2019 KTM 790 Adventure R First Ride Review

Ryan Adams
by Ryan Adams

The most capable adventure bike yet

If you were given the most competent adventure bike in terms of travel and off-road performance, where would you go? Would you visit the road of bones as you traversed Asia? Perhaps wind your way through serpentine stretches of asphalt in the Swiss Alps? Or maybe your wanderlust would guide you to the Sahara, one of the harshest unforgiving landscapes in the world. When it comes to adventure, everyone’s looking for something different. Their own definition. On a motorcycle, it can be the same. Some want the most travel-capable bike with adequate off-road ability allowing them to explore further than the road stretches. Others want the most capable off-road motorcycle and the ability to travel long distances. KTM’s answer to those respective questions? The 2019 KTM 790 Adventure and 790 Adventure R.

KTM chose eastern Morocco for the international press launch of the 2019 790 Adventure, a land of extremes and mystique which many dream of exploring, though few actually get the opportunity. After 30 hours of travel to get to this exotic land, everything began to meld together; Time zones, days, countries. It’s hard to remember where one ended and the other began. On the plane from Casablanca to Errachidia, I started chatting up an Australian bloke with a bad haircut sitting beside me. He had been to the area numerous times, primarily for racing and testing factory KTMs. I think his name was Toby. I may not have known what day or time it was, but I was excited to spend the next few days testing KTM’s new adventure bike and rubbing shoulders with racing legends. Five-time Dakar champion Marc Coma, two-time Dakar winner Toby Price, American racing legend Quinn Cody, and uncanny hard enduro rider Chris Birch would be our guides for the launch of the 790 Adventure. This was it. We were doing it. We were about to live out our own Dakar fantasies.

A long time coming

We’ve been teased for more than a year with the 790 Adventure, though it feels longer. More recently, if you had kept an eye on KTM’s social media channels, you probably saw a blacked-out prototype making its way around the world to KTM Rallies. The bike was being ridden by legends like Chris Birch and Quinn Cody. Well folks, the wait is finally over – almost. We’re told the bike should land in dealerships Stateside around May 2019.

Racing legends and some of the folks responsible for the 790 Adventure and making this event possible. From left to right: Jordi Viladoms Dakar Factory team Manager, Marc Coma five-time Dakar champion, Quinn Cody four-time Baja 1000 champion and Dakar competitor, Luke Brackenbury KTM PR Manager, Toby Price two-time Dakar champion, Joe Pichler avid adventure rider who rode nearly 12,000 miles to the event on a 790 Adventure R, Andreas Guehlsdorf KTM Project Manager for the 790 Adventure, Chris Birch Hard enduro champion, and Adriaan Sinke KTM Senior Product Manager.

Traveling for 30 hours is rarely a fun experience, but nothing could dampen my spirits as we made our way through the night to our hotel near the Merzouga dunes on the western edge of the Sahara. Although it was only 20 years old, the hotel was reminiscent of ancient Moroccan buildings built with the same techniques used for the past 100-plus years. Adobe bricks, Palms, rugs, and Moroccan music were abundant, making one feel as though they were in the picturesque Morocco of their dreams. A perfect setting to headquarter an exotic desert test. Could the 790 Adventure handle the sand, rocks, and general ruggedness of the Sahara? We were about to find out.

The 790 Adventure in theory

The 790 Adventure’s styling has left some excited and others with questions. It has the same sharp aggressive styling that many have come to expect from KTM, but, to me, the headlight/cluster/fairing almost looks like an afterthought protruding from the bike. Then there’s the gas tank. This is perhaps the most polarizing feature that had driven plenty of people to speak their mind on social media channels around the world. Plenty of folks have voiced concerns about the vulnerability of the tank. No one wants to end up on the side of the trail with their precious petrol pouring out. Though the bike has grown on me, what really changed my perspective was the experience of riding it and realizing just how genius that gas tank is; the front fairing bit becomes a non-issue.

KTM claims a 280 mile range out of the 790 Adventure’s 5.3-gallon tank.

It’s obvious the 790 Adventure’s fuel tank gives the added benefit of keeping the sloshing weight of petrol down low on the bike, but what I failed to notice until riding the bike, was how well it would also allow the rider to move around on the motorcycle. The shrouds flare out on the sides, but not nearly as much as the 1090 or 1290’s, and it makes all the difference when riding in technical terrain. The rider is better able to shift weight forward to get more bite from the front tire when needed while also being able to more securely grip the bike with their knees. Keeping the 5.3 gallons of gas low on the bike, you don’t have the same pendulum-type effect of a large gas tank sitting on top of the engine. For those of you who have paid attention to KTM Adventures of the past, you may remember the split gas tank on older models. This is what helped those motorcycles work very well off-road for a bike of their size. The new 790 works just as well, if not better.

Rather than using a V-Twin engine like all of the KTM Adventures since 2003, the extremely compact LC8c 799cc Parallel Twin allows the entire bike to remain compact. Using the engine as a stressed member of the chassis also allowed engineers to design a smaller frame when developing the motorcycle. Despite a 34.6-inch seat height on the R model, the 790 Adventure feels small and manageable, even when gliding over the bottomless soft Merzouga sand dunes. At a claimed 463-pounds, picking up the 790 will remind you that you aren’t on a dirtbike, though again, the low center of gravity makes it easier to do so than its bigger brothers.

I had never ridden in sand dunes before this trip. I’ve been in plenty of deep sand on dual-sport bikes, but never dunes and never on a bike this big. That alone should be a testament to the capability of the 790 Adventure R.

KTM says the 790 Adventure can be likened to the previous Adventure models like the 950 and 990. The 790 is meant to be a capable off-road machine in a compact chassis that is ready to go the distance no matter what gets in the way – all the while having more advanced functional electronics than we have seen on any Adventure thus far. After spending a day riding the new 790 like I ride my 500 EXC, I think KTM hit its mark.

Twin Twins

The 790 Adventure comes in two spicy flavors: the standard 790 – available in orange or white, and the 790 R which is available in a combination of the two. Although they share most of their componentry, they are vastly different motorcycles for different purposes and different riders. We spent our first day testing the 790 Adventure’s street manners during a short ride on sand-strewn highways near Errachidia.

The standard 790 Adventure is the more road-going of the two middleweights, though you might hardly notice from a glance at the spec sheet. The bike still offers 7.8-inches of suspension travel front and rear with 9.2-inches of ground clearance. Top that off with a 21/18-inch tubeless spoked wheel combo which will allow for plenty of off-road rubber choices, and you have the recipe for an adventure bike that will really let you choose just how much dirt you want in your life.

The standard 790 Adventure comes in a thousand dollars less than the R model at $12,499 and is a great ADV platform that lets users dial in how much off-road performance they want with the 21/18-inch tire combo, ride modes, and ability to add Rally mode as an option.

What makes the 790 Adventure well-mannered on the street is where the differences begin. The standard model comes with a two-position adjustable split seat which gives an option between 32.6- and 33.5-inch seat heights. Also, the suspension on the standard model is a bit simpler. It uses KTM’s open cartridge Apex 43mm street fork and shock. The fork is comfortable on the street providing good comfort for cruising, though once we picked up the pace, it began to skate across bumpy corners. Slowing the rebound a bit might help, but unfortunately, there are no adjustments that can be made on the Apex fork. The Apex shock is also devoid of adjustment aside from spring preload.

The standard 790’s wheelbase is also three-quarters of an inch shorter and has slightly less rake which leads to a marginally shorter (2.6mm) trail measurement. In theory, this should make the bike feel a little quicker through a set of corners whereas the longer wheelbase of the R model is welcome at high speeds off-road for its added stability. We didn’t have a chance to push the two models back-to-back on the street, but both felt quite stable on- and off-road at speed, whether charging sand dunes or blasting down the highway. The WP steering damper on both models also helps to keep things in line.

The Avon Trailrider tires did well on the slightly sandy but more hard-packed and rocky terrain, though they would have been next to useless in the dunes.

The standard 790 Adventure comes with a lower, more street-style front fender, a taller windscreen, and Avon Trailrider tires which are far more street biased than the R’s Michelin Karoo 3 fitment.

When considering the two models, paying the extra $1,000 for the R model seems like a no-brainer if only for the fact that it comes equipped with the XPLOR fork and shock. The 48mm XPLOR fork is fully adjustable for spring preload, compression, and rebound while the XPLOR PDS shock offers the same adjustability. The R model’s suspension both front and rear have 9.44-inches of travel giving the bike 10.4-inches of ground clearance.

The WP XPLOR suspension on the R model is a massive upgrade from the WP Apex street suspension found on the standard model – and for only $1,000 more – giving the R an MSRP of $13,499.

We didn’t have much of a chance to test and tweak the suspension during our ride. Still, for the mix of terrain and speeds, the stock settings did a good job of working well in all scenarios from soft sand to large rocks and even small jumps where the sealed hydro-stop helps resist bottoming.

Traction control: Off. Throttle response: Rally.

With the R model, you also have an additional ride mode included: Rally. This mode gives you the bike’s full power while allowing you to choose between street, off-road, and rally throttle response settings. I found rally to work best in the sand where instant full hits of power can be necessary. I used street, the middle setting, in the rockier terrain to lessen the initial throttle to help reduce wheelspin. Rally also lets you select from nine traction control levels on the fly with the left control module’s up and down buttons. I used this feature nearly all day. I would typically leave the bike in traction control setting three or two for general riding, however, if we came up on sandier sections I would knock it down to one. For riding in the dunes or long sandy sections you can also turn traction control off completely, but you have to have the engine running and hold the button for nearly 30 seconds. The system also reverts back on when the engine is shut off. Thank the lawyers for that one. The R also comes fitted with Karoo 3’s in the U.S., a high fender, and a shorter windscreen.

If Chris Birch leaves ABS in the Off-road setting, so can you.

Braking is handled by dual 320mm rotors with four-piston calipers up front and a single 260mm rotor two-piston combo in the rear. The J.Juan components provide great stopping power on-road and more than enough off-road without being overly touchy. ABS has three settings on both bikes: street, off-road, and off. Street functions normally as one would assume and uses Bosch cornering ABS technology for optimum safety on the pavement. The off-road setting disables the rear ABS and cornering ABS to both wheels while still leaving the front ABS to function in longer intervals from its street setting. This was my preferred mode for most of our riding. Chris Birch also told us he leaves the 790’s ABS in off-road as well. If he’s doing it, it’s probably fine for you. Lastly, you can completely disable the ABS by a looooong push and hold of the Select button on the left control. Like traction control, the system will turn back on to whichever “safe” setting (a setting with ABS) the bike was previously in once the engine is shut off and restarted.

Different but the same

The 790 Adventure’s 799cc Parallel Twin remains just as fun and spunky as it was in the 790 Duke but has revised cam timing to give more torque in the lower to mid-rpm-range while only losing a few horsepower. KTM claims 95 hp and 65 lb-ft of torque. When we dyno tested the 790 Duke we measured 98 hp and 60.2 lb-ft of torque from its LC8c motor.

Benefitting from the same advanced engineering as the Duke, the Adventure’s LC8c motor uses space and weight-saving measures such as assembled dual-overhead camshafts rather than forged units that have been profiled for the adjusted power delivery. Two balancer shafts are also included, one at the front of the crankshaft and the other – driven by the exhaust camshaft – sits between the two camshafts. Also reducing reciprocating mass are the forged pistons with a plain small end bearing fitted with three piston rings combined with a DLC-coated piston pin. This allows for a lighter crankshaft to be used as well. The aluminum Nikasil coated cylinders are sleeveless, adding to the weight savings. An “open deck” designed cylinder provides optimal cooling and reduces the potential for warpage. Light and compact is the name of the game with the 790 engine.

While testing in the California desert, cooling was an issue with the prototype causing KTM engineers to go back to the drawing board nearly halfway through the development process to rework the system. The end result is an extremely efficient cooling system. I rarely noticed the dual fans kicking on during our ride and usually only happened at slower speeds in the sand.

Between the ride modes, adjustable throttle response, and switchable traction control and ABS, the 790 Adventure can adapt to a multitude of terrains.

The six-speed transmission has vertically stacked shafts to reduce the length of the engine and worked smoothly during our ride. Our test bikes were fitted with the optional Quickshifter+ to allow for clutchless up and downshifting. Even shifting from first to second was quite smooth with deliberate movements and using the quickshifter off-road is always fun when you’re flying through deep sand at speed. The PASC slipper clutch prevents wheel hop from aggressive downshifting while the Motor Slip Regulation (MSR) works with the ride by wire system to prevent excessive engine drag torque keeping the bike in control in unexpected situations.

A 435-degree firing order gives the LC8c Twin the same sound as its larger V-Twin brethren. The aluminum horizontally split crankcase is manufactured in a high-pressure casting process resulting in weight savings through minimal wall thickness – which translates to: you should buy case protectors before riding off-road. Thankfully, the large plastic gas tank provides some coverage as well.

The bottom of the plastic fuel tank is covered by plastic bash guards and integrated into an aluminum skid plate which provide pretty substantial coverage for the bike. A carbon KTM Powerpart bash guard can be fitted where the plastic sits on the stock model, however, every carbon guard I saw that had been tipped over was cracked. My suggestion would be to stick with the plastic or look to the aftermarket rather than considering the carbon guards.

The 790 Adventure R models we tested were fitted with a handful of KTM Powerparts including the more durable tube-type front rim, carbon fuel tank skid plates, Akrapovic muffler, rally foot pegs, and Quickshifter+. The standard models had cruise control as well as the Quickshifter+ fitted to them. Cruise control is optional for both bikes.

There are also more than a handful of components on the 790 Adventure that have clearly been designed for ease of maintenance. The clutch uses a cable rather than a hydraulic unit which will be easier to find a fix for as you transverse Russia. The subframe is also easily removable, giving riders the benefit of replacing just the rear section rather than the entire frame. Those features are nice, but after owning an 1190 and having to remove a bunch of fairings and the gas tank to get to the air filter, I’m most excited that the filter has been moved under the seat and is incredibly easy to access. A swell feature should you find yourself in sand dunes and dust storms all day like we did in Morocco.

Where do we end up?

The 2019 KTM 790 Adventure – and particularly Adventure R model – is poised to take the hardcore adventure market by storm. Our test in Morocco resulted in broken bikes and broken bones. Thankfully, none of which were mine. Being able to push these bikes to their limits, as well as our own, is a rarity at a press event. KTM seemingly had nothing to hide and knew that these bikes could handle anything we would throw at them. This stays true to their Ready to Race mantra and focuses on building real bikes for the real world.

If you’re in the market for a motorcycle that will help you to push the limits of your ability and truly be your sidekick to help you adventure harder, the 2019 KTM 790 Adventure R is a ruthless weapon to tackle whatever the horizon holds. I smell a shootout brewing.

2019 KTM 790 Adventure R

+ Highs

  • The R’s suspension is class leading
  • Torquey compact Twin is the right tool for the job
  • Fantastic ergos for real off-road riding

– Sighs

  • The standard model’s suspension felt a bit out of whack on-road
  • Menus can take some getting used to
  • When it was time to go home

2019 KTM 790 Adventure Specifications (R in parenthesis)

MSRP$12,499.00 ($13,499.00)
Type799cc Parallel-Twin
Bore and Stroke88.0 mm x 65.7 mm
Fuel SystemDKK Dell’Orto, 46 mm Throttle Body
Compression Ratio12.7:1
Valve TrainDOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Claimed Crankshaft Horsepower95.0 hp @ 8,000 rpm
Claimed Torque65.6 lb-ft @ 6,600 rpm
Final DriveChain
Front SuspensionWP Apex 43 mm fork, non-adjustable, 7.9 in. travel (WP XPLOR 48mm fork, fully adjustable, 9.4 in. travel)
Rear SuspensionWP Apex shock, preload adjustable, 7.9 in. travel (WP XPLOR PDS shock, fully adjustable, 9.4 in. travel)
Front BrakeDual 320 mm discs, radial-mount 4-piston J Juan calipers, ABS
Rear BrakeSingle 260 mm disc, two-piston J Juan caliper, ABS
Front Tire90/90-21 Avon Trailrider (Michelin Karoo 3)
Rear Tire150/70-18 Avon Trailrider (Michelin Karoo 3)
Rake/Trail25.9° / 4.2 inches (26.3º / 4.3 inches)
Wheelbase59.4 inches (60.2 inches)
Seat Height33.5/32.7 inches (34.6 inches)
Dry Weight416.7 pounds (claimed)
Fuel Capacity (approx.)5.3 gallons
Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams

Ryan’s time in the motorcycle industry has revolved around sales and marketing prior to landing a gig at Motorcycle.com. An avid motorcyclist, interested in all shapes, sizes, and colors of motorized two-wheeled vehicles, Ryan brings a young, passionate enthusiasm to the digital pages of MO.

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3 of 72 comments
  • Steven Pack Steven Pack on Jul 08, 2019

    Is the R suspension really worth it? I Race Tech'ed my forks on my Husqvarna 701 Enduro and it Absolutely transformed that motorcycle. I am just a tad skeptical that the stock "premium" suspension is worth it.

    • Ryan Ryan on Jul 08, 2019

      I 110% think it's worth it. For the way I would personally ride it, I wouldn't even consider the standard model. The R's suspenders are miles ahead of any other ADV bike on the market. I was really happy with it during the intro. Lots of different riding, high-speed through sand and low speed through rocks, it worked very well. That being said, it all depends on how you plan to ride it.

  • Bmwclay Bmwclay on Jul 15, 2019

    Wondering if Yamaha will sue Motorcycle.com after they ran the Tenere 700 and KTM 790 tests back to back?