I am fortunate enough to ride motorcycles of various capacity, size, style and speed for an occupation. Almost every bike I ride is fun in its own right, but there are few machines that get my jollies going like a small displacement sportsbike on a racetrack where you’ll only see 160 km/h top speed.
Straight up top speed doesn’t really do much for me. It’s the corners where I have fun, and a little (read, under 500cc) sportsbike like this KTM RC 390 is the perfect cocktail on which to get moderately drunk on the joys of motorcycling.
It’s also criminally fun to round up guys on big bikes and make them feel rather inferior. Incredibly, many riders still confuse size with speed, forgoing the crucially important lessons a bike such as this can impart to them. The look of embarrassment when they take their helmets off and know a sportsbike designed for “less experienced riders” has just disappeared from their pampered R1 is worth the ticket price alone.
Little bikes are what the best use to get better. From Jack Miller down, small capacity machines on medium to slow speed tracks teach a rider the finer aspects of riding at an affordable price. KTM has doubled down on this theory with the new RC 390, developing the machine alongside the man I shared a pit awning with at the 2022 Isle of Man TT, Shaun Anderson, to get as many riders as possible excited about track riding.
One of Anderson’s points in helping develop the motorcycle was it needed to be as easy as possible to convert to a track bike. The sub-frame is now detachable and the bodywork comes off easier with less fasteners so race bodywork can be quickly fitted for a weekend’s track ride.
Said bodywork is now much larger overall than it was in 2021. The wider handlebars and fairing, generous 13.7 litre fuel tank that sits over a 40 percent larger airbox and a revised seat make for a more comfortable riding position for taller riders out there. I raced an RC 390 back in 2017 for a few rounds in Alabama and, err, let’s just say that poor little bike looked like it was having a rough time of it with my 183 cm frame on it.
Anderson’s development mantra of the RC being easier to turn into a track bike even extends to the chassis where there’s bracing on the inside of the frame that can be altered to change the torsional stiffness for racing, vastly changing the handling characteristic of the little pocket rocket.
Overall, the chassis doesn’t retain the same stiffness as the outgoing RC 390, which was another of Anderson’s criteria. There’s a fine balance between plushness on the road and race-bred stiffness for the track, and the new RC leans more towards the plush side of the equation to give the rider who is more than likely learning how to read what their bike is doing underneath them more front-end feel.
Much of the attention given to the new RC has centered around the Jenny Craig program. Weight has been shed at every possible angle—3.4 kilograms has gone from the wheels alone, making an enormous difference in unsprung mass. Less of that means less effort to turn, stop and accelerate the motorcycle, giving the RC a competitive edge against the Yamaha YZF-R3 and Kawasaki Ninja 400—something it needs given it has only one cylinder compared to the former’s two to produce its claimed 43 horsepower and 37 Newton Meters of torque from its essentially unchanged engine.
Further weight savings have come in the form of 0.95 kg gone from the new ByBre brakes (again, less unsprung weight), and 1.5 kg has disappeared from the revised steel trellis chassis.
The chassis, already pretty sharp in outgoing trim, is now right at the pointy end of racetrack agility. Given the weight savings, the 390 scythes through corner apexes, munching them like a little hungry hippo.
WP is once again responsible for the suspension (WP is owned by KTM, after all), with a fully adjustable 43 mm fork offering a massive 30 clicks of compression and rebound adjustment, as well as pre-load. The shock isn’t quite as adjustable with pre-load and rebound adjustment on offer but not compression damping. Although in top-flight racing almost everyone will replace the fork internals and shock for a more focused set-up, the average fast track day rider won’t need to, saving a few tasty dollars in the process.
The motor may be largely unchanged, but let’s not discount the 40 percent larger airbox and new exhaust system that’s been modeled on one Brad Binder’s RC 16 MotoGP weapon. A little louder and much better looking, the exhaust finishes off the RC’s aesthetic nicely, giving it more than a touch of racetrack style. KTM has also remapped the RC so the initial throttle response isn’t as abrupt, but, truth be told, it wasn’t that bad to begin with.
Extra cred must be given to the electronics suite for the RC. To say the word “suite” when talking about an entry-level sportbike feels a little odd, given the Kawasaki Ninja 400 and Yamaha YZF-R3’s electronics mainly consist of a key and ignition barrel, but KTM has gone full send for the RC rider in this department. A five-inch, full color TFT dash is mission control for the RC, and it’s one of the most impressive on the market today given the price.
The electronics feature a three-axis IMU and thus you get Cornering ABS, on/off traction control that, try as I dare, I simply couldn’t get to kick in during my laps at Willow Springs’ Streets of Willow racetrack (and that’s a good thing). A neat feature of the ABS is you’ve got the Supermoto Mode, where you can disengage the rear ABS and back the little RC into corners. Again, this is a feature some bikes more than twice the price don’t have.
However, one of the electronic additions proved rather troublesome at the launch, and that was the optional quick-shifter. Although great to have such an option for small capacity sportbike, the quick-shifter’s performance was erratic and made selecting the right gear, especially on downshifts, a bit of a lottery. Disengaging the quick-shifter and going old school by matching the revs on the down-shift with the clutch somewhat alleviated the problem, but the gearbox was still a weak point in the RC’s arsenal.
In this way, the RC’s gearbox reminded me of the first generation of the RC8 superbike, which had a bastard of a problem of jumping out of gear when you least wanted it to. The gearbox certainly teaches you to be smooth with your gear changes—a lazy shift where you don’t get your foot out of the way or allow it to linger in the lever will be punished with a miss-shift, so being direct and quick is the name of the game.
The 2022 RC 390 comes in at $8399, so similar money as Yamaha YZF-R3SP and Kawasaki Ninja 400, but a bit cheaper than Honda’s CBR500R. Given the KTM comes with all those electronics, it makes for a pretty compelling argument but the proof is in ride. The RC’s track heritage is unquestionable and proof the single-cylinder motor is far from dead as many pundits have suggested.
It’s a machine that will give everyone from Brad Binder to the teenager on the street wanting their first sportbike a massive grin, especially when you’re coming up to that R1 at your local track day, he hits the brakes, and you and your little orange weapon rail past on the outside. Those are the times you’re glad you ride a motorcycle.
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