Oftentimes, a comparison test will include phrases like, “good considering the price,” or, “not bad for the category.” And we’re not making excuses. In most cases, bikes these days are built to a spec commensurate with the company’s expectations, the experience of the customer, or some other marketing malarkey. Not in this test.
It’s difficult to come up with legitimate excuses for flaws in machines with price tags in the neighborhood of $20,000. And to the credit of BMW and KTM, both the R1200GS Adventure and 1290 Super Adventure, respectively, aim and claim to be the best. No corners have been cut in the design or build process with these bikes, and a quick look at the spec sheet illustrates just that. Burly Brembo brakes, adjustable aerodynamics, heated grips (and seats, for the KTM), hardy crashbars, ride modes to suit any mood, multi-setting ABS, and the finest suspension either company offers. Any devils, then, are deeply buried under the expanse of details.
Captain Cook returned from the far-off Canary Islands positively beaming after riding KTM’s new 1290 Super Adventure at the press launch. What apparently started life after shoehorning KTM’s 1290 Super Duke R engine into the successful 1190 Adventure platform grew into a revelation, according to the boss. It starts with the basic, physical upgrades of carrying 7.9 gallons of fuel, heated grips and seats, and standard hard luggage, then backs it up with cutting-edge tech. An Inertial Measurement Unit measures all axes of bike movement and communicates the information to active electronic suspension and ABS. Sensing lean angle, the 1290 also incorporates a nifty set of three LEDs mounted on each flank that illuminate at 10, 20, and 30 degrees of bank, respectively, to illuminate the road when cornering.
In the vein of touring accouterments Mr. Editor Cook also explained an unexpected thread in the story of the Super A, describing how KTM intended this new adaptation of the 1290 engine to establish on-road dominance. Unexpected, because when targeting BMW’s R1200GS Adventure—as every ADV-hucking company does—we hardly predicted KTM’s significant off-road pedigree to be marginalized. It might sound surprising, but considering that the big-bore ADV customer base spends most of its time on the smooth and painted, it makes sense. To KTM’s thinking, this tactic is supported by the existence of the rugged 1190 Adventure R, the best full-size ADV in the market for off roading (if there is such a thing).
Still, shooting for, “better than an R1200GS,” is a lofty goal for any bike. And this is the up-spec Adventure we’re talking about, cream of the wasserboxer crop. It’s more than simply a larger gas tank (also 7.9 gallons) and standard access to BMW’s Enduro Pro off-road riding mode. The steering-head angle is steeper, meaning less trail (minus 0.3 inch), and the suspension has 0.8 inch more stroke, equating to just a hair more wheelbase (plus 0.1 inch). In typical BMW fashion the GS-A isn’t just draped in fancy graphics; it has been re-thought and re-engineered to take on the task at hand, in this case, defeating a threat to the throne in the form of the 1290 Super Adventure. Only many miles in the saddle would sort it out, so we packed up the hard luggage and pointed 637 pounds of fully fueled “adventure” toward the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Hitting the highway to escape the 10,000-square-mile parking lot that is Los Angeles is more treat than chore on these bikes, though differences between the two came into view sooner than we thought. As soon as we hit sixth gear, specifically. The KTM’s transmission is spaced perfectly, positively loping along within 15 mph of any speed limit, whereas the BMW has tight spacing of fourth, fifth, and sixth gears and starts to feel relatively buzzy at freeway speeds. It’s not discomforting, but we kept dreaming of the GS with a supermodel overdrive: tall and smooth.
Part of the 1290’s allure, in any environment, is the stupendous engine. KTM’s 1,301cc V-twin melted motorcycling’s collective face when it debuted in the Super Duke R naked last year, and it is no less brilliant in Super Adventure form. Power has been “retuned” to deliver 135.2 hp and 89.6 pound-feet of torque, down from 150 hp in Super Duke form but up by 13 hp from the last 1190 Adventure we tested. BMW’s water-cooled boxer puts out a totally credible 112.7 hp and completely deserves the accolades it has received in being a step forward from the previous boxers, but it is no match for Austria’s 75-degree vee. From outright power to clutch engagement, KTM’s powerplant is the new gold standard in the category.
Time on the interstate meant fiddling with windshields, and without much surprise we found the aerodynamics to be well calculated and comprehensive on both machines. Our upper arms are left to buffet slightly in the wind, which, first of all, isn’t bothersome and, second, knowing BMW and KTM, might just be intentional to lend a more “adventurous” feel to high-speed travel. (If you wanted to be fully ensconced you’d buy a Gold Wing or an R1200RT, right?) Both bikes offer adjustable windshields, and Bavaria wins the design war on ease of adjustment. A simple knob facing the cockpit located to the right of the GS-A’s dash spins to raise and lower the shield—dynamically, mind you, so as it raises it simultaneously steepens the shield angle and moves toward the rider. KTM’s system requires flipping a locking latch up then spinning one of two knobs to adjust height by sliding along a track; flipping mounts raises or lowers the starting point by 30mm. Both adjustment systems are good; BMW’s is better. And the GS’s aerodynamics are one step up on the Super A’s: superior coverage with less tiresome turbulence.
A shortcut between freeways saw the pavement degrade to a potholed mess, crossing and re-crossing railroad tracks. To the switches! Both systems allow electronic suspension modes to be altered on the fly, the BMW rider tapping a suspension button mounted on the left bar cluster to select Soft, while the KTM pilot scrolled quickly through a menu and selected Comfort. Three very intuitive damping settings on the BMW (Soft, Normal, and Hard) compare to four slightly more subjective offerings from KTM (Off-Road, Comfort, Street, and Sport).
Plodding along over uncertain, bumpy, dirty pavement is where the R1200GS-A really shines, with BMW’s Paralever swingarm and Telelever front-end arrangement worth its weight in titanium. The ride is unbelievably plush, yet somehow it’s connected, without any of that bizarre, floaty feeling of a late ’80s Oldsmobile that looks ready to shed its wheels over the next set of washboard. KTM’s WP suspension doesn’t seem as in sync. The fork transfers more sharp bumps to the handlebar while the shock gently soaks up most everything, as though it’s learning from what the front wheel has hit. The 1290’s suspenders are very good but can’t match the GS-A’s supple strides.
Finally, babbling brooks and evergreens marked the escape from California’s arid lower altitudes to the mountain roads we were stalking. A quick moment to put the BMW damping in Hard, and the KTM in Sport, and we tackled nearly 65 miles of well-kept asphalt snaking through the fringe of the Sequoia National Forest, jumping from one side of the tires to the other. And as quickly as the terrain twisted beneath us, so too did the tables turn in the battle for ADV supremacy. Bounding from corner to corner, braking and accelerating while leaned over, the KTM snapped into focus. Suddenly the 1290 Super Adventure felt at home, and for the first time the GS-A dropped into the KTM’s wake.
It’s about feel. BMW’s unique suspension is undeniably terrific in many ways, but when it comes to entering a corner, on the brakes, and going for that last 5 to 10 percent of lean angle, it just doesn’t transmit as much information to the grips. In the same situation the 1290 Super Adventure feels excellent, inspiring confidence with every curve. So much so that the KTM’s wide panniers seemed destined to drag in tight corners. “Don’t do that,” came the stern voice of Cook over the headset. “My laptop is in that side case.” Yes, sir.
Just like criticizing the KTM’s suspension, picking apart BMW’s chassis isn’t easy to do. The R1200GS-A is a superbly balanced motorcycle, but it does lack that ultra-sporty feel when leaned over. It’s also worth noting that it has stunning brakes, better than the KTM despite front rotors that are 15mm smaller. Incidentally, this tight-’n’-twisty stuff was the GS-A’s last chance to take back what had been a lopsided fight in the engine department thus far. No dice. Other than a slightly tinny and muted exhaust note, KTM’s engine cannot be complimented enough. The only flag for BMW’s engine to fly is that it sounds better, with a lovely and purposeful snarl when it’s on the boil.
After a greasy tuna melt and a unanimous agreement that the KTM’s Continental TrailAttack2 tires (standard fitment) are much better than the BMW’s Michelin Anakee III rubber (one of three possible OE tires), we headed west across California’s Central Valley to seek out coastal curves. Bombing across arrow-straight, two-lane roads toward the Pacific, we couldn’t agree which bike we prefer. The BMW’s seat is clearly softer than the KTM, but both are comfortable, adjustable, and heated (GS seat-heat is an optional upgrade). Aesthetically each bike has pros and cons, most of which are subjective.
Then we took to arguing over minutiae. The KTM’s centerstand is easier to operate, but then again the BMW’s kickstand has a nice, big footprint that keeps it from sinking in soft ground. The KTM’s menu system is more easily tailored to suit personal preference, but the BMW cruise control is so much easier to use on the left switch cluster, where it belongs. We woke up the next morning caught between disgust with ourselves for being so petty while riding two excellent motorcycles and determining a winner for this story. We needed to come to a decision, and we only had a day’s ride back to figure it out.
For the most part everything we had gleaned so far was reinforced on the final day. Winding, ocean-view roads tended to favor the KTM, while more open curves suited the BMW’s luxurious ride. Then we took a detour. A road that would turn about 60 miles into 45 miles, but it was questionable what the surface would look like. Spurred by peer pressure (“I’m up for it if you are!”) and the adventuresome nature of our machines, we peeled off and hoped for the best. Both bikes skipped effortlessly over miles of groomed gravel, but in the few sections of the traverse where we stood on the pegs to navigate the crumbling and washed-out road we realized the answer had been in front of us from the beginning.
KTM took aim at BMW to beat the R1200GS Adventure as an adventure-touring option, emphasis on the touring, and has done a bang-up job. The 1290 Super Adventure can stand toe to toe with the GS-A and in many cases beat it in a straight fight. If Ducati’s Multistrada is five steps toward the sportbike spectrum from BMW’s GS, consider KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure two steps in that direction. It’s a slightly different motorcycle but a worthy competitor (perhaps the most worthy) for the GS-A and in some ways objectively better.
On pavement, that is. When the well-maintained road ended, however, the GS-A reminded us why it has become legendary as the Swiss-army knife of motorcycles. The BMW has brilliant off-road electronics, exceptional linked brakes, an absurdly tight turning radius, and a level of balance and poise at low speed completely unknown to any other 600-pound motorcycle. It’s also incredibly polished. There are very few, if any, annoying quirks about this BMW, no doubt the result of decades of finesse.
There is a price to be paid for all of that lineage and pride, however. With the Touring and Technology packages applied you get dynamic suspension, the LED headlight, all four ride modes, cruise control, tire-pressure monitoring, mounts for saddlebags and the sold-separately GPS, and other do-dads. You also get an MSRP of $21,550. Add $1,094 for the aluminum saddlebags, for a total of $22,644. The KTM costs $20,499, with everything included. That’s hard bags, electronic suspension, heated grips and seat. Everything.
Yes, it’s more expensive, but the BMW is also a more complete package, as a motorcycle. That’s not to say it’s better. It is to say that in focusing on where we feel these machines are most commonly used, we nearly lost sight of what the category means. Buy the KTM for the engine, or the sporting prowess, or the inherent value in the sticker price. But to us, adventure is all-inclusive, and if you want your motorcycle to embody the true meaning of motorcycle adventure, the versatility and refinement of BMW’s R1200GS Adventure set it apart.
Off the Record
MARC COOK: Editor in Chief
WEIGHT: 190 lb.
INSEAM: 32 in.
I wish you could have witnessed the ongoing, emotionally charged “discussions” surrounding this test. Zack, dear Zack, so in love with his GS wending that he almost pulled a muscle bobbing and weaving to make his point about the BMW’s superiority. Dirt, he says, it’s about the off-road capability. No matter how good the Super Adventure might be, he asserted, the GS was a little bit better where the road ends.
I will give him this: The BMW has no right to do what it does in the hands of a dirt-experienced rider. For me, though, this difference isn’t big enough—and I’m not likely to take a $20K-plus uber tourer off road with enough regularity—to offset the KTM’s power advantage and sportier demeanor. Zack thinks KTM slightly missed the mark. I think my Mattighofen friends nailed it.
ZACK COURTS: Associate Editor
WEIGHT: 185 lb.
INSEAM: 34 in.
The only bike I own is a KTM, and I love the direction of the company lately; from Duke 390 to the Super Adventure, Austria is creating outstanding motorcycles.
However, I adore the R1200GS Adventure. The ADV segment to me has a specific set of parameters, one of which is the ability to go off-road gracefully. It might sound silly, but I cannot get enough of tackling Class 4 roads and beat-up trails on the GS-A. It’s not a dirt bike, I know, but having the capacity to jump off a road and tear through a forest or across a desert (and do it well) on a whim is crucial for me.
Some are quick to point out that KTM has the 1190 R for tackling dirt, and I agree that’s a terrific bike. But the GS-A is almost as good as the 1290 Super A on the street, and almost as good as the 1190 R off road. It’s expensive, but still cheaper than two KTMs.
Staffers fought in Goldilocks fashion over the BMW seat being too soft and the KTM seat being too hard, but the truth is both bikes are terrifically accommodating. Shorter riders might feel a bit stretched out and will also have tall seat heights to deal with. What the chart doesn’t show is how much wider (3 inches) the GS-A’s handlebar is than the 1290’s.
|TECH SPEC||KTM 1290 SUPER ADVENTURE||BMW R1200GS ADVENTURE|
|PRICE||$20,499||$21,995 ($22,644 as tested)|
|ENGINE||1301cc, liquid-cooled 75º V-twin||1170cc, liquid-cooled opposed-twin|
|VALVE TRAIN||DOHC, 8v||DOHC, 8v|
|BORE x STROKE||108.0 x 71.0mm||101.0 x 73.0mm|
|FUEL SYSTEM||EFI, ride by wire||EFI, ride by wire|
|CLUTCH||Wet, multi-plate slipper||Wet, multi-plate slipper|
|FRAME||Tubular-steel trellis||Tubular-steel trellis|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||WP 48mm fork adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 7.9-in. travel||BMW Telelever with dynamic compression and rebound|
|REAR SUSPENSION||WP shock adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 7.9-in. travel||BMW Paralever adjustable for spring preload with dynamic compression and rebound damping; 8.7-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS||Brembo four-piston calipers, 305mm discs with ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Brembo two-piston caliper, 267mm disc with ABS||Brembo two-piston caliper, 276mm disc with ABS|
|FRONT TIRE||120/70-R19 Continental Trail Attack 2||120/70-R19 Michelin Anakee III|
|REAR TIRE||170/60-R17 Continental Trail Attack 2||170/60-R17 Michelin Anakee III|
|RAKE/TRAIL||26.0º/4.7 in.||24.5°/3.6 in.|
|SEAT HEIGHT||33.9/34.5 in.||35.0/35.8 in.|
|WHEELBASE||61.4 in.||59.4 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT (tank full/empty)||593/546 lb.||637/590 lb.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||7.9 gal.||7.9 gal.|
|FUEL MILEAGE (HIGH/LOW/AVG.)||42/38/40 mpg||44/38/41 mpg|
|RANGE||316 mi. (including reserve)||324 mi. (including reserve)|
|¼-MILE (CORRECTED)||11.24 sec. @ 122.1 mph||11.74 sec. @ 115.92 mph|
|TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON 60–80 MPH||3.2 sec.||3.6 sec.|
|WARRANTY||24 mo., 24,000 mi.||36 mo., 36,000 mi.|
|MORE INFO AT||[ktm.com]||[bmwmotorcycles.com]|