It’s very obvious that the three motorcycles you see here aren’t the same kind. It’s also perhaps equally evident that they weren’t designed for the same type of person either. However, as the photographs suggest, they’re probably not even made for the same sort of species.
If you’ve come across the age-old illustration, The Road to Homo Sapiens you’ll know what I’m on about. While there are some questionably entertaining variations of it on the Internet, I can’t help but correlate that popular depiction with the photograph below in particular. Several generations of Indian motorcyclists have painted a future crammed with full-faired, GP bikes for the roads but, as you can see here, the newest machine here looks like it was made for the glorious ’60s while it’s the oldest that’s actually fully dressed up. So, did we get it all wrong? Or is this story going to end in a hopeless analogy involving a surgical scalpel and a Swiss knife, only to end with a verdict that will burden subjectivity? There’s only one way to find out – and I’ll try and find you one definitive winner.
Now, ever since the KTM 390 Duke entered your motorcycling realm in 2013, it has single-handedly won every single comparison test it has featured in. The reason has been simple. It’s the most powerful, most fun and most feature-rich motorcycle to carry that sort of price tag. Since 2017, we have a very revised version of the 390 Duke on sale and it has, as one would expect, only gotten better. On the other hand, Kawasaki took its time discovering the merits of localisation and it’s after five years since the Ninja 300 made its Indian debut that its appeal as a sporty, value-for-money motorcycle has come through in its entirety. But then came the twist in this rosy plot in the form of the Royal Enfield Interceptor 650, which shocked, stunned and swept the world’s attention away in a classical, hard-not-to-love package. As it stands today, all three of these motorcycles can be yours for under Rs 3 lakh apiece. What a time to be alive, no?!
Let’s start with the Ninja 300. I prolonged my stint on the only faired motorcycle in this comparison for as long as I could, because I just don’t crave a committed riding position any more. But my turn eventually arrived and I was left surprised, to say the least. Sure, it’s sporty and ideal for hanging off with your elbows aiming for the tarmac, but it’s hardly aggressive. The low seat, fairly neutral-set clip-on handlebars and decently rear-set foot pegs make it only a few notches more serious than an everyday street bike and, as a result, when the twisties do arrive, you find yourself with enough energy in reserve to take them head-on. Where the sports bike format does restrict is over bad sections of road. We encountered one particularly ghastly bit of road that stretched for well over 10km and out here, the Ninja 300 was most stressful, despite its suspension working hard to keep it going.
The Interceptor loves fast, sweeping curves but the soft suspension tends to wallow at very high speeds.
This bad stretch of road affected the Interceptor the least. To credit for this is its squarely neutral riding stance which involves no more than an ever-so-slight reach for the handlebar and a mildly rear-set pair of foot pegs. The suspension, too, plays a big role here but we’ll get to that in a bit. Even over the really bad bits, the Interceptor never got unmanageable, because the riding position just puts you so much more in charge. Thankfully, it doesn’t take away from cornering agility either. The wide-ish handlebar offers great leverage and you can comfortably tip it into corners until you begin to scrape pegs, which happens very rarely, considering the generous cornering clearance available. The 202kg kerb weight (minus fuel) comes into play only at very low speeds, and that too largely for those not tall enough to comfortably place their feet on the ground. Having said that, the 804mm seat height is most reasonable and the only thing you really have to watch out for in rush-hour traffic is how wide the Interceptor is at the rear due to the outward-angled tailpipes.
The 390 Duke is the lightest here, and it uses this aspect to good effect. At 830mm, it’s got the tallest seat of the three, and it’s also rather compact which makes it easily chuckable. Over bad roads, when you can’t stand up on the pegs, you simply wheelie out of situations to preserve your back and that USD fork (the only one in this trio). What makes the 390 more of a breeze is its aggressive yet unstressed riding geometry, which makes it easy-as-walking in the city and equally entertaining in the corners. It does have the firmest suspension of the three, which means you have to watch out over sharp bumps, but on the whole, its agility enables you to steer it out of nasty potholes. While it has improved upon the older Duke, it remains a motorcycle for less than XL-sized riders (and so is the Ninja, in fact) given how little room it has on offer.
What really lends these motorcycles an identity is their performance, of course, and to be truthful, none of these disappoint. The Ninja 300 may be the least punchy in the real world given its peaky motor but then its refinement and top-end rush is something sports bike fans amongst you will definitely find favour in. Being the least powerful here doesn’t make it a slouch, in any case, and it registered a 0-100kph dash in 6.33sec, which is a cheerful number to say the least. However, in the city, you’re never really going fast enough for it to slip into character, even though the engine is very flexible and allows you to lazily ride around in high gears. The Ninja is more or less numb at anything below 7,000rpm and, while it still is brisk, it just lacks any apparent punch low-down. Stray away from urban environs, though, and the Ninja begins to deliver. This is a fast bike, and it likes being ridden fast. The combination of a high-revving motor and fluid dynamics make it a treat to ride on well-paved mountain roads, and the slick gearbox contributes to good effect. On the whole, though, the Ninja 300’s real-world performance comes across as limiting, considering only a few of us live next door to ready-to-race roads.
Ninja’s hidden motor is smooth, but wakes up only past 7000rpm!
Taking care of this limitation is the KTM 390 Duke. Rather than making you long for a ribbon of fast, flowing tarmac, the Duke entertains you in an instant, with even really short bursts being rather eventful in its company. The 373.2cc single-cylinder motor gathers revs in virtually no time and first-timers will find themselves fumbling to keep pace with the Duke’s electric responses. Its light weight, aggressive riding stance and peppy motor come together to make it a true pocket rocket, and given that it produces 43.5hp and 37Nm of torque, its 0-100kph time of 5.66sec doesn’t come as a surprise. Once you get to grips with how the Duke talks power, you’ll find yourself introduced to a new dimension of road riding, given how quickly you can execute overtakes, how much faster you can exit corners and, of course, how many massive wheelies you are now enticed into popping. The Duke is simply staggering in the city because every gearshift simply intensifies the rate at which the scenery blurs past. On the highway, it’s got abundant reserves of power to keep you comfortably pegged at three-digit speeds all day long. On the Duke, you never have to wait for action – in fact, you have to step up your reflexes as a rider to really enjoy the best of what it has to offer.
Interceptor's sublime 650 parallel-twin is relaxing but quick, too!
If you want something easier on your senses without actually compromising on speed, it’s the Interceptor you have to go to. The Interceptor tricks you into believing it’s not as fast as it is because of its mild engine character. You don’t expect a motorcycle that looks like it (and weighs roughly 210kg with fuel) to be quick, but it is. What if I told you it does the 0-100kph dash in 6.23sec? Yes, that’s barely a sliver off the Duke’s time but what appeals more is the way in which it puts down its 47 horses. The hushed motor paints an easygoing picture but a pushy throttle hand can get it up and going without a hiccup. Higher speeds come naturally to the Interceptor and thanks to the provision of a 6-speed gearbox, you can pretty much have a lie down (okay, not literally) at 120kph. Overtakes are brisk, too, and the expanse of torque makes downshifts a necessity only in absolutely dire scenarios. Unlike the Duke, however, the Interceptor follows physics by the rule book and that translates to a composed package that many of you will appreciate. Its character is infectious and I invariably found myself riding it in a progressive, gentle manner. Although, when the time to get somewhere real quick arrived, the Interceptor left me startled by how expertly it tackled aggressive inputs. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say it’s the least demanding motorcycle of the three, and for those of you looking to clock highway miles by the thousands, it’s most promising.
The promise of rapid progress has eternally appealed to the human race but the real world is littered with hurdles and, in our case, potholes of terrifying depths. In this regard, the Ninja is surprisingly well-configured given that it was designed to emulate racetrack-scorchers. Its suspension components are elementary but work well under duress, imparting it with not only good ride quality but also a quality feel. The brakes are the smallest here (290mm front/220mm rear) but work in a progressive manner, and the MRF tyres are fairly confident and lend to the Ninja’s overall dynamics in a good way. Over good surfaces, the Ninja puts a smile on your face with its cornering abilities but over bad stretches, it’s the riding position that will reduce you to a crawl.
Ninja’s corner-friendly riding position and inherently good handling translates to a lot of fun.
The Interceptor is undeniably the most Indian road-friendly of the lot, thanks to its setup and relaxed ergonomics. The suspension at either end makes for a comfortable (if not exactly premium-bike plush) ride and, thankfully, the bike makes no untoward noises when being ridden in an unkindly fashion over nasty roads. It feels bulky but also well-built, and the overall chassis geometry works neatly to make the Interceptor feel like a robust motorcycle. It’s also very strong in the braking department, although, not all of us were at home with the front-end feel, with some suggesting it could be sharper. I also happened to discover that the tyres need little provocation to spin up wildly over Mumbai’s glassy concrete roads, and while the Duke is no different, handling this kind of behaviour on the 210kg Interceptor can make you turn to religion.
The 390’s is a wheelie-happy, ever-aggressive motor and is most exciting.
The Duke is the most involving of the three but it’s also most demanding of your attention. While the suspension is no longer as firm as on the older 390, it still isn’t exactly what you’d call a magic carpet ride. ‘Sharpness’ is a sort of continuous theme with the Duke and this applies to every aspect of its dynamics, be it handling, suspension or (thankfully) brakes. It’s the only bike in this test with an upside-down fork and that 43mm unit is exact for aggressive cornering and braking, although, being softer, it can get unsettled at higher speeds as compared to the older bike. These aren’t the kind of speeds that are legally permissible anywhere in India, so, hopefully, you will never find get a taste of it. In other news, the Metzelers continue to be a huge asset to the Duke’s confident handling ability and the tack-sharp brakes help you really indulge in your performance cravings. Overall, the Duke still is the most engaging, most fun motorcycle you are likely to have for this sort of price tag – the only one that could beat it on those counts was called the Yamaha RD350, and you don’t need me to tell you more about it, right?
It’s safe to assume you want your money’s worth, especially considering we’re talking about Rs 3 lakh or thereabout, and, in that context, the Ninja offers the least value. It’s a nice motorcycle to ride and it’s certainly more sensible than the absurdly expensive Ninja 400, but in this company, it’s the least versatile, the lowest on excitement and, of course, the most expensive. The Interceptor is simply a beautiful motorcycle to ride into the sunset with and I’m certain I’ll be able to say this even when its novelty wears off. It feels like a substantial motorcycle, almost going the whole hog in terms of offering you the classic bike experience save for the absence of any eccentricities. Since all of this comes with the merit of up-to-date performance and a near-unbelievable price, it’s a motorcycle that’s easy to envision taking up precious real estate in your garage. The Duke’s energy, sophistication and value holds equal appeal if not more, but it can be said that it lacks universal appeal. This is not a motorcycle for every palette although that hasn’t stopped KTM from maximising its versatility – it’s as much an everyday bike as it is a racetrack hooligan and that’s a tough balance to achieve. The above things considered, the conclusion of this test is a tie between the Interceptor and the Duke. Think of this pair as the difference between a surgical scalpel and a Swiss knife. At the end of the day, the motorcycle you pick comes down to what type of riding style you prefer and... oh, wait, I wasn’t supposed to do that!
|Royal Enfield Interceptor 650||KTM 390 Duke||Kawasaki Ninja 300|
|Engine||648cc, parallel-twin||373.2cc, single-cylinder||296cc, parallel-twin|
|Power||47hp at 7250rpm||43.5hp at 9000rpm ||39hp at 11,000rpm |
|Torque||52Nm at 5250rpm||37Nm at 7000rpm ||27Nm at 10,000rpm |
|Power to weight||232.6hp/tonne (dry)||266.8hp/tonne ||217.8hp/tonne |
|Gearbox ||6-speed||6-speed||6-speed |
|Wheelbase ||1400mm||1357mm||1405mm |
|Ground clearance ||174mm||185mm ||135mm |
|Kerb weight ||202kg (dry)||163kg ||179kg |
|Seat height ||804mm||830mm ||785mm |
|Fuel tank ||13.4 litres||13.4 litres ||17 litres |
|Front suspension ||Telescopic fork||USD fork ||Telescopic fork|
|Rear suspension ||Twin shock absorbers||Monoshock ||Monoshock |
|Front brake ||320mm disc||320mm disc ||290mm disc |
|Rear brake ||240mm disc||230mm disc ||220mm disc |
|Tyre size (f/r) ||100/90-18 / 130/70-18||110/70-17 / 150/60-17 ||110/70-17 / 140/70-17 |
|Royal Enfield Interceptor 650||KTM 390 Duke||Kawasaki Ninja 300|
|20-50kph in 2nd||2.27 sec||2.00 sec||2.49 sec|
|30-70kph in 3rd||3.86 sec||3.43 sec||4.02 sec|
|50-80kph in 4th||3.76 sec||3.40 sec||3.83 sec|
|0-60kph||2.62 sec||2.49 sec||2.92 sec|
|0-100kph||6.23 sec||5.66 sec||6.33 sec|
|60-0kph (distance)||16.23 metres||17.16 metres||16.77 metres|
|Royal Enfield Interceptor 650||KTM 390 Duke||Kawasaki Ninja 300|
|Verdict||Old-school but with impressive performance and a price tag that’s impossible to resist.||Loaded, aggressive and a VFM bike to rule the streets, track and highway.||A good-natured sports bike at a better price point than before but needs more punch.|
|Price (ex-showroom, Delhi)||Rs 2.50 lakh||Rs 2.44 lakh||Rs 2.98 lakh |