Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - KTM 1290 Super Adventure

KTM 1290 Super Adventure – 88.1%

by Tom Roderick

We chose the KTM 1290 Super Adventure as MO’s Best On-Off-Road/Adventure Bike of 2015 largely based on my recommendation. I attended the Super Adventure’s press launch and I’ve been on the majority of recent big adventure bike shootouts.

Battle Of The Adventures: BMW Vs. KTM + Video

Now that we’ve tested the Super Adventure against eight of its peers in an epic six-day journey that included thousands of miles of street riding as well as numerous hours spent riding off the pavement, I feel vindicated of any questionable reasoning for the SA winning the 2015 award. My opinion of the Super Adventure’s all-around performance was substantiated by its scores in my ScoreCard, easily besting the others and coming out the winner in my column.

Producing the most torque (86.8 lb.-ft. at 6,800 rpm) and third most horsepower (132.5 hp at 8,400 rpm, only five short of the Multistrada) the S-Adventure definitely isn’t lacking for power. Using the appropriate ride mode helps keep the power delivery appropriate for the current condition such as off-road riding, freeway traveling or attacking a set of paved twisties.

Visually, the S-Adventure seems to be the largest bike here, an impression partially due to its 8-gallon fuel tank, by far the largest capacity of this group. However, the 1290 will impress a rider with its ability to straighten a curvy paved road or navigate a water-rutted fire road.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - KTM 1290 Super Adventure

Most of the taller MOrons liked the 1290 better after the big puddle snapped off its upper windscreen. It normally provides great protection. Its bags carry tons of stuff, and cornering lights are great after dark in the bush.

“Certainly the Super-A was built to dethrone the mighty BMW GS and in most ways, it actually does,” says guest tester and off-road specialist, Hutchison. “The engine is more powerful, it is more capable off-road and it feels smaller, even if it actually isn’t. The KTM is easier to ride in the dirt thanks to it’s super-sized dirt bike design and it proved to be durable after taking a nice digger too.”

The Super Adventure’s electronic package doesn’t include the quickshifter of the BMW or the color TFT display of the Ducati, but in addition to all the expected niceties like heated grips, you also get a heated seat for rider and pillion, hill start control and cornering ABS. And maybe the biggest improvement over the 1190 for travelers is the addition of cruise control. The bike’s novelty cornering lights can be useful in the dark off the pavement, but they’re useless on the pavement at faster speeds.

“The 1290’s cornering lights seem like a clever and simpler alternative solution to BMW’s complicated adaptive headlight, but they shine not far in front of the bike, making them pretty much pointless at speeds above 30 mph,” says Super Chief Editor, Duke.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - KTM 1290 Super Adventure

There’s Lean-Sensitive ABS, Traction Control and Wheelie Control – but there is no Big Puddle Control. The 1290 even warns you of children in crosswalks.

Unlike the 1190 Adventure, which only comes with electronically adjustable suspension, the S-Adventure is outfitted with semi-active dynamic suspension. The WP semi-active fork with its anti-dive function maintains composure when subjected to extreme braking forces, never exhibiting the mushy, squirminess associated with longer-travel suspension. You’ll feel the difference when braking into a corner where the 1190, even in the Sport setting, compresses much further than the dynamic suspension of the S-Adventure.

KTM’s owner’s manual states the 1290 Super Adventure should not be ridden faster than 150 kph (93 mph) when loaded with luggage, and we found out why when we investigated. Our Super ADV, with a substantial load of full saddlebags and camping gear, exhibited an unnerving weave above that speed. The weave never became a tankslapper, but it’s an odd foible for a bike developed in Europe. So, yeah, it does weave, but only when you’re riding it in a way KTM advises against.

Following Over-Confident Editor Evans Brasfield’s mud-bath episode while riding the S-Adventure, we discovered two things. One, that KTM did a wonderful job designing the saddlebag mounts of the 1290 Super Adventure and 1190 Adventure. We were surprised when the right saddlebag clicked right back into place after having been ripped from the bike during EB’s crash.

“Of course, I’d take the most expensive bike on the test and unceremoniously throw it down into the only mud puddle for miles,” Brasfield apologizes. “Perhaps I should blame the SA for the mishap, since it was the bike’s off-road ability that inflated my perceptions of my own.”

Secondly, everyone enjoyed the bike better after the gigantic windscreen was snapped off in the crash. Yes, you sacrifice some wind protection, but we appreciated the unobstructed view and the reduced buffeting experienced by some editors.

“Its tall shield would be nice on cold, wet or insect-ridden rides,” Duke observes, “but it was too obtrusive – even in its low position – for our coastal California environs, and it was also difficult to adjust.”

Our advice is not to crash the Super Adventure to get to the windscreen, but rather remove it with the appropriate tools, and maybe replace it with one that’s more conducive to better viewing.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - KTM 1290 Super Adventure

By Day Six, the Super Adventure was only getting loosened up; one tiny low-speed mud tump-over didn’t even faze it (though it did punch a small hole in the right bag’s leading edge).

Gabe says: Mostly the same observations as the 1190. The motor, which is already too powerful, makes even more power. Yay! I too noted a weave at high speeds, over 90-110 mph. Awful wind buffeting until Brasfield broke the extended screen off. Thanks.

Duke thinks: If you get bored easily by acceleration, the third-gear power wheelies in the SADV can get your attention and hold it. Amazingly good on Usal Road, almost as capable as the 1190. It’s only the bigger (and heavier when filled) fuel tank that makes it feel slightly more ponderous.

The 1290 Super Adventure clearly straddles both the on- and off-road realms better than the other bikes here. The S-Adventure offers all-day comfort, incredible range, awesome engine power, excellent on- and off-road handling, better-than-most saddlebags, and an electronics package that’s truly beneficial to both rider and passenger, all included in a price tag lower than the more one-sided Multistrada.

KTM 1290 Super Adventure
+ Highs

  • Everything we loved about the 1190 and more
  • Great choice for adventurers who spend lots of miles off-pavement
  • Now with cruise control, it’s ready for serious travel
– Sighs

  • She’s large, but holds 8 gallons of fuel so you really can’t complain
  • Good thing there’s a steering damper when you insist upon going fast
  • No Air Conditioning

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - BMW S1000XR

BMW S1000XR – 88.6%

by John Burns

Winner on the official MO ScoreCard in Grin Factor and the only bike to get into the 90s here with a 92 GF! Winner of Suspension, winner of Transmission/Clutch and #1 in Instruments and Controls categories! A somewhat surprising 4th place finisher in Handling (because it doesn’t handle in dirt as well as it does on pavement); and in spite of being bested by five other bikes (and tied by another) in Ergonomics/Comfort, and even though tallying a disappointing 7th in the Engine category in spite of being the most powerful bike here by 20 horsepower (!)… Ladieeees and gentlemeeeen, the winner of MO’s Favorite Adventure bike of 2015 is the new BMW S1000XRrrrrrr!

2015 BMW S1000XR First Ride Review

Wait. How’s that work? Mathematics, kids. The XR was on top enough in the categories it won, and close enough numerically in the ones it didn’t, to take the Grand Total Cake away from the KTM 1290 Super Adventure. If you remove the Objective portion of the Card (which factors in price, hp and weight), then the Super Adventure wins and the XR finishes third behind the Ducati. But that’s not how we do it. And so the XR wins. Your mileage may vary, largely depending on your off-road aspirations.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - BMW S1000XR

Subjectively, here’s what we thought:

Gabe Ets-Hokin: If you’ve ever thought it would be a good idea to make a sport/adventure/naked thingee out of a slightly detuned World SBK racer (and who hasn’t?) here is your dream made flesh. It’s a pretty cool package, well suited to lots of different kinds of riding. Passing cars is not just easy, it’s hilarious, so is passing rented RVs with a 100-mph speed differential, not that I would ever do that. But the vibrations make the XR a lot less desirable and not the clear winner.

Tom R: Simply put, this is the world’s most comfortable sportbike. Insanely flickable, stable through the corners and outfitted with the most powerful engine of the group, the XR is a blast on paved roads. You just gotta love that BMW outfitted the XR with a quickshifter that works going up in gears as well as down. I do anyway. The Multistrada has been a favorite of mine since its introduction but now that the XR has arrived I like it better in every way – except for the engine’s atrocious vibration. The vibes are bad enough to stop me from purchasing this bike. Seriously, take one for a test ride before you purchase to see for yourself if you can live with perpetually numb extremities.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - BMW S1000XR

Fitting that the sportiest of these sporty adventurers has the sportiest clocks, with slightly smaller numbers than the GS for younger eyeballs. You’ll want to hold on tight when the tach needle gets past the 8…

Duke: There’s a lot of buzz about this bike, and I’m not referring to advance anticipation. The absence of a counterbalancer creates omnipresent vibration and is the XR’s most obvious – and almost only – flaw. Bars oscillate at various revs, and the pegs buzz so hard at a few rev zones that they feel like the fasteners are coming loose. Mirrors lose clarity from the fuzz and buzz. Its two-position shield is decently effective but not as adaptable as some others. I preferred the Duc’s handling to the XR’s, which wasn’t quite as easy to bend deeply into corners. Suspension is really buttoned down in Dynamic mode. If you were to do a trackday on one of these bikes, the XR would be the one.

Brassnuckles: When the time came to go fast, the BMW XR was the bike to be on. We didn’t need the dyno figures to tell us that it spanked the other bikes with its horsepower output. The throttle response, throughout the rpm range, was spot-on, giving the rider maximum control of the power delivery in every situation. Still, there’s no free lunch, and riding the XR through Friday evening traffic in San Francisco was a chore. With no flywheel effect to speak of, launching the loaded bike at multiple stoplights, often on hills, was more work than I cared for. I’m sure the other guys have commented aplenty about the XR’s annoying engine vibration, so I’ll just keep my complaint to this:

Oh, hey look at the time!

In fact, the only guy who picked the XR numero uno overall was our big man, Sean Alexander. With its most-firm suspension and monster 156-hp motor, SA was willing to overlook any minor flaws for the XR’s ability to fly his 260 pounds over roads at a pace that had him thinking the Ducati might de-trellis itself.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - BMW S1000XR

The thinnish seat works best for people who bring their own cushion; at least the shape is great.

As for myself, JB, the XR is the bike for 20-years younger me; the only real difference between it and the S1000RR is that the XR is way more comfortable and takes a millisecond longer to transition from full lean to full lean. I swear this one’s buzzier than the one I rode on the launch a few months ago; I totally think it has to do with some mass-produced engines just being buzzier than others. In any case, it doesn’t bother me much at all: When you’re using it the way BMW intends, I don’t notice it a bit. In drone mode, the buzz peaks at 5000 rpm and 70 mph; by 80 and 6k rpm (my normal cruising speed), things on this unit felt smooth enough to not bug me. Maybe my feet have gone numb? The thing that makes it a non-issue is BMW’s excellent CC system. There is nothing else to complain about with this bike except that unlike the GS, the digits are a tad small on the control panel for middle-aged orbs.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - BMW S1000XR

Otherwise, the feel is nice and lithe and most willing to exploit the extra grip its 17-inch front tire provides, especially for big guys. Powerwise, nothing else here can touch it; when the XR wants to leave its troubles behind, it just does. Passing cars is effortless in 6th from as little as 40 mph or so. In the final analysis, this one may be a bit frenetic for 55-year old me to live with long-term, but I definitely recommend it for six days. Somewhat therapeutic for getting the blood recirculating.

+ Highs

  • One horsepower for each 3.5 pounds
  • Seamless electronics make it eminently controllable on pavement or off
  • It’s a superbike with bags you can ride off-road. End of story.
– Sighs

  • One of the buzziest Fours in memory…
  • Encourages irrational exuberance
  • Makes the GS feel like your father’s Oldsmobile (we like Oldsmobiles too)


Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - Group Action

Yeah, we know one bike is missing. The photo gear had to be carried somewhere.

Shall We Attempt To Make Sense Of It All?

Nine bikes is the biggest assemblage we’ve ever attempted, and keeping track of each one’s failings and strengths taxes our ability to make sense of it all in our ever-more-complex motoworld. Still, the official MO ScoreCard does not lie, and the bike that emerged atop the heap, just barely edging out the all-new KTM 1290 Super Adventure, would be the also all-new BMW S1000XR. Using its most powerful four-cylinder engine and extremely competent chassis, the XR was able to rise above all the complaints about its buzzy engine and decidedly sporty bent to snag the victory.

Meanwhile, the bike it beat by half-a-percent could just as easily be your winner depending on where you live.

All MO adventures begin and end in the SoCal megalopolis, which means we gravitate toward adventure bikes more streetified. If we were based in Durango or Moab or any place where dirt roads begin right outside your garage door and are as common as paved ones, the plush yet purposeful big KTM might’ve easily carried the day with its more off-road orientation and 8-gallon hat. Not that it’s not pretty damn good on pavement, too, and not that the BMW is at all bad off of it. Sort of depends on what you like.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - Group Static

Tom opens the floodgates for his…uh…critiques of the Sport-Adventure Tourers.

Meanwhile, the all-new Ducati Multistrada 1200 S grabs third place, about 0.4% behind the 1290. Without the faulty fuel-level sensor and without its seat stuck in the low position, which caused a lot of whining, it might’ve won the thing.

Followed by the 1190 KTM, another fantastic machine. The fact that the defending champ BMW R1200GS, still really the benchmark but somehow slightly, is dull the right word? Sensible? It finished all the way down in fifth, but if we planned to actually live with one of these for the next few years, the GS would be extremely tough to shop past.

Siblings? Yes, and a fine example of the broad playing field afforded by Adventure Tourers.

Siblings? Yes, and a fine example of the broad playing field afforded by Adventure Tourers.

We hate to have to say it, but this time it couldn’t be more true: There’s not a bad bike in this bunch. These are the bikes people are buying now (we waved at many, many adventure bikes over six days), and this is where the competition is fiercest. Even the last-place Suzuki, the lightest bike here, is an hellaciously good adventure bike if most of your adventures are not so extended.

And as a class of motorcycles, all we can say is, where’ve you been all our lives? Unless you’re a big person carrying a large passenger, most of these things are almost as comfortable on the straight and narrow as a full-on touring bike. Most of them can turn and burn in the twisties like a hair-on-fire sportbike (sometimes even a little better thanks to the upright ergonomics), and all of them are able to safely traverse unpaved roads you’d never think of going down on your typical sport-tourer, aided by their 21st-century electronics and suspension systems.

For Specs See: Epic Sport-Adventure Spec Sheet Shootout

Then there’s the simple fact that several MOrons aren’t getting any younger, but they’re not ready for the Gold Wing rocking chair either. Basically, these bikes let us ride with the abandon of youth when we feel like it, including in the dirt! Then we can toddle on home, or home on the range, in Cadillac comfort, just in time to retire with a nice warm glass of milk and the latest issue of Boy’s Life next to a warm fire. Bliss, really.

Epic Sport-Adventure Shootout - Group Static

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