The great outdoors is yours for the taking, but how best to enjoy the sights and sounds that Mother Nature has to offer can be an interesting dilemma. Should you cruise the globe on a road-ready cruiser or a rugged off-road bike? Will a long-range street machine be better than hard-core trail motorcycle for maximum fun? The choice is ultimately yours, but many riders have been turning to big bore adventure bikes for the ultimate in two-wheeled enjoyment. Long-range capable with plenty of dirt skills, these big bikes can go from whipping down the highway to splashing down a trail in a matter of seconds, and their appeal is growing among everyday riders. We recently took two of the most popular large displacement adventure steeds-the BMW 1200 GSA and the KTM 990 Adventure R-and ran them head-to-head on a variety of conditions and terrain types for the ultimate shakedown of both machines. Here’s a look at how these two beasts stand up to each other:
When it comes to delivery, the BMW 1200 is a torque machine. Wicking on the throttle at any speed results in a strong, consistent hit and white-knuckle acceleration. The bike’s Electronic Fuel Injection is spot on, and when coupled with the shaft drive produces amazing response and connectivity. Depending on traction, the twin-cylinder engine will either make you squeal with delight or shriek in terror as it torques hard into action and rolls through a strong, robust mid and top end. There are a lot of ponies under the hood of this Bavarian monster, the 2011machine’s new DOHC heads vitalize the pick up compared to the former modles. Luckily, the BMW’s shifting is solid, but much like a car it won’t let you cheat one bit with the clutch, or back off if you want to change gears. Although air-cooled, this BMW’s six-speed engine is extremely adept at staying within proper operating temperature.Although it’s nearly 210ccs down on displacement from the BMW, the KTM 990 Adventure is no less exciting in the power department. In fact, the bike is downright impressive! Immediately, you notice that the motorcycle makes more engine noise than exhaust noise; it sounds like a Corvette car when you’re behind the bar. The engine produces plenty of meat down low and revs rather quickly, achieving a strong high-rpm cruising speed that is easy to maintain for long periods of time. The KTM will cruise up top forever on long, fast roads and trails, or it can be short-shifted and lugged around in a higher gear, though it lacks the super-instant torque feel of the BMW as well as off-idle flywheel effect, the 990 is easier to stall. On the plus side, the bike cools very well and handles low-speed/ high-temp situations exceptionally, much like the 1200 does. There was a slight judder in the KTM’s clutch that could be felt by our most picky testers, but the clutch action was good enough not to warrant any major concerns or complaints. With very wide-ratio six speed transmission, the KTM’s engine is rideable in a variety of conditions while still remaining very, very strong.
Weighing in just shy of a quarter ton (598 pounds, to be exact), the Beemer is by no means light, but she is incredibly well balanced. Even with a full tank, the weight feels low and settled rather than high and tippy, providing an excellent center of gravity. There is a slight bit of Boxer crankshaft-induced, side-to-side gyro wobble when you rev this bike at a stop, but this doesn’t affect handling at speed. The Electronic Suspension Adjust, a revolutionary new BMW technology that allows the rider to change the suspension’s ride height and damping, on the fly, in three different settings is novel and effective. On the GSA, you can raise the suspension in the stroke and get more damping, or stiffen the whole setup to accommodate a passenger. Either way, the BMW is easier to maneuver the faster you’re going, meaning that low-speed turns are typically trickier than high-speed curves. But then again, the bike does weight nearly 600 pounds!The KTM is noticeably lighter than the BMW (a roughly 100 lb difference), making it easier to control and turn at both high and low speeds, but the weight does feel like it’s placed higher on the motorcycle. The WP suspension does a great job of keeping the bike upright, though we noticed that the fork could blow through on quick, fast and hard hits such as large bumps in the trail or abrupt asphalt potholes, while the initial feel was slightly rigid for small chop. Whereas the BMW seems to settle in the middle of the stroke, the 990 Adventure R would either ride harshly near the top of the stroke or blow through the initial portion too quickly. Add in a passenger and some panniers, though, and you could need additional suspension support to maintain proper ride height. On ultra low-speed sections, the KTM feels easier to maneuver than the Beemer, though its taller seat height can be an issue on the trail. Though the KTM feels like a rally inspired racer, the dream is far from reality and on either bike you have to take care not to get carried away like you can on a real dirt bike. If you bottom the suspension on either of these machines, you are riding them too hard.
The BMW is right at home on the asphalt and is easily capable of cruising at highway speeds for hours on end, though the transmission is a little short for super high-speed riding. The comfortable seat, wide windscreen and upright stance make it a joy on the body, though like any bike you’ll still feel residual vibration after eight plus hours in the saddle. Turning-wise, you’ll be surprised by how far the big Beemer can lean in corners, and the previously described low center of gravity gives the bike a degree of stability on the open road. BMW Motorrad’s optional integral ABS system works well on the street, though it kicks in a bit early-sometimes on rapid engine deceleration with minor manual braking-though overall it’s an OK feature. Speaking of wild features, switching around the ESA on the street altered the bike’s ability to absorb harsher bumps in the road, yet the bike is still able to support its girth when loaded down. One downside to the BMW that California commuters didn’t like was the wide feel of the cylinder heads/ handlebar, which made lane splitting through traffic a stressful affair. But the wind protection from all that frontal area is impressive and comforting.Overall, the KTM 990 is a tall bike, and average-sized riders may not be able to touch flat on the ground. This isn’t an issue everywhere, but repeatedly teetering at red lights did cause some frustration. Fortunately, the Katoom’s quick, smooth pickup while accelerating away from a stop made up for the height woes. On long, straight roads the KTM is a fine ride at higher speeds, though it’s maybe not as comfortable as the BMW due to the smaller windscreen. The KTM’s seat feels a little harder to the rider, and you seem to sit on it rather than in it. Power-wise, the 990′s gearbox feels lets the bike can still purr down the open road with ease at lower RPMs in higher gears.
On dirt, the BMW’s strong delivery of power can break the rear wheel loose in low-traction scenarios with almost no warning. If you’re going to take this bike off-road, take it e-a-s-y until you get the hang of it! The suspension can also be deceptively good, with the right settings for the rider’s weight producing a lightweight feel that betrays the bike’s overall weight-until you get sideways, that is. The shock will definitely need to be modified for more serious off-road use. The Beemer’s width is again an issue in trees, and the cylinder heads are vulnerable to hits from logs and rocks. In short, the GSA is OK with light dirt duty between street sections, but this isn’t a bike you’d want to trail ride on all day.We were shocked by how much ‘dirt bike’ remains in the 990′s system, and the places you can go on this machine truly are remarkable. Quite possibly the defining feature of the Adventure is the combination of strong, useable power and solid, well-tuned suspension, all of which work in sync to make the motorcycle totally rideable off-road. Sure, it’s still heavy and tall, but the things you can do will certainly impress your friends. One minor issue to be aware of is that the 990 produces a TON of power, and you have to be sure not to get ahead of yourself or your skill level off-road, which will bite you hard at higher speeds if the bike fools you into going too fast.
The grip heaters on the GSA may seem silly, but they are a Godsend when the mercury dips on longer rides. The bike’s digital display with more functions than a graphing calculator became pretty useful as well once the functions were figured it out. And despite a high number of revenge flashes from opposing cars, the plethora of headlights is on the BMW is incredible, and riders feel super safe ripping around on this bike after the sun has gone down. You’d think that with two cylinders, an 8.7-gallon fuel tank and more room for luggage than the first-class cabin on a 747, there would be no room left on the GSA for a rider, much less a passenger. Not so! Somehow, BMW managed to work all of the various components of the 1200 around a smart ergonomic setup that keeps the rider in a comfortable, dirt bike-like riding position. The handlebar bend is decent when the rider is seated, but some adjustment is necessary for prolonged standing.The KTM 990 has a great handlebar for a stock bike, but the bar itself is super narrow and feels strange at first. Bark busters as a stock feature are nice, as is the windscreen. Our chief control complaint was actually just the hard to use buttons on the console, which are especially tricky to work night. All together, the ergos are comfortable when both sitting and standing, and the bike has a good stock seat. We loved the fit and finish of the 5.8-gallon fuel tanks, and the bike carries the fuel weight well. Passenger pegs are a plus, as is the decent headlight.
In the end, who are these bikes really for and, more importantly, which one is better? The answer isn’t that simple. The BMW is a technologically driven, well-built piece of performance equipment that simply crushes it on the street and packs an incredible punch. However, the weight and feel of this machine will forever limit where it can be taken and what it can do. On the flip side, the KTM is the perfect machine for those who want race-inspired character in a street-capable package. Is it as trick as the BMW? In it’s own way, yes, and perhaps more simply so. Both of these bikes are heavier, beefier and much more expensive than the average ‘Adventure’ model, and you’re looking at the highest level of performance in two round-the-world ready packages. But enough dancing around the issue; which bike should you buy? If you only hit dirt occasionally to transfer from scenic route to scenic route, go for the BMW. But if you crave a big dirt bike that can still hack it on-road, go for the KTM. If you just want a big, trick adventure bike that will make your friend’s jealous, buy either-you really can’t lose!
KTM 990 Adventure R
Engine: 999cc, six-speed twin cylinder four-stroke
Claimed Seat Height: 36″
Claimed Weight: 456 lb.
Estimated Fuel Range: 240.5
BMW 1200 GSA
Engine: 1170cc, six-speed flat twin cylinder four-stroke
Claimed Seat Height: 35.8″
Claimed Weight: 564
Estimated Fuel Range: 304.5