Ad-ven’ture, verb 1. To venture upon; dare; hazard
Bike, noun 1. Slang for bicycle or motorcycle
There was a time, a long time ago, when I was in a position that I could only own one bike. I was living in a small apartment in West Los Angeles and that one motorcycle had to be both my transportation and recreation. My beloved Yamaha RZ350 just wasn’t holding up its share of the bargain. I wanted to be able to go anywhere, to the end of the road and beyond. I needed an adventure bike long before the term was ever invented.
KTM has been a major player in the Adventure bike category and the 690 Enduro is its latest multi-purpose offering.
I did find that bike and just like the RZ before it, it was spread across the latest motorcycle magazine in glorious black and yellow, the BMW R100GS. For 50,000 miles I flogged that bike. The Beemer had seen both coasts and enough rocks to permanently gouge both cylinder heads before I reluctantly parted ways with it to pursue the next greatest thing.
That was at least 15 motorcycles ago and I have yet to encounter another bike with as much versatility. One Beemer was better on the street and another Honda was better in the dirt, but both lacked the true crossover capability and neither was as inspiring. Isn’t that the great dilemma of the adventure bike? The glass is always half full and equally just as empty.
Yet there is always some light in the tunnel. KTM has long been a major player in the adventure bike market. After a near 20-year run with the original LC4 motor, KTM debuted an all new vision of the big thumper in 2008. Dubbed the 690 Enduro, this bike took its place in the lineup alongside the larger V-twin adventure models. Sporting an all-new trellis frame, fuel injected motor and top-shelf components, could the newcomer be the next great contender for the adventure bike throne?
Boasting a claimed 63 horsepower, the 655cc counter-balanced motor is nearly ideal for the mission. Petrol is delivered via fuel injection and a 43mm throttle body. Standard is a three position mapping switch that lets the rider dial the FI system to match the riding conditions. The automatic cold start feature instantly brings the 102mm bore x 80mm stroke motor to life.
Inside the power is transferred to the six-speed transmission by a hydraulically actuated slipper clutch. With 15/45 gearing the wide-ratio tranny has enough legs to cruise at 70 mph comfortably and still has low enough ratios to tackle casual trails. Shifting is smooth and a spirited romp through a twisty road quickly brings out the beauty of the slipper clutch, wheel hop and requisite throttle blip associated with down shifting a big single are things of the past.
KTM uses a trellis frame to hold the new engine and help keep the weight distribution low. Aggressive bodywork and ergonomics allow the 690 to feel like a real dirt bike when the pavement ends, yet it remains extremely ridable on the street.
The exhaust note is muted, meeting all of the requirements of a fully street legal model. It would be nice to have just a little more growl coming out the back. Yet from a performance standpoint it probably isn’t necessary as the rear wheels spins far too easily in the dirt anyway.
The trellis frame is a unique feature for a company like KTM which has never used such a design. But it’s a good way to accommodate a tall motor and still keep the overall height down. Compared to the old LC4 models, the 690 is very sleek. The huge airbox and paper filter are located in the normal location of the fuel tank. The fuel is held beneath the seat in a 3.2-gallon cell that also serves as the sub fender and side panels. The filler cap is behind the seat on the rear fender.
Braking components are very powerful, particularly the 300mm floating front rotor. Out back, the 690 uses this horizontal master cylinder with steel-braided lines.
As with all things orange, the 690 Enduro is piled with quality components. The 300mm floating front brake is a real gem both on- and off-road. The WP suspension components feature 10 inches of travel and are fully adjustable. The fork lacks a preload adjuster, but it is available from the KTM Power Parts catalog. Oversize bars, adjustable levers, durable brake and shift pedals, are all sourced from the KTM parts bin.
The tiny instrument cluster is an obvious compromise between size and function. The full-feature display includes; speed, odometer, two trip resets, low fuel light, high beam, turn signal, neutral and high temperature lights. One of the unique features is the low fuel warning that automatically activates a new odometer reset keeping track of the 2.5 liter “reserve” mileage traveled. On the down side, the gauge size makes it somewhat difficult to read, especially in bright light. There is no tachometer, but I never really felt the need for it.
My first day of riding was mostly around the paved backroads of San Diego County. This is truly one of the great riding areas featuring miles of winding roads that lead over the mountains and down to the desert. The first impression was just how civilized this bike feels on the road, this really feels like a true street bike. The FI system is smooth, the brakes are great and the handling very neutral. As for engine vibration, it is nearly nonexistent. As the roads opened up and speeds increased I kept expecting some vibration to creep in, but nothing, just a nice smooth ride.
Much the same can be said of the suspension. Both ends are sprung stiff enough that there is no excessive dive under braking and overall ride quality is pretty good. Both wheels roll very smoothly, mostly due to the fact that they do not have rim locks. Considering that our test tires were true knobbies, it was a pretty impressive ride.
Most of my ride time was spent with the FI in the standard map. For street use the aggressive map does add some performance, but sacrifices a little of the bottom-end torque. Bolt on an aftermarket pipe and the 690 should feel like a full-on hooligan bike. Ergonomically everything is in the correct location. The bars and levers are easily adjustable with the footpegs just slightly rearward making for a good overall sporting position. The seating stance is upright and gives great control, but for extended distances there is no wind protection whatsoever.
As the sun gets lower and miles start to add up, there are a few issues that start to detract from the tarmac experience. First is the seat; I’m a dirt biker so my standards regarding seat comfort are pretty low, and even by that measure this seat is poor. It’s tapered at the edges and that means that after awhile the middle of the padding is starting to feel way too personal, and the edges are compressed to the seat base. On the plus side, it’s long and very flat front to rear, so it’s great for moving around in the dirt. It also encourages lots of standing.
Next is the fuel capacity. At 3.2 gallons you don’t want to pass up too many gas stations. The street mileage is very respectable, I got one tank at 55 mpg. The dirt and a heavy throttle hand can bring this down into the mid 30’s quickly. One loop of mixed adventure style riding saw the low fuel light come on at 110 miles. Fortunately I was able to carefully nurse an additional 31 miles out of the tank to reach the next pump.
There is an easy fix for the seat, available from Renazco, and Safari makes an additional tank for the 690 that nearly doubles the capacity. As there is no room inside the frame, this tank basically straddles the bike where a traditional tank would sit. At nearly $800 the Safari tank is a big commitment to gain a little distance. Oh yes, I’m still looking for the helmet lock too.
After having such a fun day of riding on the pavement, I was beginning to wonder what I was in for once I hit the dirt. If all adventure bikes are a compromise, this was starting to look like one biased far more towards a life on the road.
First a note regarding dirt riding and tires. Tires are everything in offroad performance for a big bike. The stock KTM rubber is the DOT approved Pirelli MT21. This is a really good all around tire. Due to availability, I tested the 690 with a Bridgestone 403/ED78 combo. These full knobbies are popular with desert racers and worked great on the big bike.
One other unexpected discovery was how important air pressures are. Initially the bike was delivered with 14lbs front and rear and the front felt inconsistent. I raised the pressures to 18lbs just to make sure I didn’t get any flats. This change significantly improved the overall handling. The front rolled over obstacles easier and gave better traction. I think the lower pressures were letting the tires flex too much due to the weight of the bike.
Once we sorted out the air pressure in our knobbies, the KTM really came to life as an off-road motorcycle.
With the air pressures sorted out I could get down to really testing the off-road limits of the KTM. I started out slowly, wanting to get accustomed to the feel for everything. I started exploring some new terrain during my ride and soon realized that I pretty much forgot all about what I was supposed to be doing. The bike was so natural feeling I just mentally drifted off into full dirt bike mode.
The off-road handling is very good. The suspension is stiff enough that it will handle most terrain without issue, it doesn’t just crash through the stroke like many large dual sport bikes do. This stiffness does make the ride a bit harsh, but it’s safe. Raising the bars slightly makes the standing position comfortable and it just feels like a true dirt bike. Okay, a 320-pound dirt bike, but you get the point.
The motor is just about as good offroad as on the street. The power delivery is smooth and it is not prone to stalling. At speeds under 5 mph, the bulk of the bike does start to show. The clutch is a little bit stiff, but changing to the mild FI mode softens the off-idle response and reduces the need for the clutch. Extended slow speed riding will get the fan running, but that just ensures the motor keeps cool.
Once the speeds get over 5 mph the motor is a joy. There are no rough spots and the fuel delivery is always spot on. If anything it takes more effort just to keep the wheel from spinning than anything else. The overall feel of the bike is not that far from a Honda XR650R, superior to a stock model, but not quite on par with a well-prepped one. Like the Honda, it just begs to be ridden somewhere like Baja, that is the ideal dirt environment for this type of bike.
After a few days of riding it was time to start shooting photos and I was comfortable enough to start pushing the 690 towards its limits. Unlike most other big bikes, getting both wheels off the ground is not a harrowing experience. Sand; the nemesis of adventure bikes, is easily laughed off by the 690.
Obviously there was a considerable about of engineering expertise required to make a bike that would handle so well, regardless of the riding surface. The rearward placement of the fuel tank keeps that weight off of the front wheel. It is interesting to note that in the dirt you can actually feel the change in shock performance as the fuel load burns off. Unlike adventure Twins, you don’t have to be an expert-level rider to make this bike go and do great things.
Here again there are a few compromises that arise with extended off-road use. The seat height is nearly 36 inches. Like a Ducati, the trellis frame has a very lazy turning radius. It is very easy to hit the steering stops making tight turns. Combine those two issues and a slow speed tip over is near guarantee at some point.
The taillight is a bulky old-school-looking thing, where are the cool LEDs for the light and turn signals? Speaking of turn signals, they are a breakaway design that will push back into place. Good thing, because they won’t stand up to much jumping as I found out during the photo shoot.
In the big picture it wouldn’t be fair to dwell too much on the shortcomings or compromises, as by definition it is what this class of bike has to be. This is a bike that is vastly more capable off-road than any twin-cylinder bike can be, even though it will never have the long haul comfort. Compared to similar single-cylinder bikes, I find it to be far more inspiring to ride. This is a bike that makes you find excuses to go riding.
Visualize a line; one end is labeled “dirt” and the opposite end “street.” All dual sport or adventure bikes have some range near the middle where they perform best. Some bikes will be biased more towards the one end, some towards the other. The accomplishment of the KTM 690 Enduro is that it has extended that range in both directions. I can think of no other bike that has so much performance for any riding surface or condition.
For anyone whose definition of adventure riding includes a significant amount of dirt, the 690 Enduro could be a great choice. For me it is almost there. I would love to see a true KTM “adventure” version with a better seat, more fuel capacity and a cool Dakar inspired look. That would be an irresistible package.