There are a lot of different bikes you can ride around the world. Fun fact: the bike that holds the record for visiting the most countries is a Harley-Davidson, ridden by Phil and Kay Forwood (193 countries, last we heard). We know of people who are doing thrilling adventure rides on everything from the lowly Honda Ruckus to the silly-fast Yamaha R1.
But there are three models that are arguably the bikes to beat when you’re looking at big-bore, flagship adventure machines: the BMW R1200 GS Adventure, the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R, and the Triumph Tiger 1200 XCA. All these bikes are optimized for off-road riding, and they carry the latest and greatest technology, with updates in the past couple of years.
Here’s how the best from Germany, Austria and England stack up against each other.
The R1200 GS Adventure uses the latest version of BMW’s classic flat twin, now 1170 cc and with liquid cooling, and cranking out 123 hp at 7,750 rpm and 92 lbs.-ft. of torque at 6,500 rpm.
The 1290 Super Adventure R uses KTM’s 1301 cc LC8 V-twin, putting out 160-ish hp at the crank, depending who you ask (this is less than the same engine makes in other KTMs, probably due to its exhaust). Max power for the KTM comes in at 8,750 rpm; max torque is 103 lbs.-ft. at 6,750 rpm.
And the Tiger 1200XCA uses a 1215 cc inline triple. It makes 139 hp at 9,350 rpm and 89 lbs.-ft. at 7,600 rpm.
All three bikes have a six-speed gearbox; the Triumph and the BMW have shaft drives, and the KTM has a chain final drive, theoretically to keep down weight and provide more performance in the dirt.
On numbers alone, the KTM is the winner here, making the most power and the most torque. Also, max power and torque on the KTM come at more rpm than the Beemer, but less than the Triumph. The BMW has the lowest power output, but is also the lowest-revving machine, while the Tiger makes max power much higher in the rev range.
Peak numbers don’t tell the whole story, and for all these bikes, a test ride would be wise to determine which engine best suits you, as there’s quite a bit of difference in design philosophies. A lot of people have bought Triumphs simply because they like the power delivery and sound of that three-cylinder engine, and some people are fans of BMW’s boxer twin. However, KTM’s engine does set the bar here.
The KTM has a claimed 217 kg dry weight, the BMW is 229 kg, and the Triumph is 248 kg. That’s a huge difference, and the Triumph is the loser, despite losing about 10 kg in its latest model update.
At the curb, the BMW is said to weigh 263 kg, and the KTM is 239 kg, so even with a load of fuel, there’s a fair difference between those machines, and the Super Adventure R is the winner again.
The big GS, as usual, features BMW’s funky Telelever forks; they’re non-adjustable, with 210 mm of travel (an electronically-adjustable suspension is available as an option). The 1290 Adventure R doesn’t have the super-cool semi-active suspension of the S model, but does have more travel in its fully-adjustable USD forks (supplied by WP), with 220 mm of travel. The Triumph has the least suspension travel of all, at 190 mm, but also offers electronically-adjustable damping from its 48 mm USD forks (also from WP).
All bikes come with spoked wheels as stock, but the Triumph and the Beemer have 19-inch wheels in front and 17-inch wheels in back, while the KTM has a 21-inch wheel up front and 18-inch in back. That means slightly slower handling on pavement, but the ability to soak up more punishment off-road.
What you’ve got here is a classic case of “different strokes for different folks.” Some users love Telelever front ends, and the non-adjustability suits them just fine. If BMW’s engineers say it’s good enough, then it’s good enough (conversely, there are also people who hate Telelever suspension, due to its oddity).
Other people want more capability while they’re hooning about in the dirt, so they want the KTM’s full-on adjustability, with the added travel and bigger wheels as a bonus. And adventure riders who seldom venture far off-tarmac are more content with their Triumph’s easy-to-manipulate WP forks, with electronic controls. While the KTM might win here on the numbers, suspension suitability is a very subjective matter, and most riders will have their own opinion on what works best for them, no matter what the spec sheet says.
Seat height on the BMW is the tallest, and adjustable from 890 to 910 mm; the KTM saddle is also adjustable, between 860 mm and 890 mm, although you can find some differing numbers if you look around the Internet. The Triumph has the lowest seat, adjustable between 835-855 mm.
So depending on what you’re looking for, the Triumph with its lower seat could be the winner, but if you’re after offroad performance, maybe you want a higher saddle. As well, the comfort of each seat is a matter of user preference, and then you get into choices of factory low saddles, and aftermarket saddles, and windscreen airflow preferences, and handlebar reach, and …
What it boils down to is this: almost all adventure bike riders end up modifying their machines anyway, and if there’s something you don’t like about yours, you’ll probably end up adding a new seat or windshield or something else too.
There’s a lot to list here, as these bikes are loaded with safety electronics and other gimmicks. At this point, all three have ride-by-wire throttle and onboard stability control systems, which in turn allow cornering ABS, hill assist (these first two are optional for BMW), traction control, cruise control, and a selection of pre-set riding modes. All three bikes also have some sort of off-road ABS mode which allows you to lock the rear wheel up in the dirt (optional on the Beemer).
An up-down quickshifter is standard on the Triumph, optional on the BMW and KTM.
All three bikes have a modern TFT display screen for the gauges.
The Triumph comes with six riding modes as standard: Road, Offroad, Off-Road Pro, Sport, Track and Rider-Customizable. The KTM has four modes (Street, Sport, Rain, Offroad) as stock; the BMW has two as standard (Rain, Road) and three as optional (Dynamic, Enduro, and Enduro Pro).
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s worth noting the BMW is available in three colour schemes (red, white/blue and black/grey) while the Triumph is only available in white or blue and the the KTM is only available in a white/orange/black scheme.
If you buy one of these bikes, it’s likely you have plans for long-distance travel and you want to take a lot of stuff with you.
If you’re riding into an area of the world where fuel availability is a concern, you’ll want a big gas tank, and the BMW wins by a large margin here, with a 30-litre tank as stock. The KTM has a 23-litre tank, and the Triumph has a measly 20-litre capacity. That in itself is a good tip that the Tiger is aimed at the street rider.
As for luggage capacity — panniers and top box are an extra-cost option on all these bikes, and along with the OEM choices, there’s also a huge variety of aftermarket options, ranging from pricey Jesse or Touratech luggage to budget-friendly Tusk panniers. While the OEM bags might differ a bit in capacity and price, the aftermarket evens those differences out, so ultimately, there’s no real difference in the luggage. It is worth noting that the BMW has the biggest OEM cases, and also offers the expandable Vario hard luggage line, which is a good option for riders who switch between shorter and longer rides, especially street riders (the plastic boxes aren’t as popular for dirt riders).
The KTM absolutely kills it on pricing here. The other machines aren’t even in the same ballpark. For that reason, I think the orange bike is going to be grabbing a huge market share from the other more established models in the coming months, with its combination of outstanding performance and lower pricing.
While the Tiger XCA looks like it’s pretty high-priced when compared to the R1200 GS, it’s worth noting that heated grips and quickshifter are standard on the Triumph, but optional on the BMW, as well as the electronic suspension. Triumph does have other models with pricing more in line with the KTM as well, with the Tiger 1200 lineup starting at $18,500. With the XCA, you’re basically buying a bike with expensive options installed as stock. However, it is still a costly machine, even when compared to the other pricey bikes here.
The choice between these three bikes is more likely going to come down to preferred riding scenarios than anything else. For street-biased riders, the Triumph’s premium features are hard to beat. For riders planning to truly circle the most remote corners of the globe, BMW probably has the best dealer support around the world of the three machines, and a solid reputation for building strong adventure tourers earned over several decades. And for riders who are more concerned with ripping up off-piste than anything else, the KTM is the best choice. The fact that it’s a relative bargain is just a bonus.