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ADV BikesFlagships in Battle: KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GSA

Flagships in Battle: KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GSA

 Two flagships battle for supremacy of the Luxury Adventure Touring category.

Published on 11.17.2016
KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs. BMW R1200GS Adventure

Orange!

Got your attention didn’t I? And I’d bet my last dollar bill that you’re thinking of a KTM right now.

Orange you glad I didn’t say “Blue?” Or maybe you did wish I said blue… because you’ve been dreaming of that iconic Bavarian overland machine, and you’re torn because you’ve heard the KTM may be even better.

Last month you might have read through my decision making process between the BMW R1200GS and R1200GS Adventure to be used for an upcoming trip to South America. This time around we explore a similar concept, but with two competing bikes and two different brands, both flagship models in their line — the KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GS Adventure.

It’s a battle for dominance between the two most-established brands in the Adventure segment, both looking to sell you their rendition of the ultimate adventure touring bike. Which is better? How about the best? Let’s take a look.

Answering the Big Question

KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GS Adventure Comparo

Taking a first glance at this match up, these two bikes seem like two sides of the same coin. Both are of European design and build, both are the liter-plus flagship models in their lineup, each designed to travel comfortably across vast distances both on- and off-road. But take a closer look and they also differ in many ways, from cubic centimeters and design, to power production and delivery methods.

Resident fast-rider and Editor-in-Chief Rob Dabney and I recently took on the challenge to answer one of the biggest questions around the campfire — which of these two bikes would you buy? Everyone has a favorite machine, and we’ve all heard opinions about these two models, but we wanted to know for ourselves. Hell, we needed to know… KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GS Adventure — Which one is faster? Or better? Easier to ride? Orange, or Blue?

Here’s How They Match Up

The KTM 1290 Super Adventure is closely related to the 1190 Adventure, but gets a more powerful motor stuffed in its frame and additional touring-minded features like lean-sensitive cornering lights (as standard), a cushier seat and a large, adjustable windscreen to name just a few things. In other words, this dirt bike gets a street treatment while the BMW gets dirt add-ons.

BMW takes a little different approach by adding some “adventure” to the standard R1200GS in the form of robust off-road protection, wire-spoke wheels, increased suspension travel, along with a few touring features like a taller windscreen and plusher seating. Both bikes are given larger fuel tanks (each 7.9 gallons) and higher load carrying capacities than the bikes they are based on.

ktm 1290 super adventure vs bmw r1200gs adventure test
It’s a close match up, but these two bikes have many differences from horsepower, to ground clearance, weight, suspension travel and more that set them apart.

Road warriors first, each of these super-sized adventure bikes rule the roost when it comes to going the distance on road, with the added bonus that you could comfortably ride along the side of the highway at the same pace if you chose to do so. While they’re far from traditional enduro bikes, they’ve got some of the same features, along with a ‘few’ extra pounds.

Spec for spec these bikes parallel each other in many ways with multi-mode braking and suspension systems, 19-inch front/17-inch rear wheel sets, ergonomic packages and ride ranges, and both are wrapped in a protective exoskeleton. But once you click past the key features, you’ll find differing accessories and rider aids (e.g. heating elements, lighting packages, gear shift assist, etc.) and more importantly, their final drive systems.

KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GS Adventure match up
The BMW R1200GSA is the larger of the two bikes in weight and size, but that doesn’t mean it can’t dance!

Maintenance costs and performance awards now become deciding factors in your purchasing process, polarizing buyers into two camps. Upgrades, upkeep and historical records become line items in your pros and cons chart. And while much can be said about the worry-free mindset of the BMW’s shaft drive, its record of late has given ammunition to those that argue a chain (like that found on the KTM) can be repaired in the field—if not replaced entirely—even in more remote locations on earth. That’s a decision for you to make on your own… as one’s personal experience tends to trump any (and every) story ever written on the matter.

Time to Ride

We wanted to see how these two top-shelf adventure bikes, would handle their designed intent… going beyond Starbucks, over the parking stone and well into the desert, loaded with cameras and camping gear, laptops to lunchmeat. A 1,400-mile journey over land—and beyond—to see where lines can be drawn in the sand. Ironically, it turns out to be IN the sand… but we’ll get to that.

ktm 1290 super adventure vs bmw r1200gs adventure journey

But first we equaled the playing field, putting each bike on the same Michelin Anakee Wild 50/50 dual sport tires and sidelining the stock and/or accessory hard cases for more trail-friendly soft-sided Giant Loop Siskiyou Panniers and a Tillamook Top Bag.

Then we hit the road, immediately putting the Anakee Wilds on the superslab, where these long-range luxury adventure touring bikes are likely to get used by their owners. Blazing across the desert on the highway, these two rockets stair-stepped a path five hundred miles from Los Angeles to Mormon Lake, Arizona for the Overland Expo in a single day. A ride that would take three days to return the hard way.

Put a pair of big adventure bikes through an enduro bike’s pace and you start to uncover limitations. If not in the machines, occasionally, the men. These giant adventure bikes don’t actually belong out there in the dirt, or do they? We’ll find out, but first let’s see how they perform on the tarmac.

Rubber Meets the Road – Street Test

A street bike first, the BMW GS’s heritage comes from the roads of Europe… and if you don’t know what the letters G and S stand for, start back at step one please. The R1200GS Adventure might look like a battle-ready dirt bike to some, but it’s a finely-crafted road star that just happens to be able to turn a corner into the forest and come back in one piece. In those moments, the ability to easily set the bike’s suspension for carrying such a load, for the type of riding you plan to do while carrying it, is one reason for the premium price.

BMW R1200GS Adventure cornering

Tip-toeing through the rain, or dynamically screaming through the canyons, electronic suspension adjustments and associated ride modes are all there within the reach of a pair of bar-gripped hands. The KTM however, does it with a user interface that takes some getting used to (think PC vs MAC). Not difficult, just different.

On my own high-speed slab ride onboard the KTM 1290 Super Adventure, sea level was 8,000 feet below me and the clouds ripe with moisture, I was ready to call the KTM the winner of this contest the very moment I found the dual-section, three-level heated seats. Ok, I kid, but that’s a big win for the married buyer. Happy wife, happy life right?

These were my first miles on the bike, and what a machine! At 160 HP, the KTM Super Adventure is a thoroughbred (with 103 lb-ft torque), while the GSA feels more like a wandering nomad with “only” 125 ponies and also-lesser torque at 92 lb-ft. The KTM’s V-Twin engine revs like a muscle car, putting the BMW’s Flat-Twin to shame… if you like that sort of thing. Vroom Vroom!

BMW R1200GS Adventure Wheelie
The BMW is no slouch with 125 ponies but it’s no match for the horsepower and acceleration of the KTM.

Wind protection was excellent on both bikes and four hours later, the ergonomics were still feeling good. Although the KTM’s seat wasn’t quite as plush, and I did miss the built-in leg rests (aka cylinder heads) of the GSA… It’s a personal issue for me and my ankle, I like (need) to stretch it out often along the ride.

It’s a close call deciding which bike makes it easier to reach your feet to the ground. Despite the BMW’s taller 35.0-inch seat height (in the low setting), its seat is narrower in front, which splays the legs less, making the distance to the ground roughly the same as the KTM’s 33.9 inch seat height.

On the “slower” roads—those with curves in them—it’s wise to remember when and if you’re on knobby tires. And if you just got back on the pavement, after a trail ride, remember to readjust your suspension and turn your traction control back on. Once back on, the KTM handles the canyon roads like the upright sport tourer that it is… tall to tip in, but solid and fast. Likewise, the BMW is right at home in the hills, with its lower CG and road-smart dynamically-charged suspension, although it doesn’t have quite as much grip as the KTM and begins to wallow a bit in the curves once the going gets fast.

KTM Super Adventure Horsepower
The KTM feels right at home as an upright sport tourer in the twisties.

The Adventure Begins – Dirt Test

On the street, these two deliver in spades. But what happens when you set these machines to “adventure” mode?

Well, beyond having only to push a button to automatically adjust the suspension as mentioned above, you’ve got to ride these big bikes differently than an enduro too. If you don’t know how to do that yet, an off-road riding class is worth considering.

KTM Super Adventure Riding the Rocks

Where we went with these big adventure bikes, those off-road skills will come in handy. Riding wide-open through volcanic cinder, into deep-ass sand, up steep rocky passes and even climbing down into a few caves (on foot), these two machines can and will take you there, provided you have the technique and the strength. Or the same blissful ignorance I possess.

When the trail wins, picking up a fallen KTM takes a lot out of you… (use your legs!). Despite the extra weight, the BMW is easier however, having only fallen “half way” down to the ground thanks to the protruding cylinder heads (+1 for the Beemer). But it’s the sand washes that really pull these two bikes apart. And if you don’t ride in sandy locations, I wanna come ride with you!

riding a cinder cone BMW R1200GS Adventure

Loaded with luggage and on the pegs, I found the BMW the easier of the two to ride in the standing position, yet I felt the KTM had more comfortable footpegs. No surprise there, coming from the dirt-oriented manufacturer. It was also in these particular miles where Rob and I separated. No matter which bike we each rode, our rider positions on the trail didn’t change. He was always ahead of me.

Rob is an ex-Baja 1000 racer and with his race-ready attitude on the KTM Super Adventure, he would charge far and away from my cautious and conservative approach in the desert. Aided by the BMW’s re-tuned crankshaft and low-end torque, slow and steady speeds were my favored approach. At higher speeds however, despite the comparably lower center of gravity (thanks to the meat of the second cylinder casing amongst other things), the front end would begin to feel as uneasy as I did and when the moment came that I questioned my line or my ability, the weight of the bike would take me to the ground.

BMW R1200GS Adventure Off-Road

Interestingly, in the very same terrain, the KTM needed that speed to perform as securely as the BMW felt at slower speeds. A difference I could easily see. When Rob switched to the BMW, he wasn’t as far ahead, a more level playing field so to speak. My confidence was never at 100% in the deep sand on either bike, but these aren’t unloaded 250cc machines with full knobs. I just wasn’t going to feel 100% until perhaps I did it 1,000 times. But the BMW did seem to make this particular riding condition much easier for me, at my pace.

For guys like Rob, the ride just got better as his inherently-higher pace was allowed to shine on the “ready to race” KTM. Rob later pointed out how picking, and keeping a line in the sand on the KTM was so much easier… “The GSA will trot along better at slower speeds, where the 1290 feels like it wants to tip over. Up the pace and the 1290 gets up on top of the sand and rips a clean track through it, while the GSA wants to tuck the front end.”

KTM Super Adventure in the sand
Neither of these bikes are enjoyable to ride in deep sand, but they are capable of making it through if you are. A good set of 50/50 Dual Sport knobbies like the Michelin Anakee Wild tires are essential on these big bikes if you want to play in the sand.

Battling It Out at the Track

On a second, even more-challenging test ride, we took these bikes out to the secret ADV Pulse testing track for some laps in the scorching sun. We let our go-fast test rider do the hard work of making the laps, while I took the photos and the notes.

You might recall from our Suzuki V-Strom 650 test the testing grounds of which I speak. It’s a wiley 2.3-mile off-road course which includes just about everything you can expect to encounter in the desert: big sandy whoops, steep rocky hill climbs, unpredictable ruts and washouts, baby head rocks and deep sand sections. A skilled rider on an adventure bike —at full speed— takes just over five minutes to complete a lap around this ring.

KTM 1290 Super Adventure Offroad Jump

After riding in the aggressive terrain, our tester revealed some of the limitations of both bikes. Neither bike is happy in the sand, but both get the job done with some extra muscle power. Where the route gets rocky, despite having the slightly more suspension travel (.4 inches), the front telelever suspension of the R1200GS Adventure can “load up” and doesn’t absorb all the bumps as well as the upside-down telescopic fork of the KTM.

Both machines will touch down their center stands through big whoops, but the GSA does it more frequently. Riding fast through the rocky rutted out sections, the Super Adventure maintains a straight line and offers more confidence to the rider, while the big GS sometimes goes where it wants to go, and you are just along for the ride.

BMW R1200 GS Adventure whoops

Coming back down the hill to the finish line, neither bike enjoyed the steep descents. The weight of the large, tour-friendly fuel tank lands squarely on the front tire, leaving the rear one with far less traction. The BMW’s extra 24 pounds is noticeable on the course and even less welcomed when pointed down a steep hill.

KTM 1290 Super Adventure Hill Climb

Comparing the fastest times, after several back-to-back laps on each bike, ultimately it was on the KTM Super Adventure that our test rider was fastest. The margin of difference? Just 3 seconds. That’s a small margin, and of course most owners of these bikes will never blaze around an off-road course at race speeds, but pushing the bikes to their limits reveals a lot about their potential and the differences in their handling characteristics. The fact that these big luxury adventure touring bikes are even able to make it through aggressive terrain like this is impressive on its own.

Signing On The Dotted Line

Both of these bikes are versatile enough to take you vast distances across the globe over all types of terrain, but each does it in its own way. In the curves, the BMW’s low center of gravity makes it effortless to initiate turns but the KTM has the more sporty feel at speed. The Super Adventure proved it allows for higher speeds off-road, but we also learned that the BMW still gets the job done.

To put it simply, the BMW is ‘friendlier’ at a less aggressive pace and the KTM is better at going fast. If you’re a rider that spends more miles hunting down the fastest line through a corner, both off-road and on, the KTM 1290 Super Adventure has the killer instincts. If you’re looking for a machine that is surefooted—in nearly any terrain at a more casual pace—then the BMW R1200GS Adventure is the more playful, confidence-inspiring ride. You’ll have to decide which bike is a better match for your riding style and which one you prefer parked in your garage.

Brand loyalty and identity may carry you farther towards a decision than my own ability to ride these machines in the desert. Although, it is worth mentioning that the KTM 1290 Super Adventure costs $1,550 less than a similarly equipped BMW R1200GS Adventure, and the KTM comes with factory hard panniers as standard equipment. For some, that might just be the deciding factor that tips the scales.

Specs Comparison

Adventure Bike Models HP Torque
(lb.-ft.)
Wet Weight
(lbs.)
Suspension Travel
(Fr./Rr.)
Seat Height
(in.)
Fuel Capacity
(Gallons)
Price USD
 KTM 1290 Super Adventure160103.35497.9/7.933.97.9$20,499
 BMW R1200GS Adventure12592.05738.3/8.735.07.9$22,045*
* Includes Optional Premium Package.

 

Photos by Alfonse Palaima

 

Alfonse Palaima ProfileAbout the Author: When not in Los Angeles hiding from society, Alfonse Palaima is far, far away from home, collecting passport stamps and slicing through traffic on two wheels with a smile on his face. Slowly rounding the world one country at at time, riding countless miles, on countless motorcycles, covering 6 of the 7 continents so far. While he is a rider like you and I, he has also been a moto journalist in the field since 2003.

Author: Alfonse Palaima

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21 thoughts on “Flagships in Battle: KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GSA

  1. The question really is…….how much wider can these things get?! Soon they won’t really fall over, it will be more of a tilt. Too big!

    Looks like the years have finally caught up with them……although I have a soft spot in my heart for them both, but not in my garage!

  2. There is no way I would ever use the BMW 1200 as an off-road adventure bike. It has way too many drawbacks, none of which were mentioned here. Two of them — the exposed cylinder heads waiting to get bashed on rocks, ruts or tree stumps/roots, and BMW’s notoriously unreliable shaft drive. I’ve heard WAY too many stories of this thing going bad, whether just seals failing, or the entire thing grenading, to trust it. And I don’t care about the warranty when you’re in BFE and have a breakdown.

    • Two comments, a mention IS in there of the BMW’s drivetrain and the second has to do with crash protection for the cylinder heads, which is why BMW offers bars on the product. Although I’ve not yet seen a head come off. 🙂

    • I personally know of three final drive failures on newer model BMW GS’s. It is the single biggest factor keeping me away from them. I’ve been riding now for 49 years and have never broken a chain.

    • Cylinder heads are well protected under BMW’s own or Touratech protection. If you going to rocks without them – don’t blame GSA. As for final drive – models up to 2012 had some specifics with it related to overload. However if you service them well and on time they are reliable. I have friends going across globe and long distances – no problems with that. I also know types who run offroading, don’t do any servicing before long trips and complain if something happens.

    • The R1200GS Adv will also fishtail at high speeds (above the old ton), but only when weighted with panniers. I suspect riding the 1290 at high speeds with panniers will also have similar results. This is simply due to the extra weight and weight distribution.

      • … don’t forget to air up your tires when you hit the pavement boys and girls. The fishtailing is y’all are finding might simply be the tire carcass struggling to keep you on the road. 🙂

  3. BMW call this bike a GS ( GS= Geland Strasse means off road and road… ) but this is pure joke …..This is a panzer done for a lot things but not off road….Only super star can ride correctly this tank on off road…too much marketing for making people dreaming about travel an adventure ……Also poor service quality …The price of their bike is not anymore aligned with their quality ..BMW Really Sucks ! it is written on both of my KTM .

  4. I guess I’m one of the few that rides these big bikes off-road. I greatly appreciate comparisons like these. They affirm my decision to plunk down a deposit on a new 1090R. Thanks Fonz!!! See you out there.

  5. I just love my GSA 2007. On and off road it is just amazing. BMW dealers here in Cape Town are simply awesome. KTM , although being a fantastic bike, do NOT have any good Dealer support in South Africa and have everyone running for BMW. I think it it is safe to say that RSA is BMW country. It is just sooo well suited here. Even the GS 800 and GS 650 do exeptionally well here

  6. You talk about hitting the ground and having to pick these bikes up a few times. What ended up breaking and what did the bikes look like after you were done? I currently have a touring bike and a dual sport and like the idea of having a bike that can do both, but I am concerned about the damage caused by dropping a bike like theseoff-road.

    • The only tipover I had were in deep sand, which tends to leave little to no marks on motorcycles like these… so I can’t offer you much of an answer there. I have seen BMW’s hit the pavement a few times on other rides and on lightweight crashes, the protection tends to do its job and what does end up broken are the mirrors. The resolve there is to get some Double Take folding mirrors… But Ive also seen no-speed tipovers blow out a cylinder head cover, even WITH crash bars. If Murphy wants to take your bike to the shop, he’s going to get you no matter what you do! 🙂

  7. I strained my brain making the decision between these two bikes. But ended up going KTM. After test driving both bikes the power in the KTM was just too sweet to resist. (I also looked at the Triumph 1250 Tiger Explorer and was very impressed). In the end after comparing pricing the only thing I liked about the BMW better was the shaft drive. Not enough to spend almost an extra $2000 and give up all those ponies. I have yet to hit any deep sand. I’m a little nervous about that but dirt roads and hard pack this bikes ROCKS! And on the road….I slap crotch rockets with this thing. I haven’t taken my Harley out since getting this bike. This brought back all the things I love about riding again. I’m 60 years old and have a trip to Colorado and Moab already planned for this next summer. If I can’t MX anymore this is the next best thing.

  8. Friends, I have not ridden the 1290KTM but have ridden the 990KTM. The 990 did not turn as sharp as I expected in low speed technical turns but a great bike. I ride a 1200GSA. I have ridden the GSA back country from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. Yes, we have been “down” many times- chunkies, sand, high speed overrun on turns, snow, mud and well it just happens. 100% of the time I get the bike up and keep going. I have ridden the GSA to Canada, across the US and rented a GSA in Eastern Europe. I even found some good dirt roads there. The most common bike I saw in Europe was the GS/GSA. That doesn’t mean the GS is perfect or better than the 1290 but it is more common. I have never seen either broken down except I did help a guy fix a flat on his 990 near Toraweep, Arizona.

    When I was younger I had loved my Husky WR430. It could dance lake a ballerina. Unfortunately, at 60 I no longer can dance like I could in my 20’S and 30’s. I no longer ride single track. I frequently carry camping gear (including chair and stove in my panniers) and take back country roads until I find the spot that is “just right.” The 1290 and the GSA will both do the job. Sometimes I have ridden with friends that have orange bikes. We all have a good time. There are two differences that are predominate in my mind: I don’t adjust or lube a chain on my GS and my GS is less able at doing wheelies than the KTM.

    While some comments are that the final shaft drive of the GS has a failure history it has never happened to me or anyone I have ridden with. I do however know, how to tow one bike from another bike regardless of the brand.

    The choice is simple, get what you want and let the adventures begin. We are all seeking the same perfect spot. Of course, that spot is always moving.

    Start your engines!

  9. Thanks for your articles Al ~ Nice job.
    Erm ~ 1972 125 Suzi on/off (my very first wheels), 1974 Kaw 903, 1984 V65…I saw Harley Ultra Classic was fuel inject/decent write up..dad died and I got an ’02 Ultra C as gift from ol’ dad as inheritance cash, to slow down a bit..pfft, tunes and floor boards, shifts like a tractor I actually love, but one day I spied a Beemer GS style thang in a parking lot..what a goofy looking bike, I love it.
    I’ve been thinking long of past recently and realized I’m a foot peg guy. Missed is ability to say fuggit I ain’t waiting this long line exiting this venue. (lol, cops got bigger fish to fry than someone cutting across a field to road)
    The occasional deep sand of gramps old digs I now own is just silly on an 800+ pound bike.
    To at least take the path were folks only normally walk type thing (lol, 903 on a foot bridge, o’re hill ‘n dale-esque avoiding in town traffic were fun days) Some freedoms near as snowmobiling in a way…foot peggin’.
    800 lb Ultra don’t manually go backwards in sand well, and my gal can’t always be there to help us/me out of the old chicken coop. (-:

    ~ Again thanks for your time writing Al. hmm, GS or GSA? Ultra did have a fairing, and I’m used to clumsy bikes. More wind block?

  10. Great read. For me it came down to my location. At 6’2″ and 325 lbs I could ride either bike but it is several hrs for me to get to any fire roads or anything of that nature. So comfort was really important having come from 30 yrs riding sport bikes and dirt bikes. When I have bigger dirt needs I usually bring the whole family and go dirt bike camping. My daughters both riding since the age of 3 are giving me a run for my money these days! good times!!!

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