A Whole Lotta Dirt Bike
There’s only one problem with riding a dirt bike that can comfortably exceed 100 miles per hour, you actually start to get used to it. This revelation came to me at about 125 miles per hour on a dirt road near Fort Irwin, California, aboard the beast KTM calls the 950 Adventure. Oh yeah, it’s an “adventure” all right, one you won’t soon forget if you get a chance to ride this finely tuned back-road bomber. This bike rips! I’ll just get it right out of the way early and say that I had a blast on the silver Katoom. It may look like a street bike, but this finely tuned instrument is an insanely fun off-road machine. Bombing along on the brown stuff might be a scary proposition when you consider that the KTM 950 Adventure weighs nearly 500 pounds and rides on street-spec tires.
Let’s all face the facts. KTM makes dirt bikes, plain and simple. The Austrian firm has been pumping out cutting-edge, lightweight off-road bikes for decades now and will continue to do so long as the Euros keep rolling in. However, a new twist to KTM’s scheme is on the horizon and the V-Twin powerplant of the 950 Adventure is at the center of all the attention. Expect to see this same basic motor propelling KTM street bikes in the near future. We’ve all seen the sweet prototype RC8 and Duke 950 wrapped in angular KTM bodywork, but until they actually reach showrooms we can only get a glimpse of things to come in the form of the multi-purpose Adventure.
The heart of the KTM 950 Adventure series of bikes is a 75-degree V-twin motor with four valves actuated by twin overhead cams. The actual displacement is 942cc but who really cares about the eight extra cubic centimeters KTM claims when you’ve got nearly 100 horsepower to work with. The motor is appropriately enough called the LC8, which is logical since the company has a venerable line of single-cylinder 4-stroke motors designated LC4.
The KTM 950 Adventure looks the part of a streetbike, but be prepared to be impressed when it’s put in the dirt.
Like many modern streetbike designs, the chrome-moly steel frame on the Adventure does not wrap completely down and around the powerplant. Instead, the design utilizes the motor as a stressed member of the frame. The chassis is mated to a beefy 48mm WP inverted fork up front, and a WP PDS shock with a handy hydraulic preload adjuster in the rear. Unlike much of the KTM line-up, the bike utilizes rear suspension linkage connected to a huge aluminum swingarm. These suspension units are truly burly. The rear shock spring coil is so fat it looks like it came off a truck. The suspension travel on the 950 Adventure is 9 inches, which gives a 34.6-inch seat height.
KTM also offers the 950 Adventure S model, which features slightly more wheel travel at 10.4 inches, a taller seat height of 36 inches, a different color (orange in 2004), and a price increase of $500 (from $11,998). We never got a chance to ride a taller S model, but can posit that the minor increase in suspension performance could very well be offset by the troubles associated with the increased seat height. A tall and heavy bike is certainly no fun in tight and/or sandy off-road situations. Based on our testing experiences, if you’re not over 6-feet tall and/or you are going to ride the bike mostly on the street, stick with the lower Adventure. Don’t fret, though, we were hauling ass with only 9 inches of travel.
Like all KTMs, Brembo handles the braking duties. Dual 300mm front disc brakes are gripped by a pair of twin-piston calipers and a 240mm disc brake is slowed by another twin-piston caliper in the rear. The aluminum wheels connect the bike to the road via Pirelli MT90s, also known as the Scorpion A/T. The meats are basically street tires with wide grooves for added traction in the dirt.
The DOT-rated Pirelli Scorpion A/Ts aren’t aggressive enough to really let the Adventure do its thing in the dirt. A set of DOT knobbies are recommended for serious off-roaders.
The 950 utilizes dual fuel tanks that hold nearly three gallons each, providing a fuel capacity of 5.8 gallons. The petrol is held as far down as possible to improve the handling, thus the leading edges of the tanks extend downward, just a few inches from the bottom of the frame. The bodywork and styling on the front of the bike looks very streetbike-ish, while most of the mid-to-rear section’s appearance does a pretty good job of upholding KTM’s dirt heritage. Then the dual aluminum exhausts exiting from under the seat harkens it back to the street.
As you can see, I still struggle over whether the 950 Adventure is a street or dirt bike. Of course I tested it in both situations extensively, but I can’t help but say that when I look at it my brains says streetbike. KTM has built a great motorcycle that works well in both situations, however, my sanity returns when I recall what KTM’s Tom Moen said when I picked the bike up in Temecula, California: “It was made to work well in the dirt.”
Hanging out with Tom is cool because he’s one of those guys that doesn’t say a whole lot, but knows a whole lot. So when he talks, you listen. As we loaded the bike onto my trailer (since they don’t fit in vans without removing the windshield and mirrors, cocking them sideways, and compressing the front forks), I began to probe Tom about the Adventure. Besides answering every nit-picking question I could ask about the bike, the rally race bikes, KTMs new place in Temecula, how his wakeboarding has been improving, and so on, Moen had some good stories about the bikes that say quite a bit about them.
Moen has just about seen it all during the numerous press introductions and magazine test rides with the Adventure series. He’s ridden hundreds of desert miles on them, and seen them cart wheeled down trails and dirt roads and then ridden away with only trashed mirrors and scratches. He’s mounted full-on knobbies, specifically rear Dunlop 756 dirt tires, on both wheels and ridden them across the desert with great success. He did report that at sustained speeds of near 100 miles per hour he was concerned the tires might come apart, scary stuff. He’s also seen quite a few street bike journalists quaking in their boots at speeds over 20 miles per hour on gravel roads as the heavy bike began to move around underneath them.
That’s about the time I asked him if I could really ride it in the dirt at a good clip. He simply replied, “Cameron, you’ll be fine because you ride off-road and know how bikes feel in the dirt. Just ride it like you would a big XR650L or any other big, heavy dual-sport bike. You’ll be very surprised. The stock tires will be the only limitation, especially in the sand.” That was all I needed to hear. As soon as I got home, I packed up for a weekend in the desert in Dove Springs/Jawbone Canyon, California.
My wildest (and probably fastest) ride aboard the 950 Adventure took place on the very first one. I had taken what Tom had said a little too far once I got rolling. The bike feels pretty good when you sit on it. The super-strong, tapered aluminum handlebars (made by Renthal for KTM) make you almost feel like you’re on a motocross bike. Adding to this feeling is the fact that the relationship between the handlebars, footpegs, and seat all feel very dirt-bike-ish, which makes a dirt rider feel right at home. The seat and mid-section of the bike are wider that most off-roaders are used to, but it doesn’t feel too bad even while standing still. The only thing I was worried about was how weird it was going to be to not be able to see the front fender and wheel while riding because of the high instrument cluster and windscreen unit.
As soon as I blazed out of camp I came to an immediate realization. With the powerful motor and street-legal tires, there wasn’t much of a connection between the tires and the riding surface. I could now see why the street guys who had forgotten their dirt bike roots were quaking a little. However, I was in heaven. I imagined I was riding a bike that was a combination of Jay Springsteen’s Harley dirt-tracker and Danny Hamel’s off-road KX500. I was slamming through stuff and sliding around every sweeping corner with reckless abandon and loving every minute of it. It was on and I never once thought about not seeing the front wheel again.
Soon it was partially “off” as I experienced my first nasty fit of headshake and almost had to eject myself from the bike (perhaps then I would have got my chance to see the front wheel). On that first wild ride, I experienced headshake during hard acceleration through nasty chop and when decelerating hard in choppy bumps entering corners. It was the nastiest, harshest headshake I had ever felt in my life and I never wanted to feel it again. I put nearly 500 miles on this bike in the dirt and did everything I could to fight the dreaded shakes. Eventually I discovered twisting the throttle a little more judiciously in chop and slowing down a little sooner for the corners was the best way to avoid that experience. I should have realized I wasn’t on my CRF450R anymore. I now realize that the Scott’s Performance steering dampers mounted to the rally race bikes I saw in the KTM shop were for much more than good looks, they were a necessity.
After the headshake on that first 50-mile jaunt calmed me down for the rest of my rides on the Adventure, I really began to appreciate just about everything it did in the dirt and on the street. The motor is magical. Like most 4-stroke V-twins it produces the bulk of its power down in the lower to middle portion of the powerband. However, it still pulls quite nicely as it nears redline just below 10,000 rpm. My hands never went numb on the street or in the dirt which shows it didn’t vibrate too much.
You will never need more power than this in the dirt. As mentioned earlier the Adventure spins, slides and lurches as it fights for traction under heavy acceleration on soil. If you want a smooth and mellow experience then it’s all about throttle control, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear and feel the bike pick up and lose serious revs as it gained and lost traction at high speeds. It’s a wild feeling to be breaking the rear tire loose at 110 miles per hour in a straight line. It’s a good thing the speedometer sensor is on the front wheel because the rear seems like it’s spinning at 150 miles per hour. When traveling these speeds on desert roads, time almost seems to slow down as the bushes fly by in a very surreal blur. As velocity surpasses 100 miles per hour you actually start to feel your chest get sucked in towards the handlebars and dash due to the backpressure created from the windshield. The problem with excessive wheelspin often made it impossible to find the traction necessary to loft the front wheel over rain ruts and other obstacles. This also added to the excitement of the ride.
Nearly 1000cc of acceleration over choppy terrain can cause the Adventure to go into some of the nastiest head shake this side of a ’93 CBR900RR.
With full tanks on the street, the Adventure has a 250-mile cruising range. The fuel warning light comes on shortly after the 200-mile mark and then has another 40 miles in reserve. In the dirt, we averaged between 120-180 miles per tank before the low-fuel light came on. It all depended on how ham-fisted the rider was on that day.
The hydraulic clutch is awesome and never faded once during testing, even in long-sections of tight trail. The 6-speed transmission is pretty good, although it is somewhat reluctant to shift when you are trying to go through the gears under hard acceleration. More than a few missed shifts and false neutrals were reported by the test crew. Additionally, a test rider encountered a false neutral on a downshift. That made for some exciting, freewheeling fun into a muddy and deep whoop section. Can you say, “Flying W?” We had no shifting problems on the street, however. KTM also made sure that first gear was low enough to handle tight sections without toasting the clutch. The fastest we went on the bike was 135 according to the nifty digital speedometer, which also houses two tripmeters and a temperature gauge.
We came away quite impressed with the Adventure’s suspension performance. It is very plush and compliant, yet capable of handling some pretty imposing terrain. In off-road conditions, we turned the fork and shock compression adjusters all the way in to full damping and ran the rear-spring preload almost all the way loose. When we tried to crank it down and make it stiffer, the rear end lost too much of its plush compliance to the rough terrain. The suspension can basically handle whoops up to about 18 inches high at a good clip, but after that you can expect to be bottoming and swapping.
Accelerating hard in choppy terrain causes the 950cc machine to go into some of the nastiest head shake this side of a ’93 CBR900RR.
While jumping the bike we were very surprised at how well it flew. Even when we over-jumped and landed in the flats the bike would bottom out, but it didn’t clank or make any other peculiar noises. We found the bike to take hard landings the best when the rider could get either the front or rear to land first, no big, flat landings please, or your wrists will tell you about it.
For how big and heavy the Adventure is, it handles amazingly well in the dirt and on the street. The biggest setback in the dirt is the tires. Full knobbies would be awesome, but none of the DOT knobby tires in America are rated over something like 100 miles per hour, so you are forced to slip and slide your way around the desert with the stock tires, which also suck even worse in deep sand. We got our best handling results when we didn’t weight the front end too much. With all that fuel and plastic up there, the front end is weighted more than enough and wants to push if you go too deep. Due to this, whenever possible, we rode it like a dirt tracker and steered with the rear, brake sliding and power sliding around the desert.
The braking performance is pretty good, but is again limited by the tires’ lack of grip on soil. We had no complaint with the feel at the levers, the overall power, or the modulation in the dirt. On the street, however, we wished the front brake was a little more powerful with less effort at the lever. Most guys like to use one finger on the front brake lever, and we found ourselves having to use two. Perhaps KTM backed off the overall power of the front brakes to save some folks from crashing in the dirt, where a touchy front brake can spell disaster.
The Adventure is right at home on the pavement and proves to be an excellent performer on the street, able to dissect canyon roads with its nimble handling and strong engine.
Another thing that can be confirmed is that besides being a fairly adept machine in the dirt, this bike is also a very capable sport-tourer on the street. While most of our mileage was in the dirt, because it’s a dirt bike, we did put in a few hundred miles on the highways and byways of Southern California. The comfortable riding position, fully adjustable suspension components, and great power delivery make it a hit on the street. The motorcycle is skinny enough to split lanes with the best of them in SoCal, and it even has hand guards should a rogue mirror get in your way. The windshield does a good enough job of blocking the wind from the rider so he or she can cover some serious mileage. KTM even has hard bags available to make it a complete sport-touring package. The Austrians just may have covered all the bases with this bike.
We love this motorcycle but fear that a fair amount of them will stay on the street most of the time, and that’s a shame when you consider how good it is in the dirt. Street guys will love this bike because it is easily comparable to heavier adventure-tourers like the BMW GS and others in its class. The KTM Adventure 950 might not have all the amenities that a BMW is equipped with, but the Adventure will absolutely decimate the BMW in the dirt and it’s about $4,000 less. If you haven’t ridden one of the Adventures yet, you should. You won’t believe the strange looks and thumbs-ups you get from people out in the desert – as you are passing them with your turn signal on before moving ahead and roosting them.
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