390 DUKE
Engine Single-cyl, 373cc, 4-stroke,
Power 43bhp @ 9000rpm
Torque 35Nm @ 7000rpm
0-100kmph 5.7 seconds
Top speed 168kmph
YAMAHA RD 350
Engine Parallel-twin, 347cc, 2-stroke, air-cooled
Power 31bhp @ 7500rpm
Torque 30Nm @ 7000rpm
0-100kmph 7.0 seconds
Top speed 160kmph
Price ` 1.7 lakh (approx, used)