Bike-scooters/ First-drive/ 2023 KTM 390 Duke | Dancing with the Devil | First Ride Review

2023 KTM 390 Duke | Dancing with the Devil | First Ride Review

Dancing with the Devil


Ungodly looks, performance and handling


Tyres could be a bit better


Several expletives were hurled by everyone who rode the 2013 KTM 390 Duke for the first time. Some so gnarly, they wouldn't just make this magazine R-rated, they would get it banned in most conservative provinces. Revoking the same emotions as the legendary and hallowed Yamaha RD350 was no small feat, yet it achieved it in modern times and that too, at a salivating introductory price. A decade later, and the Devil has returned, to make us commit sins yet again. To make us do things that are bad, in a God man's eyes. But, the regime has changed drastically as there are more angels and demons flying in the air. Eyeing every chance to dethrone the Devil. Is the new 390 Duke maniacal enough to rule the streets again? Is it approachable enough to bewitch newer riders? The task at hand was to find the answers on one eventful day, without getting hurt in the process.

Shaking hands with the Devil

Not to get hurt in the process included maintaining caution in the proximity of the fuel tank, for the extensions are so sharp that they might pierce deep into a bison's skin, let alone a human's. When you can't get your eyes off of something, even after spending an entire day with it, you know it's special. The new 390 Duke is a lot of things: sharp, sleek, sexy and muscular. But this hypnotizing aura is because despite being all these contradictory adjectives, it looks proportionate. Not an overkill, which I first assumed looking at the pictures. The redesigned headlamp cluster with exclusive-to-the-390 DRLs, and the sharp tank extensions which go on forever, provide the 390 Duke with a rather menacing stance. The fuel tank not only looks even more muscular than before, it also can hold 1.5-litre of more fuel. If you think in that direction, the 390 Duke could be a fine example of form meets function because the lighter alloys and hollower brake rotors have direct impact on the riding dynamics. Lesser unsprung weight, the same formula that was applied to the 2022 RC 390 as well. 

The rider is greeted to an entirely different, yet familiar cockpit view. It's a Duke! And that feeling never goes away, doesn't matter from which angle you look at it or at how much angle you lean it. But more on that later. The core ethos of what makes it a Duke is reflected in each and every department. Lacing their motorcycles with modern-day technology and some first-in-segment wizardry, is what KTM has mastered over the years. And that continues with the new 390 Duke as well. The new 5-inch TFT screen might be similar in size but it gets different animations which are more modern, snazzy and vibrant. The UI has been tweaked too, and so has been the switchgear which now looks more premium but I'm hoping to see a slight bump in the quality in the production-spec version. 

It's a generational upgrade and when a vigilant manufacturer like KTM does it, they don't go half way. Same is displayed in the choicest cycle parts chosen to compose this machine, proper top-shelf stuff. Up front, there's an adjustable set of USD forks which get compression and rebound adjustability and the new offset monoshock can be adjusted for rebound and preload. The offset monoshock has allowed KTM to bestow the Duke with more ground clearance which now stands at 183mm and a bigger airbox for the engine as well. The trellis frame is claimed to be an all-new unit with more bling and stiffness being added by the gorgeously sculpted aluminum diecast subframe, also seen on the bigger, badder Dukes like the 790, 890 and the Superduke. 

The Superduke is considered to be the holy grail of naked streetfighters out there and the 390 Duke is making the bigger Duke very proud with its overall design philosophy. From some angles, it looks like an athletic extra-terrestrial being, especially from the front 3/4th angle. And as you zoom out a little, the rear 3/4th bit will remind you of an Italian supermodel, with its sleekness. Despite the fact that there's so much happening on the bodywork, the sharp rear section included, it's commendable how KTM has managed to make the 390 Duke aesthetic. However, I believe that the same radical styling on the 125 Duke would turn out to be a little overkill. Considering the puny performance figures it packs.

Hugging the Devil

You must have heard the age old adage 'shaking hands with the Devil' but this particular being doesn't like shaking hands. It is a little too formal for it. It likes hugging the rider and depending on its mood, it will either stab you in the back or clutch you so tight that all your sadness will just wash away. The ball is in your right wrist. 

It is the right wrist that summons all the performance this diabolical engine packs in. The LC4C, as KTM likes to call it, is a bigger and heavily reworked engine which now displaces 399cc. The increase in displacement has facilitated the introduction of even more performance which is now delivered in a more polished way. Don't let the word polish fool you because the 390 Duke still wants to be ridden in absolute anger. Smack it hard and reap the rewards. That's not said by her but the new 390 Duke. To roll out the cardinal numbers, it now puts down 46PS and 39NM, as opposed to 43.5PS and 37NM made by the previous Duke. Not only does the new Duke make more power, it also delivers it slightly earlier in the rev range. As a result, the judder in the initial gears at lower revs that was there in the second-gen 390 Duke, is eliminated to a certain degree. What would also aid in your urban assaults is the updated curved radiator with two cooling fans and we cannot wait to test the heat management of the motorcycle in the infamous Mumbai traffic once we get it for a road test.

The new 390 Duke also gets three ride modes to choose from: Rain, Street and Track. We were mostly riding in the Street mode because the Track mode just changes the UI of the TFT screen a little and unlocks the launch control which is first-in-its segment. In both Street and Track modes, the electronics are a little subdued as you can unleash each and every pony tied down in the LC4c's stable. In the Rain mode, the 390 Duke becomes a lot calmer and a bit slower too. After impressing us with the improved tractability, the 390 Duke went on to establish that at the end of the day, it is still a Duke! 

The reason why, is because of its strong mid range and the maniacal top end surge. After crossing 5000 rpm, the powertrain wakes up and serves itself a cup of Americano. Slowly, that cup becomes a bucket and the caffeinated surge kicks you further back in your seat as the powertrain bangs on the rev limiter in a rather violent way. I'm not that accustomed to the front wheel facing skywards but after our shoot got over, this God of Mischief convinced me to turn the traction control off and try some sinful acts. In the first try itself, the front wheel popped and stayed afloat for a brief while. After that, several wheelies were popped in safe surroundings and after coming home, several priests were contacted because the Devil had almost possessed me by then.

The extra sprinkling of performance over this scrumptious recipe is served on a lighter plate too because the new 390 Duke weighs 168.3kgs, lighter by almost 4 kilograms. Thumbing the starter button reveals that the exhaust note from the new underbelly unit is not only throatier but more refined too. And that shows in its performance as well. The new 390 feels and is faster than before but all the performance is now delivered with more finesse. The gear shifts feel nice and precise and the quickshifter too, works a lot better than before! Then there's the bunch of electronic nannies having your back at all times, including cornering ABS, switchable ABS and traction control, speed limiter as well as launch control.

Dancing with the Devil

After hugging and familiarizing itself, this Devil will invite you to dance with it. And once you do that, there's no returning to the land of mortals. On each and every tune, this Devil will egg you to dance faster and faster. It is not just its passive aggressive nature that binds you to do it, it is the friendly smirk that convinces you too.

This is the thing about the Devil, no? It invites you first. It summons you with a not so nefarious voice. And that's the thing with the new 390 Duke as well. The seat height has gone down to 800mm for the India-spec variant, making it more accessible for shorter riders. Ergonomically, things aren't that different as you still sit upright with a slight forward crouch and legs bent a little, thanks to the rearset footpegs. It is a comfortable place to be and I, personally, wouldn't mind showing the new 390 Duke how beautiful this country is. As long as it promises not to eat any children along the way because of the way it looks, I'm pretty sure that this is something that goes on in its head at all times. If you find any potholes, holy speed bumps or fainted children along the way, be rest assured that the new 390 Duke won't scrape its belly, thanks to its 183 mm ground clearance.

Lighter unsprung mass made the new RC 390 a bit more agile and nimble than before. The same is experienced on the new 390 Duke as well. For riders out there seeking ultimate precision and hot, hot lap times, adjustable suspension at both the ends would prove to be a god-sent alm. Even in its stock setting, the balance between ride quality and urgency around bends is something worth appreciating. The new 390 Duke feels more forgiving yet more precise at the same time. Even the updated braking setup would egg you to dance faster around bends. The brilliant chassis, cycle part wizardry and the explosive powertrain, they all work in a perfect synchronization to deliver a ride that would end with a lot of expletives, laughter and a thank you note to the almighty that you're still walking on earth. This experience is only held back by the set of Metzeler tyres which are potent for regular use but if you wish to visit the canyons a little too often, with an intent to have some devilish fun, you might want to switch to stickier rubber.


It's here and it's wearing orange clothes. With a smirk like that, I'm sure its intentions aren't pious. It wants to hurt. And it wants to rule. The streets, back alleys, racetracks, highways, everything where it can be. Its teeth are now stronger, sharper than before with even more precision and bite force. And its spells? More powerful and enchanting than before. The problem is, you wouldn't even know it's here for it is a friendly Devil. One that bewitches you first, possesses you and then feeds on your anger. Run away, or dance with it. I would suggest you to do the latter because sometimes, it is essential to Dance with the Devil, if you wish to experience a frenzied euphoria, maniacal laughter and don't give two shits about what the world thinks. Agh well, looks like it is time to call the priest!

TopGear Magazine July 2024