The 300-400cc segment in India now has a fair number of players and the newest two are both from KTM - the 2017 KTM RC 390 came out a few weeks ago and the KTM 390 Duke is fresh from the mad Austro-Indian oven. The competition is pretty capable too. The stars of the segment include the new Bajaj Dominar 400 which is the cheapest motorcycle in its class and the Yamaha YZF-R3 which is, despite its terrible tyre selection, an extremely, extremely likeable motorcycle.
But first, the Benelli TNT 300. This is the strange one in the segment. It has the highest suspension specification as well as twin discs up front. And yet, the Benelli needs loads and loads of revs before it feels its 38PS and at 196kg, it is the heaviest motorcycle in its class. It is a comfortable motorcycle and is reasonably effective down the highway but the Rs 3.3 lakh (ex-Delhi) price? There are better deals almost anywhere you look, including used Kawasaki Ninja 650s which make for terrific India bikes.
The next two oldest motorcycles are the Kawasaki Ninja 300 and the Mahindra Mojo. The Kawasaki has been around for a while and like the R3, this is a terrific little sportsbike. It isn't too committed and I like the 250R that it replaced, all the power isn't in the last 2,000rpm either. Kawasaki's careful updates - like the duct that channels hot air away from the rider - makes the Ninja 300 a rather useful motorcycle and it's got extremely well-developed track abilities too. Like all the twins, the price is high though. At Rs 3.64 lakh, it's Rs 35,000 more than the TNT 300 and that's a sweet upgrade in our books. But when you look at the KTM's sitting roughly Rs 1.4 lakhs below, or the Dominar 400 at half the price, the Kawasaki doesn't look so shiny.
The Mahindra Mojo, similarly, is a sweet motorcycle but an extremely subjective choice. To us, the highlight is the engine. It's a lovely, lovely single that enjoys its work, makes great, effortless torque and it makes the basis of a fantastic highway tourer. At Rs 1.70 lakh ex-Delhi, it isn't silly expensive either and the Mojo story holds great promise. Unfortunately, the chassis is something else altogether. You cannot call it a good handler in the traditional sense, it's a bit too quirky for that. On the flip side, ride quality as well as build quality are excellent. The Mojo is like a peculiar speciality dish - some will love it and never consider anything else and others will never acquire the taste. A new chassis, though, it could transform the Mahindra.
That leaves four strong motorcycles in the fray. Of these, the 2017 KTM RC 390 is the most specific in terms of role. It is a hard-core sportsbike and in that sense its appeal is to a narrower band of customers. The new 2017 graphics, brakes and ride-by-wire either fix or improve all of the relatively few weak points of the RC, and it remains a stunning performer in the corners and at the racetrack. The design still looks unique and appealing and to us. This remains the ultimate affordable sportsbike for the money in India. The upgrades add significant value to the motorcycle without altering the price by a lot and to us KTM India has nailed it.
While the RC 390 is the most expensive single here, the Bajaj is at the other end of the price segment. The Bajaj Dominar 400 is a good package on paper. For just Rs 1.5 lakh - that really is a stunning price - you get an ABS-equipped 35PS motorcycle that will hit 153kmph and cruise at 120kmph. LED headlights and all that jazz make the case that much stronger. On the road, however, the Dominar is a little less than the sum of its parts. Our test bike constantly vibrated with the vibes coming from the pegs, tank, seat, bars and levers at various points of the rev range. Bajaj says a fix is coming and we cannot wait because it is the singular thing that prevents the Dominar 400 from being the highway phenom it could be. The other issue is extremely stiff rear suspension, which also, we are told, is something Bajaj will sort out. But the Dominar goes well, handles nicely and is comfortable too. But forget all the little niggles. The straightforward deal is this. The Dominar 400 is a 375cc motorcycle that will arrive in your garage at a jaw-dropping price.
That leaves us with two delicious motorcycles. The Yamaha YZF-R3 is like a teddy bear that knows kung fu and has you under its protection. With really unbecoming footwear. There are only two flaws in the Yamaha proposition, really. First is that Yamaha decided to cut costs by offering a non-radial pair of MRFs as OE tyres on the R3. This robs the Yamaha of so much performance that you should just budget Rs 20,000 more to upgrade to the Michelins it normally sells with or get Pirellis or Metzelers in the OE sizes. The difference, we promise, is night and day.
Yamaha also continues to not offer ABS even as an option which, on a motorcycle already this expensive, seems slightly too conservative for this Japanese company. But on the flip side, the Yamaha is the sweetest thing. Whether you're crawling in traffic or out on a high-speed cruise down the highway, the Yamaha is always in its element. Economy is reasonable, performance is delivered without complaint at all parts of the rev range (though higher up is better), and the sheer refinement and ease of the Yamaha is stunning. It combines the twin-cylinder engine with one of the lightest overall packages in the segment to produce a compelling little sportsbike. And in nature it is as forgiving as the R15 which means if you're learning to go faster, the Yamaha's 169kmph is the very nature of performance you should have on your side. Perfect? Almost. As with the twins, the Yamaha is Rs 3.27 lakh ex-Delhi - cheaper than the Benelli(!) - but if you add the cost of the tyres, it still rings in under the Rs 3.5 lakh mark - we like a lot.
The new kid of the block is a phenom, though. The KTM 390 Duke has a reputation as being a naughty little motorcycle as well as a bit of a giant killer. The new design removes the space and range constraints that the old one had while the LED headlights, the TFT screen and the finish levels suggest that the new KTM will look and feel more expensive and therefore more attractive. The KTM has also not forgotten what it is good at - so despite the extra weight, the KTM retains its peak power, adds more torque and offers standard ABS as well. At Rs 2.25 lakh, it matches the 2017 RC 390 for price but it is probably the best motorcycle of all in our books in the class - we will confirm this at the road test.
Is the new KTM 390 Duke the toast of the segment like the outgoing one was? Let us know in the comments.