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ADV BikesBest Used Adventure Bikes Guide: KTM 950 / 990 Adventure

Best Used Adventure Bikes Guide: KTM 950 / 990 Adventure

KTM’s answer to BMW's GS rewrote the rules on what big ADV Bikes could do.

Published on 02.19.2015

You could say that KTM’s big adventure bike got off to a good start. Though it wasn’t mass produced until 2003, as a prototype called the KTM 950 Rally, legendary off-road racer Fabrizio Meoni won the Rallye des Pharaons in Egypt in 2001 and the prestigious Dakar Rally in 2002. Fabrizio returned to Dakar on the KTM 950 Rally for a podium in 2003 and a 6th place finish in 2004. In 2005, safety concerns over excessive speeds and the need to increase manufacturer competition drove organizers to change the rules, effectively banning big V-twins.

Sights Set on BMW

In the late 1990s, KTM was emerging from bankruptcy and set its sights on the large adventure motorcycle market created and dominated by BMW’s GS line. KTM capitalized on its dirt heritage, making its new creation light by big adventure bike standards (dry weight of 436 pounds, compared to 505 pounds for a 2003 BMW 1150 Adventure), powerful (102 horsepower versus 85 for the BMW), and capable of eating up rocks, ruts or bad pavement with 9 inches of suspension travel at each end, or 10.4 inches if you opted for the even more dirt-oriented “S” model.

2003 KTM 950 Adventure Rallye

The original race bike that started it all, the KTM 950 Rally, had a lot in common with the production model.


With enclosed bodywork and twin gas tanks, the KTM 950 Adventure had the sleek, angular look of a rally-racing bike. Essentially, that’s what it was: the street version was fundamentally the same bike as the rally, with equipment added for lights, emissions, noise, etc.

As it turns out, much of what works on a rally bike also works on an adventure bike. The fairing provided good weather and wind protection, a 21-inch front wheel allowed riders to roll over obstacles both on and off road, and the fully adjustable suspension meant you could soften things up for the street or stiffen them up for the dirt.

It was also a great street bike. The tall, narrow layout of the bike meant you could achieve sport-bike lean angles in the twisties, and the 75-degree V-twin had enough grunt for low 11-second quarter miles and 135 mph on the top end. Physically, the bike was big enough to carry two people and luggage, making it a suitable touring mount as well.

KTM 950 Adventure S Street
A powerful V-twin engine and sporty handling make the KTM 950 Adventure a blast to ride on twisty asphalt.

Chinks in the Armor

On the minus side of the equation, the 950/990 always took criticism for being too tall. With seat heights from 34.5 to 36 inches for the “S” model, the vertically challenged did have problems flat footing the bike. Gas mileage was never great. The carbureted KTM 950 Adventure rarely saw 40 mpg, and somewhat surprisingly, the fuel-injected 990 Adventure wasn’t much better with real-world mileage reports in the mid 30s. Though the bike carried 5.8 gallons of fuel, mileage limited range to just under 200 miles.

Build quality on the earlier bikes was spotty. There were many little items that required dealer attention such as cylinder head nuts coming loose, chain guides coming off, clutch slave cylinders failing, gas tank decals bubbling, etc. At times it seemed like KTM was still working out the prototype bugs with the production bikes. And the bike’s maintenance requirements were a bit more involved than your average bike. Valve clearances should be checked every 9,300 miles and it’s time-consuming job. Even changing the oil requires stripping off significant bodywork.

For Fast-Paced Adventures

During its 10-year run, the 950 grew to a 990 (998 CCs, actually), got ABS brakes and fuel injection, and came in some pretty cool color schemes. But its race-bike character never really changed. It was always a big adventure bike capable of taking riders just about anywhere at a fast pace. It’s an ideal Adventure Bike for those that ride a fair amount of dirt but still want a comfortable ride on the highway, and aren’t intimidated by a tall seat height.

2004 KTM 950 Adventure S

The original KTM 950 Adventure was produced until 2006.

2013 ktm 990 adventure baja edition

The 2013 KTM 990 Adventure Baja Edition was the end of the line for the 950/990 series.

Years produced: 950 Adventure: 2003 to 2006; 990 Adventure: 2007 to 2013

Price Range: $5,675 to $12,190

Major Model Changes:

  • 2005: Lower suspension and seat height for both Adventure and Adventure S models.
  • 2007: Increased displacement to 998 CCs (990), fuel injection, and antilock brakes.
  • 2009: Increased horsepower, “R” model with long-travel suspension and no ABS replaces “S” model.
  • 2011: “Dakar” model added.
  • 2013: “Baja” edition added.
Issues To Watch For:

  • Water pump shaft seal failures allowing coolant to contaminate engine oil. Though this was primarily on early models, KTM recommended replacing water pump shaft seals as part of the scheduled maintenance on all years. Look for milky or discolored oil.
  • Leaking head gaskets on 2003 and 2004 models. Look for oil stains around the cylinder base. This was addressed with updated head nuts. Look for “shouldered” nuts on the cylinder head.
  • Bubbling gas tank decals on 950s.
  • Clutch slave cylinder failures on all models.
  • Improperly torqued clutch pressure plate bolts from the factory on 2006 and 2007 models. Can destroy the clutch cover. Make sure the bolts have been checked.
  • Fuel pump failures on 2003 to 2006 carbureted models.
  • Twitchy, uneven throttle response and stalling on 2007 to 2009 fuel-injected models.

Useful resources:

KTM’s big adventure V-twins are beloved by many, which means there is a lot of information out there. The most comprehensive source is probably the KTM 950/990 Hall of Wisdom. There you’ll find everything from fixing technical problems to common farkles. Settle in, it’s a long read. Another great resource is Orange Crush thread on Adventure Rider, which was recently split to keep newer KTMs adventure bikes from diluting the 950/990 info.

Author: Bob Whitby

Bob has been riding motorcycles since age 19 and working as a journalist since he was 24, which was a long time ago, let’s put it that way. He quit for the better part of a decade to raise a family, then rediscovered adventure, dual sport and enduro riding in the early 2000s. He lives in Arkansas, America’s best-kept secret when it comes to riding destinations, and travels far and wide in search of dirt roads and trails.

Author: Bob Whitby

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Making the Suzuki V-Strom 650 Off-Road Ready? - ADV Pulse
August 25, 2016 10:05 am

[…] over the big KTM, we never expected it to match or even come close to a motorcycle derived from a podium winning Dakar Rally Bike. The purpose for the comparison was simply to measure the off-road performance gap, so that we […]

February 23, 2017 11:47 am

Still the best true hardcore adventure bike out there. Everyone is scrambling to re create this bike today-only with less power and race pedigree. MHO!

November 18, 2018 8:23 am

I have the 13 baja and its a maintenance f-ing hell. Bolts are constantly coming off. Very buzzy vibrating machine. Always putting money into it and the mechanic told me to sell it. After laughing in his face i told him the good out weigh the bad .I’ll never ever get rid of it pal..ktm for life!!


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