KTM 950 Adventures

Never before have so many laughed so hard, so often

Yes, we know KTM's 950 Adventure S looks like Picasso's take on an off-road rally racer--the big-boy dirt bikes designed to get to unpronounceable places ahead of all those other guys with unpronounceable names. Mainly because that's exactly what it is--a barely streetified version of the bikes KTM has been using to shred the egos of its World Rally competition.

But some funny things happened on the way to Latigo Canyon. The same light, compact, wonderfully usable LC8 V-twin that rockets rally heroes like Fabrizio Meoni over the sands of Tunisia also turns out to be nearly magical on the contorted canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains. The giraffish, enduro-soft chassis, once you've successfully mounted and cast off, turns out to be absurdly capable in almost any street riding situation. And the modest overall weight, perfectly positioned handlebar and sit-up riding position act like a triple shot of 100-proof confidence, conspiring to make sliding the Pirelli Scorpion A/T semiknobby tires more of a pleasant diversion than a portent of imminent pain.

Rider after rider hopped on this crazy thing exhibiting various levels of initial trepidation. It's so tall, after all, that even six footers are reduced to using the sidestand as a crutch while climbing and we do mean climbing aboard. But after a couple corners, all fear evaporates, replaced by waves of sheer, goofy pleasure. This thing is not only amazingly fast over twisty asphalt, it is also astoundingly easy to ride, even for people with scant dirt-bike experience.

Where lower, stiffer streetbikes dart and thrust, altering heading and tire loading with each change in throttle or brake, the Adventure S just flies and floats above it all. The beautifully controlled, highly adjustable suspension allows lots of pitch under acceleration and braking, but with conservative steering geometry buffering all that usable travel, this just serves to smooth one's control inputs. You simply sit up there on top of the world like God's own high speed lifeguard and ride. The wide Renthal handlebar makes changing direction quick, sure and easy. And the predictable, progressive brakes, while not quite up to roadracer standards, work fine in most real-world riding situations.

Bottom line? While many of the other bikes here feel faster, with more thrashing, gnashing and howling, hardly any of them actually are faster over a given piece of kinky, unknown road. Riders who would typically run third or fourth in our impromptu pace line suddenly found themselves dicing for the lead--and feeling less stressed, more confident and more secure doing it. This thing makes good riders feel great, and great riders feel like they're cheating.

With stickier, more street oriented tires, and the suspension snubbed up to the stiffer end of its range, you could beat up on race-replica leather boys all day long and have enough mental capacity left over to do your taxes. The torquey yet highly revvable engine, perfect carburetion, great shifting, good (90-ish hp) peak power and plush, forgiving chassis simply let you keep your head and your traction while the higher strung men and machines around you were losing theirs. Flies in the couscous? Well, the Adventure S is simply too tall for novices of any size, and anybody else below about 5-foot-9. Which is why KTM, in its infinite wisdom, also makes the regular 950 Adventure, with lower suspension and a 1.4-inch-lower seat height. We haven't tried this version, but it might be even better on the street, and far more manageable in any dirt situation we can think of short of traversing the Chott al-Arab at 170 kph.

Ironically enough, for us, the Adventure S' extra height might well make it less suitable for actual dirt duty than its shorter brother, simply because the great elevation saps confidence and saveability in technical situations, side-hill maneuvers and low-speed slogging. And that beautiful, orange, metal-flake bodywork tends to instill fear in inverse proportion to the Rockwell hardness of the material below. The extra travel of the S gives you theoretically greater ground clearance and bump absorption off road, but with a 500-pound machine, especially one equipped with street-oriented tires, you really don't want to be vaulting over tree trunks and smashing foot-tall bumps at serious speed. If you were actually racing--and somebody else was paying for the bodywork you might talk yourself into gassing it, and letting the (plastic) chips fall where they might. But in the real world of mortgages and monthly payments, the $500-cheaper standard Adventure is probably the way to go for just about anyone we can imagine.

The Adventure is available with either aluminum or molded plastic pannier boxes, a road book holder and a custom fitted tank bag for the next-stop-Cairo crowd. The sheer rideability of the thing does inspire one to keep on going, but there are a couple problems for long-haul fanatics. First, the hard (and hard-edged) seat, though fine for short rides, becomes a sore spot after about a half hour. And the small, forward-mounted fairing and smoked shield only serve to roil the airflow around your helmet at any speed over 70 mph. You can make serious time on an autobahn or freeway, make no mistake, but you're going to feel like a Dave Despain bobblehead after a while. Just as the BMW GS spawned a legion of fans and a burgeoning aftermarket we predict the faster, lighter and more light hearted KTM will inspire the same. And a wider, softer seat, along with a wider, taller windshield, would make the KTM as formidable a rally-tourer as it is a back-road giggle bike.

KTM aimed this thing at what is, after all, a small niche in the U.S. motorcycle market, and succeded in lighting up almost all our pleasure centers, seemingly without trying. Can the faster, street-targeted KTM 990 Duke, due later in 2004, actually be even better at all-out endorphin production? We can't wait to find out.

Madonna on an ego-driven rant. J. Lo dressing down an assistant for packing the wrong mascara. Winona Ryder begging, "Oh, let's go shopping." What do these divas have in common with MV Agusta's much-anticipated Brutale naked bike? Try this: They're more fun to watch than to live with. (So we're told.) Harsh words for such a stunning motorcycle produced by one of the great marques, indeed, and probably too critical of a bike that is actually quite competent.

Fabulous motor with superb throttle response and plenty of poke. (This is KTM's first effort? Everyone else should quiver in fear.) Long travel suspension eats everything...and we mean everything. Confidence-inspiring in its own odd way. Really.

Too damn tall. Crashing one would be like jumping from your garage roof. Already grown weary of the orange hue and the wedge du fromage aesthetic. Easy to override the tires. Brakes not quite up to available velocity. Too damn tall.

KTM 950
PRICE: MSRP $12,498

•Type: l-c 75-deg. V-twin
•Valve arrangement: dohc, 8v
•Bore x stroke: 100.0mm x 60.0mm
•Displacement: 942cc
•Compression ratio: 12.0:1
•Transmission: 6-speed
•Final drive: #520 chain

•Weight: 495 lb. (wet), 460 lb. (fuel tank empty)
•Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal.
•Rake/trail: 26.6 deg./4.69 in. (119mm)
•Wheelbase: 61.8 in. (1570mm)
•Seat height: 36.0 in. (915mm)

•Front: 48mm inverted cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
•Rear: single shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping

•Horsepower: 88.9 @ 8000 rpm
•Torque: 61.8 ft.-lb. @ 6250 rpm
•Corrected 1/4-mile: 11.67 sec. @ 113.12 mph
•0-60 mph: 3.71 sec.
•0-100 mph: 9.25 sec.
•Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 5.08 sec.
•Fuel mileage (low/high/average): 32/44/40

Who knew? How can a 500-pound, 90 horsepower, er, dirt bike work so well on the road and be so stupid fun to ride? (Enough questions.) Wheelies and superlatives come easily.
They say Austrians are just Germans with a sense of humor. Explains the Adventure perfectly. Sure it looks like a stealth fighter hoisted on two wheels, but it's actually massive fun to ride. Talk about exceeding expectations.