Rated – KTM 1290 Super Adventure

KTM has broadened its horizons. At the very top of its three bike adventure range sits the 1290 Super Adventure. It’s a big bike for big bucks but can it live up to the flagship billing, can it really go anywhere and can it take on the mighty 1200 GS?

If any road is your goal and adventure bikes are your thing then KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure is hot news in 2015. It’s making big noises in this biggest of big bike markets, stomping into the year with a swagger that said “I’ve come to the party with all the gear and plenty of ideas”. KTM’s new adventure bike is designed to go anywhere with speed, comfort, presence but above all to challenge the BMW R1200GS as top dog.

KTM has had plenty of practice of course. The KTM Adventure has been staging a decent war on the GS for a while, always with the swagger of a bike which wasn’t quite playing the same game. KTM is traditionally a sport motorcycle manufacturer and it always showed in the Adventure, which was a bonus for some of us wanting something more exciting than a GS but it surely hasn’t helped the Austrian firm take the lion’s share of this very big motorcycle market.

The 1290 Super Adventure promises much, not just in name but with a monster of a sports road bike engine and a host of technological advancements it has to be seen as a whole new motorcycle capable of challenging the big boys.

First impressions do count. I’ve learnt this much in life so far. Walk into my local pub dressed like a politician and you get funny looks, no-one talks to you and you feel like leaving after three swigs from the brown stuff. Walk in splattered with emulsion like you’re fresh from painting a dining room and no-one will blink, they might even offer a nod and a token “alright mate” and you’ll leave five pints later once old George at the end of the bar has done his Mars bar in the mouth sideways trick.

Replace the analogy of my local boozer with a road. The first road more or less that I travelled on the 1290 was a single carriageway, twisty mother of a road which blasts its way around mountains and out into rolling, rambling countryside with fizz of fast bends. On the wrong bike it is boring, hard work, uncomfortable, maybe even dangerous (I’ve ridden some bad bikes). None of us wants to feel like an out of place politician in a slightly dingy boozer, we all want to walk in feel at home and have a good time. The KTM 1290 Super Adventure, from the first miles clearly loves that kind of road, loves any kind of road and clearly helps you to enjoy the ride. Enough with the analogies already.

A large, powerful adventure bike shouldn’t be this easy to ride. With the same very clear display console and switches you find on other KTMs, the 1290 is very operator-friendly to use as well. These are novice-friendly details the BMW R1200GS does well and if KTM has set out to match, or better, its German counterpart then it has achieved goal number one.

At slow speed you could usually argue the older model KTMs were more difficult to ride smoothly than the legendarily creamy GS1200. A bit heavier higher up and certainly harder to tame with their more alert engine character, KTMs were characterised as the gnarlier steed of the big adventure bike class. Sportier too of course, and in many ways more capable off-road. But that might account for some of the reasons why the BMW has been so popular. But watch out BMW, the KTM 1290 has that nailed.

The 1290 still does the stuff KTM Adventures always have done but it’s swallowed the GS’s good bits too, and added plenty of new stuff.

In fact KTM has had BMW’s number for a while. Those older KTMs were a bit tall but they had a characteristic I always liked, a different egg in the basket which gave you options as a rider to ride in a way others ADV bikes wouldn’t let you i.e. a bit faster. If you wanted a more ‘sport-oriented’ bike, the KTM was the one. The 1290 still does that stuff KTM Adventures always have done but it’s swallowed the GS’s good bits too and added plenty of new stuff.

It is easy to live with a GS, deceptively easy to ride slowly and surprisingly capable when you start to ride it off-road. More so than many novice riders think and until this current crop of KTMs, it wasn’t something you could say of the Austrian brand. KTM has broken that trend with the 1050, 1190 and the 1290 too. Though still a bit tall, the seat is adjustable and more importantly the weight, the balance and the way the throttle and clutch respond softly to soft touches all make doing anything slowly easier.

My first impression of the 1290 was a long, four hour slog of a ride after a tiring four long days of work. It began with the excitement I mentioned above but my tired bones and brain were longing for home. You know how it goes; some days you’re up for a bit of a ride and feel ‘on it’, some days you don’t. That day I definitely didn’t feel ‘on it’. In that kind of rider mode (the mode in my head, not the electronic mode on the bike) this is one civilised motorcycle. Commanding the road with its large scale presence like all good big adventure bikes should, it is economical, relaxed and a pleasure if I’m honest to ride it ‘normally’.

Lights that know you’re leaning over? Is it witchcraft?

Travelling is easy with a good fairing too. These things are slightly subjective depending on your height but behind the hand guards, the big 30litre tank and the tall screen I felt protected from the wind and rain enough to fight through a tank full of fuel (230miles was my average tank range when I didn’t ride like loon). The seat is comfortable for that distance too and so in very simple terms it is devastatingly easy to travel on this bike.

I’m making these points, even laboring them because it is a sea-change on the part of the big KTM. A big, old argument many people had against it compared to the GS or even Triumph Explorer, has vanished.

I’m often underwhelmed by gadgets and gizmos. Partly that’s because I’m a luddite, as my friends will tell you. But every now and then something kicks me in line with its simplicity and usefulness. When I discovered the 1290 has LED lights that light up the inside road edge as I leant in to corners I was almost blown away – to the point of making up corners which weren’t really there just to see the lights brighten my life up. More LEDs come on as you lean through 10, 20 and 30 degrees but lights that know you’re leaning over? Is it witchcraft? Who cares, leaning over in the dark just got exciting. Thanks KTM.

There’s no shortage of clever stuff going on with this motorcycle. Different riding modes, there are four in total all of which can be turned off if you wish, give you something to play with and rely on depending on your experience and riding conditions.

The aim of ‘rain’ and ‘off-road’ modes is to soften the power to 100bhp and nicely tame the delivery which it does (though you can still spin the rear wheel in off-road mode). ‘Street’ mode delivers full power but tempers the throttle response, and pitches in earlier with ABS and TCS intervention. Advancements in electronics, mostly being lead by European manufacturers KTM, BMW, Aprilia and Ducati are game-changing. The Super Adventure is leading the game.

If you needed proof then try KTM’s semi-active WP suspension for size. Fitted to the forks and rear shock absorber it too has four settings that operate separately of the engine power modes.

For the most part, like so many of the ‘good’ electronic aids, the differences don’t make themselves known – the WP system is simply doing what it should while you get on with riding. Where you can feel it really doing a job though is in the softer ‘comfort’ mode. To put it simply in the otherwise plush ‘comfort’ setting the forks stiffen up under braking load, while the shock does the same under acceleration load. More or less that keeps the bike on an even keel, stops the pitching and yawing as you brake or accelerate.

As a rider the first thing that does is keep you more relaxed in the saddle and requires a bit less effort from your muscles as you ride. But arguably the more important aspect I found is it gives you more of an idea what the tyres are doing. How the front wheel is holding the road when you brake and turn-in to corners is more or less the only thing you have to think about and while that could take a bit of getting used to for some, I found it helped feel for grip.

The GS’s well-established, utterly stable telelever fork system it very dependable in these ways too but it does have a habit of smashing into things instead of riding over them, particularly off-road. The WP conventional forks set-up on the KTM are absorbing those bumps better but still largely behaving like the telelever the rest of the time. It’s clever stuff and for my money offering the best of both worlds on a bike of this size.

Either the KTM test riders have the hands like children or they could find no other solution.

All the time, whatever the mode, this bike is alert and precise. I like that in a bike I must say and I enjoyed chucking it about, on and off-road, more than I expected, more than you’d expect looking at it. I want to ride slow sometimes but I also want the brakes to be there instantly when I ask with good power and feel, whatever speed I’m doing on any surface. If I’ve had enough of a bus spewing out diesel in front of me I also want to be able to flick past it with a short blast of the throttle. When I’m off-road I want to be able to dick about doing wheelies and skids too. The 1290 hits all those marks deceptively well.

Continental Trail Attack 2 are the OE tyres in the UK where we tested and they are very good for the job on the road. In fact exceptionally good as my confidence grew and I started to push harder and test their edge grip on the road. The amount of power on tap makes sliding out of corners a possibility, should you wish. The Conti’s cope with it and provide plenty of feel.

The Contis are ok off-road but, like so many adventure and trail named tyres, are heavily biased towards the Tarmac. They work fine on trails and dirt roads but can’t cope very well with wet mud or any kind of situation where you want some edge grip. They’re not supposed to of course but I’d be looking for some more edgy tyres for off-road if the 1290 were my bike. Just as soon as I’d worn out the Contis – which wouldn’t be long with this road performance…

In off-road mode on the dirt the power delivery is just as anonymous, it’s doing a job of helping the OE tyres try and get hold of the dirt without making itself noticed too much. Power is restricted to 100bhp and that feels like enough, softly delivered.

The electronics are smooth, the clutch is light and while most of the off-road riding we did for this test was on bone-dry ground, it was rare to feel the bike getting squirrelly. The chassis helps because it feels deceptively agile and definitely things are working for you, not against. What is most satisfying about that is it proves the big KTM hasn’t lost its skills off-road. I worried at first that I’d find they’d vanished when I found it so much better as a road bike. But this a very capable bike off-road, albeit a heavy and expensive one obviously.

I’d want a higher bend set of bars for better control off-road personally. They’re not set in a bad position, like they can be on so many adventure bikes straight out the showroom. They are quite flat though, which does make the 1290 more manageable and novice friendly, but I’d prefer them slightly higher to help my standing riding position off-road.

The hand grips are another issue though – they are way too stumpy. Either the KTM test riders have hands like children or they could find no other solution. For heating grips. The inside donut, the bit where your thumbs rubs, is too chunky because of the heated grip elements and my hands simply don’t fit on the bars enough.

It’ll make the leap from gentle to mental progressively but be aware this is a bike very capable of going very quickly.

OK, so, at one end of the scale you have an appreciably easy bike to ride on and off-road but what about the other end of that scale? What happens when you try and crack on a bit? It turns utterly bonkers, that’s what happens! Fast? Fast like a flippin’ fighter plane on a training flight through a mountain range that’s how fast it feels on a decent road! It’s not really a transformation from Jekyll to Hyde, the 1290 makes the leap from gentle to utterly mental progressively but make no mistake this is a bike very capable of going very quickly.

It’s the 1301cc V-twin engine’s fault, which is essentially lifted out the 1290 Super Duke sportsbike (by the way, what’s wrong with calling it a 1300cc bike? Does 1290 sound better than 1300?). Either way it hauls along like a train. As I’ve already mentioned the electronics, suspension and brakes are all playing a role in keeping tabs on the beast but it came as a shock to realise just how much of a beasting it is capable of dishing out when you let it loose.

The beauty of this LC8 engine, despite losing 20bhp from its donor 1290 Super Duke sibling, is it has good doses of power in the right places. A claimed 160bhp top end but with more mid-range and certainly a smoother bottom-end power thanks to a heavier crank (2kg) than the Super Duke, are all the right tweaks in the right places to make it a better road bike engine.

In many ways that makes it an ideal engine because it performs in the ways you want it to as a motorcycle rider: smooth at slow speed, useful and torquey as hell through the most part of the rev-range and gearbox, plus it’s fast enough to blow tabacco out the pipes of old men. There’s also a taller top gear on the Super Adventure for wafting lazily along with the cruise control set – just in case you thought it was all hooligan.

We haven’t tested the bike back-to-back with a BMW GS (though we will come to that for sure in the near future) but even so, the flat twin 1200cc Beemer engine has a job on its hands competing with this V-twin. Despite impressive increases since it went water-cooled, the GS can’t quite match the way KTM’s 1290 motor delivers.

It isn’t a feature I’ve yet dared myself to test at any speed but in theory you can squeeze the lever hard as hell and get away with it.

A nice aspect of most KTMs is the components not only have decent quality but they work. It’s certainly true with the 1290 which sports very powerful and progressive Brembo brakes which I’m hard pushed to spot the difference between and those fitted to the Super Duke.

And this is where yet more electronically-controlled wizardry steps forward. The Bosch braking system takes things a step further. It is ‘smart’ braking, self-adjusting, via a gyroscope sensor, it basically adjusts brake pressure to the discs depending on your lean angle. It is another extraordinary technical innovation, not to mention a bonus, to have an ABS system that knows when you’re leant over and tempers itself accordingly if you apply too much front brake. I must confess it isn’t a feature I’ve yet dared myself to test at any speed but in theory you can squeeze the lever hard as hell and get away with it. Take a minute to think about that.

A small side issue that we like about the 1290 is you can adjust the rear brake lever. It’s a small detail but it affects your control depending on what boots you’re wearing. Having a bike which you can tailor is nice, as it should be with a bike which costs this much but, well, you can’t always rely on that.

There’s a stack of KTM optional extras to choose and spend your money on if you want to as well. Top of the list (and it should be standard in my view) is an aluminium bash plate – it needs one. Among the usual panniers and Akrapovic pipes is a hill-start function, which basically holds the back brake for a few seconds while you try and pull away. Handy.

What you won’t need as an option is a heated seat, or a pillion seat for that matter which are easy to use and come as standard. The pillion seating position is a bit cramped, alright my pillion was a large human called Llewelyn Pavey who is arguably at the top end of the scale of people the pillion seat was designed for but still, he found it cramped.

You can do all this on any motorcycle, of course you can. But so capably as a bike like this? So fast? So ‘well’ even? I doubt it.

In KTM’s 1290 Adventure you have a bike as adept at travelling distance as Lionel Messi is at scoring goals. This motorcycle is purely Messi in that it has taken on the world and come through a fierce contest not only the winner but hailed that way by its peers.

Whether you compare the 1290 Super Adventure to a 1200 BMW GS and GSA is debatable but sit on either bike and the comparison is clear. It makes most sense in terms of specs and price to line it up with the GS Adventure, and you have to bear in mind you are getting a higher set of specifications as standard on the KTM. In those terms the larger size of the bikes, the bigger tanks and fuel ranges, the bigger screens, the seat height all stack up, literally to put them on par.

Travelling quickly across a continent is easy: cars are reasonably quick, economical, comfortable, littered with gadgets and above all easy to cover distance in on the whole. Bikes are more interesting of course and can be fast, but fast and economical? What about comfortable? What about the gadgets? Hmmm.

Just a few short years ago it was certainly true to say if you wanted to travel any decent distance and take in some twisty roads, then dip off the road and take yourself up some goat track to enjoy the sunset, you pretty much needed three different bikes. Alright you can do all this on any motorcycle, of course you can. But so capably as a bike like this? So fast? So ‘well’ even? I doubt it.

To cut this by now long-winded story down to the chase, adventure bikes do all that, we know but the 1290 does it better than anything else. Bikes to match a tourer AND carry you quickly along a twisty mountain pass with performance to match a sportsbike AND have moderate off-road ability too boot. The 1290 does each of those things better than any big adventure bike around.

The BMW R1200GS and GS Adventure have held station for many years as the bikes to do all that with skills you’ll find it hard to describe to non-believers. The king isn’t dead, the BMW still does what it does very well indeed. But the king has been denounced, succeeded, dethroned. All hail the new king KTM 1290 Super Adventure. A bike to go anywhere on. A true all-rounder.

Crafted By

Jonathan Pearson
Former Features Editor

JP is a master of many tricks. Working as a bike journalist, he's been testing, analysing and writing about on and off-road motorcycles for various UK magazines, both as a staffer and a freelance journalist, since the nineties. Testing everything from Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP bike through sportsbikes, commuter bikes and, of course many, many miles on adventure bikes. JP has also spent much of his life competing at up to International level in trials, enduro, extreme enduro, circuit racing and hillclimbing. He also instructs at the Off Road Skills motorcycle training school, coaching and encouraging people in the ways of riding adventure bikes. Also a fan of vegetables and sea products.

Rated - KTM 1290 Super Adventure
And incredible, all round, world munching weapon of a bike.
Engine10
Suspension/Chassis9
Brakes10
Comfort9
Economy 9
Off Road Ability8
Positivity
  • Packed with electronic aids which work
  • Very strong engine and strong controls
  • Capable chassis on and off-road
Negativity
  • Narrow Hand Grips
  • Expensive
9.2Overall Rating
Reader Rating: (264 Votes)
0.1

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