What kind of bike do you need for touring? When I started riding, one of my dad’s friends said he’d never take anything smaller than a 750 out on the highway. These days, he’d be laughed at; I’ve seen people complaining their 800 wasn’t enough machine for the long haul. But, I’d contend that one of the best touring bikes you can buy is half that size. The KTM 390 Adventure is a very good travel bike for Canadians in 2023, despite its small size, and this year’s minor update makes it even better.
The technical stuff
For 2023, the KTM 390 Adventure is still powered by the 373cc single-cylinder powerplant it debuted with back in 2020—and the engine goes back before that, when it was used in the RC390 sportbike and 390 Duke.
This is not to say the engine is outdated. It’s not super-powerful, only making 44 hp at 9,000 rpm and 27.3 lb-ft of torque at 7,000 rpm. But that’s about the same horsepower as the old 650 singles from Japan, more than Suzuki’s DR-Z400, which is really the only other 400 thumper on the market right now. And unlike the dated trailbike competition, the 390 Adventure comes with leaning-sensitive traction control and ABS. If the buyer pays extra, they can also have a quickshifter enabled (the wiring and parts are installed from the factory, but you must pay to have the software turned on by a dealership).
The 390 Adventure comes with a decidedly modern TFT screen and distinctive mantis-style LED headlight. The TFT displays your speed and rpm; there’s a fuel gauge and other basic info. Ride Mode and status of your ABS and traction control systems are also shown. To change the electronic options, there’s switchgear on the left-hand handlebar. The 390 also has a Euro-style high-beam switch on the left-hand bar, which can triggered quickly to signal overtakes or to catch oncoming traffic’s attention.
The frame is a steel tube arrangement. It’s nothing fancy, but if you like the look of Euro naked bikes, you’ll probably like the 390 Adventure, because that’s mostly what it is—an overhaul of the 390 Duke, with a few key changes.
Suspension is from KTM partner WP. The APEX fork is adjustable for compression and rebound, with easy-to-use clickers on top of the tubes. The APEX shock is adjustable for preload and rebound.
All this is stuff we’ve seen before—the big change for 2023 was a set of spoked wheels (19-inch front, 17-inch rear). This might not sound like a big deal to street riders, but for off-road enthusiasts, it’s important. Spoked wheels mean you can ride the bike harder off-road without worrying about the rims getting smashed up.
Claimed wet weight with the new wheels is 172 kg. That’s down a bit from last year’s weight, but not much.
Out on the road
Many jaded power junkies would think a 373cc single might not be terribly fun on the road—and they’d be wrong.
It is true that the little single could benefit from more torque. However, unlike KTM’s bigger engines, you can absolutely thrash this thumper on a back road with little worry about serious trouble from Johnny Law—and the quickshifter does help you pick up speed quickly. Instead of skipping a beat as you clutch in for an upshift, you hold the throttle open and row the six-speed gearbox skyward uninterrupted. Huzzah!
It’s not going to replace the 500cc between the 390 and the 890, but the quickshifter does keep things very entertaining, and helps you keep a closer pace with larger bikes. I rode the previous version of this bike around Newfoundland for 10 days in 2021 and on back roads, the 390 had enough jam to haul me and my luggage around at extra-legal speed all day. The only place I really lacked power was on against-the-wind highway passes, on long grades. Even there, I was still going faster than the posted limit.
The single isn’t too buzzy, either. There’s a weird lumpy lope at idle, but once you pick up speed, that disappears. At the end of a day’s ride, you’ll still know you were on a single for hours, but it’s very all-day rideable.
Even if you don’t have the quickshifter (and I recommend you spring for that option; it was under $300 last time I checked), the slip/assist clutch is very light and you won’t get cramped riding in urban stop-and-go traffic. The Katoom handles city slicker riding as well as it handles back roads, and would be well worth a look from any urbanite. The long-travel suspension handles bad pavement well, and there’s certainly lots of that to go around in our major cities these days.
In the dirt
Speaking of the suspension: Off-road, this is now the limiting factor. Previously, worries of damaged rims might have convinced me to keep the speed down. Now, it comes down to ground clearance and suspension travel and performance. It’s no enduro, but if your bike is equipped with a metal skid plate, you can realistically pick your way just about anywhere (my tester came with a KTM Power Parts skid plate, but there are many aftermarket options as well). The suspension will stop you from full-speed assaults on bumpy or whoopy roads, but you’ll get there plenty fast enough. Turn off traction control and put the ABS into off-road mode (rear wheel can still skid, but the front has antilock brakes) for better control in the dirt.
I will say that strapping a duffel bag of clothes and camping equipment onto the 390’s tailsection seemed to seriously impact the shock’s rebound. If you plan to load the machine up for touring, expect to dial your speed back off-road, or maybe fiddle with the suspension settings to minimize the impact of the luggage.
But generally speaking, this is a very approachable, rider-friendly adventure bike. In some ways, I think it’s a modern equivalent to the old Yamaha XT225 series. Those machines were much different (basically dirt bikes with lights), but they were and are famous for ease of use off-road, as long as you didn’t mind taking your time. The 390 Adventure is much the same. It’s light, and low to the ground, and the wide bars make for easy steering. As a result, on the road, you can really push it through the corners. Off-road, you can tackle stuff that might be intimidating for new riders on a bigger bike.
Aside from issues with the keyswitch (which wouldn’t lock, and the key only worked in one direction), I had no mechanical issues with the KTM 390 Adventure. The quickshifter and EFI seemed a little lumpy the first time I rode the ’23 model, but that was in the break-in period. The notchiness disappeared after that.
I actually found this 390’s ergos a bit better than the ’21 model I rode. I think this was simply due to KTM rotating the bars backwards, as they ran this machine in the KTM Adventure Rally in July. However, I do have short legs, at a 30ish-inch inseam, and taller riders might not be so happy in the saddle. Try before you buy! KTM has demo rides in the summer, so that should let you know if it fits you.
At the end of a decently long test, I think the updated KTM 390 Adventure is a very fun little motorcycle at a good price—but not as good as before. When this bike debuted, it was under $7k. Then, in ’21, the machine I rode was just over $7k. Now, I see dealers across Canada advertising the 390 Adventure for $8k or more.
That’s still a fair price, considering what you’re getting. But it’s not so good that riders aren’t going to consider the updated KLR650 instead, or something else from Japan. If they’re putting the bike on a payment plan, a few extra bucks a month isn’t a big deal, and the Austrian machine isn’t as shockingly affordable as it used to be.
But as for me? If I was in the sub-$10k motorcycle market, this would be one of the first machines on my list to consider.