big digital speedo. In addition, it has perhaps the best shift light
we’ve ever seen, a large white lamp atop the instrument cluster
that you can’t help noticing at a glance.
The KTM’s instrumentation is also very complete, but the
panel is small. The tachometer is a hard-to-read bar-graph across
the top of the narrow face and the additional info: gear indicator,
clock, fuel level, engine temperature gauge and digital speedo
are also small and hard to make out at a glance, especially with
its low contrast display.
The Ninja’s dash layout features wide analog tach in the center with a smaller digital display on the right, so that individual
readouts like the fuel level, speed, tripmeters and odometer and
ECO Mode indicator (showing good fuel economy) are not as
easy to read as the Yamaha’s. There is no gear indicator.
Honda’s CBR300R has tidy, stacked layout, with a large analog tach at the top and a digital display below with black fonts
on a red background for fuel level, coolant temp., a clock, plus
the odometer and two tripmeters. It doesn’t have a gear indicator,
but it is bright and easy-to-read at a glance.
Rankings: R3 1st, CBR 2nd, Ninja 3rd, KTM 4th
Attention to detail
In addition to the features and flaws noted already, it deserves to
be mentioned that the KTM’s attention to detail is by far the best.
Not only does it have a beautiful cast aluminum swingarm and the
beefiest forks in the group, but its foot controls are also neat aluminum castings, which contrast with the welded steel brake pedals
on the Japanese machines. However, its black-painted, rather than
anodized, fuel cap is vulnerable to chipped edges from gas filler
nozzle contact. But, it is still visually impressive.
The Yamaha is also nicely finished with attractive paint and decal
highlights, plus royal blue painted wheels that match its bodywork.
It doesn’t look inexpensive, and could be mistaken for a YZF-R6.
But we are very frustrated by its useless mirrors. And given the
R3’s performance potential, not being able to tell if you are being
followed by troopers can really put a damper on your fun.
The Kawasaki is an attractive shape that reminds one of its
all-conquering ZX-10R big brother, but in our test version, with
its stark white and flat-black bodywork, it looked a bit unfinished.
Unfortunately, the CBR lives up to its bargain price with somewhat generic-looking single color bodywork, but at least the color
was red. Unpretentiousness may be a virtue in a person, but a bit of
style doesn’t hurt a motorcycle we’d say.
Rankings: KTM 1st, R3 2nd, Ninja 3rd, CBR 4th
There was no question in our minds that the Yamaha R3 has
redefined expectations in this class. Its twin-cylinder motor
feels far more impressive than its competitors’, with a smooth,
torque-rich, linear powerband, where the slightly faster KTM
single sounds more like a dirtbike and the others can’t keep
up. In addition, it has an excellent transmission and clutch, the
best seating for both rider and passenger, the best tires, the best
overall ride quality, excellent handling, and equivalent braking
equipment. It’s a treat to ride and it doesn’t feel underpowered
on the freeway or dicing through traffic.
The Honda may not be stunning, but it doesn’t have any any
issues, like the R3’s useless mirrors. Just as you would expect
from Honda, the bike is eminently competent, with a decent ride
quality, adequate suspension, a charming driveable motor, fine
transmission and comfortable ergonomics. It isn’t as eager to play
sportbike as its rivals are, but if a fine economical commuter is
what you’re looking for, you’ve found it.
The KTM RC390 is very focused, but its track-biased set-up
isn’t as real-world friendly as the Yamaha’s. We like its extra
power, but with its tall hard seat, short wheelbase, overly firm
suspension and hunched riding position, it isn’t as easy to ride
quickly or as enjoyable for the longer haul. We much prefer its
brother, the 390 Duke, which is also less expensive.
The Kawasaki has suffered in comparison against its newer
competitors. While a power advantage over the Honda used to
be enough to dominate this class, it now needs better tires and
suspension, a stiffer chassis and perhaps a brand-new motor to
measure up. We’re sure Kawasaki has seen the handwriting on
the wall and is working on its replacement, but until then, calling
it a tie with the Honda for third is almost generous.
Rankings: R3 1st, KTM 2nd, CBR & Ninja tie for 3rd
Value & Conclusion
Priced at $4990, the Yamaha R3 is a stunning motorcycle that
won’t have riders looking to trade up after just a year of ownership.
The KTM RC 390 is the hotrod of the group, but its narrow focus
isn’t as versatile as the others. Also, we think its brother, the 390
Duke, which is just $4999 including ABS is the better choice for
most riders. The standard CBR300R, priced at just $4399 is a terrific bargain and a fine machine that’s ideal for many new riders.
The Ninja 300, with a base price of $4999 is still a good ride, but it
doesn’t impress any longer. What are your priorities?