Flagships in Battle: KTM 1290 Super Adventure vs BMW R1200GSA
Two flagships battle for supremacy of the Luxury Adventure Touring category.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Adventure Bike Models||HP||Torque|
|KTM 1290 Super Adventure||160||103.3||549||7.9/7.9||33.9||7.9||$20,499|
|BMW R1200GS Adventure||125||92.0||573||8.3/8.7||35.0||7.9||$22,045*|