Sometime last year, in mid November I think, I saw notification of a KTM ride day and, ever the opportunist, registered.
And promptly forgot all about it until, five days beforehand, someone from Moorooka Yamaha rang me to confirm. Did I still want to take part? Like hell, yes!
KTM is Austrian and, although Germany tends to think of the country as the hick cousin everyone’s embarrassed about, Austria sits on some very interesting borders and looks like what happened when German engineers were seduced by Italian designers, made sweet love and had children neither country was quite ready to admit to.
Or at least KTM is, anyway. They have great teutonic engineering and the lunacy only the Italians can really bring to motorbikes.
The company’s history is in dirt bikes and serious off-road racing, e.g. their near-total domination of the Dakar rally in recent years, and this is worth remembering. It gives you the fundamental clue to understanding basically everything they do. The rest of it is driven by wanting to be a bigger company than BMW.
A few years ago, they responded to BMW building a dirt bike around the R1200 engine (the quite insane feral pig that was the HP2) by building a dirt bike around the carburetted 950 V-twin from a previous generation of the now-iconic Adventure bloody-everywhere tourer. Not being stupid, they stuck road wheels on as well and called the result a big supermoto to increase their sales. Many people immediately noticed it was almost comfortable (gasp!) seemed potentially sensible (shock!) and was, in fact, KTM’s best road bike.
Either from long-range planning, or paying attention, or because they spotted this themselves (towards the end of its life, the 950 SM was sold in a touring version - same bike, plus luggage), the replacement 990 supermoto (fuel injection, which was inevitable under European emissions legislation) came in a touring version - the Supermoto T or SMT. When this was announced I found myself staring at it for ages trying to work out if I liked it or not. I didn’t like the listed fuel consumption, but the bike itself had everything I wanted: V-twin, welded tubing frame, tall suspension, promise of comfort, just enough fairing to be effective, bit of style.
Obviously, I put my name down to ride one. Since they wanted two other options I opted for the 990 Adventure and, to be fun, the Duke 690 street stunter. I thought it was one ride and hope you get your preferred bike.
I didn’t realise I could go on three rides and get them all in (sound effects: cackling and rubbing of hands).
So, I got to ride: The 990 SMT (not the brand-new ABS one, more’s the pity), the Adventure 990 R (slightly fancier version with a dirt-bike seat design - someone else was on the basic Adventure) and, because by this time the rest had been loaded into the transporter to drive to Adelaide, the SuperDuke 990. Three bikes, same engine, two and a half different purposes.
So what where they like?
990 Supermoto T
Jesus, for a tourer it’s a hooligan. Suddenly, everything I had heard about KTM’s reputation became real. The accessory Akrapovic pipes sounded, to steal a phrase, like an angry god ripping up a hanky. The throttle was so twitchy it took me about a kilometre to get to grips with it (pun intended). There was more braking from the engine than my BMW gets from the rear brake, and the clutch had the instant take-up of a frightened hare. Then, when you did want to take off, a judicious twist of the wrist would make the front wheel light in any gear, at any speed, from 3,000rpm up to a red-line you never, be honest, ever need to go near. I didn’t have the courage to make an injudicious twist of the wrist.
It’s surprisingly low in the seat, putting you in a dirt-bike upright stance but in the bike rather than on it, very comfortably seated in airflow smoothed out by a tiny-looking but, in typical KTM fashion, well-integrated and effective screen. I didn’t have enough seat time to really evaluate comfort, but I’d be quite happy to head off for a 600km day (hint, hint).
The bars are dirt-bike wide and that’s not something I’m used to but we got along. The handling was fantastic - where I put it, it went. No shaking, no hesitation, just diving into any corner at any speed and staying there. It has dirt-bike style hand guards that, I know from experience on the BMW, will be brilliant in cold weather. It was stinking hot when I rode it, but I didn’t roast my calves off the engine, despite said engine sounding like something that gets adjectives like “nuclear” or “atomic” attached to it.
“Refined” is not the right adjective. Not sloppy or rough, by any means: construction is solid and high-quality, with smooth paintwork and welds, beautifully well thought-out details, solid plastic and fat, fully-adjustable WP forks and shocks. Well, KTM own WP and, I believe, use them pretty much exclusively. But “refined” it is not. “Aggressive”, yes. “Savage”, potentially.
The 990 SMT is like a trained tiger. Sexy, muscular and obviously dangerous but so cute people might be lulled into forgetting its true nature until it tries to eat Roy Horn - and if you’re not on guard, it can eat you.
God, I loved it. I did not want to get off. It’s not a light bike but when you settle into it you stop feeling it, it’s precise and even with the Akrapovic pipes trying to make my ears bleed I could hear Mt Glorious calling. Or possibly Mt Panorama. Or the Stelvio Pass. It’s a bike for mountains, Gandalf!
Adventure 990 R
An interesting beast, this. Tall and lanky, it looks more like a big-engined Dakar racer than any competing “adventure tourer”. It’s the bike Ewan McGregor’s less famous and more knowledgeable friend wanted to ride around the planet before KTM decided that two rich film-stars with multiple backup teams and the willingness to do combat training as preparation couldn’t do it, and left BMW to rake in the publicity.
This is the dirt-worthy older brother of the 990SMT. How does it compare?
Very well, thank you. The R is slightly taller, so I had a slight stretch getting my heels on the ground (I’m 6’2” in boots, hate me if you like) but it felt like nothing more nor less than a slightly more solid version of the SMT. That’s it. With standard pipes it sounded more humane, but with the same engine the only real difference in get-up-and-run-screaming-at-the-enemy-brandishing-a-claymore is down to the Adventure’s extra weight - a matter of 10 or 15kg.
It has some very nice touches, like a power outlet in the dash (they sell a waterproof case for phones/GPS devices, very nice) and a small glovebox where a normal bike has its tank, inside of which is the fuse box with spare fuses. I like this bike - that’s the sort of neat touch I had only previously met from, you guessed it, BMW. The actual tanks are, plural, mounted one each side and form the large, slab-like flanks that prevent this bike from looking quite as sexy as the SMT. Capacity is about the same 19-odd litres as the SMT, so range is about the same as well at something south of 300km, by all accounts, depending on how much fun you have. Not much compared to the other Adventure and its 33L tank, but you can get larger replacement tanks if you really feel the need.
I obviously didn’t get a chance to try it in loose stuff, and frankly the thought scares me a little despite the poise all these bikes displayed. And speaking of poise: Handling was just as nice as the SMT, possibly even more so at moderately sane speeds thanks to its narrower, therefore quicker-cambering offroad-capable tyres. The front wheel is a proper dirt-bike 21", but the bars are so wide this doesn't slow steering down unless you're really going for it. Speaking of tyres: At no point could I tell I was on something a bit chunky in the tread - the Pirelli Scorpions did a very nice job, and I’ve heard elsewhere they wear well, too.
Is it a better tourer than the SMT? Yes. I would have liked to try the standard seat, but touches like the power outlet and a saner, more useful set of luggage attachment points (the SMT has clips on the exhaust shields designed specifically for its very own soft luggage, the Adventure gets a proper rack system) make it a much better choice.
But as a sports tourer, the SMT just has it hands down. Tiny percentages in weight, seating position and handling add up to a big difference in character, and if you’re serious about pushing grip levels you will need the fatter, stickier tyres of the supermoto.
The SMT is also a better choice if you’re short, but only by 10cm or so on the standard Adventure.
And then we have the:
Take the same explosive engine and put it in just about the smallest naked bike package you can make.
Result: The first, by my recollection, pure road bike built by KTM.
It’s tiny. If it wasn’t so potentially dangerous it’d feel like a toy. After riding a long-wheelbase BMW and, occasionally, a TDM, and then the SMT and Adventure, it just felt too small, too short, too low to the ground. It changed direction like the above-mentioned hare and would make a brilliant, if thirsty, commuter, but it simply fills a niche I just don’t understand.