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ADV BikesFriendly Fire: KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

Friendly Fire: KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

 KTM’s latest twin-cylinder ADV bike goes head-to-head with legendary 990R.

Published on 12.30.2019
KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R comparison

On the surface, this motorcycle comparison may seem a bit unusual. Yet these two motorcycles having completely different displacements,engine configurations, and separated by almost a decade are worthy of a head-to-head shootout by virtue of their sheer performance: the 2019 KTM 790 Adventure R and 2012 KTM 990 Adventure R.

KTM’s all-new 790 Adventure R has garnered significant hype both for its unique design aspects and aesthetics, and for its off-road prowess by those who have had an opportunity to throw a leg over one in the dirt. In some ways, this is perhaps no surprise, given KTM’s heavy emphasis on off-road machines. What perhaps comes as a surprise, is the relatively widespread references comparing KTM’s latest twin-cylinder adventure bike not to the most recent preceding model, the 1090 Adventure R, but rather a model line that was first launched 16 years ago!

KTM 990 Rally
The original Dakar Rally winning race bike that started it all, the KTM 950 Rally, had a lot in common with the production model launched in 2003.

When KTM’s V-Twin LC8 platform was first released to the world in 2003 in the form of the 950 Adventure S, it was a game-changer. Developed closely with legendary rally champion Fabrizio Meoni, the bike wasn’t deemed ready for production until he had already won both the Pharaons Rally (2001) and the Dakar Rally (2002) aboard prototypes. What the market then received in 2003 was essentially a legalized rally bike capable of never before seen speeds off-road for this class of motorcycle, even in its tamed production form.

KTM 990 Adventure R

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With a chassis virtually unchanged over the next 10 years, the 950 Adventure S increased displacement to become the 990 Adventure R in 2006, and would continue on with only minor updates until 2012. Model year 2013 saw a last gasp with the “Baja Special Edition” but that featured a lower, less off-road oriented suspension than the ‘R’ version.

In 2014, KTM released their all-new 1190 Adventure R, and then the 1090 Adventure R in 2017. Both were versatile adventure bikes and the off-road kings of their class at the time, but neither could quite match the earlier 990 Adventure R in the dirt. For that reason many hard-core off-road riders continued to hold their 950s and 990s in high esteem, waiting for the day KTM would build a bike that was as good or better off-road. And that’s exactly what KTM hoped to achieve while developing the 790 Adventure R. 

KTM 790 Adventure R

The Austrians started with a clean slate engineering the 790 platform, in an effort to create their most off-road capable, twin-cylinder adventure bike yet. Based on early reviews, the 790R has proven to be a step ahead of all ‘current’ competition in the dirt, but is it a match for the legendary 990R? We got our hands on a low-mileage 2012 KTM 990 Adventure R in stock form to see how these two bikes compare not only off-road, but as all-around adventure bikes. Read on!

At First Glance

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R
The KTM 990 Adventure R has a more upright, adventure touring appearance, while the 790 Adventure R is more compact with ‘Enduro’ styling cues. We put both bikes on equal footing for the test with a fresh set of Motoz Tractionator Desert A/T knobbies.

While key observations are to be made from behind the bars, a first glance at both the KTM 990 Adventure R and KTM 790 Adventure R reveal they are unique machines, echoing certain mutual design elements. Arguably the most attention-getting visual aspect of both bikes are the fuel tanks. Each bike aims to carry fuel weight as low as possible, but in different ways. Positioned on either side of the bike, the 990R’s twin fuel tanks also serve as exterior body panels extending down almost to the skidplate. The 790R’s single fuel tank design takes this idea even further, featuring unique lobes protruding out from underneath the radiator and extending slightly below the central skidplate. These atypical fuel tank designs result in neither bike having a typical fuel gauge. Only a low fuel light and diligent use of the trip meter allows riders on the 990R to keep track of fuel consumption. A “half gauge” on the 790R will indicate “full” until the tank is roughly half empty, at which point the gauge kicks in, providing a reading of how much fuel remains in the lower half of the tank.

The split tank design of the 990R has an additional benefit in that a decent sized storage compartment is available directly in front of the saddle. While a seemingly minor detail, this turns out to be significantly convenient during travels. However, the 990R glove box location does make accessing the air filter time consuming when compared to the 790R. Tucked beneath a compartment towards the rear of the motorcycle, the 790R’s filter is reached for maintenance by simply removing the seat and two T30 torx screws. The battery is also easily accessible under the seat on the 790R, whereas the 990R’s battery is hidden down behind the skidplate.

KTM 990 Adventure R
KTM 790 Adventure R
While there are some similarities in the fuel tank designs, the single tank of the 790R bulges out more on the sides and it carries the fuel even lower than the twin tanks of the 990R.

Striking a longer and taller pose, the 990R appears a much larger machine. The 990R’s taller non-adjustable windscreen adds to the bike’s upright adventure tourer look, while the 790R’s short screen and high fender give it more of an ‘Enduro’ appearance.

Another area where these two bikes significantly differ is in the dash. The 990R has a large analogue tach in the center and basic LCD display with clock, engine temp, outside temp, fuel warning light, and speedo. The 790R uses a modern color TFT display with thumb controls to adjust traction control levels, ABS modes, rider modes, and throttle maps. All of the standard information you’d expect is available on the home screen, as well as battery voltage.

As far as standard equipment, both bikes get a 12-volt accessory plug on the dash and the 790R comes with tubeless spoked wheels, whereas the 990’s rims are tube type. However, the 990R does come with a centerstand to make tire repairs easier. Heated grips were available factory options on both bikes but only 790 could be ordered with cruise control.

Suspension and Handling

KTM 790 Adventure R testing

In stock form, the 990R forks are a bit on the soft side compared to the 790R, while the rear feels slightly oversprung. Absorbing virtually everything versus deflecting off obstacles, the 990R’s front legs make for a plush ride, although one that contrasts with a more reactive rear shock. Ridden without luggage, the shock preload can often be backed out significantly to help reduce the stiffness in the rear end. Almost any amount of luggage can be accommodated by turning the adjuster clockwise as much as necessary.

A longer wheelbase and ideal cockpit geometry (for my 5’11” frame) gives the 990R a comparatively more stable feel off-road at higher speeds. This same stability, combined with a tall seat height (1-inch taller than the 790R) and turning radius roughly that of a big-rig truck, means the bike can be less than ideal in some slow-speed technical situations. Fortunately, first gear is extremely useable on the 990R but throttle response is abrupt compared to the computer-assisted 790R, which can affect slow-speed maneuvers.

Off-road test KTM 990 Adventure R

Balanced and nimble, the 790R rides like a bike much lighter than its 470 pounds when fully fueled. While that number is still a lot of machine to take off-road, the 790 tips the scales a full 45 pounds less than the 990R’s fueled weight of 515 pounds. Although, it is worth noting the 990R came equipped from the factory with a center stand that adds several pounds. Riding over rough or rocky roads, the suspension soaks up small bumps easily but has a somewhat harsh feel through the mid-portion of the stroke. However, this same feeling translates into a responsiveness which allows the bike to react extremely quickly to whatever the wheels touch.

weighing the 990 adventure r
The official weigh-in for this match-up took place at Rottweiler Performance Headquarters. Both bikes were weighed fully fueled on their high-tech scales.

Both bikes have about the same suspension travel, with the 790R sporting 9.45 inches and the 990R with slightly more at 9.75 inches. The 990R does get about 1.5 inches more ground clearance. Even so, when the wheels leave the ground, more of the 790R’s suspension travel can be used with little fear of bottoming out either the front or rear. At higher speeds, the terrain can be felt translating up through the chassis to a greater degree on the 790R than its older sibling. Compared to the plush and planted feel of the 990R, the 790R exhibits a more hyper-responsive feel, which can be almost twitchy by comparison. Overall, the 990R feels planted and stable on more flowy high-speed terrain like the Paris-Dakar rally courses which guided its early development. Conversely, the 790R feels much more nimble and agile in tighter, more technical terrain.

The Motors

Wanting to get verification of our in-the-saddle experience, we got dyno readings from Rottweiler Performance in Costa Mesa, California for both bikes. With a 200cc advantage over the 790, the 990R has predictably higher overall horsepower and torque numbers. Similar to the stable and predictable chassis, the 990R’s V-twin can pull in a more controlled way at lower RPMs than the comparably hyperactive 790R parallel-twin. With the traction control system deactivated, the 790R’s fly-by-wire throttle, combined with a powerplant that seems to prefer higher RPMs, results in a machine that feels like a lot more to handle than its comparatively smaller displacement would indicate.

Dyno testing ktm 790 adventure r
The 790R’s power comes on hard at about 4500 rpm and matches the 990R at about 7000 rpm before tapering off a bit. The aggressive hit can catch you off guard if you aren’t using Traction Control to filter it. Dyno test courtesy of Rottweiler Performance.

Torque at the low end is delivered quickly and aggressively on the 790 Adventure R, and that feeling is carried up through the gears. Several different traction control modes, combined with an on-the-fly adjustable “slip” setting when in “Rally” mode, easily and effectively tames the beast to the desired level. Whether the 790R’s software is unique to this machine, or the algorithms simply agree with this chassis, the end result is one of the best-performing and seamless traction control and ABS systems of any bike in this class.

With its heritage from an era before either traction control or ABS was commonplace in motorcycles, the 990R V-twin is at home without computer assistance. As the progeny of a rally-winning class of bike, the 990R’s full capabilities are best explored by an elite class of rider, but appreciable by the rest of us as well. On the road, the familiar grunt of the V-twin is smooth and consistent throughout the entire gear range, and it emits an ear-pleasing note from its twin pipes the 790R can’t quite match with its single exhaust.

Timed Off-Road Test

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

In addition to an adventure ride with several hundred road miles, and several days of traveling on and off-road, both the 790R and 990R were brought to our secret ADV Pulse desert test loop. This timed course takes about 5 minutes to go around and is specifically designed to put motorcycles through a head-to-head dirt test in a controlled and readily observable manner. The fast-paced loop contains deep sand, aggressive whoop sections, hard packed and rocky dirt roads, cross-ruts, steep climbs, descents, and much more over its 2.3 mile length.

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Author: Jon Beck
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17 thoughts on “Friendly Fire: KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

  1. The power to weight ratio is better on the 790. If 0 – 60 and 1/4 mile times were compared the 790 may be quicker. Dyno curve characteristics and gearing have much to say about ‘perceived’ power. The 990 is still one neat bike though.

  2. I have reading reviews like this. They only confirm what an idiot I was for next making the advanced deposit on the he 790r. It seems to be everything I want in a D/S bike . Maybe it’s not too late?

    • Go get your 2020 model. I was happy to put down a deposit early and get my dealers 1st 790R last June. It sucks we had to wait an extra couple month in the US for the stupid DOT approved blinkers instead of the original LEDs. If you can afford it, go find a R Rally.

    • 6k miles on my 790R and not afraid to hit anything with it. No shock failure yet, but my fuel sender did fail and was replaced under warranty. The 790R Rally is the perfect machine, but at $20k I will just keep my R. I already have CC and QS, waiting for R/G windscreen to arrive, and considering the tall seat. But I don’t think an extra $5k is worth it for 30mm more suspension travel.

  3. As an existing KTM1190R owner considering my next bike – worth a read… So on your 5 minute track loop I could expect 5:00 vs 5:03 race times? great factoid, but we don’t race travel bikes. We do carry 45kg luggage in lockable boxes for street/security when the bikes are parked and we walk away safely for half an hour to the pub/shop/Lookout – good to see you guys carried 12kg of camp gear, no valuables and never leave your bike – how do soft pannier work out when you leave your bike for 30mins in Mexico to get a Corona? Power/torque wise meh your 790 Dyno data starts at 3500rpm? data below that is hidden/omitted? haha OK KTM is a site advertiser…got it – Coober told me the emissions leaning-furnace-burn-off range idle~3000 is hands-off even for aftermarket ECU’s. The significantly smoother power delivery of 990 or pre-euro5 bikes is obvious, do I really want a Euro5 bike? Below that a new E5 engine will run super-lean-hot to burn emissions and how long will it last after warranty? sell it before the warranty is out? The 790 has had its fairing deleted/omitted, crash bars removed, bashplate made only 2mm thick, centre-stand removed in a desperate effort to be lighter – yeh perfect for an enduro bike. I don’t want an enduro bike. Photo shows a weigh-in but table shows factory “claimed lbs data”? The Bosch IMU should by now have Wheelie control (IMU pitch) as a totally separated function – that way a rider can disable Pitch intervention (so I can do wheelies when ever I want) and still enjoy full yaw (low-side) crash control – sadly i’m still waiting for this, 5 years after the 1190R (I have to totally disable MTC to do wheelies and risk a low-side under power – no software upgrade for the 1190 either?) I want pitch “off” in ALL modes, not enduro only. Honda got Pitch/wheelie correct on their next 1100AT also made by Bosch. and seriously navigation apps and UI’s by KTM ppft? just make it AA/Apple CarPlay already, KTM is not a software company. Looks wise – 29 years of Gerald.Kiska’s Shock-insect-Orange is enough – let’s have 3 colour choices, blue, black, tan and a bike with a proper aerodynamic/travel/dakar look fairing. The price in USA is great, but in AU the 790R is $4000 higher than it should be (even after currency/taxes adj.) – Great story, thanks, but I’ll keep my 1190R…

    • I ride my 790R in “Rally” mode and wish we could choose a Slip 0-9 (0 for “off”) instead of 1-9. But the 790R will wheelie with TC on, it just won’t let you in “Street” or “Rain” mode. There is no reason to use those modes because “Rally” lets you customize ABS, TC, and Throttle on the fly and keeps it there when you turn off the ignition.

    • @2Meerkats Quin – the table clearly shows the numbers of their weigh-in under ‘measured weight’. And they are also given in the weigh-in section of the write up.

  4. I just got back from a trip in the California desert. I had been contemplating buying a 790R ever since I first heard they were coming out.

    My 2005 S has 33,000 miles on it and a multitude of upgrades that I deemed necessary that you don’t normally see in the general population. I’m over 60 now, but I came from an off-road and enduro racing background. Even the original 950 was too porky for me, but GOD what an engine! Unsprung weight was reduced by going to a single disc in the front and Duke caliper in the rear (primarily because the rear locked up too easy…even on the street). Hours were spent machining, modifying and removing parts. The bike is now just under 400 lbs. dry.

    Konflict suspension was called in to help maintain composure on Jeep trails and tight single track. The transformation was incredible. Every time I pass some kid on his 450 it makes me smile…

    At the California event I met up with several that had 790Rs. One individual let me ride his and while everything you stated in your review was correct, I was left unimpressed. The quickshifter was a total disaster and would snick into the next gear with just an accidental bump of the lever. Not good, especially when you are charging up and down a rough wash area. The suspension was decent but steering was much more vague than my 950. I actually went to a 19f/17r setup for road use, but prefer it off road with a 50/50 tire setup. Power was good, but my throttle hand never felt a connection. This made for multiple corrections going to corners and off jumps. Not really confidence inspiring…

    Overall, the 790 is worth every bit of $13.5K US. However, I bought the 950 years ago for less than half that price (which was a steal at the time). I’ve probably put that same amount into it to get it into the shape it is now. IMHO, for the same account of money, it is twice the machine off-road. Oh, and I rode to the event from Missouri and back. Not a single issue (except for losing my camping gear of the back in a wind storm, but that’s a whole nother story…).

    I only hope I can keep it running for another 15 years.

    • I went from a DRZ to my 790R, so it was a big difference for me versus those coming from a 950/990. I wonder what throttle setting the 790 you rode was in (I don’t like “off-road”). I only use “street” 2-up and “Rally” solo, and the 790 has more than enough power. I did an 1,100 mile 3-day trip and having cruise control was awesome. I wouldn’t want an adventure bike without it. My QS works perfectly on dirt and street too. Maybe the shifter wasn’t set properly for your size boots.
      My 790R can keep up with (or out run) dirt bikes off-road and crotch rockets on curvy roads.

  5. Great comparison! To me the 790R is a bargain for what you get in power, suspension and electronics. Other reviews even says the 790 out runs the 990 on a drag strip. Besides better fuel economy, the 790 engine doesn’t toast your legs like the big V-Twins at slow speeds. Plus it is nice to rest my legs on the sides of the fuel tank (especially passing Harley guys).
    I do wish there was a setting on the 790 to run low grade fuel, finding Premium fuel is hard in some places. The only negative to me is high speed wind buffeting, but the S windscreen fixes that (just looks ugly). Planning to try the one from R/G (looks better).
    I watched the 790 Duke video racing up Pike’s Peak (shows what the Quickshifter is capable of if you haven’t seen it), and I thought it would be awesome if KTM put that engine on an Enduro. When they did, I was 1st in line for mine. Well OK, it is technically an Adventure bike, but the 790R doesn’t really care.

  6. Je vais garder ma 990 encore quelques années étant donné qu’elle me procure encore beaucoup de plaisir, d’émotions, et aussi parce qu’il n’y a pas tellement de différence avec la 790. De plus, ma 990 est déjà payée depuis longtemps. 🙂 j’ai quand même hâte d’essayer ka 790.

    I’ll keep my 990, already paid :), and still giving a lot of emotions when on. So little difference between mine and the 790, where the electronics help medium riders to reach areas I can go without; would they be able to vome back home if electronics fails once they’ve reach the end of the trail? Despite my comments, I can’t wait to try this new 790R in real hard conditions.

  7. Pingback: 2011 KTM 990 Adventure 30th Anniversary Dakar Edition | Bike-urious