First Ride: 2019 KTM 790 Adventure, Adventure R

BIG BEAR, California—As soon as rumours of KTM’s 790 Duke began circulating back in 2016, off-road enthusiasts started demanding an adventure bike built around the same parallel-twin engine.

KTM listened, and built the 790 Adventure and 790 Adventure R, officially unveiling the bikes at the 2018 EICMA show in Europe. They’re expensive, with the Adventure starting in Canada at $13,499 before taxes and PDI, and the Adventure R starting at $1,100 more. They’re KTM’s entry into the world of middleweight adventure machines, splitting the difference between the single-cylinder 690 Enduro (also recently upgraded) and V-twin 1090 Adventure.

Last week, KTM invited me to California to ride the new machines.  Skip ahead to that if you like, but first, some technical info …

The details

The KTM 790 Adventures LC8c engine is extremely compact, while retaining the power delivery characteristics of KTMs larger V-twins.

The 790 Adventure and 790 Adventure R are powered by a liquid-cooled 799 cc parallel twin, called the LC8c. It’s the same basic engine that’s in the 790 Duke, but re-tuned for offroad usage (94 hp @ 8,000 rpm, 65 lb-ft of torque @ 6,600 rpm).

KTM says the parallel-twin design made it easier for designers to shorten the bike, as it doesn’t require as much space as the company’s usual V-twin layout (a vertically stacked gearset helps with that, as well). A parallel twin is usually a more cost-effective design to produce, which no doubt didn’t hurt. The engine has a 435º firing order, to make it feel the same as the LC4 V-twin, despite its different configuration.

The engine has a DOHC top end, and a cable-operated clutch (easily serviced, saves weight) with assist and slipper functions. Dual counterbalancer shafts (one in front of the crank, the other running off the exhaust cam) keep vibrations down. KTM also included dual oil pumps, and of course the bike is fuel-injected.

Street mode: Allows maximum power output, traction control (lean-sensitive) set to minimum slip
Rain mode: Softens power delivery for wet pavement, traction control (lean sensitive) intervenes early
Offroad mode: Softens power delivery, traction control allows for much more rear wheel slip (not lean sensitive), anti-wheelie function disabled
Rally mode: Select from one of three engine maps for snappier power output than Off-road mode, also allows user-selected rear wheel slip setting, anti-wheelie disabled, standard on R model, optional on base model

The 790s also have throttle-by-wire, which allowed KTM to build in multiple ride modes; Street, Rain and Offroad are standard on both models, and Rally is standard on the R, optional on the base model.

Ride-by-wire also allowed the designers to include a Motor Slip Regulation (MSR) system, which KTM describes as sort of a reverse traction control. If you downshift too hard and run the risk of losing rear wheel traction, the MSR system gives the bike enough throttle to maintain balance. It stops you from losing traction because of slowing down too fast with the engine, instead of coming on to the power too fast.

There’s a lean angle-sensitive traction control system, of course, along with leaning ABS that can be shifted into offroad mode (rear wheel ABS disabled, front wheel ABS enabled), or shut off altogether.

Moving on, the bike’s most distinctive visual feature is likely its 20-litre fuel tank, which sits very low — so low, that when you first sit on the bike, you get the same feeling as when you’re on a boxer-engine GS, with a big lump in front of your lower legs. The low-mount fuel tank allowed KTM to centralize the bike’s weight much farther down than standard adventure bike fuel tanks allow.

The tank is made of plastic, and it’s protected from damage by plastic guards. KTM development rider Quinn Cody (four-time Baja 1000 winner and competitor in multiple Dakar and high-level hard enduros) says he’s seen the fuel tank take incredible abuse without being compromised, including high-speed crashes on asphalt. All I can say is, a sinking sidestand in the desert left me looking an absolute boob with a tipover on the bike’s side, and there was zero damage to either the tank or the plastic guard when it happened. One of KTM’s staff also crashed a bike on its tank during our offroad ride, with no leaks.

KTM claims a maximum fuel range of 450 kilometres.

That TFT screen automatically brightens or darkens, depending on the brightness of ambient light in your location.

The 790s have a 5-inch TFT screen, with customizable display that automatically brightens or darkens depending on light conditions. All changes to the electronic safety systems are done by an easy-to-use switch system on the left handlebar, with the menus displayed on the TFT screen.

The bike has a tubular steel frame, with steel trellis subframe; KTM assured us the subframe was beefy enough to haul lots of weight. The air filter is hidden toward the back of the bike, easily accessed for quick cleaning.

One of the most unusually-shaped fuel tanks we have have ever seen, but it works, as it keeps most of the weight of the gas down low.

The tapered aluminum handlebars are adjustable for comfort, as are the hand controls. The windscreen on both models is manually-adjustable, and the rear brake pedal on the R model has a two-position tip that also allows for some adjustment, if you want a higher pedal for offroad riding.

The standard 790 Adventure has a two-piece, two-way adjustable seat (830-851 mm), and the R model has a one-piece seat that’s much taller (879 mm), with optional smooth Rally seat.

Both bikes have a manually-adjustable windshield, which cannot be adjusted on the fly. The R’s windshield is significantly shorter, for offroad safety.

Finally, the most significant difference between the bikes is likely the suspension. The 790 Adventure has 43 mm WP Apex cartridge forks, and a WP Apex rear shock. The front suspension is non-adjustable, and the rear is only adjustable for preload (via a ring collar); suspension travel is 200 mm front and rear.

The 790 Adventure R has WP’s highly advanced XPLOR suspension; basically, it’s the same stuff KTM puts on its high-performance enduros, but beefed up for the bigger machine. It’s fully adjustable front and rear, and has 240 mm of travel.

Both bikes’ monoshocks have progressive damping, and no shock linkage. Dry weight is 189 kg for both versions, with wet weight around 204 kg (450 lbs).

KTM says the 790 Adventure is the travel bike that is most capable offroad. Its primary design intention is to handle pavement duty.

The Ride, Part 1: KTM 790 Adventure

Our test was split into two days, with the first being a street-only test of the KTM 790 Adventure. KTM’s press copy says this machine is intended to be the most offroad-worthy travel bike on the market, but with its road-oriented tires, taller windscreen and softer suspension, it’s definitely designed for asphalt first. You could ride it down a gravel road on these tires, but in this configuration, it’s not intended for hardcore dirt riding.

I set the seat to its lowest setting, and was easily able to flatfoot the machine on both sides. I made no other changes to the controls and left the windshield in its highest setting, and found everything more or less fit, especially once we set out on the street.

Most of the day’s riding was on California Route 18, between Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, with side trips down twisty side roads when traffic got too thick to enjoy. I’ve been on this road a few times on a variety of bikes, ranging from large cruisers to big-bore adventure bikes, and have never found a machine that I was as quickly comfortable on as the 790 Adventure. Even the tank was well shaped for a tight squeeze between my legs for braking — not that we were riding at racetrack speeds, but if we had been, the bike would have been a good shape and size for me to clamp comfortably with my legs, leaving my upper body free for controlling throttle,  brakes and steering.

KTM development rider Quinn Cody is a large guy, and his input on the 790 Adventure means the bike fits North American-sized people, not slim Europeans or Japanese test riders.

Of course, the machine isn’t guaranteed to fit everyone out of the box. What should work for everyone, though, is the bike’s engine.

Parallel-twin engines are often stereotyped as having the soulless excitement of a sewing machine, with an exhaust note that sounds like the motor was assembled from the  parts swept off the factory floor at shift’s end. In other words, they sound cheap.

Such is not the case with the LC8c. The 435º firing order does make the exhaust note sound straight from one of KTM’s bigger V-twins, and more importantly, gives the same thrill of power delivery. Put a pair of earplugs in, and you can still detect a parallel-twin-like rattle from the top end while you’re riding, but who cares? You’ll be having enough fun thrashing the engine through the twisties, and the sound of the valvetrain will be the least of your concerns.

While the 94 hp engine is hardly the hottest ticket in the Eurobike world, it’s well suited to real-world environments, and the excellent suspension lets you put all the power straight to the pavement. It’s got loads of torque at low-to-mid rpm, and if you’re a gear high on corner exit, you’ll still be able to brap your way out.

From this side shot, you can see the fuel tank down along the side of the engine. It is a revolutionary, although simple, design, and one that is sure to be copied.

The other feature that everyone should appreciate is the bike’s weight, which is low and centralized thanks to the unusual fuel tank design. The top-heavy feeling that you get on most adventure bikes with a full gas tank is gone, as most of the fuel is now distributed around the sides of the engine, not overhead. You don’t get an abrupt drop-off when you lean the bike over, as there’s no fuel sloshing around when it suddenly changes its position. The result is handling that inspires confidence.

Just as the ergos really worked for me, but might not for others, the suspension suited me well, but might not be everyone’s favourite. Make no mistake, the suspension is superior to what you’d find on most machines. I suspect the lack of adjustment capability is probably fine in the real world, as many riders have no idea what they’re doing when they start playing with those clickers.

However, while it worked fine for me, I wasn’t riding as hard on the street as Costa (he was on the launch as well), and he thought it might have been a compromise that was too hard for offroad, too soft for brisk street riding. All I can say is that I was very happy with the setup at the speeds we rode, with good front-end feedback and a planted rear tire, and no bone-jarring bumps in rougher sections. While I wasn’t at Costa’s speed, I was certainly in swift territory.

“Sorry, no time to fiddle with electronics menus, I’m having too much fun!”

I didn’t tinker much with the electronics during the street ride, as the Street engine mode was definitely optimal, and I was just fine with leaving the ABS and traction control engaged, thank you very much. However, I did some playing with the menus while we were riding, and I did find the systems much easier to tweak than the older KTM electrotrickery I’ve used on previous editions from the 1290 family.

The Quickshifter+ system costs an extra $432.99 on the 790 Adventure, but our test bikes came with it. It wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked at lower rpm, but that’s not really what it’s designed for. It’s fun to use blasting out of corners, but if I was buying this model and intending to ride mostly on the street, I suspect I wouldn’t pay for this upgrade, which is nothing more than a dealer re-programming function. Each bike actually contains all the hardware needed for the Quickshifter+, it just needs to have the software enabled by the dealer.

All in all, I was impressed at the end of the day. The 790 Adventure is easy to ride at a brisk pace, even confidence-inspiring. I was wishing I’d had it the week before in Cape Breton, as it would have been great for the curves and bumps of the Cabot Trail. The only thing we missed out on, in my opinion, was an extended section of highway riding. While such stretches are the low point of the day in any street test, they do offer a chance to observe the bike’s comfort on superslab, and like it or not, many riders will end up riding the four-lane in order to get to the twisties.

The Ride, Part 2: KTM 790 Adventure R

The next day, we went off-road from Big Bear to the old film set of Pioneertown, through miles of sandy desert trails. This time, we were on the 790 Adventure R, which has the better suspension, higher seat, lower windscreen, and comes with Rally riding mode as part of its stock configuration.

Going into the day’s ride, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While I ride offroad regularly, my riding style is best described as “tootling around.” I’m not too big on carrying high speed offroad, especially on a big bike like the 790. It’s all fun and games until everything goes pear-shaped, and you fail to make your jump across Springfield Gorge:

Costa’s view
The 790 Adventure R has completely reset my bar for what an adventure bike should be. This is a true middleweight adventure bike that acts like a hardcore dual sport.
It took awhile for me to shake off the cobwebs when we turned to the dirt on the R, but once my body began doing what I asked of it, so did the bike. I maintained a faster pace on the 790 R than I have on any other adventure bike I’ve ridden, and I did so effortlessly. And the terrain was quite rough, rocky, and at times sandy. With a set of knobbies, there’s not much I wouldn’t attempt to tackle on the 790 R.
Its light weight (25 kg lighter than either the F850GS or Africa Twin when full of gas), low centre of gravity (that funky gas tank does what the factory claims), compliant, long-travel suspension and sharp steering enabled a very fast pace. The bike reacted quickly enough to steering input to give me plenty of time to react to oncoming obstacles. Normally I ride adventure bikes with a wider margin for error, but the 790 R maintained a fast dual-sport pace while requiring no more effort to ride.
While the standard 790 Adventure is almost as good a machine, probably a bit better on the road because it sits a bit lower, I can’t see the point in not spending the extra dough to get the R. It probably gives up very little in terms of street performance — and the standard Adventure kept a pace on pavement that would have shamed sport bike riders — while offering outstanding performance when you hit serious dirt.
– Costa Mouzouris

Furthermore, I knew I’d have to expect a lot of sand riding, something I rarely see on the trails around home, and which usually avoid when I do come across it. It’s the nemesis of even highly experienced riders (Editor ‘Arris once wrote of an evil supervillain named “Dr. Sand”). I figured the day would be a challenge, especially as everyone else on the ride was far more experienced and competent than myself when it came to big bikes offroad — particularly the leader, KTM development rider Quinn Cody, who (as mentioned above) has won the Baja 1000 four times, competed at Dakar and performed all manner of other offroad heroics.

So my policy was to ride at my own pace [he means “slow” – Ed.], and catch up to the people who actually knew what they were doing when they stopped at junctions. Experienced riders will immediately see the problem here: In order to not suck offroad, you basically have to throw caution to the wind, go fast and let the bike take you through it, especially when you’re in sand. Ride slow, and you’ll suffer. And I did.

However, while I pounded through the desert, something became glaringly obvious: out of all the adventure bikes and larger big-bore dual sports I’ve ridden, this is the easiest machine to handle offroad. KTM’s promo video said that with the 790 Adventure R, they wanted the rider to be unhindered by the limitations of their motorcycle, but instead only be held back by their own abilities. This was certainly the case for me. I wasn’t wrestling an unwilling mule of an adventure bike through the trails — this mule was raring to go, and was dragging me along with it.

There are several reasons for this. Perhaps most important, the bike is light compared to anything else in the 800 adventure class, and much lighter than anything 1000 cc and above. The low, centralized weight is even more welcome offroad than it is on the street.

The 790 Adventure R hauls its “tootling” rider through the desert.

Just as important, KTM really nailed the suspension on this machine, with a lot of that due to extensive pre-production testing by Cody. I didn’t make any tweaks at all to the XPLOR forks, and they just plain worked for me. I didn’t see anyone else making adjustments either. Same for the rear shock. Not once did I have anything kicking around or breaking loose due to crap suspension, which is more than I can say for any dual sport I’ve ever owned, even ones with big-bucks fork and shock components.

“Sure,” you say, “but if you were riding as fast as everyone else, it’d be different.” I’m sure I would have noticed a difference, but the fact that everyone else was able to tear around as fast as they did, and the fact that they were always happy and talking about how great the bike was at each stop, means they all agreed: KTM got the R’s suspension right on the money.

Finally, the bike’s electronics are also a key part of the offroad capability.

The motorcycle world makes much ballyhoo these days about eliminating the need to master clutch control. Honda’s approach has been to build the Africa Twin, with the optional dual clutch transmission.

KTM’s solution is much more sporty: First, there’s the optional Quickshifter+, which allows for clutchless upshifting and downshifting. It’s very convenient in hurried offroad situations, and much more useful than on the street, I think.

Of course, KTM still included a clutch, but Offroad mode is able to take much of the clutch work out of riding.

In Offroad mode, power is limited. Traction control has lean angle sensitivity removed, and it’s limited to allow you to spin the tire for easier control of the bike in the dirt. Traction control will still intervene, but it’s not an intrusion that stops you from cracking on the gas when you want to goose it around a corner; it’s more of an aid to help you stop spinning your wheels when you’re climbing a hill.

The 790 Adventure R is surprisingly handy offroad, considering its size and weight.

Still, it won’t save you if you make bad choices, and taking the wrong line got me stuck on one steep, rocky incline. I wasn’t helped by my reluctance to just blast the 450-pound bike up the hill, but instead I wanted to ease it up with careful use of the clutch, like I would on my bare-bones dual sports.

The reality is, with this electronic gadgetry, there’s going to be a learning curve to discover its capabilities, just as there is with the standard controls on a more basic dirt bike. However, the gadgetry will make it easier, and you’re far less likely to power yourself off into the weeds. Lean back, learn to focus on the throttle and not the clutch, and the motorcycle’s electronic brain will chug you through tough terrain with the same tractor factor as your old XR/KLR/DR650.

If Offroad mode is too tame for you, you can enter Rally mode and take more control of your bike’s electronic brain. Rally mode allows you to select from three levels of engine delivery, and also allows you to select one of nine levels of traction control interference, on-the-fly . We started the day in Rally mode, and this is what I used when I finally had to face my dreaded nemesis: sand.

None of what we did would qualify as truly deep desert sand, but there was one stretch just before lunch that had just enough sand to be truly unpleasant to someone who wasn’t familiar with riding in it. At first, I was wobbling around this section with the bars flailing wildly (I have some decent bruises on my body that I presume I picked up from this episode, with the handlebars banging into me). Although the bike is light for an adventure machine, it’s still unpleasant to be atop more than 200 kg of metal that seems to want to throw you off.

And here is KTM development rider Quinn Cody showing us what the bike is really capable of.

However, by the time I returned to this section after lunch, I remembered that not only was the solution to simply “when in doubt, throttle out,” but I also had the bike’s electronic brain on my side. Sure, the wheels’ gyroscopic forces wanted to keep me rolling forward, but the bike’s electronics system was also programmed to keep things from getting seriously messy, as long as I did my bit. From then on, sand wasn’t so scary — frankly, I’d be much more intimidated taking it on with my little WR250R now, than I would with the big bike.

And that, to me, is the ultimate lesson here: Not only will the KTM 790 Adventure R take you through the twisties to get to the good offroad riding, it really does have the stuff to help you through the tough parts, even if you’re not quite up to speed. As long as you stay calm, the bike will get you through, and by the end of the day, the confidence you get from the bike’s safety systems should actually help you become a better rider.

Leaving the trails for the day.

Summary

So, what’s the verdict?

There are definitely bikes that work better on the street, and bikes that work better in the dirt. However, as far as I can tell, there is no other motorcycle that offers as much fun in both worlds as the KTM 790 Adventure R. As Ferris Bueller says, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

Alas, the price tag is going to scare off many buyers. For 2019, Canadian pricing for the 790 Adventure R is $14,599 before PDI, etc. That is a lot of money.

You can save $1,100 bucks by buying the standard 790 Adventure, with its more street-oriented package and Avon TrailRider tires, and many buyers would be fine with this bike, especially if they don’t plan to go much off-road. You don’t need Rally mode on the street, or the fancy-pants suspension, or the Metzeler Karoo 3 tires (although they do stick well on tarmac). The lower seat height would definitely be preferable for many riders (I’m six feet tall and found the R model’s seat almost high enough to be a problem).

I think the added capability of the upgraded suspension makes the R the bike to buy, although the seat height might turn some buyers off.

But since most riders are going to be financing this machine, I suspect they’d find the R model to be a better buy over the long haul, spreading the extra outlay over the loan’s term. As long as they can handle the seat height and don’t mind the shorter windscreen and knobbier tires, I think this would be the bike to get. When it comes time to sell, I’m sure the R model will be worth $1k more than the standard 790 Adventure.

And to put it all in perspective, while 13-14 grand is a lot of money, look what else you get in that price range: the BMW F850 GS is slightly more expensive, it’s heavier, and it’s less aggressive off-road. Same goes for the Triumph Tiger 800 series.

For those reasons, I think KTM will be successful with the 790 Adventure. Its closest competition may end up being its own 690 Enduro or Husqvarna’s 701 Enduro, but that’s a story for another review.

Zac ponders ideas to come up with a quick $14.5k, plus freight, taxes and PDI.

See the specs for the 2019 KTM 790 Adventure in the CMG Buyers Guide here. The KTM 790 Adventure R is here.

2 thoughts on “First Ride: 2019 KTM 790 Adventure, Adventure R”

  1. As always, an excellent in-depth review.

    I find it interesting to watch the evolution of KTM’s adventure line up, having owned a 950 back in 07. I’m surprised that they down graded the suspension on one of them. The adjustability and overall quality of the suspension on KTM’s has been a strong selling feature over the years.

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