Images by Gaurav Thombre, Rohit Mane & Kaizad Adil Darukhanawala
If the TVS Apache RR 310, formerly Akula 33 concept, was the most anticipated motorcycle launch of 2017, there is no doubt that this is the most anticipated comparo of 2018. From the day we set eyes on it in its razor sharp concept form at Auto Expo 2016, we wondered what it would be like to ride. Two years on, the production version is here. And it felt brilliant at the media test ride at the Madras Motor Race Track. Good enough for it to make the cover of our first anniversary issue last month.
It had impressed everybody, but here’s the thing – you can have a motorcycle that’s brilliant at banging lap-times around a track but will it be a pain to live with? Besides, you can’t really make a final judgement on how well a motorcycle will stand up to its competitors unless you ride them back to back. No matter how good the bike might feel in its own right. So people talk. They debate and discuss. This one. No, no, that one. You’re both wrong…
Well, we have decided to put a stop to all that incessant and inconclusive chatter with this, the most comprehensive comparison test that you can put a newcomer through. We’ve spared absolutely no effort in bringing together every rival to the newest kid on the block, the Apache RR 310, to see how it fares against each of them, and indeed as part of the group of affordable fully faired supersport and sport touring machines available in India.
TVS Apache RR 310
Visually, the bike is dominating (no asides to another manufacturer please). It looks big and has tremendous road presence. The silhouette is sharp and stands out even in a crowd of big bikes if you happen to have it in the same shade of red (well, the only other option is black). The bike’s styling is aggressive and it looks like it means business.Bright, red and flashy, this is the bike that people can’t stop talking about. TVS Motor has put all the accumulated experience of 35 years of motorcycle racing into this one bike, so much so that you’d be hard pressed to find a TVS badge here. Instead you’ll see TVS Racing proudly emblazoned on the crankcase. A massive sticker on the edgy tail piece screams “35 years of TVS Racing”. No, TVS doesn’t want to keep it quiet and subtle this time. They’ve worked bloody hard at racing when no one else was interested in it and now they want to scream it from the RR 310’s tailpiece.
That fairing has been sculpted in a wind tunnel, the only bike by an Indian manufacturer to lay claim to this, and it shows. Even for a six-footer like me, once I tucked in under that screen, I was completely out of the wind blast. Ergonomics are absolutely fantastic for everyday use and despite its smallish 1365mm wheelbase, I did not feel cramped even for a second. On the downside, the riding posture is a little too relaxed for focused riding around a race track. You’ll need to move the footpegs back by a bit before you stop grinding them.
The other thing that you can’t help admiring is the quality and attention to detail here. The switchgear feels nice and positive. The triple clamp is absolutely fantastic and even the fit and finish of the panels is faultless. If only there were span adjustable levers to go with the package. I suppose you can’t have it all, can you?
Under that fairing and all those ergo delights however, is BMW Motorrad’s 310cc liquid-cooled single sitting in a BMW trellis. On the move, for a fairly high capacity single, the motor feels refined and smooth. It revs effortlessly. But this motor’s real party trick is its tractability. 45kmph in sixth, ever heard of that before? Neither had I, and what’s more she picks up cleanly from there all the way past 140. There’s no sign of manic urgency displayed by the two KTMs, just a relentless arc of grunt.
This serves three purposes. One, it makes you work less and allows for mistakes on a track. So even if you find yourself in a gear too high, she’ll pull through and not stall and die on you. Second, it makes life in the real world comfortable since you’re not constantly working the gearbox to simply get from point A to B. Finally, this spread of grunt also means easy highway cruising. No, in spite of what TVS wants you to believe, this isn’t a motor that sings only one track. This is more like an album that will keep you company through a variety of moods.
The engine is backed up by a great chassis. Thanks to the engine facing backwards and being inclined back, the swingarm is long despite the wheelbase being the second shortest in this test. Once the bike is cranked over into the turn, it is stable and confidence inspiring. No skittish nervousness. The result is a rewarding riding experience. For a bike that is TVS’ prime challenger on the race track, the ride quality is surprisingly supple. It doesn’t become stiff and bouncy the moment the tarmac becomes less than perfect. The fact that the seat isn’t as hard as a rock helps too. There is one shortcoming on the TVS. The pillion seat is a joke, especially without anything for the pillion to hold on to (though we did see bikes at the factory with a grab rail on one side). Also, if you want to mount luggage there are no bungee hooks and the tank is covered with a plastic shroud. So no magnetic tank bag either.
Nonetheless, stylish, bold and capable, the TVS Apache RR 310 is a well-rounded product that you’ll be able to live with every day of the week and then get your grin back by thrashing it around a race track on a weekend.
KTM RC 390
The first time I ever rode the bigger of the two RCs was in Modena, it had felt manic, eager and fabulous. We couldn’t stop talking about how well she turned in and how grunty she was when you opened the throttle. There was an edge that we hadn’t experienced before on any other four-stroke motorcycle less than 400cc. A few years on, the KTM RC 390 has put on weight and become a little bit more mature than it used to be. The addition of ride-by-wire smoothened out power delivery and the side slung exhaust that replaced the underbelly unit took out some of the roughness from the exhaust note.
The bike’s racing DNA is all too evident. The gearbox shafts are vertically stacked to make the engine as compact as possible. As a matter of fact, the engine only weighs 36kg. The stance, with those high rearsets, tall saddle height and low clip-ons is all about open aggression. It has this “bring it on” expression on its face at all times. Even now you know she means business.
She remains just as manic and edgy as she ever was. With a power-to-weight ratio of nearly 300bhp per tonne, thanks to a peak output of 43.4bhp and the bike only weighing 147kg, she shoots ahead like a rocket. And that is exactly how she likes to be ridden. No gentlemanly behaviour for this one. She likes it rough. In fact, if you can put those BDSM thoughts that you’ve just begun to have aside, then I can tell you that in motorcycle terms the harder you spank the KTM the more rewarding the experience. This is a bike that wants its throttle pinned to the stop. At all times.
That orange trellis and that WP monoshock have been tuned for just one job alone – handling. If the RR 310 is an album then the RC 390 is an old world EP that can play only a single track. The KTM is a focused machine that is built to do just one thing, go around a race track. Fast. Finesse is not a must have. It is sensory and as a result, will have you grinning like a baboon in your better-than-ISI-marked helmet. Quite unlike the RR 310 or the R3 where the grins are occasional and smiles are for much longer.
The rake is sharp at 23.5 degrees and it shows when you push down on the handlebar. The nose drops like it has lead weights inside and you’ll find yourself turned in by the time you’ve finished thinking about it. It really is that instinctive. But the KTM is better suited to an experienced hand because it is raw. Something that KTM riders love about their bikes. So much so that everything else comes across as thanda (frigid). And if you ride these bikes back to back, you’ll know exactly what they mean even when they struggle to put in words what they really think is special about the RC.
But for all its sensory feel and ability to generate frenetic fun, the KTM is too focused. Sure, people in India do take it to work and do ride it to Goa once in a while. But that’s not what it wants to do. The RC 390 wants to be ridden hard or not at all. In fact, it is ill suited for other kinds of riding. The seat, if you can call it that, is hard and cushions precious little. The ride is stiff and over rough roads she is skittish. And riding through traffic in that race crouch? You better have a good physio on speed dial. Want to cruise on a highway or potter around while you look good? This ain’t what you want then, bro.
Yamaha YZF R3
Featuring sharp styling and a big bike stance, the R3 has tonnes of presence. It’s a good looking bike. It doesn’t have the KTM’s confrontational posture but that of a Samurai. Controlled aggression. Swing a leg over her and despite those clip ons and the rearsets you’ll be surprised at how comfortable it is. The seat has some space and you’re not all hunched up. The ergonomics are relaxed yet sporty. The footpegs however are a little further back than they are on the TVS, which means you don’t have to fiddle to get it track ready. Just get there and get on with it.Yamaha’s YZF-R3 wasn’t quite the master stroke that the much smaller R15 was. The latter gave birth to the idea that a 150cc motorcycle could make you drool. Not just with its racy looks but also with its thrilling performance. The R15 packed in a modern liquid-cooled motor, an aerodynamic fairing, low set clip ons, and in its second avatar, an aluminium swingarm. As a motorcycle it was an all-new proposition. The enthusiast looking for proper performance without having to sell a kidney, finally had a machine to match his ambitions. The R3 isn’t quite in the same vein. The idea of a parallel twin powered sport tourer was actually started by Kawasaki with the Ninja 300. And yet, the R3 is brilliant.
Powering the R3 is a liquid-cooled 321cc parallel twin that puts out 41.4bhp and 29.6Nm of peak torque. And that, is a problem, because the KTM produces more. Moreover, the KTM is lighter. Much lighter. A full 20 kilos in fact. In outright acceleration the R3 cannot keep up. But it hits back with refinement, and boy does she whack the RC out of the ring on that count. Even the TVS with all that finesse engineered into it doesn’t compare with the R3’s refinement levels. A twin, after all, is a twin. No matter what witchcraft engineers might try on a single, a one-cylinder engine simply cannot match up to a parallel twin. And it’s beautifully balanced too when it comes to versatility. Its rev happy nature means it feels wonderful to ride fast while its tractability makes it effortless in the real world.
And then there is that chassis. I have always maintained that if creating a beautifully balanced chassis is a black art, then the folks at Yamaha must be descended from Merlin’s tribe. What’s amazing is, this isn’t the company’s famed Deltabox here. It’s a steel tubular diamond type. But this frame is absolutely sublime. There’s just the right amount of rigidity. Just the right amount of flex. Its ability to inspire confidence to push hard around turns is the stuff of legend. Supremely stable mid-corner and then when you open the throttle with the R3, happy smiles are guaranteed. Admittedly, the suspension is a little soft and the stock MRF Zappers aren’t the grippiest, which saps some of the Thrills Of Riding hard around a race track. Out on our public roads however her manners are impeccable. That soft setup soaks up all and then some. The ride quality is plush and comfortable. Even over long distances. Also, if you choose to tackle a fast set of twisties where the surface isn’t really perfect then she feels much better than the stiffer sprung bikes. The suspension has enough give to ensure that the wheels stay in touch with the tarmac all the time.
There’s enough space for a pillion to sit comfortably and plenty of space for bungee cords and luggage. So, a winner then? No. The biggest problem with the R3 is that for all its greatness, it isn’t on sale anymore. Want one anyway? Wait till the BS IV compliant version hits the shelves. Else, there’s always the classifieds.
Kawasaki Ninja 300
Before the Kawasaki brigade are up in arms in this easily-offended country of ours, let me tell you that the Ninja 300 still packs a potent punch. The 39bhp and 27Nm of max twist from that liquid-cooled 296cc parallel twin with DOHC, feel as good as ever. The motorcycle feels as agile as it used to going around corners at a fast clip. And yet, it feels dated. Out of its depth here.This is the motorcycle that kick-started sport touring in the country. Following on the heels of the more high strung but smaller Ninja 250, the Ninja 300 quickly gathered a fan following around it. It boasted a smooth running parallel twin that put out nearly 40bhp, a chassis that handled well and signature Japanese reliability. It was also helped by the fact that for a long while the Ninja 300 was the only affordable fully faired motorcycle beyond the R15. But all of this in the past tense.
Its engine runs a lower compression ratio of 10.6:1 to the R3’s 11.2:1 and yet, somehow, the Yamaha engine seems to run smoother. It also needs to rev higher, upto 11,000 revs to generate its 39 horses while the Yamaha manages to produce over 41 at 10,750rpm. On the plus side, the grunt is spread over a wide band and is therefore accessible. Delivery is linear and the bike picks up pace in a nice smooth arc as you open the taps. It’s a great sport touring set up, one that allows easy cruisability but will also happily put up with enthusiasm.
On the dynamic side of things, the Ninja 300 was a good handling motorcycle back then and it continues to be so. The forks are raked out by 27 degrees, so on straights, the bike is super stable. The lazy rake however takes nothing from the Ninja’s ability to twist and turn and chase its own tail. The short 1405mm wheelbase means that the Kawasaki is more than capable of dispatching quick direction changes, long sweeping corners or switchbacks.
Unfortunately, the Kawasaki is a product of the yesteryears, unable to keep up with the times. Its 37mm dia telescopic forks feel out-classed by the modern inverted forks on some of the others. The braking too isn’t outstanding. The 290mm petal rotor at the front wheel and 220mm rotor at the rear do shed speed without drama but they don’t have the bite of the others. A good motorcycle in its own right, the Ninja 300 cannot match the manic excitement of the KTM. At the same time, the Ninja isn’t as good an all-rounder as the Yamaha. Or even the Apache RR 310 for that matter.
It doesn’t even look particularly smashing, despite its bright lime green livery. The styling is dated and looks a little out of place in this company of sharp looking machines. And the ergonomics seem better suited for someone less tall and gangly. I don’t hold that last one against Kawasaki however, since it would be a little unfair to expect a made-to-measure mass-produced motorcycle.
While all this may sound rather negative, the fact remains that the Ninja isn’t a bad motorcycle at all. So why then does it fail to look the RC in the eye or become a willing partner with the R3 in a dance through a canyon road? Because, like everything else outside the world of motorcycles, the motorcycle world is one of rapid and continuous change. So what felt good, no great, yesterday doesn’t cut it anymore today. The game has moved on, the benchmarks have shifted. Up. Always, up. In a way it’s a bit sad to see that a good motorcycle from the past can’t keep up with the inevitable onslaught of evolution. But that, I suppose, is the way of the world.
Although Benelli is as old as any other Italian motorcycle brand in existence, truth is it is the lesser known brand. It doesn’t have the same stature as the other Italian brands, like Ducati or MV Agusta or Aprilia. But it’s still something to cash in on. Because the one thing that the other Italians don’t have is an affordable motorcycle. In that one aspect, Benelli’s 302R is the only affordable fully faired Italian motorcycle that you can buy in the country today at `3.48 lakh, ex-showroom in Pune.This is the only other European motorcycle in this test. No, wait, this is the only Chinese bike in this comparison. No, European. And now, I’ve confused myself. The Italian legacy of the made-in-China (only the big Benellis are made in Italy) assembled-in-India Benelli 302R is both its strength and its weakness.
The first thing that strikes you about the Benelli is how big it is. At 1410mm, the 302R sports the longest wheelbase in this company. The styling has bulk and the bike, therefore, is imposing. Park it next to these other motorcycles and it is the Benelli that feels like it is the biggest of them all.
The 302R is powered by a liquid-cooled 300cc parallel twin, making this the last of the twin cylinder motorcycles in this company. Surprisingly, the Benelli motor is the most high strung unit here after the RCs with a compression ratio of 12.0:1. The motor’s peak output rating is 37.7bhp and 26.5Nm. In mathematical terms the 302R therefore is less than a bhp off the peak output of the Ninja and less than 2Nm off the Apache. Unfortunately, all that bulk that makes the Benelli look larger than it is, also adds heft to the machine. As a result, with a kerb weight of a hefty 198kg, the Benelli’s power-to-weight ratio is only 190bhp per tonne. Add to that the fact that the grunt is stacked towards the top of the rev range, and what you have is a motorcycle that simply fails to keep up with the rest in a straight line. The 302R just doesn’t have the poke to match the performance of the other motorcycles. Even if you keep it revving high up in the range where the meat is.
On the handling front too the bulk of the Benelli becomes all too evident. In a straight line it’s rock solid, thanks to that longish 1410mm wheelbase. But the bike needs effort to turn. It’s not nearly as instinctive as the Ninja, and the Kawasaki isn’t the quickest to tip in here. Once cranked over, however, the Benelli is happy to hold its line. But as you open her up and want to power out of the bend, that spread of grunt towards the top raises its head once again leaving you staring at the tail pipes of the others. That softly set up suspension doesn’t help its case either.
The corollary to that is a great ride quality. It is easily one of the better riding motorcycles in this test. Supple and pliant, it soaks up all the irregularities under the wheels and keeps them away from your backside. Be it on the twists and turns of Lavasa or on Pune’s roughly surfaced roads. The seats are well-cushioned and this bike also has one of the best designed grab handles for a pillion. Moreover, the exhaust note is fantastic and feels like that of a much bigger and powerful engine. If there is one motorcycle that is an aural delight here, it has to be the Benelli 302R.
But is that all there is to it? Does a motorcycle that attracts attention with its bulk, offers a great ride and sound, not offer any real capability? Not quite. The Benelli also happens to be the only bike here with a twin front disc set up. The 260mm discs may sound smaller than the other ones you see here but the fact that the onus of killing inertia is split over two spinning discs instead of one means the Benelli will outbrake all the other machines here. So if you do own a Benelli and want to overtake one of your buddies on any of these other machines, just remember you can brake at least a couple of metres after they have been compelled to haul on the anchors.
KTM RC 200
Visually, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the 200 for the 390. Head on, they look identical. Which means the baby RC shares its older sibling’s aggression. It has that same mean demeanour. In profile too, the bikes look similar and the only thing that really distinguishes them is clever use of graphics and the bellypan of the 200.Why a 200 in the company of 300s and above? Well, this is the most affordable fully-faired supersport motorcycle after the R15 that you can buy in India. Moreover, apart from that engine, the RC 200 shares practically everything with its larger sibling, the RC 390. It has the same frame, the same suspension – 43mm WP USD up front and WP monoshock at the back – the same handlebar. Pretty much the same everything. Except for the bar end weights, the colour scheme and the tyres. While the 390 gets Metzelers, the 200 has to make do with MRFs. Also, the underbelly exhaust continues with the RC 200.
Unless you start the bike, the feel between the two RCs is indistinguishable. Just swing a leg over the bike and it feels just as focused and single-minded in its purpose. It wants to chase the bigger RC, just like a younger sibling follows the elder one around. Seated on the RC you will also notice evidence of cost optimisation (read, cutting). The switchgear, which is identical to what’s on the RC 390, doesn’t feel quite as crisp as the stuff on the TVS. Thankfully, the mirrors on this are larger and more practical than the ones that the earlier lot used to be fitted with. You can actually see what you’ve just overtaken.
Fire up the 199.5cc liquid-cooled single and your ears are greeted by the unmistakable staccato bark of a KTM engine but this one sounds raspier. In its own right, the RC 200’s 186.2bhp per tonne seems pretty good. And it is. But in this company it falls way short. In fact, it has the lowest power to weight in this company. Including the Benelli’s. Where the Austrian scores over the Italian is in its power delivery for while the Benelli has everything stacked at the top, the RC has a meatier mid-range. That means the RC 200 is able to out accelerate the 302R. But that is it. Everything else is quicker. After all, as the old saying goes, there is no replacement for displacement. And it really does show. Despite the 200’s sprightliness, its 25.6bhp is a world away from the Apache’s 33.5, and a galaxy away from the RC 390’s 43.5 and the R3’s 41.4. You’ll have to work to keep up.
And then you approach those twisties and it’s suddenly like someone’s flipped a switch inside the RC 200. The odds start evening out and the RC 200 starts to not just keep up, but keep up well. Thanks to the shared chassis and suspension combo, the RC 200 displays the same eagerness to carve up corners. This time, with a lot less weight to manage. The bike tips in intuitively and because the power delivery when you wind the throttle open isn’t as manic as on the 390, the RC 200 feels more poised on tighter roads. You don’t find yourself rushing through corners. Instead you don’t have to shed as much speed before turning in. That means stitching up a set of switchbacks happen easier and smoother.
Once back in the real world of potholes and traffic and broken roads, the RC 200 again becomes a shadow of the RC 390. It is just as single-minded in its focus and doesn’t like doing much else. It wants you to thrash it around a series of bends or out on a race track. It doesn’t want to filter through traffic or cruise to Goa.
The RC 200 then is a stepping stone for KTM users. Learn the craft on this bike before scaling up to the big one. And at this role, the KTM RC 200 is excellent.
Each of these machines has its inherent strengths but three stand out above the rest. The first, and one of my personal favourites, is the Yamaha YZF-R3. It has a strong and smooth motor that does all the mundane stuff and then has the performance to keep up with your trackday ambitions. It has a brilliant chassis. A motorcycle for all seasons. Unfortunately, not one for all reasons for it is no longer available as we await a BS IV compliant bike. Besides, when it did exist on Yamaha’s line up it was frightfully expensive, nearly twice that of the Apache RR 310 today. The second is the KTM RC 390. Its single-minded focus means that it is razor sharp and manic. It just wants to be ridden. Hard. It will challenge you and will expect you to rise to that challenge. And once you do, you won’t stop grinning. As long as you don’t ask this thoroughbred to fill in for your workhorse. Finally, there is the TVS Apache RR 310. It isn’t at the same sensorial level as the RC but even our expert rider Varad More agrees that she won’t be too far off the pace of the KTM at the race track, if at all. It isn’t as smooth as the R3 but certainly a helluva lot more refined than the RC. Like the Yamaha, the Apache can wear many hats. But like the RC, and quite unlike the Yamaha, it won’t make you sell your vitals to own one. It’s almost as if the TVS takes the best of the Yamaha and the best of the KTM and fuses them into one super-usable package at a great price point. And for that incredible ability, the TVS Apache RR 310 is the winner of 2018’s most important comparison test.