First Ride: KTM 1290 Super Adventure S

2018 KTM 1290 Super Adventure S Launch April 4, 2018 Southern California

LOS ANGELES, CA.—How do you make an adventure bike more exciting? By calling it a Super Adventure, and stuffing in the hot LC8 V-twin motor that you usually reserve for such high-horsepower weapons as the Super Duke lineup.

It’s a bold gambit, but that’s what KTM did when it unveiled the Super Adventure S at Intermot in 2016. It was a warning shot to the other manufacturers: KTM wanted everyone to know it had the baddest adventure bike on the market. Canadians couldn’t buy the machine in 2017, but it’s finally coming to us this season with an MSRP of $19,500. I rode the street-biased adventure bike here in California this week. Here’s what it’s all about.

Two colour combinations, one street-biased motorcycle.
The details

The LC8 engine has been around a while now, with its origins in a KTM skunk works project all the way back in the late ’90s. It’s come a long way since those early 900cc-class versions; currently, depending who you ask, the 1290 Adventure S makes 160 hp at the crank, which is more than 30 hp better than anything else in this class except the Ducati Multistrada Enduro 1200 machines.

That’s a lot of power, close to most of the hottest naked bikes on the market. However, the Super Adventure S also offers a chassis that, in theory, should hold up to Canadian roads far better than, say, KTM’s Super Duke R. With a 19-inch front wheel and 17-inch rear wheel, it’s not as capable in the dirt as the Super Adventure R, but makes up for it with far better handling on asphalt. And to keep all that power under control, KTM included a comprehensive electronic safety package.

Zac, on the bike, figures out the vagaries of the 1290’s operation with a KTM technician.

The battle to offer improved electronic rider assistance replaces the horsepower wars of previous generations. The KTM Super Adventure S has a Stability Control package, including leaning ABS and traction control. A hill-start assist is also available as part of the Travel Pack option. The Travel Pack also includes a quickshifter and a Motor Slip Regulation option; a slipper clutch is standard, but the Motor Slip Regulation smooths things out even more on sloppy downshifts.

The Stability Control package still allows off-road hoonery, as there’s an off-road setting for traction control that allows more wheelspin in the back, and you can switch it all off if you want to (you must switch it off if you want to wheelie).

The 19-inch front and 17-inch rear tires make a big difference to the KTM’s handling.

The S also features a semi-active fork and shock, both supplied by WP Performance (the R version doesn’t have this feature, but does have 20 mm more travel, along with greater ground clearance due to the bigger wheels). While you can adjust the suspension settings via the bike’s 6.5-inch TFT screen (another feature that’s pretty much standard on a proper modern motorcycle), the bike’s electronic brain makes small adjustments to the suspension settings as you ride, matching you to the terrain. Of course, the rear preload has pre-sets for one rider, two riders, one rider with luggage and two riders with luggage. This has been available on adventure bikes for a while, and an earlier version of this system featured on the KTM 1290 Super Duke GT.

Speaking of that TFT dash, it also offers Bluetooth integration for your smartphone, so you can use your dash to control incoming calls, music, and even navigate via the My Ride app. Only turn-by-turn navigation is available — if you want to see a map display, you’ll need to have your phone mounted on the handlebars.

The large TFT screen is very clear, but it doesn’t offer an option for a map, just for directions.

The bike also has LED adaptive cornering lights, but we didn’t ride at night to test them.

Otherwise, there’s a handy little compartment inside the left side of the fairing that’s just big enough to hold most phones. KTM included a USB 3.0 charger inside the compartment, so you can charge your phone even if you’re running a navigation app or listening to music.

The manually-adjusted windshield is simple to operate, and it works well to keep the rider sheltered from the wind.

Heated grips and a heated seat are optional — boo! Cruise control is standard, as is a manually-adjustable windshield. The windshield adjustment is via a crank on the side, a much superior system to the one used on the Super Duke GT I rode 18 months ago. Props to KTM for bringing in the improvement.

Wet weight is around 243 kg, and fuel capacity is 23 litres. Keyless ignition is standard, but should you somehow kill your key fob, a mechanical backup allows you to access a backup system. Seat height is adjustable between 860 and 875 mm.

All in all, the Super S has just about all you could ask for on a modern adventure bike, with a bias towards street riding, but still decent ground clearance if you want mild off-road capability.

You’d never know from how Zac is dressed, but it got pretty hot this week in the California desert.
The Ride

Because the Adventure 1290 S is a street-oriented adventure bike, we did not ride any dirt sections on this launch. What we did do was ride a wide selection of paved roads, ranging from bumpy two-lanes to busy freeway. The two-day ride started with winding country roads to the southeast of LA, where my faster colleagues (read: everyone else) quickly left my slow, cautious butt behind. Our ride guide was Chris Fillmore, the same guy who won the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb last year, so I was outside my league here.

I managed to shake off a few of the winter cobwebs as the day went by, gaining a bit more confidence in my rusty riding skills and a lot more confidence in the bike. No matter what speed, no matter how iffy my corner line, the S was up to the task and carried me along with no drama.

This point was driven home when I tested the different damping settings. Seeing a fairly docile-looking stretch of road ahead, I set the suspension to Comfort mode. It was just my luck that the straight pavement turned out to be filled with small expansion cracks, and the now-softened suspension was wallowing at speed, due to my choice of settings. But did the bike protest? No, the semi-active suspension’s brain figured out what was going on, and smoothed the ride out.

Zac gets his knee waaaay down on the California twisties. Well, this is waaaay down for Zac, anyway.

Speaking of suspension settings, a KTM marketer said that when he rides solo, he sets the preload at one rider plus luggage, to compensate for his North American physique [You mean, he’s fat. – Ed.] I tried that setting at his suggestion, and found it worked very well. Matched with the Street damping profile, this setup proved to be the best-suited for me in all the different pavement surfaces we encountered, from smooth to rough. [You mean, you’re also fat. – Ed.]

At one point during the first day, our route took us on a dogleg around the Salton Sea, down some fairly straight roads that let us open the throttles a bit more. Not only did this let us see just how good the bike’s suspension and chassis worked to keep everything planted firmly, as we blasted down the post-apocalyptic roadway (the scenery was straight from Mad Max), but it also demonstrated just how much fun the quickshifter was when you wanted hard, straight-line drive. Despite the fact it’s rated at less horsepower than the LC8-equipped Super Duke models (most likely due to a different exhaust), the 1290 Adventure S makes up for it with a 17-42 final drive ratio, instead of the 17-38 ratio found on the Dukes. There’s plenty of torque on tap, which also helps if your cornering is point-and-shoot style, instead of the smooth Euro style that keeps maximum speed all through the bend.

Zac maintains his own Euro-style maximum speed through the bend.

A couple of other things I discovered in the straighter sections: the cruise control system is intuitive and easy to use, and the bike’s Ride modes (Sport, Street, Rain and Off Road) are also super-simple to switch through via the new TFT interface controls on the left handlebar. The TFT screens do allow manufacturers to pack more options into their bikes, but I think the simplification over some of the older LCD-based screen interfaces is just as important. The restrictions of that hardware made those bikes frustrating to navigate through the menus at times, and the newer TFT systems are an improvement.

A rip through the famous Box Canyon Road south of Palm Springs, and a subsequent jaunt through Joshua Tree’s national forest area allowed another gearbox workout. Like the other LC8-powered KTMs, the 1290 Adventure S shifts well, unless you’re trying to find neutral from a standstill. Usually, there’s a positive action when shifting between gears, not silky-smooth like a Japanese bike but far from the agricultural feel of a Harley-Davidson. However, that changed when trying to find neutral, especially from first gear. I didn’t get false neutrals, and neutral gear didn’t bounce me back into first — overall, the gearbox was good, but with more than 2,000 km on the odometer, this bike’s transmission should have been easier to deal with at stops. But perhaps, given a few more days on board, I would have figured out any quirks and neutral wouldn’t be an issue.

Out on a straight stretch and headed down toward the desert, Zac is not thinking of riding home just yet.

The second day was more straight-line zipping across the desert valley and then back into the curves of the hills. Once more, I was left impressed with just how planted the bike was, handling crosswinds well at speed. The 19-17 wheel combination proved its worth here, eating up whatever battered pavement we encountered along the way, but also proving much easier to handle in the twisties than a 21-18 combo (and far, far superior to the cruisers I was riding last time I came through here).

Although I was tired at the end of both days, that was mostly due to a winter out of the saddle and hot temperatures. I found the windscreen blocked airflow well for me at its highest setting, with no buffeting, and the seat wasn’t too bad if you moved your weight backward when your butt started to feel cramped. Some riders might want a more cushy aftermarket saddle for cross-country trips, but I’d prefer to spend that money on gas and learn to enjoy the stock seat; its bias is towards sporty riding, and that’s a good thing.

It’s a step up to the pegs and a reach down to the bars, but the ergonomics of the 1290 should be easily adjustable.

A couple of other notes on ergonomics: I had the seat on its lowest setting, and with a 30-inch inseam, I could almost flat-foot on both sides. That wasn’t too bad, but what I didn’t like was the higher mounting position for the footpegs. While standing on the pegs, I found it a long reach down to the handlebars. This would be a simple fix for an owner who wanted to do more offroading, and wouldn’t be an issue for most owners at all. The payoff for the high-mounted pegs is, of course, better ground clearance, which most riders prefer.


At $19,500 MSRP, the KTM will give most bikes in this segment a serious run for the money. BMW’s S1000XR comes in at $17,950; the R1200 GS is $20,300. Ducati’s Multistrada Enduro 1200 is $23,795 and the Triumph Tiger 1200 XR is $18,500. The KTM fits right in the middle, with performance and styling that will catch a lot of attention once these bikes hit showrooms.

For me, it’s got everything I want for high-powered hoonery on crappy Canadian pavement. If you like speed and you live in rural Canada, you definitely want to give this machine a close look this summer.

Zac, you ain’t in New Brunswick now. Don’t forget to come back home…


  1. Zac: if I’m not mistaken you’ve tried the Super Duke R and the GT. Do you have a favorite of these 3 bikes? Thanks!

    • For Canada, the Super Adventure S is the way to go. The long-travel suspension is what you want on our bumpy roads. I loved the GT, though, and if I lived somewhere with better pavement and twistier roads (California? North Carolina? even upstate NY?), the GT would be a life goal.

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