When I walked in to pick up our KTM Adventure 990 R test bike I was struck by how big it seemed. Decked out with the tall touring screen, panniers and case guards it looked completely ready to hit the highway. That was fine, as my plan was to do just that and ride to Moab, Utah to participate in the annual KTM Adventure rally.
What the 990 R did not look like was something that wanted to tackle lots of hardcore off-road exploring. Of course, from a styling standpoint it has the correct persona, looking like a rally bike replica. But as I pulled out of the KTM parking lot, I was very much planning to stay close to the tarmac with this imposing bike. Little did I know how far away the road would actually lead me.
There can be no doubt that KTM’s impact on the adventure bike scene has been huge. BMW really defined the market, particularly during the decade of the 90’s. The Bavarian bikes slowly evolved into more touring oriented offerings, straying farther and farther from the dirt scene. When the big KTM Twins came along they couldn’t help but exude the off-road heritage of the Austrian company. Since then, the majority ADV crowd in the US has slowly divided into two camps following each manufacturer.
The bike was supplied with a V-Twin fuel-injected powerplant, which would later be protected underneath by a skid plate from Black Dog Cycle Works.
With the introduction of the 990 R, KTM has shown just how much can be accomplished with a liter-class adventure bike. Underneath all that bodywork is a machine that retains much of the manners and ergonomics of a dirt bike, but with a big, smooth V-Twin powerplant that will stride down the highway with the best of them.
At the heart of it all is the 999cc 75-degree V-Twin fed by a Keihin fuel injection system to produce 115 claimed horsepower. The six-speed transmission makes sure there is plenty of gearing for both technical riding and highway cruising. Special attention has been paid to weight reduction from the previous generation 950 model. A lighter head, pistons and a crank all contribute to lower the rotating mass. A unique multi-shaft runs between the cylinders. This shaft serves as the counter-balancer as well as driving the water pump, cam chain and holding the idler gear for the electric starter.
The engine is suspended in a trellis style steel frame that weighs in at just 24 pounds. The subframe is a combination of aluminum castings and extrusions that are designed to accommodate all the loads of an adventure bike.
(Above): The Hepco-Becker ‘Gobi’ bags are made from molded plastic and have enough give to take a brutal beating off-road. (Below): The instrument panel includes an analog tachometer along with a digital readout of your speed, temperature and a variety of warning lights.
Fully adjustable WP suspension components hold up each end of the 990 and are one of the major differences of the R over the standard model. With 10.4 inches of travel on each end, this is just over two inches more than the standard Adventure model. This also contributes to the 36-inch seat height. The 48mm USD fork has compression, rebound and preload adjustments. The shock features a unique external preload dial that allows easy adjustment to compensate for the additional load of a passenger or equipment.
The wheels are a dirt spec 21-inch front with an 18-inch rear that holds a 150-series tire. The standard rubber is the Pirelli MT 90 Scorpion A/T. This tire was designed specifically for the Adventure. It has a silica tread compound that is intended to give good mileage and wear performance. Up front are 300mm Brembo dual front discs with a 240mm rear to provide stopping power. The R model does not have the ABS found on the standard Adventure.
The instrument cluster is dominated by the large analog tachometer. Next to it is the digital readout for speed, temperature and the dual trip meters. Like the KTM 690, there is an automatic trip reset that is activated when the low fuel light comes on. It is a nice touch to let you keep track of the distance traveled while low on fuel. There is also the usual array of warning lights. At night this is all illuminated by a bright orange backlight.
Other standard equipment includes both side and center stands. The footpegs are straight from the dirt bike line, but include removable rubber inserts to reduce vibration. There is a single 12 volt outlet mounted on the dash. This is located right next to the emergency flashers.
Hitting the Highway
I really did not have much of a chance to spend any time on the 990 before hitting the road for Moab. I pretty much just loaded it up and took off. Our test bike came equipped with a nice selection of accessories out of the KTM Power Parts catalog. Fortunately, these made the bike road ready, so all I had to do was get packed.
The Hepco-Becker “Gobi” bags ($680, plus $340 for mounts) are injection molded plastic affairs that definitely have the correct rugged look. With an inner and outer plastic layer they have just enough flex to absorb small impacts without damage. One rider I met related a story of accidently hitting a tree with the bag and it simply popped off the mounts without any damage.
I was also amused to find that the void between the two layers is designed to hold water and can be dispensed by mounting a fuel petcock on the provided mounts near the bottom of the bag. Each bag will hold nearly a gallon of liquid. Overall, they work well but the dual layers of material take up valuable storage space. As a result the bags do not have the storage volume of other similar sized panniers.
The chore of packing was also eased by the use of the KTM tank bag ($140). It mounts nicely on the bike. The top zips to the base so it can be easily removed. It takes a bit of skill to get it zipped back on, as you cannot see much of what you are doing and have to do it by feel. The main section is expandable and it has the standard side pockets.
Nearly the entire first day of riding was just for eating up miles on the freeway. I had plenty of time to think about how things were working. The tall screen ($105) worked very well for my six-foot height. I got just a little wind coming over the top of my helmet, but it did not cause any buffeting. Later when I had to ride in the rain, I was very glad to have it.
Lastly, we had a set of crash bars mounted ($280). Luckily, I have no idea how well they work, but they seem like a very sensible investment to protect the bodywork from tip-over damage.
The monotony of freeway riding is one of those things that’s necessary sometimes and the 990 is plenty happy to do it. Cruising along at 75 mph is no problem. The chassis and suspension give a smooth ride on pavement. The sparse cockpit lacks any bells and whistles for distraction, but that is just as well with me.
The low fuel light flashes on consistently around the 160-mile mark, letting you know that you are down to the one-gallon reserve. This happily coincides with my need to stretch and get away from the seat for a few minutes. Overall, I rate the seat at “good.” It is reasonably comfortable and gives room to move about. One tedious issue is the requirement to fill each individual fuel cell. There are two gas fillers and they each require the key to open. I found it
While there were some definite hindrances in the dirt (most notably the large windscreen), the KTM performed remarkably well in the difficult terrain.
easiest to stay on the bike, that way I could find a good angle to reach and fill each side. Otherwise, it almost requires walking around the bike to get at each side properly and not splash gas all over.
My second morning on the road found me in St George, Utah after covering nearly 500 miles the first day. I had already arranged to hook up with some industry friends here who had offered to take me out dirt biking. From what they had described, I just assumed that they were going to bring a bike for me to ride. When they arrived at our meeting spot, that wasn’t the case. If I wanted to go see some of their local trails, I was expected to do it on the 990.
Not planning to be left behind, I detached the panniers and got ready to sample some local dirt. I really was not sure what to expect, but I knew the front tire would be a challenge in the soft conditions. With its very round street profile, the MT 90 does not give much bite on the edge to keep the big bike tracking straight.
After a brief period of adjustment the 990 handled well in the dirt and was actually very dirt bike-like.
Overall the tires were not terrible. The suspension keeps the KTM balanced, not transferring too much weight on to the front in slower conditions. With a careful throttle hand the front can be massaged through most sandy sections without too much drama. As for the rear, it has enough weight bias on it to get good traction – again just make sure to be careful with the throttle hand.
The next thing I notice is that the tall screen is a real pain off-road. Every time I stand up, it is right at my throat and making me very nervous. While sitting, I found myself attempting to look around it to get a better view of the ground. Later in Moab, I would take the screen off and my off-road riding time was much more enjoyable.
After I got over the first few minutes of nervousness I quickly started to get comfortable on the big KTM. Its general handling manners are quite good and very dirt bike-like. The more I rode the more fun I had. In fact, I had to laugh at myself for being intimidated by the bike to begin with; it’s lots of fun when ridden within its limits. After a while I was riding right along with the other bikes, certainly at a slower pace, but going all the same places.
It wasn’t long before I whacked the bottom of the bike against a rock. Fortunately I had installed the skid plate from Black Dog Cycle Works ($315) before leaving home. I can see how mandatory this upgrade is for any serious dirt action. Similarly the other “must have” upgrade is their side stand relocation kit ($80). The stock mounting bracket hangs out where it can get hit easily. A part of this mount bolts directly to the engine case and the force of a hit gets transferred directly there and can easily crack the case. I actually saw this happen to another bike I was riding with at the Moab rally. The BDCW kit relocates this away from the engine.
During the KTM adventure rally in Moab, large adventure bikes were commonplace.
The following day I arrived in Moab, the site of the annual KTM Adventure Rally run by Mark Hyde and his crew. Each day rides are scheduled to various locations, and this year they were guided by Mike Lafferty, Russell Bobbitt and Paul Krause. Each begged me to come join their group, but I settled on going with Bobbitt. He was taking riders to the Slick Rock area and I figured that should be mandatory on the list of Moab explorations.
I quickly ditched the bags, tall screen and my highway gear for something a little lighter. For those like me who have not seen Slickrock, it is quite the experience. Located just outside of town it is a large semi-open area where hikers, bikers, four-wheelers and motorcycles all play politely together.
The trail systems range from easy to difficult and following the two-time AMA National Enduro champion means we saw everything. I think we covered nearly every trail in the park in one day. Riding an ADV bike meant that most of the trails were challenging in some way. That also meant the fun factor for me was huge. Every steep hill and off- camber turn required my full attention.
One particular section of steep trail had our contributor worried, but a solid motor allowed him to overcome the obstacle with ease.
The great manners of the engine and fuel injection were a real life saver on numerous occasions. The stock gearing is a little tall for this type of riding, but the Twin would easily pull over the rock climbs. Fortunately the traction in the area is great; it is anything but “slick.” at least in dry conditions. On one section I came to a rock face that was 15 feet high and nearly vertical with a large sand pit at the bottom. I was riding sweep in the back and there were no other riders around, so it meant they had all climbed it – including the three other 990’s in our group. So up I went, and the engine just chugged me up without issue.
The only significant issue to arise was the soft settings of the front fork. At no point was I ever riding particularly fast, yet I managed to bottom the front hard on at least two different occasions. On the road it also suffers from some tendency to dive under braking and hard throttle chop. It certainly seems like it would benefit from an increase in spring rates. The rear shock never really gave me any reason to think about it, it always worked pretty well.
Interestingly, our group had started the day with a large number of riders, many on small bikes. By the time we reached the afternoon, the group had dwindled down to just a handful and all on big bikes! I think it is a real testament to just how much fun they can be to ride and that you do not have to be an expert off-roader to play.
The only major issue with the bike was the soft settings of the front fork, which caused the machine to dive under heavy braking.
As it was time to start back home I felt that I had only seen a small part of what Moab has to offer, so I hope we go back there again next year. For the trip home I headed due south hoping to avoid the freeway and see as much back country as possible. Winding through Monument Valley and on into Northern Arizona again reinforced road credentials of the big “R.” With the weather turning bad, I was chased by rain nearly the entire trip home. The big screen and hand guards did their job, and I was glad I had packed plenty of cool weather gear.
Near dark I was rolling into Flagstaff with the rain coming hard. I could see clear sky to the west so I was determined to get down off the plateau before stopping for the day. I had to grind out two hours in the dark rain on Interstate 40 before stopping in Seligman for the night.
In these conditions the headlight power was okay, but not great. The high beam was acceptable for 65 mph freeway cruising, but the low beam felt weak against the conditions. Also, the orange glow from the dash is so bright that it’s distracting. I saw that many of the bikes at the rally were running some type of auxiliary lighting and now I can understand why.
The next morning was cold and clear, and I hit the road early. Again I was happy for the tall screen to keep the chill off of my mid-section. I ditched the freeway at Needles and worked my way home on the lonely two-lane roads of the Mojave Desert.
As for the competition, while I have owned a number of BMW GS models I confess to having not spent time on the 1200. Yet, I did ride the newer 800GS quite a bit this year and have to say that the KTM is a worthier off-road mount. Most of this is due to the ergonomics (standing position) and suspension. But there is something more, it just feels more at home in the dirt – more natural.
On the other hand, the 800GS would stand up very well in a road-based comparison. Although it has less displacement, the BMW engine and chassis make a great combination on the tarmac. Even with a claimed 115hp, the KTM never really feels like a powerhouse on the road. It lacks just a little of that absolute visceral feel of something like a Ducati. But for its mission it is nearly perfect, as the off-road handling and feel are so good.
With the 950 Super Enduro model removed from KTM’s line up, the 990 Adventure R has become a top pick for off-roading in the liter bike class.
• There is a nice storage area on top of the gas tank and another one under the seat.
• The sidestand foot is a little too small for parking on soft surfaces.
• Extended footpegs are all the rage with KTM ADV owners, the wide seat area makes you feel a little bow legged on the stock pegs.
• The key has an electronic chip in it to help prevent theft, just don’t lose it.
• Pairing the Pirelli MT90 rear with a MT21 front would make a good off-road package.
• If you are looking for true knobbies for your ADV bike, look at the offerings from Mefo or Heidenau. (Honestly, those are real tire brands)
• The “R” model boasts a couple of horsepower more than the standard Adventure, and this increase comes simply from a difference in the ignition mapping.
• Our test passenger gives the 990 a thumbs up for its flat seat and good passenger peg position.
• We mounted up a set of Flexx bars for the road trip and found a slight reduction in vibration and enjoyed their action while riding off-road.
Looking back on my time with the KTM 990 Adventure R, I can hardly think of a better trip or a better partner for it. At first I wondered about the need for the additional suspension of the R, but I used every bit of it in Slickrock and would have been much more concerned about ground clearance without it. Now that the 950 Super Enduro has been dropped from the KTM lineup, this is now the front runner for off-road riding in the liter bike class. The great part is that you don’t have to sacrifice road comfort to get it.