2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R Review: First Ride

Sean Alexander
by Sean Alexander

Going over the bars for KTMs new wunderbike

A stunning blasted moonscape is a good way to describe the natural beauty of Peru’s Nasca Desert. And that moonscape makes a particularly good place to test a fast and large adventure-touring motorcycle like the new 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Editor Score: 90.0%
Engine 18.0/20
Suspension/Handling 13.0/15
Transmission/Clutch 8.0/10
Brakes 10/10
Ergonomics/Comfort 9.5/10
Appearance/Quality 9.0/10
Desirability 9.5/10
Value 8.0/10
Overall Score90/100

KTM has sold more than 75,000 adventure motorcycles since 1993, and its re-named these large long-distance dirt bikes as “Travel Enduros.” I think that does a pretty good job of describing what these giant dirt bikes are all about. Honestly, we’d listen no matter what KTM called them, seeing as it has 56 official factory riders competing all around the globe for 2017, most of them in the dirt. Yes, KTM’s entire reputation was built in the world of serious enduro and motocross competition.

A Look Behind the Scenes at KTM

The 2016 season was a record year for KTM in terms of unit sales and also from championship totals. There is no denying the Austrian company has been kicking major ass for the past couple years, and it is justifiably feeling its oats as it’s taken on the behemoths of the motorcycle industry and often come out on top. The success has necessitated massive expansion projects, and now the little company from Mattighofen isn’t really so little anymore.

In 2002 KTM fielded an entirely new bike at the Dakar Rally powered by a prototype of its then-new LC8 V-Twin. It won the Dakar on its very first attempt in 2002, and then 2003 saw the production debut of the revolutionary 950 Adventure, a machine which quickly became the catalyst for change, lighting a fire under the traditional big rally bike and ADV touring machines of the day.

Continuous evolution of the original KTM LC8 V-twin has resulted in today’s giant 1,301cc engine which now powers three different 1290 Super Adventure models for 2017.

The continuous evolution of that original KTM LC8 V-twin has resulted in today’s giant 1,301cc engine which powers three different 1290 Super Adventure models for 2017 in addition to a pair of 1290 Super Duke R and 1290 Super Duke GT siblings.

With 9.8 inches (250mm) of ground clearance, the new KTM 1290 Super Adventure R offers the same figure as last year’s 1190 Adventure R, but that’s still a full 1.2 inches more ground clearance than other 1290 Super Adventure versions. And even though it offers a very plush ride in the rough stuff, it definitely also offers increased resistance to dragging the undercarriage compared to the non-R 1290 versions.

The 1290 Super Adventure R actually has the same frame and engine as last year’s more touring-oriented 1290 Super Adventure (which is now known as the 1290 Super Adventure T for 2017) combined with a lot of the features of the old 1190 Adventure R. Note: the unique Adventure R crash cage around the engine is a bolt-on component and not actually part of the base 1290 frame.

Aside from a switch to caged ball bearings from tapered roller bearings in the steering head for easier adjustability (and an unmentioned cost savings, no doubt), the 1290 Super Adventure R actually has the same frame and engine as last year’s more touring-oriented 1290 Super Adventure, which for 2017 is now known as the 1290 Super Adventure T. However, the new R’s ECU programming is quite different and adds a dedicated Off-Road mode to complement its R-spec 21-inch front and 18-inch rear wheels, slimmer bodywork, smaller fuel tank and longer-travel suspension compared to the new 1290 Super Adventure S and T models.

So, in summary, the 2017 1290 Super Adventure R is basically a 1290 Super Adventure frame and engine coupled with 1190-R fuel tank and wheel sizes, plus all new bodywork, a cool new slimline LED headlight and true off-road suspension. Additionally, it includes a new intake tract with optional foam pre-filter capability incorporated into its new nostrils, a resonator next to the throttle bodies to help meet the upcoming Euro-5 standards, additional electronic programming, a bright new 6.5-inch tough-glass TFT display, and a waterproof smartphone compartment behind the headlight that features a built-in USB port. Upgraded handlebar switch clusters have been reconfigured to offer a more intuitive layout and are backlit. Finally, the old Super-A’s giant windscreen we griped about in our epic Sports-Adventure Shootout of 2015 has been replaced by a much shorter windscreen adjustable for height without tools.

All these changes have transformed the 1290 platform into a machine that feels significantly less ponderous and a lot more like the (outgoing) 1190 Adventure R that performed so well in last year’s Wire-Wheel Adventure Shootout.

The changes have transformed the 1290 platform into a machine that feels significantly less ponderous and a lot more like the (outgoing) 1190 Adventure R that performed so well in last year’s Wire-Wheel Adventure Shootout

The 1290 R gives up the old Super-A’s semi-active suspension in favor of a manually adjustable setup from WP. The suspension initially was a bit soft for my weight, and I did get it to bottom and scrape a few times. However, a modest increase in the remote rear preload adjuster, something like ¾ of a turn, made a big difference and effectively solved most of the bottoming issues and also fixed the slightly wallowy nature I was feeling earlier in the morning’s ride. The 1290 R is definitely a motorcycle that responds well to having its knobs fiddled.

The 1,301cc 1290 Super Adventure R has noticeably more flywheel effect compared to the 1190 R motor, which helps keep it tractable in the dirt even though it makes more power and torque. Oddly, the larger motor also gave me the impression that it was a bit less snappy in general than the admittedly super-spunky 1190 motor. That’s most likely due to the 1290 motor’s extra crank inertia (flywheel effect), taller gearing, and mild low-end FI tuning, a combo of factors that make it (deliberately?) less aggressive feeling than an 1190 off the bottom. With the 1290’s less aggressive low-rpm power curves the overall impression is that, in spite of its larger size and increased curb weight, the 1290 SA-R might indeed be more user friendly than last year’s 1190 R.

Open Pacific to sheer cliff to blasted desert, the scenery in Peru’s Nasca Desert is nothing if not completely striking. The location was an ideal one in which to test bigly fast travel adventure bikes like the new 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R.

With a fully fueled 500-ish-pound bike capable of ballistic velocities coupled with a fairly aggressive 250-ish-pound rider, there was an extreme amount of forward inertia at play when braking on our fast desert route. I was concerned at first that stopping might be a problem, but I really shouldn’t have worried. The SA-R comes equipped with Bosch’s state of the art 9.1ME ABS system and KTM’s own back-torque-limiting electronic “slipper clutch” which works via the ride-by-wire system a lot like reverse-traction control. It allows some back-torque when decelerating and modulates the throttle plates to reduce the engine’s drag on the contact patch over slippery surfaces instead of actually making the clutch plates slip.

The system makes scrubbing speed and popping off downshifts while approaching even sandy downhill off-camber corners surprisingly drama-free. Its intervention is actually hard to detect, aside from a complete lack of rear-wheel chatter or any other sort of drama when downshifting over very slippery surfaces. Late in the ride, I was exhausted, my arms and legs were putty and yes, I was often riding in a highly MO-ronic manner during the eight hours I spent blasting around the desert, but not once did I ever feel the bike do anything unsettling when scrubbing speed. Part of the credit goes to that long and stable 1290 Super Adventure chassis, but the lion’s share certainly must be awarded to the premium electronics and easy-to-modulate braking components. Desert racers never had it so good!

The biggest ADV motor deserved MO’s biggest editor. Here “Dirty” Sean launches the 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R. Even though it and he are both larger than one would expect to find truly off-road, the duo had no trouble launching in a hurry, landing way down-slope, and then hauling themselves to a stop.

Man is this thing comfortable! This press introduction’s desert ride was perfectly tailored to torture the human body, but even some steep off-trail desert ripples (bordering on supercross style whoops at times), acutely angled desert rocks, and the generally cratered 100-plus-mph access roads weren’t able to inflict undue discomfort. Sure, the up and down motions from some fairly hefty G-outs and plenty of large ripples in the rolling terrain did take a toll, but most of that toll was simply from managing this rider’s own physical inertia, as endless high-speed downs transitioned into high-speed ups through crushing black holes of gravity quickly followed by gentle rolling drop-aways into freefall that made me light on my feet and hands as my torso assumed a skyward trajectory…. don’t rinse, do repeat for eight hours.

It was the nature of going up and down quickly, the simple physics of inertia and trajectory that don’t really have much to do with the bike at all, just a non-stop ballistic treadmill. I really should eat less and move more in my everyday life, and thrill rides like this one make that fact oh-so-frighteningly clear. Where was I? Oh yeah, the 1290 Super Adventure R offers all of the relaxed comfort of a pure touring bike, and late in the day when I could barely lift my arms or hold myself up at a stop, it became crystal clear just how comfortable this machine really is.

As a package, KTM’s new 1290 Super Adventure R offers a surprising amount of comfort throughout a long day in the saddle. Sean says it was roomy without being ponderous and might even offer the most naturally comfortable ergonomics for large riders like himself.

It was much more comfortable rolling around at 10 mph creating a gentle breeze than, say, stopped with both feet on the ground waiting for the rest of the group while the sun baked my already smoldering gear. Or, say, sitting on the tailgate of a truck at a rest stop, or, say, laying on the soft desert floor. Yep, moving along relaxed in the seat of the 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R was relative bliss during this 100-plus-degree ride through a South American desert. Just imagine what it would be like on normal U.S. pavement or a graded fire road? Truman’s Packard probably couldn’t match just how plush this thing would be in a non-Dakar setting.

It crashes well, too! Okay, so let’s get to the elephant in this virtual room: I crashed my balls off at the end of the day, literally doing the very last technical bit of riding of the whole intro. We were about 90% of the way through our route when we came to a huge valley of seriously deep sand, the type of sand you can simply dismount your bike in and walk away without using the kickstand. The sand’s texture bordered on talcum powder – powder with depths ranging from 4 feet to 400 feet deep. Flanking the sides of the valley were row upon row of giant dunes, most of which were several hundred feet high. Far out, man, this place is kinda trippy. Knowing that our “advanced” ride group was being led by Dakar veteran, 4-time Baja 1000 and 3-time Baja 500 Champion, Quinn Cody, it was clear that we were going to be entering those dunes at some point along this deep sand valley.

Just riding along the floor was a decent challenge, but the big KTM handled it well. At one point the lead trio of bikes, including me, stopped to allow the rest of the group to catch up. As I sat panting on the valley floor, I cued my rapidly dying helmet cam and shot what can only be described as a foreshadowing clip. ‘We’re in deep sand and I think they think we are all going to go up in those giant dunes… I’m not worthy, etc. I’ll try to get a clip in the dunes if I don’t die and the camera battery lasts’

Oh, yes, that was all fun and games, until it wasn’t. About a mile later Quinn stops and yells back to the group: “Okay, who wants to live their Dakar fantasy and follow me up onto one of those dunes?” No takers, so Quinn decides to make a quick exhibition ride up the face of a 300-foot-tall mountain of sand on our left. I watched Quinn blast up and out of sight over the top, and then as I saw him coming back down towards the group, my stupid testicles overrode my brain and I Hey Y’all Watch This!’d my way out from the group and attacked the slope of the dune for myself.

I followed Quinn’s tracks up to the top, highly impressed by the 1290’s power and grace as we surfed over the face of this giant sand wave. I briefly allowed the speed to drop down to 15 mph while turning around, so the bike started to sink off-plane and the bars started to swap back and forth, but a little extra throttle quickly rectified that problem. However, as the bike came back up on top of the sand’s surface, I was distracted enough not to notice a subtle line of shadow approaching in my left peripheral vision… that line was the edge of a vertical drop-off and less that a second later I shouted “I’M ABOUT TO GO OFF A F@&KING CLIFF!” as I pitched off the edge at around 18 mph.

Lucky for me, it was only about a 15-foot vertical drop. Unlucky for me, the transition at the bottom was something like an 80-degree angle… like nose-first into a solid wall of sand. Sudden-stop. Over-the-bars. Ooof! BAM! The 500-pound KTM falls over on my left leg, giant metal karate-chopping my shin and crushing the muscle and tendons against my tib and fib through my Alpinestars Toucan Adv Touring boot. It doesn’t feel great, but the bike is perfectly fine. After a minute or two of laying in the deep sand swearing next to the bike, Quinn shows up and begins the experienced-dune-rider-to-inexperienced-dune-rider lecture about flat light and shadows tricking riders to their deaths. He says that little cliff could just as easily have been a couple of hundred feet straight down.

Motorcycle.com and its professional staff go to exhaustive lengths to bring cutting insights on the latest bikes. In this instance it was a trick of lighting and a healthy portion of gravity going to great lengths to smash the S@!T out of Sean’s left leg. Cutting insight: Riding skill really doesn’t matter if you can’t actually see where you’re going.

I can barely walk, but Quinn is fresh as a daisy and retrieves my fallen mount from the pit of despair as I limp back up to high ground and wait for my knight in shining MX gear to bring me my bike. I got lucky, sort of, and was able to ride back down the face of the dune to the rest of the group waiting far below. Then it was about a 15-mile transfer to our final rest stop of the day, which I was able to complete without further issue. However, once stopped by the support truck, it became clear that my day was done. I could barely stand and was quite dizzy from what I now suspect was a mild concussion. An ambulance ride ensued from that point, followed by a multi-hour emergency room visit, IV painkillers, antibiotics, X-rays, and general TLC for the giant (fat) American in this small-town Peruvian hospital. At check-out time, the grand total bill came to a whopping $36 including a week’s worth of prescriptions.

Thus ends my time with the new 2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R. I only missed the last 30 minutes of the all-day ride, and that was just a repeat of the same fire roads and highway sections that we rode at the beginning of the day on the way into the desert. By the way, the big KTM effortlessly handled the city streets of Paracas, the highway leading into the desert, and the semi-paved access roads on the way in, so I have confidence in telling you that that last segment of the ride would have produced no new or startling revelations.

At the end of the day, KTM has built one fine bike in the 1290 Super Adventure R. It works on the street, it works on the highway, it works in the dirt and it even works in the dunes as long as you don’t ride it right off a ledge.

The SA-R is simply a great big super-fast touring bike, which also happens to work very well in some fairly serious off-road conditions. Its upper-midrange and top-end power make short work of long straights, deep sand and/or the steepest hills, and it would have few, if any, equals on a long street ride/tour mixed with challenging off-road environments.

2017 KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

+ Highs

  • Super comfortable, like all-day and all-night comfortable
  • Very stable and easy to ride, even in deep sand
  • Slides predictably thanks to the chassis’ stability coupled with good electronic tuning and a manageable power delivery
  • High speed off-road capabilities exceed expectations

– Sighs

  • A little big for slow, technical situations
  • A little on the pricey side to just launch into the boonies with reckless abandon
  • Engine may be a little too well-mannered
  • Doesn’t come with a parachute for its rider

Option and Accessory Notes:

Our test units were equipped with a selection of accessories from KTM’s Power Parts catalog, including Akrapovic exhausts, large platform off-road pegs, heavy duty aluminum skid plates, and washable foam pre-filters in both intake snorkels.

KTM says it only offers functional upgrade accessories, I believe a spokesman stated it thusly: “None of this bullshit cosmetic stuff” offered by some other OEMs. The KTM website now has an online configurator so you can mix and match options to create your own version of an ideal build.

KTM’s optional “My Ride” app connectivity can pair with your smartphone to allow control of music and calling via the handlebar switches accompanied by visual cues on the bright new 6.5-inch TFT display.

The optional Travel Pack bundles MSR, Hill Hold control, and KTM’s quick-shifter + systems. KTM hasn’t announced pricing for the travel pack as of yet, but I can’t imagine it will be expensive enough to burn through the stock 1290 R’s pricing advantage compared to a base Multistrada Enduro.

2017 KTM 1290 Adventure R Specifications

Engine Type2-cylinder, 4-stroke, V 75°
Displacement1301 cc
Bore x Stroke108 mm x 71 mm
Compression Ratio13.1:1
Power158 hp at 8750 rpm (claimed)
StarterElectric starter
Battery12V 11.2 Ah
LubricationForced oil lubrication with 3 oil pumps
Primary Drive40:76
Final Drive17:42
CoolingLiquid cooled
ClutchPASC slipper clutch, hydraulically actuated
EMSKeihin EMS with RBW and cruise control, double ignition
Traction ControlMTC (4-Mode, disengageable)
Frame designChromium-Molybdenum steel trellis frame, powder coated
SubframeAluminum, powder coated
Front suspensionWP USD Ø 48 mm, 8.7 inches of travel
Rear suspensionWP-PDS Monoshock, 8.7 inches of travel
Front brake2 x Brembo four-piston radial fixed calliper, brake discs, floating, 320mm discs
Rear brakeBrembo twin-piston fixed calliper, 267 mm disc
ABSBosch 9ME combined ABS (incl. cornering ABS and off-road mode, disengageable)
ChainX-Ring 5/8 x 5/16″
Steering head angle26°
Trail4.8 inches
Wheelbase62.2 ± 0.6 inches
Ground clearance9.8 inches
Seat height35.0 inches
Tank capacity (approx.)6.1 gallons
Dry weight478.4 pounds (claimed)
Sean Alexander
Sean Alexander

I Exist.

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3 of 40 comments
  • Drew Drew on May 17, 2017

    Any idea when available in USA?

  • Tony D'Augusta Tony D'Augusta on Jul 17, 2017

    Now that you've ridden both the 1290 R and 1090 R,
    what sort of camparo can you create from those experiences?

    Is the 1090 worlds better in the dirt and did they both have wooden front brakes?


    • Sean Alexander Sean Alexander on Dec 13, 2017


      I'm sorry I hadn't visited this thread in ages. No, the 1090 isn't worlds better than the 1290 off-road. It's slightly more manageable, but the 1290 was my favorite, aside from its Axe blade like passenger grab handle / leg chopper.