KTM Adventure Shootout! 390 or 790R?

John Burns
by John Burns

SoCal Distancing redux

Yeah, well, maybe it is kind of a ridiculous comparison, but who went on a nice day-long adventure ride while you were locked down? Ryan Adams and I did, that’s who. Really it’s not even that ridiculous. The KTM 790 Adventure R sells for around $13,500; the 390 Adventure’s less than half that at $6,200. Ryan came back from the 790’s launch in Morocco last year calling it the best adventure bike in the world. Then it won a three-bike comparo starring Eric Bostrom…

The Middleweight Adventure Triad

Then I came back from riding the new 2020 390 Adventure around our local mountains, alone again naturally, saying for me, for the money, compared to its real competitors – Kawasaki Versys-X 300, BMW G310GS – it’s pretty, pretty good. Maybe good enough to make it preferable to the expensive 790 for lots of us who aren’t necessarily “Ready to Race” every time we turn on the ignition. Usually I’m more “Ready to Ride at My Own Pace,” or “Ready to Not Get Hurt.”

One makes 84 horsepower, 57 foot-pounds of torque and weighs 467 pounds; the other one makes about 40 horses and 27 ft-lbs of rear-wheel torque – but weighs about 80 pounds less, at 386.

What we can’t escape is the theory of relativity: it’s all relative. If you’d never ridden the 790 like me, you’d think the 390 is swell, which it is. We’ve quoted Kaz Yoshima before: The most expensive thing is lightness, and the 390’s definitely got that going on for itself. Also a low(ish) seat, just low enough at the 33.6-inch claimed height for me to easily hop on and off of, and stop in whatever awkward off-camber, edge-of-abyss position I find myself in. The 790R’s 34.6-in claim is a lie: More than once I had to have Ryan A give me a tug on the right handguard to lift me off the sidestand. (I need to relearn to take off from the left side and then swing into the saddle like I used to with my old Husky TE250, but I’m sort of afraid to attempt it in sand and with a tailpack on the back seat. What if my leg doesn’t swing that high anymore?)

Is this merely the complaint of a weak, old, 5’8” man? Yes. But it’s the truth for many of us. The greatest ADV bike in the world isn’t much good if you can’t climb on it and go. (A good compromise might’ve been the non-”R” 790 Adventure, whose seat KTM says is the same 33.5-in as the one on the 390. Now we’re talking.) Speaking of relative, the 790 is waaay better than the 590-pound BMW R1250 GS Adventure that tried to end me in the Mojave last year.

The 790R weighs like 120 pounds less than the biggest BMW GS, and its cool side-pod gas tanks keep its mass towards the middle.

Once in the pilot’s seat, gear up, and climbing to cruising altitude, the 790 begins to explain where all the extra money goes. While sometimes the rocks and ruts in the trail have a greater say in which line the little 390 takes than you’d prefer, the 790 pretty much goes where you aim it while those same obstacles seem to scamper out of its way, and the holes fill themselves in. The 790R’s way beefier and better-damped XPLOR suspension tucks 9.5 inches of travel under that tall seat, to the 390’s 6.7 and 7.0 inches (front/rear). And, the 790 gets a steering damper which the 390 does not, which I bet makes a big difference.

It’s a speed thing, really: If you were riding the 390 by yourself or with a bunch of other geezers, you’d go a little slower, sitting on the seat more than standing up, and happily taking in the sights and smells of nature that are amazingly accessible not much more than an hour from the heart of LA on a bike like this. I’ve screamed past California 2N01 a hundred times on streetbikes on Highway 38 without even noticing it. It’s not that many miles to Pioneertown from the turn-off, but it’s a nice little wilderness adventure you can do in not much more than half a day from the belly of the metropolis.

If you’re riding with somebody on the 790, naturally you want to keep them in sight. The 790R doesn’t just have superior suspension, it’s also got effortless power and advanced electronics that encourage you to twist the throttle at every opportunity. Matching its pace on the 390 might happen if you’re a much better rider than the 790 pilot, but it’s not going to be easy, even then. And it’s not going to be nearly as drama-free.

Ryan Adams says: I may have had slightly less fun on the 390 Adventure simply due to the fact that I enjoy lighting up the rear tire to drift round corners. That, and the suspension… and the lack of sophisticated electronics. Okay, there are more than a few reasons that I prefer the 790 Adventure R, but the 390 was still capable of showing us a good time, albeit, at a slower pace.

New riders, experienced riders, and old riders alike can have a good time on the 390 Adventure. It’s only if you’re planning to ride the 390 at a decent clip, or through gnarly terrain that the wee Adventure comes up short, literally. I bottomed the thing more than a few times simply riding too fast over the terrain we found ourselves on, which was nothing more than a rocky fire road.

As for me, JB, I think the 390’s got remarkable grunt for a 373cc Single, and its gearbox is so good I enjoy revving it up to where the power resides – though on the dirt portion of this adventure you really mostly only ever blip back and forth between second and third, good for everything from 5 to 45 mph or so. Ryan’s been spoiled by the 790 and his coastal elite milliennialism:

The 390’s mill seems to have a lack of grunt around its mid-range. On the street [climbing toward 7000 feet elevation], rpm were a necessity in order to get the small Adventure out of its own way. Flip through the gears too fast and you’ll find yourself needing to drop back down a gear to get the revs up in order to keep accelerating. Off-road, I found myself keeping the motor high in the rpm range to tap into the power when I needed it.

He’s right about the ergos, though, which are fine on-road but not so much off it:

One of the most apparent issues for the 390 while jumping back and forth between these two bikes was the rider triangle while standing. Riding while seated was quite comfortable and neutral for 5-foot 8-inch me, but standing feels much more cramped and somewhat awkward until you get used to it.

The 390’s handlebar could be higher for people on the tall side of short.

When you pick up the pace on the 390, you’ll be standing on its nice, wide steel footpegs more, and when you do that, you’ll wish its handlebar was a bit taller. (Easy enough to fix with some risers, at least.)

We were totally Joshua Tree National Park-adjacent.

Whenever it’s not stationary, I have to admit, the 790R is the saddle to be in, and I was most proud of myself for arranging to be in it when we hit the deep sand straights at the bottom of the mountain. I’d actually managed to keep my cool all day at elevation, but down in the des, the flop sweat started rolling down my back as soon as the KTM began Watusi-ing through the sand. Not to worry on the 790, though: Just roll on the gas, come up on plane, and try to relax. I have to think it was less fun for Ryan on the steering-damperless 390 behind me, who was very wisely giving me a wide berth after he watched me swap ends a couple of times.

Finally the sand ended, thank you Jesus, and Burns Canyon became pavement. After a few miles of that, it became Pioneertown, home of Pappy & Harriet’s, icy Arnold Palmers and pulled pork sandwiches. Civilization at last.

After that, all that was left to do was film our talk show with a GoPro (we left Sean Matic home to edit this time), then ride home on the freeway for an hour, which became closer to two since we hit gridlock and detours around Riverside, thanks to our glorious leaders closing a bunch of exits to keep protesters out of the city, or was it in? How quickly these right-sized ADV motorcycles can get you from the middle of nowhere to right in the middle of everything is the real beauty of them. Living in SoCal for 30 years, I did not know Pioneertown was there until a BMW GS junket last year. Now I know how to get there by land or by sand.

From bighorn sheep to urban unrest in about an hour. We bumped into these guys having a drink a few miles north of I-10 east of Palm Springs.

Once clear of the car/truck tangle, If you’re in a hurry, the bigger 790 is again the seat to be in, since it turns fewer, smoother rpm at any speed above 60 mph – not that it’s vibe-free at 85 – and its seat is a skosh wider and thicker. My grizzled hindquarters don’t mind either of them. Ryan is less impressed: Both seats felt like sitting on a slab of wood, with the 390’s hardness more of an Aspen to the 790’s Oak.

The 390’s ergos are fine if you’re 5’8 or so. Its lower screen is less turbulent than the 790’s. Taller people might want a bit more legroom. Screw taller people, they should buy the 790.

The 390’s suspension may not be as good at big rocks and bomb craters, but it has no problem at all with crap pavement. Just like on rocky dirt roads, it’s happiest at a slightly slower pace than the 790. There’s a little engine vibration in the grips, but not enough to complain about at normal 75-85 mph freeway cruising speed. On level pavement at sea level, busting 100 in top gear is no sweat. All I know is when I got home like eight hours later on the 390, after a day on all kinds of terrain, my bod felt fine. We’ll let Ryan play us out:

From the outside, this might look like an oranges to oranges comparo. Really, the bikes do look quite similar, but, as one might assume, the differences between these two machines are vast. This was an interesting exercise showcasing the different machines KTM makes for different riders.

Considering other bikes in the lightweight Adventure category, the 390 is simply on another level. Adjustable suspension, switchable TC and ABS, and the TFT display are just a few of the ways the 390 Adventure sets itself apart from the rest of the class. Without a proper comparison though, I can’t truly say how they perform back to back. Maybe we should go back to Baja once the border’s free flowing again.

What do I have to say about the 790 Adventure R that hasn’t already been said? In my opinion, the 790 Adventure R is the best adventure bike currently on the market for riders looking to get serious off-road performance out of their middleweight ADV machines. It’s not perfect and it’s not the best overall, but it has off-road chops that are unrivaled by anything else currently available in the category.

(I would just like to point out that my first comparison together and John, where he showed me how to ham it up for the camera and dismissed every other question I asked, was also between two Katooms, the 2017 KTM 1090 Adventure R vs. (my) KTM 1190 Adventure R. I had more fun this time.)

Wait, I must have the last word. If the 790R is the “best adventure bike out there,” then it’s pretty swell that the little half-price 390 did as well as it did in comparison. Again, it comes down to do you want to burn down the fire road, or burble down it at a more mature pace? For Phase 3, I’m halfway tempted to drop off the 390 at Brasfield’s house for a month or two and see what kind of KTM Powerparts and other aftermarket goodies attach themselves to it. With some handlebar risers, a steering damper and maybe a little suspension work, I think it could really close the gap – especially given its huge weight advantage over the 790R.

Brothers in orange.

And you know we hate to shill, but both these bikes jumped the charts to #1 in their categories immediately, and at no time did I wish for an 1190 or 1290 or 1590 – though you would want their cruise control if you were going far. Enough is enough. Way to go, KTM.


2020 KTM 390 Adventure

KTM 790 Adventure R

Engine Type373.2cc liquid-cooled, four-valve, DOHC Single-cylinder, 4-stroke799cc Parallel-Twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Bore x Stroke89 mm x 60 mm88.0 mm x 65.7 mm
Compression Ratio12.6:112.7:1
Fuel SystemBosch EFI (throttle body 46 mm)DKK Dell’Orto, 46 mm Throttle Body
Claimed Crankshaft Horsepower95.0 hp @ 8,000 rpm
Claimed Torque65.6 lb-ft @ 6,600 rpm
Ignition / Engine ManagementBosch EMS with Ride-By-WireBosch EMS with Ride-By-Wire
Traction ControlMTCMTC
ClutchPASC slipper clutch, mechanically operatedPASC slipper clutch, mechanically operated
Transmission6 gears6 gears
ChainX-Ring 520X-Ring 5/8 x 1/4″
FrameSteel trellis frame, powder coatedChromium-Molybdenum-Steel frame using the engine as stressed element, powder coated
SubframeSteel trellis frame, powder coatedSteel trellis frame, powder coated
Front SuspensionWP APEX, Ø 43 mm, adjustable compression / rebound, 6.7 inches of travelWP XPLOR 48mm fork, fully adjustable, 9.4 in. travel
Rear SuspensionWP APEX shock absorber, adjustable rebound and spring preload, 7.0 inches of travelWP XPLOR PDS shock, fully adjustable, 9.4 in. travel
Front BrakeFour piston, radially mounted caliper, brake disc Ø 320 mmDual 320 mm discs, radial-mount 4-piston J Juan calipers
Rear BrakeSingle piston, floating caliper, brake disc Ø 230 mmSingle 260 mm disc, two-piston J Juan caliper
ABSBosch 9.1MP Two Channel (incl. Cornering ABS and Offroad mode)Bosch 9.1 MP (incl. Cornering-ABS and offroad mode, disengageable
Front WheelCast aluminum, 2.50 x 19”Wire spoke, 21”
Rear WheelCast aluminum, 3.50 x 17”Wire spoke, 18”
Front Tire100/90 x 1990/90-21 Michelin Karoo 3
Rear Tire130/80 x 17150/70-18 Michelin Karoo 3
Rake / Trail26.5° / 3.9 inches25.9° / 4.2 inches (26.3º / 4.3 inches)
Wheelbase56.3 ± 0.6 inches60.2 inches
Seat Height33.6 inches34.6 inches
Dry Weight348.3 pounds (claimed)416.7 pounds (claimed)
Fuel Capacity3.8 gallons5.3 gallons
Ground Clearance7.9 inches10.4 inches
John Burns
John Burns

More by John Burns

Join the conversation
3 of 15 comments
  • Spiff Spiff on Jun 13, 2020

    I'll take a 790. That way OM and I can do Vegas to Reno.

  • Alaskan18724 Alaskan18724 on Jun 14, 2020

    I was always intrigued by the old 640 Adventure. Never got to ride one. Apropos of nothing.

    • 12er 12er on Jun 17, 2020

      It still looks awesome, my KLR was the answer my wallet could swing at the time. Someone parked one a block from my office to taunt me daily back then.