2011 KTM 990 Adventure Dakar Comparison

JC Hilderbrand | September 19, 2011

Take one look, just one, and it’s immediately obvious what KTM is trying to do with the 990 Adventure. A tall, thin layout wrapped in classic rally-style bodywork clearly gives away the Austrian motorcycle’s dirty intentions. We were equipped with the Dakar model which is an upgraded version of the standard 990 Adventure. The Dakar is imported as a full edition in contrast to the limited edition Adventure R model which is even scarcer in dealers for 2011.

The Dakar employs a 75-degree V-Twin measuring 999cc (101 x 62.4mm bore/stroke). Compared to the standard Adventure, the Dakar version has a 500-rpm higher rev ceiling which is good for extra peak horsepower. With exception to the ridiculous Ducati, the 990 put out the highest number of ponies, narrowly edging the BMW at 94.91 HP as it hits the 9400-rpm rev limiter. Torque production is a different story, however. The water-cooled engine suffers a big disadvantage at 60.85 lb-ft. Of the liter-class bikes, the Yamaha and Beemer both make 71 lb-ft and the Duc is way out in front at nearly 81 lb-ft. Combine the 573-pound testing weight and the result is the Adventure is not a fast accelerating machine. It’s the slowest in 0-60 feet, losing even to the Triumph, and also the slowest big bike in the quarter-mile.

2011 KTM Adventure 990
The KTM 990 Adventure is happiest playing in dirt. Its big engine needs to be revved to make comparable power with the others but it’s still managable off road.

On paper these deficits cost the KTM dearly, but in the real world it’s not as drastic. Realistically, all of the bikes are pretty close, except for the Ducati. However, all of our testers felt that the KTM is at the back of the pack in terms of pure engine performance. The dyno shows that there’s some extra top end, but the Adventure’s gearing forces it to run out of steam on top end.

“It’s just plain slow when compared to others in this group,” confirms Riant. “Poor acceleration and runs out of power at high speeds. It has mellow, off-road friendly power.”

The 990 Adventure was also criticized for the amount of noise it makes and the vibrations it produces, especially when you are hard on the throttle. One rider went as far as comparing it to a big single-cylinder dirt bike. The Dakar had not had its first major service, at which time the throttle bodies are synced, but we checked with KTM once the bike was returned and they said our test unit was not noticeably more shaky than normal.

“It has a very responsive throttle,” Maddox says, “but under hard acceleration it has a shuddering that transitions into more vibration than the rest of the bikes.

“It needs to be revved high to get its acceleration up,” agrees our Managing Editor, Madson, “and that comes with extra buzz.”

The KTM puts its power down through a six-speed gearbox and chain drive. It received high subjective marks for drivetrain performance thanks to its hydraulic clutch and solid transmission. Pull at the clutch lever is very light and the shift lever is raised up and away from the footpeg. It’s very accommodating for large feet or bulky off-road boots, and upshifting while standing is the easiest on this motorcycle. Some riders were unaccustomed to the distant pedal but gear changes take less effort than other bikes. We didn’t experience any excess slack or noise from the drive chain.

The dual fuel tanks deserve some consideration. Not only do they give the KTM a distinct look and feel, but the design plays a large role in the handling and ergonomics. “They wanted to keep the motorcycle narrow, so they have two long skinny gas tanks,” explains KTM’s Media Relations Manager, Tom Moen.

2011 KTM Adventure 9902011 KTM Adventure 9902011 KTM Adventure 990
The 2011 KTM 990 Adventure Dakar Edition was awarded top honors for its rally styling. None of our riders complain that the Dakar doesn’t have traction control, and the ABS is easy to switch on and off, which is very convenient.

Engineers accomplished the goal of keeping the bike slim, without having a bulbous tank between the rider’s knees, but the KTM handles differently than the other adventure bikes. Riders are able to stand up much easier and can lean forward without having to bow their legs out. This provides for much more grip and control while standing and allows you to ride with more aggression. The seat profile also allows easy rider movement which aids in its off-road prowess as well. While the KTM earned top marks for off-road performance, the seat was a love/hate item on the street. Comfort from the foam is high, as is the suede-style cover. However, riders reported feeling the seat base on occasion and the cover retains moisture, making the KTM the least favorite to ride in wet weather or after sitting overnight.

“Drawing the unlucky straw of riding the big Katoom after an evening shower, I spent the better part of the morning standing up in the saddle to keep my hindquarters dry,” laments Bart. “On the plus side, the KTM is far and away the most comfortable when standing on the pegs.”

Handling performance on the pavement isn’t the same as the other bikes. The 21-inch front tire is the skinniest of the test and the Pirelli MT90 tires have the largest tread blocks. Each rider noticed immediately that the Pirellis give a vague feel, but once accustomed to it the Dakar was never unable to hold a pace. The large bodywork and thin, tall profile are great for squeezing the bike, but it acts as a wind sail in crosswinds.

That’s one area where the KTM runs into trouble as a long-distance tourer because it gets beat around in the wind. It’s not an issue for 40 or 50 miles, but gets fatiguing if you have to burn through a full tank of gas on high-speed Interstate.

2011 KTM Adventure 990
The 990’s suede-style seat cover is very comfortable, once it gets wet it takes forever to dry out. The KTM offers the least amount of rider protection from the wind as well.

The most detrimental handling symptom was a tendency to feel loose at higher speeds. Similar to KTM dirt bikes, the 990 Adventure has a light front end, and the handlebars can wiggle as speeds climb into triple digits.

“I still enjoyed riding the narrow KTM. It cuts corners well enough, but lacks the confident stability of its rivals with twitchier steering input,” says Madson. “The Adventure’s heavy dirt bias also holds it back, with the tires squirming on the pavement.”

The KTM has a not-so-subtle character flaw,” agrees our oldest rider, Maddox. “It likes to ‘slow dance’ when the speeds reach about 90 mph; over 100 it gets scary. When passing on the open road all these bikes get there real fast, it happens a lot.

“It also likes to follow any depression in the pavement, causing a wandering feel,” he continues. “At very slow speed the bars hit the turning stop really fast. Because of this I nearly dropped it several times. On the other hand, it feels great in the dirt. Any time I got off the KTM and onto another bike in the dirt, the other felt harsh in comparison.”

Brakes on the KTM are a pair of 300mm discs up front squeezed by Brembo calipers. Out back is a single 240mm disc. Bosch manufactures the ABS system which can be switched off by pushing a small button on the display while the bike is stationary. Compared to bikes like the Yamaha which cannot be switched off at all, and the Ducati and Triumph which take considerable navigation through the electronics, our riders appreciated the simplicity of the KTM system. Only the BMW scored higher in the braking department. Neither necessarily had the most power or feel from the brakes themselves, but the user-friendly ABS option was a big plus for our riders. Not all of our testers like ABS to begin with, but having the option of switching them off and doing so easily was key.

As for the rest of the electronics, the KTM is bland compared to the high-tech Multistrada or GS. There is no traction control, not necessarily a negative feature, but the display and switchgear are very basic. All riders complained about the lack of a fuel gauge and gear position indicator. Both are considered mandatory for high-dollar, flagship touring models like these. Not all of our testers minded the simple layout, however.

2011 KTM Adventure 990
2011 KTM Adventure 990
The 2011 KTM 990 Adventure Dakar is a giant dirtbike and that is exactly what KTM wants it to be. No excuses here, if you plan to ride lots of off-road then this is your motorcycle.

“I really dug the utilitarian nature of the instrumentation,” admits Madson, ”though the lack of a fuel gauge is criminal. The bags are sturdy and intuitive too.” 

Despite the 5.3 gallons of fuel available from the dual tanks, the Adventure has a range of only 213 miles, the shortest in our group. The farthest we pushed it was 195 miles. In lieu of a fuel gauge the Dakar uses a low-fuel warning light. KTM says it kicks on with 40 miles left. Average fuel economy for the trip was also the lowest at barely over 40 mpg. As with the rest of the bikes, our riders were heavy on the throttle for the entire duration of the trip. It also deserves a little slack since it was burdened with slightly more weight than the others. Because of its superior luggage, the KTM was chosen to carry our most valuable cargo, the camera equipment, and still it was only a couple MPG short of the most economical Triumph and Beemer.

The $15,499 asking price for the 990 Adventure Dakar includes standard ABS, spoked wheels, hand guards, center stand, suede seat cover, tinted windscreen, engine protection and the bright orange crash bars. The only accessories added to the KTM were the panniers, top case and associated hardware ($1782 value), and they were in a class above the rest. The aluminum cases added a lot of touring credibility for a bike that was not ranked highly for its long-distance capabilities. Our riders also loved the small, lockable storage compartment near the steering head – another benefit of the dual fuel cells. KTM places the fuses inside which makes for easy access. Much of the Austrian machine is well-engineered with maintenance in mind. Oil changes are recommended every 4600 miles, but the maintenance schedule for valve inspections is 10,000 km (9321 miles) for the first and 30,000 km after that (18,641 miles).

KTM has the strongest dirt bike heritage of the group, and it shows with the 990 Adventure. The Dakar version embodies spirit of remote exploration with aggressive off-road ergonomics, bodywork and standard crash protection. Riders who avoid pavement like the plague are drawn to this Adventure motorcycle, and in the dirt it doesn’t disappoint. While it’s the best when the pavement ends, the KTM lacks some of the comfort and amenities that make long-distance touring more bearable. For the right kind of rider this bike is tops, but for us it finishes fourth.

JC Hilderbrand

Off-Road Editor| Articles | Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.