Test Ride! – 2014 KTM 1190 Adventure

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A friend of mine is currently agonizing over which new dual sport adventure bike to get for his next big trip, and I have been vicariously enjoying his decision stress and reading more than my usual diet of review articles while following along.  The good news is the last few years have seen a marked increase in excellent new models from multiple manufacturers that give the folks at BMW some serious and welcomed (but maybe not to them) competition.  Two of the latest bikes getting great reviews are KTM’s 1190 Adventure and 1190 Adventure R, the R version aimed at those with more of an off-road inclination.  These match up very closely with BMW’s R1200GS and R1200GS Adventure offerings, the unofficial kings of the segment, depending on who you ask.

So the other day my friend posted a photo captioned, ‘I think I’m in love!’, following his test ride of the KTM 1190 Adventure R.  This of course piqued my interest, and some quick research revealed a new KTM dealership had recently opened only five miles from my house.  What else could I do?  Why should he have all the fun?  It was time for a test ride!

I personally own a 2012 R1200GS (standard), which I rode to the dealership.  (It is not the new water-cooled version which was released in 2013.)  I like the GS a lot, except for a few nits, thus my test ride of the 1190 became very much a comparison. For those analytical types like myself who want details, my GS has been upgraded with handlebar risers, an Aeroflow windscreen and a Sargent seat, all for ergonomic purposes.  I am 5’11” tall, 165 lbs and have a 32″ inseam. I also don’t consider myself an off-road expert by any stretch of the imagination, but will do long stretches of dirt and gravel when the spirit moves me.

The bike I tested was the base model, rather than the R, and only had 75 miles on the odometer.  It was seriously new and was fitted with Continental’s Attack tires.  Though both were available, I chose to ride the base model for two reasons:  It was closest to my standard GS for comparison purposes, and I could actually reach the ground flat-footed while sitting on it.  The R version, like the R1200GSA, presents a bit of a challenge for my leg length.

I must admit, the 1190 Adventure looks really good to me.  It has great lines –  thin yet ‘muscular’ – and I truly like the orange/black/white/grey colors together.  In the saddle, my feet were comfortably on the ground, but it is likely about a half inch taller than my GS.  The riding position also felt good, close to what I consider comfortable for the long haul.  A tweak here or there is all that would needed for me, if at all. Even the seat felt good, though most do on first impressions.  Certainly it is no worse than the torture device BMW put on my GS, but only a long ride would let me know if this saddle would cut it long term.

Though I really didn’t play with the settings or information screen much, the instruments seemed well designed and easy to interpret.  One small gripe is that KTM paired a digital speedometer with an analog tachometer, and personally I don’t like digital displays for either. I find analog needles much easier to read at a glance.  Another design flaw, in my opinion, is the fairly small foot on the side stand.  For a heavy adventure bike that will likely see its share of dirt and gravel parking spots, it is simply inadequate.  This stand will even punch holes in warm asphalt.

The bike started instantly and idled quieter than the throaty rumble typical of the newer GSes.  This is a plus for me, since while that throaty sound is cool for short rides around town, I found it gets annoying on long trips, thrumming at my brain, even through the helmet and earplugs.  Toeing the bike into first gear, letting the clutch out for the first time, and turning left onto the street brought no surprises and I realized I would get used to it in a hurry.  My test ride lasted about half an hour and was split between good secondary roads and many small familiar back roads with lots of hills, dips, and curves.  No highways or off-road testing this trip.  Here are my observations, with comparisons to my GS:

Engine and throttle:  The 1190 has an electronic ‘ride by wire’ throttle and is therefore more precise than the cable system on my GS.  It seemed quite similar to the ride-by-wire system on the new ’13 water-cooled GS I test rode last summer.  I thought the 1190 throttle could be a bit more linear, though, in that the the early portion of the twist is a bit tame and then it hits a steeper response region where the engine accelerates harder.  I would likely get used to this but it surprised me a number of times during the ride.

The engine itself is not buzzy by any stretch, but then again it is not really smooth. Maybe ‘nervous’ is the best way to describe it.  There was a constant, very light, high frequency vibration at the hand grips and the foot pegs, consistent with engine RPM.  In part this could be due to not being broken in yet.  I didn’t notice it at all at the beginning, but certainly did at the end of the ride making me think it might get somewhat tiresome on long highway trips, though would likely go almost unnoticed off road.  I settled into a natural shift pattern that ran in the 4-5K RPM range of the engine, which redlines at around 12K, whereas I usually ride my GS between 3-4K, which redlines at 8.5K.

Transmission:  The gear box felt refined and smooth, with only short bumps of the lever needed to produce either up or down shifts, along with an easy pull of the hydraulic clutch.  I can’t remember even one miss-shift during the ride, which is pretty impressive for the first time on any bike.

Brakes:  The brakes felt very solid, predictable, and easy to modulate.  I was surprised on hard pulls of the front brake lever, however, with some fairly significant dive of the front suspension.  To be fair, this might be typical of most front ends of this type and simply a testament to how well the Telelever front end works on the BMW GS, which produces very little dive when braking.

Handling:  On the road this bike handles well and feels stable, but maybe slightly too stable.  The back roads of southeast Pennsylvania have more than their fair share of road debris and obstacles.  Gravel on corners, rocks that have rolled down from embankments, potholes from hard winters, branches from overhead trees, squirrels, deer and dogs make our road riding quite adventurous.  So we learn pretty early how to swerve, and it becomes almost a dance.  This led to my last real surprise on this bike.  The KTM does not swerve as easily or quickly as my GS.  You really have to muscle it to get it around the next chunk of debris in your path, and it doesn’t seem to want to do it quickly.  This makes it very solid on the highway, but at a cost.  I didn’t compare steering geometries, but the KTM does have a steering damper that my GS doesn’t, and its overall center of gravity is likely higher than the GS’s due to the engine configuration.  But whatever the reason, I prefer the quicker response of my GS in this department.  (FYI, the new water-cooled GS also now incorporates a steering damper.)

Conclusion:  Despite my nit-picking, with some things being simply different rather than better or worse, the 1190 Adventure is a great motorcycle and KTM is likely going to sell a lot of them.  As mentioned, my test ride was on the road only (except for the errant pothole) and thus I don’t have the knowledge (or experience) for how capable it is on dirt and gravel.  I believe it will prove itself as one of the best large adventure bikes available.  If I was currently in the market and didn’t already have the GS, it would take many test rides on both to decide which to buy.  Personally, I think the GS may be a better, more comfortable road bike, while the KTM would be superior on the dirtier side of things.  But that’s just me.  The two bikes are close enough that personal tastes are going to be one of the biggest deciding factors in anyone’s decision.