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Author: Julian Challis

With the prices of new adventure bikes continuing to rise, owning the latest model can put a serious strain on the family budget. In an effort to redress the balance and offer an alternative option for ABR readers, we’re going to be looking at the used adventure bike market. For the first, we had to pick the KTM 990 Adventure, the bike that just missed the boat to global stardom…

It’s 2003 and we’re in a parallel universe. After testing the KTM, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman agree that it’s the perfect bike for their attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The pair take their proposal to KTM and the marketing men think it sounds like a great project to get involved with. It’s a unique chance to showcase their bikes to a global audience and they happily provide three box-fresh and fully fettled 950 Adventures for the trip.

The subsequent TV series ‘All Around the World’ is an astounding success, taking adventure motorcycling to a massive audience and bringing KTMs into living rooms across the world. Motorcyclists from California to Canberra are inspired to buy an adventure bike and clearly the only option is a KTM.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Market dominance

By 2008, when the series is repeated on the BBC, the 950 has been replaced by the 990 and the Austrian company’s stock value is increasing as quickly as its advance orders, so much so they have to build an entirely new factory to keep up with demand. Ten years after the show, KTM’s market dominance is so complete they decide to sell its off-road division to BMW as it’s simply not as lucrative as feeding the global demand for adventure bikes…

OK, so the reality of what happened after ‘Long Way Round’ is slightly different, but it’s still important to remember that the 950 was indeed the bike of choice for the trip before KTM said no. It was newly developed, beautifully balanced, relatively light and fully equipped for adventure from its large tank to the easy-to-mend chain drive and conventional suspension.

KTM had won the previous three Dakar rallies before the 2003 series and knowledge and technology gleaned from those wins was written through the big V-twin like a stick of Blackpool rock – no wonder McGregor and Boorman wanted this machine on the team.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Will Ewan and Charley finally ride KTMs?

Fifteen years after the original series and 12 after Long Way Down, there’s a plan to add a third trip, but at this stage which bikes the pair will use is yet to be decided. With the new KTM 790 Adventure proving a winner on and off road, you’d have to hope it was on the possible list and, if so, you’d also have to hope that there’s a different guy in charge of marketing for the Orange Giant this time round…

But we decided to take a step back and seek out a 990 and look at just what made this platform so good first time round. The original bike, the 950 Adventure was launched back in 2003, and was subsequently upgraded to 990 in 2006 when the fuel injected motor from the Super Duke was added.

Barring a few cosmetic changes in the intervening years, the 990 managed another six years in production until being eventually discontinued in 2012 when the 1190 was launched. If you’d bought one of the last ones in the showrooms, you’d have had to pay around £8,000. I know – I was selling them!

KTM 990 Adventure review

High Roller

Not wanting to go back too far and start looking at a 950 over fifteen years old, we found a 2010 990 Adventure model at AMS Motorcycles in Tewkesbury, just down the road from the ABR offices. With a few swift phone calls a test was organised, and the trusty Ténéré was pressed into action for the brief schlep up the M5 to collect the 990.

The KTM was an option when buying the Yamaha, but with the Austrian bikes holding higher prices than the equivalent Japanese machine, the Ténéré got the vote. Riding the two back-to-back, I’m pretty sure I made the wrong decision…

The KTM 990 on test was an absolutely immaculate one owner bike. Looking at the condition, it would be easy to think it had had little use in its eight-year life. But on the contrary, the bike was showing a staggering 47,000 miles on the clock, just slightly less than my own daily hack, a Yamaha TDM 850 from way back in 1995.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Used and enjoyed

At around 6,000 miles a year, this was clearly a machine that had been thoroughly used and enjoyed, but then cleaned meticulously after! Showing the bike to the team back at the office nobody could believe the mileage, or indeed remember having a bike in such good condition that wasn’t new…

So how does the 990 add up? Well, the bike runs a 999cc 75-degree V-twin motor, the top end of which is almost entirely hidden by the tank and lower panels of the bodywork. The bike was originally fitted with a two into two exhaust system with twin high mounted pipes exiting just below the seat and emitting a satisfying burble that increased to a pleasing howl at full chat.

Our bike had ditched the twin system and standard airbox for a Rottweiler intake kit and a Rottweiler two into one conversion terminating in a Yoshimura end can, the effect of the intake noise and exhaust turning the original burble to an angry bark and the howl to an almost deafening scream at the top end. Unsociable, but oh so good at the same time.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Plenty of power

Power wise, the 990 came from a time before we were obsessed with massive bhp figures, so the 105 on offer was plenty enough for everything from spirited riding to off-road adventures. The intake kit and Yoshi pipe raised that a tad, taking this bike just over 110 bhp when it was last checked out on a dyno. In terms of torque, the V-twin does the business as expected, the original bike putting out an impressive 100 Nm, but the engine work on this one had made appreciable gains – it feels like it could pull a train out of soft mud!

Like its Dakar ancestors, the Adventure runs a chrome-moly trellis frame with an aluminium sub-fame at the back. Suspension at the front comes from chunky 48mm WP USD forks with adjustable pre-load that deliver 210mm of travel. At the rear there’s a WP single shock on a non-linkage PDS system that gives you exactly the same travel as the front.

And what does this all weigh? Well the 990 is listed at 209kg dry, so that’s a good 20kg more than the new 790, but then again there’s 200cc more motor under the bodywork. Add in the 19.5 litres of fuel in the tank and a splash of coolant and oil and the final figure is around 245kg, so comparable with a Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin.

But these are all just facts and figures – what does the thing ride like and should you consider buying one?

KTM 990 Adventure review

Road trip

Well, the first thing to note out on the road on the 990 is just how well balanced the bike is from the get-go. The large twin tanks that fill both sides of the bike look massive when off the bike, but once rolling, the ergos are good and surprisingly narrow thanks to that V-twin motor.

The second thing is how incredibly crisp the motor feels – this bike has done the equivalent of riding round the world twice and yet the engine feels as sharp as if it was coming up to its first service. There is no upper valve train noise, the six-speed transmission is buttery and the clutch is still super light after nearly 48,000 miles – incredible stuff. If you were worrying about buying a high mileage KTM this bike knocks that worry right out of the water.

The strong motor combined with the intake kit and free-flowing Yoshi can mean that the bike’s acceleration is both impressive and almost deafeningly loud. Hitting the fast A roads to the north of Evesham and burying the throttle, the 990 takes off like a jet fighter, but sounds like a Lancaster bomber. With plenty of torque on tap, you can shift quickly through the box or hold the changes back to get the motor really screaming, it doesn’t really seem to matter.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Lumpy fuelling at low revs

When things get a little slower however, the motor does reveal the issue that all 990s had, which was to have slightly lumpy fuelling at low revs, despite apparently numerous attempts at remapping the bike’s ECU. This is particularly evident off-road as the bike is a tad prone to cough stalling when you are on the pegs and trickling the KTM through the tricky stuff.

By today’s standards, the cockpit on the 990 is the thing that really shows the bike’s age. When new bikes are coming with bigger and bigger TFT screens, the KTM’s small digital display tucked behind the unadjustable screen looks incredibly minimal, yet gives almost all of the information you need – speed, revs, mileage, trip meter and a basic temperature gauge.

The crucial thing it does not have is a fuel gauge which, given this bike is capable of setting off into the unknown with little further preparation, seems a massive omission. Yes, the twin tanks look super cool and it feels proper Dakar-like when you fill up one side then the other at the BP station, but once the juice starts running low you can hardly peer in to see how much is left as you ride! 

KTM 990 Adventure review

Stripped back dash

The age of the cockpit is also highlighted by the fact that the clear plastic on the face of the dials had gone a bit milky on this bike – a replacement unit would freshen things up a great deal. That aside, the stripped-back look to the dials takes it back to the information you actually need when riding, before we realised we needed to be told the air temperature and reminded of our tyre pressures while we listened to Radio 2 on Bluetooth…

With its uncluttered bars, minimal switchgear and neat clutch and brake perches topped by hydraulic reservoirs, the feel of the riding position and bar dimensions is very much like my own EXC250 and this familiarity makes the 990 immediately likeable. What’s also likeable is the natty little pocket in the centre of the tanks for your toll money and essential paperwork – a really good idea if you are going to be covering big distances on the bike.

The saddle is on the firm side of the spectrum but, being a KTM, that is to be expected. The EXC version is a bit like a plank so I’m happy to have any comfort at all! It’s slightly stepped too, but when you are on the dirt it’s flat enough to allow you to move fairly freely.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Handling is a revelation

In terms of handling, the 990 Adventure is a revelation too and compares very favourably to 2018 models. As a proper off-road capable adventure bike, the bike comes with the 21/18 wheel combination which should make it a little less stable at higher speeds, but there isn’t any sign of this.

On brand new 90/90 and 150/70 Pirelli Scorpion dual sport tyres, the bike is composed both at speed and through the faster corners – it just does what you expect it to. The suspension is in the same camp too, with a sparsity of adjustment and options but which still combine to make a beautifully competent and confidence inspiring ride, whether on blacktop or fire roads.

The off-road handling also reveals just why McGregor and Boorman wanted this bike for their round the world jaunt. I found some nadgery byways just to the south west of Stratford on Avon and the bike is super stable and planted even when the going gets sketchy. The standing position is great, putting your head fully over the headstock, and the footpeg to bar to seat position works well.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Surprisingly flickable for a big machine

The footpeg still had the rubber inserts so lacked some grip, but as it’s only an 8mm nut to bin them and get spiky pegs, it’s all good. At slow speeds, the largely enclosed motor does get a bit hot under the collar but the radiator fan cuts in and out as required to get the temperature back down again. Moving the bike around on the faster bits, the KTM is surprisingly flickable for a big machine and I’d have gladly taken on more challenging going had my time and, maybe more importantly, AMS allowed…

The one side of the bike I’d have liked to have either upgraded or freshened up a little bit would have been the brakes. There’s a pair of meaty 300mm floating discs up front with Brembo twin pots, but compared to the radially mounted set-ups on newer bikes, the brakes lacked much feel. It might have been a brake service and some different pads would have made the difference, but as the bike came, they weren’t my favourite.

The back brake was fine with its smaller 240mm disc and dual pot caliper and the ABS at both ends is great to have, even if I never actually had to apply the anchors enough to call on the system.

KTM 990 Adventure review

Question time

So, it’s time to return to the question – should you buy one? The answer has to be a resounding yes – the KTM 990 Adventure is still an astoundingly good motorcycle and a solid buy. I may have only had the bike for a short while, but I loved the combination of the beautifully balanced chassis and the strong motor.

As a direct comparison to my Ténéré, the KTM is a vastly more capable machine in just about every department, and that’s probably why the 990s hold their value far better than the Yamaha, despite similar initial costs. This bike could have been loaded up then and there for a transcontinental trip, with no more preparation than filling the tanks and slinging your passport into the cubby hole on the tank.

What more do you want from an adventure bike?