KTM's Adventure first hit the mud and streets in its 950 guise back in 2003. Refined with fuel-injection and enlarged to '990' in 2006, it was joined by an S model aimed at those who fancied doing more miles on the loose brown stuff. Now for the coming 2009 season the 990 V-twin (capacity is unchanged and actually 999cc) has a bit more power to go along with a selection of cosmetic changes. To replace last year's S, there's an even punchier R version for the dirt fans to play on. I had a chance to fly to Sardinia to have a dabble with both of the twins.
I felt more than a bit rusty as I climbed up onto the latest lofty Adventure. But by the time I got to the edge of town just 10-minutes later, I felt good to go thanks to the KTM's easy style. As long as the tall seat height doesn't cause any worries, then there'll be few people who won't feel right at home on the Adventure. The whole bike has been carefully designed to let you get the best out of it in a jiff, giving your smile muscles a work-out while you're at it.
Sardinia's routes, or at least the ones KTM chose for us to thrash along, are lined with lots of bone-busting hazards. Cock things up on those Armco-lined, hairpin-infested backroads and you'll probably speak fluent Italian by the time you get out of hospital. Yet on the light and beautifully balanced KTM, I never once felt I was going to miss my flight home. Plenty of bikes might have more power and speed, but there aren't many that can match the confidence and control the Adventure gives you. It is in short an utterly brilliant bit of kit for hooning around on and still feel as you're never going to dive off. And I say that even if the winding roads I rode on looked like their friction coefficient bordered on nil in places.
There are a few reasons behind the KTM's faith-inducing qualities. First and most importantly is the combination of the WP suspension and Pirelli Scorpion tyres. Together they give feedback from the road surface akin to the accuracy of brail to a blindman. Every revolution of the spoked wheels brings messages of poise and security. I never had a slide once - though perhaps that's more of a reflection of the limits of my own abilities rather than the bike.
Anyone unused to long travel suspension might accuse the KTM of being too soft. But though that's true to an extent, it's not mushy. The quality of the damping controls the travel so well, there's always plenty of control and feel, giving plenty of support and ability to ride the imperfections brilliantly. The Pirellis aren't the stickiest things you can buy, but the supple action of the forks and shock help them to give their very best. The suspenders assist the brakes too. Even though the front two-piston sliding calipers aren't exactly high tech, with the tyre grip being controlled so well over the road surface they end up biting into the road and stopping you better than they might. ABS sorts things out if the Pirellis do ever exceed their limits.
Added to the quality running gear helping you to master the Adventure is a very comfy riding position that lets you shove the bike wherever you want it to go with ease. Sitting upright gives you a commanding role, and it's a piece of cake to lever the KTM into turns using around the same force you'd need to steer a pushbike. The new 209kg bike is actually 11kilos weightier than the old one, but I can't say I ever noticed. Back road blasting on the 990 is an absolute riot.
Along with the more detailed changes including new digital clocks, tank compartment, bodywork colours, and black-finished swingarm, forks and brake calipers, is the extra power of vehicle dolly manufacturers the new motor. Alterations to the cylinder head, cams, pistons and fuelling give another 8bhp and 4ft/lbs of torque at 250rpm higher which, if I'm honest I'd probably need a back to back test alongside the old bike to notice. I do reckon there's a bit more of a kick at about 7000rpm, but even if there isn't it hardly matters. The 106bhp, 999cc V-twin, is already a belter of a motor with lots of dependable torque and flexibility to keep the average speed high without too much rider input. It buzzes just enough to feel alive, and copes with returning to the pace you slowed down from with just throttle action more often than not. The box is nice and slick, but isn't something that's troubled that often. This is a very laid back bike, even when you're going for it.
The only thing I'd knock it back a few points for is slightly abrupt fuelling at tiny throttle openings. In town in the first two gears at very low speed you notice the tiny kick as the butterflies open (two per cylinder; one wrist-controlled, the other by the ECU), though funnily enough that 'disappeared' after a few miles passed by and I'd got used to riding the KTM.
The generally similar-spec R model is actually a lot different to ride than the basic version. It might share the vast majority of components that make up the standard Adventure, including all the new ones minus ABS, but some of those alternative parts set the pair apart in terms of riding impressions way more than you'd expect.
Getting on the bugger is even harder thanks to the longer travel suspension raising the ride height by 55mm. The taller step-less saddle was a bridge too far for me on a few occasions, and without a kerb or at least a bit of a run up, there was no way I could mount the thing. Once aboard things continue to feel different, some issues being more welcome than others. The motor is one of the better ones with its additional 9bhp giving the R a significantly stronger turn of speed. Wheelies aren't exactly tricky on the standard bike, but on this one they can be hard to avoid - especially when they're so easy to hoist and hold.
Peak torque might be quoted as the same, but the midrange is certainly stronger letting you leave the bike in a higher gear and still get similar sorts of surge from corners. It's even easier to get up to speed and then maintain it. It's one of the main reasons why the R is more fun to ride.
I didn't think that would be the case during my first few miles on it mind you, primarily because of its different handling characteristics. KTM is saying it's only the travel of the forks and shock that's been changed. But I'd say from the way the R rides, the springing and damping rates must have been altered too. There's more support at each end with a bit less dive and squat. The mystery is why there's an 'edgier' feeling mid-corner when riding hard. Grip and general control is good enough to push on. But the margin for error that's very much in place on the standard bike seems narrower on the R, and you have to search more for its limits and learn where they are to feel fully confident. I felt more at home on it after 50miles or so, and think in time I'd be fully comfortable.
I had a blat on the dirt on each bike, and though I was out of my comfort zone enough to feel as though I was more in my 'bed of nails' zone, I still didn't come close to being on my arse. Better men than me showed the KTMs are capable off-road and I'd say the Austrian-made bikes are a step above the bulkier and quirkier Bee-Em R1200GSs in this respect.
The German bikes have proved themselves well over the last few years with brilliant class, and overall sales successes. But if you ask me, the Adventure is just as good an all-rounder with the bonus of feeling more neutral, and even more versatile thanks to its superior off-road ability.
Both KTMs have only been effectively freshened up rather than radically upgraded, and existing Adventure owners certainly shouldn't feel the need to rush out and part-ex them for the 2009 bikes. The £750 more expensive R is definitely a fair bit more powerful than the old S with another 17bhp on tap, and the extra 6bhp of the new £550 pricier standard bike over its replacement might be more apparent than it felt on this test. Bar those improvements, the other changes are less significant. Whatever your decision, if you're in the market for a true fun-loaded bike that doesn't mind being hammered on or off-road, then the latest 990 Adventures are well worth swinging a leg over - provided yours are long enough of course. If they are, then you're in for a treat.