Can A2-compliant sportsbikes provide you with thrills on circuit?
Less power doesn’t have to mean less fun and to see if that applies to trackdays, we pitched the Kawasaki Ninja 400 against KTM’s RC390 at Brands Hatch Indy.
With the 750cc and 600cc sportsbike classes shrinking and manufacturers locked in a 200bhp+ superbike arms race, it could appear that your only option for modern trackday fun lies in an arm-wrenching litre bike, capable of just shy of 200mph.
Intimidating, expensive and often far more capable than the pilot, it can be enough to deter some from taking to circuits at their leisure. Despite this preconception, there is in fact a huge array of bikes capable of putting a smile on your face on track. To prove this, we’ve brought two of the class-leading mini sports machines from the A2 licence category along to the Brands Hatch Indy layout.
Starting at £5299, Kawasaki’s Ninja 400 has impressed us since its inception in 2018, with its 44.3bhp 399cc parallel-twin engine, competent handling and grown-up looks making it a poster bike for any aspiring sportsbike rider.
Slightly cheaper is KTM’s £5249 RC390 and, unlike the Kawasaki, it uses a 373.2cc 4v single-cylinder lump, producing 44bhp. With non-adjustable WP front forks, a gorgeous trellis chassis and an obvious sportsbike stance, it could be the perfect antidote to a power-crazed trackday paddock.
Assessing the competition
Rolling down the Brands Hatch service road at around 8.30am with the sun just beginning to poke its way through the tree line, it’s the start of one of the first No Limits trackdays of the 2019 season and the paddock is already a hive of activity and excitement.
Despite the first riding of the day not taking place until 10am, the garages are almost entirely full and many are already pulling on their leathers and praying they haven’t put on too much weight during the off-season.
Negotiating a variety of trailers, bikes and bleary-eyed enthusiasts, I take a moment to peer out the side window of our Mercedes Sprinter van to assess the competition.
For as far as the eye can see there is nothing but track bikes and as we wheel out our A2-compliant Kawasaki Ninja 400 and KTM RC390 test machines, I begin to doubt both the bikes’ and my own ability to be competitive in our intermediate grouping.
Although I have absolutely no reason to be nervous and possess no evidence to suggest that these people are any more competitive than I am, I can’t help but be drawn in by the aftermarket fairings, chewed tyres and number boards.
Lining up alongside everything from Honda CB500s, to two-stroke Kawasaki KR-1Ss and even fully fledged superbikes, our 44bhp novice-friendly sportsters begin to look quite weedy by comparison and my stomach is in knots at the prospect of showing myself up in such esteemed company.
Queuing for noise testing only heightens my anxiety and with every high-rpm drone of a bike being monitored, I get more and more nervous for the day ahead. Unsurprisingly, the Euro4-compliant exhaust systems of the Kawasaki and KTM sail through the 107dB limit at just 87dB and 92dB respectively at a solid 7000rpm, and once suited-up, it’s time for our briefing.
This is another chance to suss out your fellow riders and I steal glances at those around me to see how they stack up: do they look nervous? How scraped are their sliders? Do their leathers bare any battle scars? Should I just stop this and continue to listen to the briefing? Probably.
Being in the intermediate group, we are the first riders out on circuit after the briefing and as the clock marks 10am our dinky road-ready machines roll out of pitlane engulfed in a flurry of two-stroke smoke, revvy inline-fours and the occasional bang of a quickshifter.
The first three laps are done behind an instructor. It’s at a sedate pace, with no overtaking. I am riding the Kawasaki, with Chief Road Tester, Michael Neeves, up ahead on the orange KTM. With every corner, the nerves subside and with the instructor exiting the circuit on lap three, I am ready to let the Kawasaki rip.
Tucking in behind the large screen with the revs dancing between 9000 and 11,000rpm at all times, the Ninja screams into life. Reaching a speed of around 105mph along the tiny start-finish straight, I am amazed to find the bike isn’t being demolished from every angle and after two laps we are hot on the pipe of a Yamaha R6.
Two corners later and we’re past it and pulling a gap and I am cackling maniacally in my sweaty crash helmet. Five laps later and still no one has passed and with the sun now blazing heavily over the butter-smooth tarmac, I am already having buckets of fun and begin to question what exactly I was worried about.
Upping the pace
Despite being Sunday, 24 February, the midday temperatures rise to a staggering 16 degrees and with next to no tree cover, almost all of the track is being lightly toasted.
By lunch time the OE Dunlop and Metzeler rubber is biting the tarmac purposefully, with no suggestion of movement or lack of grip. With corner speeds increasing and knee sliders dragging, it’s a chance to really push both bikes to their limits.
Unfortunately, it’s also a chance for everyone else to up the pace and in the final session before lunch, I start to feel like our lack of grunt could actually be an issue. Suddenly there is no more open track time and bikes of all capacities and vintages begin dive-bombing from all sides on every straight.
With the mirrors tucked away, there’s no warning – just an instantaneous flash of colour and a blast of their exhaust note invading your eardrums and nostrils.
Despite this, the nimble nature of our A2 pocket rockets meant that this time can then be made up in the corners, with the little machines able to carry so much more corner speed than some of larger bikes on the track.
Once you’re in your stride, re-passing the more powerful metal becomes hugely rewarding and offers a buzz far greater than riding a larger capacity machine to a lesser standard.
As I begin to anticipate the fly pasts from other riders on corner exit, it becomes less daunting and more thrilling; taking in their awesome soundtracks and sizing up who I might be able to hang with come the next set of turns.
A counter claim
My enthusiasm isn’t quite shared by everyone though, with Chief Road Tester Michael Neeves saying: "In terms of having fun, they are not quite fast enough to do a trackday on really because you would never be in the right group.
"If you went in the fast group then the speed difference would be dangerous," he explained. "In an ideal world, you’d have a trackday session for smaller bikes and then it would be miles more fun. If you’re just getting bullied by bigger bikes, then it’s less fun."
This statement rings true when you look at the World Supersport 300 championship, with both of these models lining up on the grid alongside the likes of the Yamaha YZF-R3 and more for some of the closest and most exciting racing on the world stage.
Despite this stance, he then went on to say: "They are not tiring to ride and are frugal and good on tyres. You could probably do around 10 more trackdays on these tyres and they would be fine."
How do the bikes stack-up?
When it comes to desirable A2 sports machinery, both the Kawasaki and KTM have it licked. Both look like credible, focussed motorcycles and boast aggressive styling traits lifted from their respective older siblings.
What’s more, both bikes were very good on fuel and tyres, with the KTM’s smaller 10-litre fuel tank being its only limiting factor in the cost-cutting stakes. With a larger 14-litre tank, the Kawasaki was able to do every session without refuelling, whereas the KTM needed a top-up just after lunch.
Alongside fuel economy, the Kawasaki continues to out-perform the KTM elsewhere. With better standard Dunlop GPR300 tyres (the KTM uses Metzeler Sportec M5s), brakes, handling and performance, it is a cut above the RC in this scenario. There is every chance it would be a better road bike too – thanks to the more comfortable upright riding position, thicker seat padding and lower seat height.
The Kawasaki’s parallel-twin engine is also velvet smooth throughout the rev range and there is decent throttle response. This differs from the KTM, who’s characterful single-cylinder engine thraps beneath you like a trail bike.
Having said this, the KTM is the bike you would want on the poster on your bedroom wall. Thinner, taller and more jagged, it looks like a sportsbike, rather than a sporty all-rounder like the Kawasaki.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the KTM is well overdue an upgrade, with its naked 390 Duke cousin already boasting a more up-to-date TFT dash and mobile connectivity, which is left out of the RC’s package.
Despite having a combined power output of around 88bhp (that’s over 37bhp less than a Suzuki GSX-R600) both of these bikes managed to hold their own on circuit.
Regardless of early pre-track nerves and standard OE tyres, not once did we experience any mishaps and we both came away with big smiles on our faces. The frugal nature of these machines meant the Kawasaki was able to do the full day on just one tank of fuel and the lack of power means that you could repeat the day on the same rubber ten times over and still have some tread in reserve.
Catering for the A2-licence market, these bikes are far more than simple stepping stones between licences and can be taken on track, should you so wish. That said, the KTM is noticeably down on power and lacks the precision of the Kawasaki. Slower acceleration and a lack of top end also makes it more of a target for faster machines on the straights.
Although the speed of other machines can be off-putting, the reward you get for pushing these bikes to their limits is superb and sticking it to a faster bike on something with less than a quarter of the punch (in some cases) is incredibly satisfying, and something I hope to replicate again very soon.
That said, my colleague, Michael Neeves, still longed for the rush of a faster machine down the straights, having been used to superbikes for well over a decade.