Author: Julian Challis

KTM 790 Adventure and 790 Adventure R review

KTM 790 Adventure review

ABR Bike Tester Julian Challis visited Morocco to put the KTM 790 Adventure and 790 Adventure R through their paces.

If there were to be one word that could encapsulate KTM, it would be determination. In every single one of the company’s projects since the company was reborn back in 1992, the Austrian brand shows an unwavering focus and drive to produce the best bikes within whichever sector it decides to target.

From the domination of the European enduro market to the vice-like hold on the world motocross championships, its ‘Ready to Race’ mantra has proved 100% accurate. But it’s KTM’s achievements within the Dakar Rally that have perhaps been the best example of its determination to succeed. Since Fabrizio Meoni took their first win back 2001, KTM has taken a staggering eighteen consecutive victories and secured 46 of the 54 podium positions in that time.

Even the swap to 450s in 2011 that was meant to open up the competition to other brands was taken in its stride, with Marc Coma ticking off his third of five wins on the new smaller bike.

So, it’s against this backdrop of phenomenal off-road success that KTM has launched its all-new and much-anticipated adventure bike, the 790 Adventure. The bike marks the culmination of a process that started in 1997 with the very first 620 Adventure and has taken the company through a succession of technically advanced and extremely capable machines that have all benefitted from the brand’s sporting experience and success.

KTM 790 Adventure review

There is a certain irony that while KTM and other manufacturers adventure bikes have seen a gradual increase in size, performance and unfortunately, weight, to meet the demands of the market, the new 790 Adventure sees a return to the smaller capacity and lighter weight of their first adventure bikes. 

The process to develop the new bike began over four years ago and has involved KTM’s design and engineering team looking at every aspect of both form and function on the 790 to ensure it performs as well as possible in the most testing of conditions. A perfect example of this obsession is when they took the almost finished bike to the desert to run it in over 40C heat for hours on end to test the cooling system.

When the bike ran hotter than they were happy with, they went back to the factory and totally redesigned the cooling system, fitting bigger radiators and a second cooling fan to solve the issue. All good, but to fit around the new components all the front bodywork had to be scrapped and designed again – this is a team that refused to compromise on their vision.

Moroccan role

While it might have been easy for KTM to launch the 790 Adventure at some plush resort in the south of Spain, with only small sections of off-road riding to demonstrate its prowess in the dirt, the reality was predictably far more hard-core. KTM had set up camp in the remote town of Arfoud in the east of Morocco in the midst of a desolate and barren desert landscape.

This incredible location is used as the training base for the Dakar riders, the endless dunes and unremitting open plains mirroring the punishing conditions in Peru and Bolivia where the riders compete. Sam Sunderland, the winner of the 2017 Dakar Rally, was on hand for the launch, as was the legendary Marc Coma and the annoyingly talented Chris Birch – no pressure then…

KTM 790 Adventure review

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that while we are talking about the KTM 790 Adventure as one bike, the launch is actually for two distinct and different models, the 790 Adventure and the 790 Adventure R. KTM has very clear ideas on the markets the two bikes are targeted at and the riders that each of the two versions should attract.

Its aim for the 790 Adventure was to produce ‘the most off-road capable travel bike’ whereas the aim for the 790 Adventure R was to be ‘the most travel capable off-road bike’. It’s a very clever way of defining the essential purposes of the two machines, and maybe helping the customer to decide which one is the best for them.

With journalists flying in from all over the world for the launch of the new 790s, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the camp prior to our first ride on the bike. We’d seen them at the shows, we’d poured over the details, we’d written previews, we’d debated the design, but that counted for nothing compared to slinging a leg over the saddle and dropping the clutch. Were these bikes going to be as good as we hoped?

First blood

Our first ride was on the 790 Adventure, so that’s the more road/travel option. As soon as we headed out on the road into Arfoud town, the work the engineers have put in was immediately obvious. The riding position is well-considered, from the relatively low seat height (adjustable between 830 and 850mm), something that was a strong criteria in the design, to the wide sweep of the off-road style bars.

As a KTM enduro bike owner, the feel of the bike is instantly familiar from the profile of the side plastics against your legs to the positioning and layout of the bars. There’s also the same levels of adjustment in bar position, from the three mounting positions and the reversible clamps, so you can fine-tune the cockpit to your own preferences. 

The dashboard is the regulation TFT variety, but it’s sensibly sized to display clear information and allow easy changes through the myriad of options from the left-hand toggle switches without straying into the dimensions of a small TV. As it was the first time out, I had the bike in Street mode, with the benefits of the full traction control, ABS and cornering ABS which come as standard on both the standard Adventure and the R.

KTM 790 Adventure review

We’d been warned that although the roads might be dry and smooth, the fine coating of desert sand on just about everything here in Morocco means the surface is deceptively slippery – and they are not wrong.

The 799cc twin motor is relatively short (another criteria which helps keep the saddle height low) and consequently the short-stroke makes for a lively power delivery. Giving it a handful on these unpredictable roads can cause the back to squirm before the MTC traction control does its thing, while the ABS technology is invaluable to provide similar control under braking. What the technology won’t help you with is going in too hot on a sandy road and sliding off on the first roundabout, as a Russian journalist managed after just six minutes of riding…

The early slide brings us neatly to the tank on the 790 which has received probably the most comments since pictures of the bike first emerged. Keeping with the theme of determination to produce the best bike for adventure, the KTM engineers have, almost literally, turned the design of the tank on its head. While there is still a centrally mounted filler cap, the tank is split to either side of the bike like a pair of weirdly-shaped plastic saddlebags, with the majority of the fuel load held in the lower part of the tanks in front of your feet.

The design allows the top section to be nicely narrow and easy to grab with your knees and keeps the weight low and between the wheel spindles with the centre of gravity.

KTM 790 Adventure review

While riding, this design makes the bike feel stable and planted, and there is no perceptible feeling of low weight even under heavy braking. There’s been concerns about the safety of the tanks in a crash, but you can be assured KTM has tested them to destruction and is happy they can withstand the rigours of the role they’ve been given. The Austrians have been using plastic tanks for over twenty years – they are not going to choose now to install a breakable one!

The design of the tank and the additional plastic guards allows the bike to slide well, rather than dig in as conventional crash bars can often do if you are unfortunate enough to come to grief. You can upgrade to carbon fibre for about £300 if you are minded, but that depends on your riding and your budget.

Adventure ready

The throttle response on the bike is via ride-by wire technology, a virtual must when it’s working with a host of electronics, but still manages the immediate feel of a conventional cable which, strangely, is what’s fitted to the clutch. While we’ll often berate manufacturers for sticking with cable clutches, KTM’s decision to return to the more mechanical actuation seems odd for such a sophisticated bike.

Project Manager Adriaan Sinke was happy to explain the reason for the change: “Using a hydraulic clutch was an engineering solution to the problem of stiff clutch springs and much more basic clutch technology. Now that the design of modern clutches has progressed quite so much, we can use lighter springs with less clutch plates to achieve the same effect, and with the addition of a quick shifter, the amount of times you actually use the clutch are also substantially reduced too.

This allows us to fit a cable clutch, and for adventure bikes, that’s really useful. If the cable brakes, I can go into any town anywhere in the world and get a cable. OK, it might not be the correct cable, but it will allow me to use the clutch and continue my journey.”

KTM 790 Adventure review

Leaving the town for the open and often pencil-straight roads across the desert, the bike can lift its skirts and get some pace, which it does with a rewarding surge. Being a middleweight engine, you can’t rely on the monster torque of a big capacity adventure bike, so you might find yourself having to be a bit more involved with the gear changes if you want to get a wiggle on – bury the throttle when you’re already in sixth and travelling at 80mph and it’s a smooth acceleration rather than a rabbid punch of power from the 1290.

Our route takes us another 30-or-so miles across the unremitting desert, with sweeping tarmac ribbons ahead and behind. The 790 Adventure has been designed to devour massive distances with ease, and again KTM has nailed it.

The seat is on the firm side of comfortable as with every bike in the KTM range, and the screen, when set on high using the one adjusting bolt at the front, deflects enough wind to make things comfortable. The large hand guards keep away the chill too, though this was less of a problem in the hazy sunshine of a Moroccan afternoon. We just set the cruise control and enjoyed the ride as the 790 flowed through the landscapes as smoothly as spun silk.

Sensible design

As we reached the photo location there was predictably a bit of time to look round the bike and appreciate the finer points of the 790 Adventure and Adventure R. Both bikes run the new 799c twin DOHC 8-valve motor that was specifically developed for these bikes and the road going version. Contrary to what you might think, the motors are not the same, but their development, like the cylinders, ran in parallel.

The new unit puts out 95bhp at 8,000rpm and 89nm of torque at 6,600rpm, the torque curve is markedly different and lower down the rev range compared to the 790 road bike. There’s a purposeful six geared box with electronic quick shifter, and drive is through a conventional chain and sprockets as favoured by adventure travellers. Cooling is through a massive, centrally mounted radiator and fans with an oil cooler, and fuelling is through 46mm DKK Del’Orto throttle body controlled by an EMU.

KTM 790 Adventure review

On the chassis side of things, many might have expected to see the trellis design favoured by the rally teams, but again KTM has gone back to the drawing board for the different needs of adventure bikes. The result is a chrome-moly frame that arches over the top of the new motor and uses it as a stressed member, thereby increasing the rigidity while keeping the weight low. At the rear there is a trellis-style steel subframe to support the seat and house the airbox, the choice of steel again a nod to the possibility of effecting repairs in remote locations. Both models can be fitted with the aftermarket racks and panniers.

The frame on the R version is slightly different up front, with a shallower steering angle of 63.7 degrees as compared to 64.1, giving the more off-road focussed bike slower steering and a marginally longer wheelbase. In terms of the seat, the Adventure comes with a two-piece unit which is height adjustable, whereas on the R, it’s a flatter profiled single piece unit to allow freer movement. You can fit either option to either bike though.

Keeping with the sensible designs, the intake snorkels for the air filter are right at the back of the subframe, under the seat, and they point backwards. The high and protected position is ideal for water crossings and should allow the 790 to ford depths over the wheels without issue. At the other end of the seat, the fuse box and battery are easily accessible under a cover that can be removed with two bolts, while the enduro-style side panels are removable without tools but can hold the toolkit and other essentials.

KTM 790 Adventure review

The dashboard has a power adapter socket rather than a USB port to allow charging of everything from a GPS to a searchlight, laptop or razor – adventure riders have a variety of needs! Both machines have LED lights, the font ones housed in that controversial Mantis-style headlight unit

While most dual-sport adventure bike manufacturers are investing heavily in electronic controlled suspension, as indeed is present on KTM’s larger machines, the 790 goes back to basics with properly specced suspension that does everything you want without all the wires and cables.

Working with WP, as they have for many years, the 790 Adventure uses 43 mm Apex open cartridge USD forks upfront, whereas for the R there’s the 48mm Xplor USD fork originally developed for KTM’s enduro bikes. Both forks have what is termed ‘separate fork function’ with the compression and rebound damping split between the two legs and, in the case of the R, adjustable through the dials on the top of the units.

There’s a WP Apex shock unit at the rear of the 790 Adventure, but again the R gets the WP Xplor shock, with both operating through KTM’s linkless and maintenance-averse PDS system. In terms of travel, the units deliver 200mm at both ends for the Adventure and a massive 240mm for the R.

Getting dirty

With the images in the can, we had the chance to really try the 790 Adventure away from the tarmac, and that’s when all the tech and design really starts to come into its own. Even on the road-based Avon Trailrider tyres teamed with the 21/18-inch spoked wheels, the 790 is simply incredible on the dirt. The riding position is neutral with a great relationship between bars, pegs and rider, and the narrow profile allows you to control the bike like a 250cc trail bike rather than an 800cc adventure bike.

When stood up, the balance is beyond anything you might have ridden before. In comparison to even the market leaders in the adventure market, the 790 is on another level. And this is not even the off-road focussed version of the bike…

The following morning was when we got to take on the Adventure R, and as a committed off-road enthusiast, I was beside myself with anticipation of the day. We were led out of the launch HQ by four-time Baja winner and KTM’s R&D street test coordinator, Quinn Cody, for a brief spell of 15-or-so miles of blacktop before we picked up the trails.

The R feels little different to the standard bike on the road, save for a slightly taller height from both the seat and the longer suspension, a bit more wind from the shorter screen, and a bit more noise from the Akropovic can at the back. The Continental TKC80s are plenty grippy enough at non-heroic speeds, but it’s on the dirt that they are going to earn their money.

KTM 790 Adventure review

When we regrouped at the start of the off-road route, it was time to click the bike into ‘Rally’ mode, switch the ABS to off-road, wind off the traction control and get dirty. And straight away we were off onto fast and sinuous trails across the Moroccan desert, building speed quickly as the bike gobbled up trails with an incredible appetite.

The WP suspension copes with everything you throw at it without complaint, taking in the unsettlingly frequent drop-offs and sand sections in the many wadis (dried water beds) on our route. The dust clouds from the other riders ahead hung in the air like an uncomfortable silence, meaning we had to leave big gaps to ensure we could actually see the terrain we were covering.

The ‘Rally’ mode comes on the R as standard but can be added as an option to the 790 Adventure, and it is perfectly set up for fast riding across the stony trails we were following. An extended sand section was a tad more challenging, but it was immediately obvious that the bike was not the limiting factor in the equation, a fact that even Chris Birch had confirmed the night before. When he’s saying it, you kind of know it’s true…

KTM 790 Adventure review

We met up for a break and some more photographs at Gara de Medoar, a vast rock formation nicknamed ‘The Portuguese Prison’. Behind the tall front wall and contained within the confines of a circle of fossil-rich cliffs, African slaves were once held here before transportation to Portugal. There’s little evidence of the dark history left, but it’s still an incredible place to experience.

While waiting seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a Moroccan man appeared on a bicycle and in an instant unclipped a tray of fossils, from complete trilobites to polished shells and bowls fashioned from the rocks containing the ancient creatures. With no local currency to buy his goods, I offer him an apple from the support truck which he accepts with a massive grin – it’s one of those moments that make adventure motorcycling so rewarding.

Piste off

We moved on for some more challenging riding, from clambering up rocky trails to ripping across the desert piste at speeds that on any other adventure bike would have been either stupid, painful or both. Yet the Adventure R inspires such confidence, that 60mph on completely unknown and often hard to see trails feels completely natural. A wadi comes into view, you just lean back, give the bars a bit of a pull and the throttle a twist, and the bike powers through and the suspension shrugs off every hit like a prizefighter.

We had travelled a full 70 miles before we stopped for coffee, and with more of the same on offer, we completed another glorious 25-mile loop towards Merzouga before lunch. The deep sand sections of the trails continued to frustrate, mostly because as a British rider there’s precious little opportunity to practice, and even four years of the Weston Beach race doesn’t prepare you for mile-long tracks through sand finer than caster sugar.

KTM 790 Adventure review

When I got particularly out of shape, the bike slid down into a river bed and inadvertently I got the chance to see how easy the machine is to lift. I’m happy to report that those low petrol tanks prevent the bike falling too far, and also the low centre of gravity makes righting the bike far easier than expected.

The afternoon takes us further up to the desolate landscape of Tesserdmine and with the sun high in the sky, the temperatures are touching the low 30s. The bike’s fans cut in and out in the more challenging terrain, but otherwise, the Adventure R was unaffected by any aspect of the hostile environment. Mile after mile of incredible trails whipped by with the minimum of effort but the maximum enjoyment. Man, this bike is good!

Return to Arfoud

With the best of the day slipping behind the distant mountains and with 125 miles showing on the trip meter, we reluctantly headed back to base, picking up the same trail we’d started on before hitting the black top once more. The smooth roads provided a chance to sum up the 790 Adventure and Adventure R, and to be honest, they are perhaps more than we could have expected or hoped for.

The engine is powerful and flexible, the suspension faultless, the ergonomics effortless and the technology ties it all together to complete the package, regardless of whether you are a traveller that wants to go off road, or an off-roader who wants to travel. These bikes take adventure riding far beyond what is currently available from any manufacturer and has the potential to dominate the adventure travel market in the same way that KTM has dominated the Dakar. Determination always pays off. 

KTM 790 Adventure review

ABR verdict

As a commuter

Of the two bikes, the 790 Adventure would respond the best to the rigours of the daily grind as it has great road manners and balance, but the R could fare almost as well. But to buy either bike and just commute to work would be as wrong as keeping a mountain lion as a house cat …

As a weekend tourer

Both bikes would work well as weekend tourers, but again if it’s road work you are looking at, the 790 Adventure just pips the R to the post thanks to lower suspension and slightly quicker geometry. Load up the panniers slap on a tent and head for a night under the stars. The soundtrack? We’re thinking a bit of Latin, so the Buena Vista Social club

As an off-roader

While both bikes are extremely competent off-road, the R version is the best when things get grubby. Even for relative novices, the 790 Adventure R inspires confidence to tackle new challenges and take on terrain that would prove impossible on bigger boned adventure bikes. It’s an off-road natural.

As a continental road tourer

As has already been proved in thousands of miles of testing, the 790 Adventure can destroy continents in comfort thanks to its 400 km range, comfortable ergonomics and usable riding technology. But if you are expecting day-long three-figure speeds and all the bells and whistles, the 790 may be left wanting compared to the bigger adventure bikes.

As an RTW overlander

Either bike will happily conquer the world as that’s essentially what they have been designed for. But it’s the Adventure rather than the Adventure R that is the intended to do the job the best as it’s ‘the most off-road capable travel bike’ whereas the R is ‘the most travel capable off-road bike’. Simple.

As a pillion carrier

Again, it’s almost a dead heat on these bikes, and which works best will depend on the terrain you intend to ride as either can be fitted with the stepped two-piece seat. As the bikes are so easy to ride and so confidence-inspiring, we’d reckon on buying one each and exploring the world together!

KTM 790 Adventure review

Specs at a glance

KTM 790 Adventure

Engine: 2-cylinder, 4-stroke, parallel twin

Displacement: 799cc

Maximum power: 94bhp

Suspension: Front; WP upside-down, 200mm travel. Rear; WP monoshock, 200mm travel

Brakes: Front; 2x radially mounted 4 piston caliper, 320mm disc. Rear; 2 piston floating caliper, 260mm disc

Seat height: 850mm

Weight: 189kg (dry)

Tank capacity: 20L

Fuel consumption: 68.9mpg (claimed)

Price: £11,099


KTM 790 Adventure R

As above, but…

Suspension: Front; WP upside-down, 240mm travel. Rear; WP PDS monoshock, 240mm travel

Seat height: 880mm

Price: £11,999

KTM 790 Adventure review

All about the suspension

We caught up with Chris Birch to get his thoughts on the new KTM.

“When you look at the 790 Adventure R, there is no comparison to any other adventure bike out there in terms of off-road capability – there is just nothing”.

So, could Chris identify the one thing that makes it quite so good?

“For me the biggest difference between this and any other adventure bike is the suspension – it’s really high-quality enduro stuff that allows you to push so much harder. So that means that when you hit that big hole, that big compression that you were not quite prepared for, you don’t reach the limits of the suspension, the bike just goes straight through it. I can smack through stuff that I would be hard on the brakes for on any other bike.

The other day we were actually debating as to whether the 790 actually hits the big stuff better than an EXC enduro bike – it’s pretty close.

“The first two times I rode the bike it took me a long time to get my head round the capabilities of the suspension. I kept backing off out of reflex and I had Quinn Cody telling me through the comms’ system ‘Stop being a pussy – Hold it on!’ And I’m thinking “But I don’t want to!’. But when you do, it’s just fine, the bike doesn’t miss a beat.”