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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

To ensure we had both bikes on equal footing and to maximize traction in the dirt, we spooned on a fresh set of Motoz Tractionator Desert H/T DOT knobbies. In addition, multiple timed runs of each bike were conducted with the same rider, on the same course, on the same day.

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

Starting out with a gradual but very sandy descent towards some cross ruts and small ledges, leading to a stretch of whoops, the 790R clearly had the advantage. With speeds kept in check by turns in the sandy path, the lighter weight and hyper-quick throttle response of the 790 Adventure R made it much easier to keep the front end light, and change direction at will. The 990R’s comparably heavier front end feel was more apt to wash out or push through the tighter and sandier sections. When the trail straightened out however, the 990’s planted and stable feel then inspired confidence to crack the throttle over the roughest sections of the course.

Some portions of the course could be handed to either bike, even though they exhibited very different characteristics. In the whoops for example, the 790R had an amazingly light and “flickable” quality. The stiffer and more reactive suspension, combined with immediate throttle response, made quick adjustments much easier when navigating this section. Stability provided by the 990R’s weight and longer wheelbase could lessen the degree of additional rider input necessary at times, as inertia and good geometry helped guide the machine through a well-chosen line.

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R
KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

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After all our tests were run, comparing the two fastest lap times between the bikes resulted in a 790R win by just under two seconds. This number may sound like a slim margin until it is put into context with other bikes. ADV Pulse has been using this same course and this same 2012 KTM 990 Adventure R as a benchmark for several years now. In previous tests, the 990R bested Honda’s Africa Twin by 7 seconds, KTM’s own 1190R by 3.5 seconds and the 1090R by 0.7 seconds. So far, the KTM 790 Adventure R is the first bike to beat the 990R model. 

Real World Test

Riding a test course on an unloaded bike is one thing, but adventure bikes can often have roughly half the weight of a passenger hanging off them in the form of luggage. Loading up both the 790R and 990R with matching sets of Wolfman soft luggage, we headed into the mountains of Southern California for more real-world testing, and jotting notes in our tent field offices afterward.

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

Escaping from Los Angeles means freeways, and a lot of them. Most posted speed limits are suggestions apparently, and the entire mass of vehicles typically surges along at around 70-80 mph when not in gridlock. The 990R’s seating position, and sloping high dash leading up to a comparatively taller windscreen make for a more comfortable experience overall during long road slogs in this environment. It feels like you’re sitting “in” the machine versus “on top” of it. Nearing the 80 mph mark, the 990R’s engine revs around 500 rpms less than the 790R at the same speed, and its higher torque curve still allows for what feels like comparatively easier passing without the need to grab a gear.

Street test KTM 990 adventure r

The 790R’s agile handling makes it easier to filter through traffic than the tippy-feeling 990R. It’s comfortable cruising for long highway stretches, but a slight buzz from the parallel-twin can be perceived at around 80 mph and above 6,000 rpm. A deeper and smoother rumble from the 990 makes it feel slightly more at home when cruising the superslab. With its short “enduro” style windscreen, the 790 lacks a degree of wind protection for taller riders as well. Comparing these two machines side-by-side on a long road trip quickly reveals the 990 will require more frequent stops for fuel. While both bikes carry 5.3 gallons, the 990 averages around 180-200 miles on a fill up, compared to the more efficient 790 which can easily reach 230 miles on a tank in mixed riding conditions.

Street test KTM 790 Adventure R

Once the superslab turns to twisties, the 790R’s higher-revving engine, shorter wheelbase, and stiffer suspension leave the 990R wanting. Lighter by 45 pounds (fueled), and with the advantage of traction control featuring the aforementioned adjustable “slip” setting, the 790 feels vastly more flickable and provides greater confidence through tight curves and chicanes. With traction control off, greater throttle hand diligence is required on the 790 as its fast-revving engine can easily roast the tires through corners. The 990R doesn’t have traction control but a tractable motor and stable, heavier chassis keeps the rear tire gripping out of turns, despite its greater horsepower.

Rocks KTM 990 Adventure R
KTM 790 Adventure R in the rocks.

Leaving the tarmac for unpaved roads and trails, many of the same observations from the off-road test course are mimicked in the context of riding fully-loaded in the dirt. The 990R’s plush and stable quality allowed its higher ground clearance to easily navigate even the gnarliest sections of trail, albeit perhaps with a bit more attention – there’s nearly 50 extra pounds to pick up if something goes wrong and the bike is dropped. In turn, the more-responsive suspension in the 790R’s shorter wheelbase, combined with a snappier throttle being filtered by a highly adjustable traction control system makes you almost forget there’s luggage on the bike. While the lower, wider fuel tank bulges would occasionally brush against obstacles in the tightest and most technical sections of trail, the 790R was more confidence-inspiring overall when the going got extremely rocky or otherwise technical.

Final Thoughts

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R

Both rally racing, and the adventure motorcycle market segment have evolved dramatically since 2003. Emissions standards, and ongoing development in technologies such as traction control, ABS, lean angle sensors, power modes, quickshifters, and other electronics are changing how we interact with motorcycles.

With KTM’s release of the 790 Adventure R, 2019 marked what is arguably a large step in the right direction for the adventure bike segment. While its method of carrying fuel low on the bike draws immediate visual attention, looking further into the KTM 790R reveals many more aspects in suspension, chassis, and engine design which all work towards the persistent and often elusive goal of lighter/better weight distribution, and improved off-road handling for big-twin adventure bikes. 

From a performance standpoint, KTM has created a smaller, lighter, and more nimble handling adventure bike that outperforms the 990R in many off-road riding conditions. A lower CG, lower seat height, and advanced rider aids like adjustable-slip traction control, off-road ABS and power maps, can also make the 790R easier and safer to ride for a wider range of motorcyclists.

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R comparo

As a touring mount, the 790 Adventure R may not be quite as smooth as the larger-displacement 990R but it is a comfortable cruiser nonetheless. Offering a significant fuel range advantage over the 990R, optional electronic cruise control, and a TFT dash which features turn-by-turn navigation when linked with the KTM MyRide app pushes the 790 further into the modern “touring machine” realm than the 990. Interestingly enough, KTM sells the 790R with all of its advanced tech for $1,000 less than it offered the 990R in 2012. Now that’s progress!

In most regards, the new parallel-twin 790R platform would appear to have finally eclipsed its legendary predecessor, which is no small feat. Over its 10-year history, the 950/990 platform proved itself to be both a rally winning motorcycle, and world traveler. No other modern adventure bike has achieved this distinction.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is that the LC8 was the first ever twin-cylinder offering by KTM. How they got it all so right from the very beginning could likely be credited in large part to KTM directly involving Fabrizio Meoni with the development of the bike. In much the same way that the design and development of KTM’s first V-twin adventure bike closely involved a champion racer, KTM’s first parallel-twin adventure bike did so as well. Four-time Baja 1000 champion and Dakar veteran Quinn Cody was deeply involved in both the development and testing of the 790R. By directly incorporating rally and off-road racing experience into this new adventure bike, KTM has created the first true successor to the 950/990 Adventure’s throne which has been virtually untouched for 16 years.

KTM 790 Adventure R vs. KTM 990 Adventure R comparison

Still not ready to give up your old 950/990R? No one would blame you for feeling that way. They remain impressive bikes, worthy of holding onto. While they do take a skilled rider (and usually a tall inseam) to get the most out of them, they have a unique feeling that puts a smile on your face every time you push them hard on the trail. A combination of their sound, flowy suspension, and ability to blow through the gnarliest terrain with ease inspires dreams of rally racing. While the model line ceased only six years ago, KTM’s original twin cylinder platform will eventually fade into history, and likely into the realm of a classic motorcycle. Indeed, the spirit of the late Fabrizio Meoni and the twin-cylinder rally era continue to live on every time we fire up these legendary machines.

Specs Comparison

2012 KTM 990 Adventure R2019 KTM 790 Adventure R
ENGINE TYPE:2-cylinder, 4-stroke, 75-degree V Twin2-cylinder, 4-stroke, DOHC Parallel twin
DISPLACEMENT:999 cc799 cc
BORE / STROKE:101 / 62.4 mm88 / 65.7 mm
COMPRESSION RATIO:11.5:112.7:1
CLAIMED POWER:113.3 hp (84.5 kW) @ 8,750 rpm95 hp (70 kW) @ 8,000 rpm
CLAIMED TORQUE:73.8 ft-lbs (100 Nm) @ 6,500 rpm64.9 ft-lbs (88 Nm) @ 6,600 rpm
CLAIMED WEIGHT (NO FUEL):456 lbs (207kg)417 lbs (189kg)
MEASURED POWER:88.97 hp @ 8,270 rpm84.15 hp @ 8,487 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE:59.46 ft-lbs @ 7,364 rpm57.83 ft-lbs @ 6,867 rpm
MEASURED WET WEIGHT:515 lbs (234 kg)470 lbs (213 kg)
WEIGHT BALANCE (FR/RR):50.8%/49.2%50.5%/49.5%
1ST GEAR RATIO:12:3513:37
2ND GEAR RATIO:15:3217:34
3RD GEAR RATIO:18:3020:31
4TH GEAR RATIO:20:2722:28
5TH GEAR RATIO:24:2724:26
6TH GEAR RATIO:27:2623:22
PRIMARY TRANS RATIO:35:6739:75
SECONDARY DRIVE RATIO:16:4216:45
STEERING HEAD ANGLE:63.4 degrees63.7 degrees
FR. SUSPENSION TRAVEL: 9.65″ (245mm)9.45″ (240mm) 
RR. SUSPENSION TRAVEL: 9.65″ (245mm)9.45″ (240mm)
WHEELBASE:61.81″ (1570mm)60.16″ (1528mm)
WHEELS FRONT/REAR:Spoked 2.15×21″; 4.25×18″Spoked 2.50×21″; 4.50×18″
TIRES FRONT/REAR:90/90-21″; 150/70-18″90/90-21″; 150/70-18″
SEAT HEIGHT:35.63″ (905mm)34.65″ (880mm)
GROUND CLEARANCE:11.85″ (301mm)10.35″ (263mm)
FUEL CAPACITY: 5.3 US Gallon (20L)5.3 US Gallon (20L)
ORIGINAL MSRP:$14,999$13,499

Photos by Jon Beck and Rob Dabney

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.
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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