Long-distance test: KTM 790 Adventure

The longest Team Throttle test ever brought me from the Black Forest via the Dolomites to the French Alps. Then I circled the Gorges du Verdon and zigzagged through the Pyrenees. All together I covered 7042 km in 17 riding days.

I rode the most hyped bike of 2019: the KTM 790 Adventure. It turned into a story of love and hate, of rejection and attraction. But also a story of sheer ecstasy and high climaxes. And finally a story of regret. Regret that I had to say goodbye to this polarizing bike.

First impression

It didn’t start well, my relationship with this KTM. I had been eagerly looking forward to meet this new Austrian in person, but during our first rendezvous at the Brussels Motor Show early 2019, I was disappointed: I didn’t find it attractive and the bulging tank looked weird, like man-boobs. Was this the bike that would turn the adventure class upside down?

Luggage

My purpose during the trip was to camp as often as possible and cook myself on a regular basis. So I needed to take quite a bit of luggage.

KTM had equipped the 790 with plastic panniers. They look quite slick and are easy to install on the nicely integrated pannier racks. Unfortunately they open from the side and have a weirdly shaped interior, making it difficult to use their full capacity (35 liters on the left and 27 liters on the right).

Aluminum cases that open from the top may need a separate rack, but they’re much more convenient to use and you can tie stuff to the rack too. If you tie things to the passenger grips of the 790, it better be your lucky day. They’re open on one side, so a stretcher or strap slips off easily. Apart from that, they’re well designed and made of a pleasant non-slip material. Perfect for your duo or to maneuver the bike.

After some puzzling, three roll bags with camping material ended up on top of the passenger seat and the panniers were filled with lighter things.

Second impression

I got my second impression of the 790 Adventure during 400 kilometers of highway that marked the start of my trip. Together with Jean I rode from Luxembourg to the Black Forest in Germany. Biker buddy Tony joined us there for four riding days.

That stretch of highway didn’t make my second impression much better than my first. Due to excessive vibrations, buffeting around my head and the hard seat, I arrived in the Black Forest with tingling fingers, sleeping family jewels and buzzing ears. Did I still have to travel 7000 kilometers with this bike?

Looks

So is this weird KTM a beauty or not? It was the main topic of conversation during our first evening in the Black Forest. The split headlight clearly wasn’t of everyone’s taste. Personally, I like it, it gives the KTM an aggressive face.

The tank, with its two big bumps, looks odd. We didn’t know what to think of it. But it’s certainly unique and can’t be compared to anything else in motorcycle land. The plastic of the panels is thick, matte and not very elegant. On the other hand, we loved the cast aluminum, open swing arm.

When we sat back in our Helinox seats, comparing the KTM to the high, slender and elegant Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports next to it, our preliminary decision was that the 790 looks a bit huddled, as if it crashed into a wall. Nobody seemed a big fan.

Fickle

We were barely off the camping the first morning when I had to pull over and tell Jean and Tony I had to fill up urgently: the display showed that I could barely ride more than 10 km. WTF … How was this possible?! I was 100% sure that the same display told me the evening before that I could still do 90 km.

After some anxious kilometers, the range rose again, but it didn’t exceed 30 km, let alone that it reached yesterday’s 90 km. Apparently the sensor is located somewhere in the right-hand tank part, resulting in the 790 indicating an incorrect gas level after it stood on the side stand. During the entire trip, the fuel gauge and range were incredibly fickle and unreliable.

Nevertheless, the 790 rides quite economically. On average, it consumed a more than fair 4.4 l/100 km during the entire test. As a result, I could ride more than 400 km on a full tank, with one exception: the last day I did 900 km in 8 hours, mainly on the motorway.

Convinced

It was about time that the KTM started to convince me, because so far it didn’t make a great impression. Fortunately we were in the right place to do just that: on the winding roads of the Black Forest. The 790 Adventure felt completely at ease on the sometimes awfully bad asphalt.

It entered corners very easily and offered a relaxed sitting position, with my legs in an ideal angle, the back straight and the hands on the wide handlebars. Despite the large 21” front wheel, the bike required surprisingly little input. It didn’t deviate from the chosen line and it allowed for corrections without protesting. The WP suspension expertly filtered out holes and bumps and ensured that the 790 rode as if it were running on rails.

Just like every other adventure bike in this class, the engine delivers 95 hp. But it’s the 88 Nm torque, the way in which the LC8c twin-cylinder releases its power and especially the dry weight of barely 189 kilos, that make the difference. The 790 reacted snappy to any throttle input, had plenty of torque throughout the range and loved to do high rpms. In addition, the soundtrack from the optional Akra was acceptably aggressive. With the standard quickshifter you can shift both up and down very smoothly. What a wonderful bike this is!

Despite the two balancing shafts, the engine vibrates very hard, especially at 5000 to 6000 rpm, which happens to be the range for cruising. If you ride 90 km/h in fourth gear or 120 km/h in fifth or sixth gear, the 790 vibrates the fillings out of your teeth.

Unfortunately, they’re not the kind of vibrations that give the bike extra character, but vibrations that make your hands tingle and your bum numb. The standard seat is too hard to be comfortable, but luckily it offers a lot of feeling with the bike.

Rain

After 4 days in the Black Forest, Jean returned home while Tony and I headed for the Dolomites. Before we got there we had to endure six hours of pouring rain. Fortunately my legs stayed dry for a long time and they didn’t catch much wind. My shoulders and chest were also well protected, despite the windshield that looks rather small. What’s also striking: the mirrors. They remained perfectly dry, even in heavy rain, and always offered good visibility.

On the soaked and often slippery mountain passes, the standard angle-sensitive traction control and cornering ABS proved their worth: illuminating lights on the dash occasionally indicated that the electronics were working, but I didn’t feel any of the subtle interventions.

The beautiful TFT display shows the settings of all electronic aids. With the buttons on the left-hand side of the handlebars you can change them. The menu is intuitively structured so after a short while I didn’t even need to look at the display anymore when changing settings.

KTM offers My Ride on the 790 Adventure. This allows to receive calls or listen to music via a connected smartphone. I pre-installed the My Ride app on my phone and connecting it to the bike was peanuts. Since I have no audio system installed in my helmet, I had no idea if the technology worked. Until I suddenly saw a phone number appear on my dashboard: it actually worked. Via the optional (and paying) navigation app you can even display navigation instructions on the TFT screen. Which I didn’t try.

Smart

On the way to the Dolomites, something started rattling. The chain, too loose. Seemed normal after the distance we had covered so far. So it was time to tighten it. Without a centerstand, I was glad Tony was still around.

I removed the seat, looking for the toolkit, and only saw the air inlet and filter, which are cleverly located under the seat. This makes the air-filter replacement an easy job. But I didn’t see any tools. After calling a helpline I found the toolkit to be hidden behind one of the side panels. Like almost all other panels, this panel can be removed without tools.

Speaking of panels: they are all made of robust, enduro-like plastic. Moreover, the orange panels with the black and white graphics are completely cast in color so scratches mainly go unremarked. The stickers on the rear panels are also very sturdy.

The tool set is quite extensive, as we’ve seen on other KTM’s. Only the spanners which are needed to release the chain tensioners are of poor quality: they slid off the nut too easily, without loosening them even one millimeter. Tony always takes a pannier filled with tools, so a few minutes later the chain was tightened again.

Stable

During three days of cornering the Dolomites, the 790 Adventure proved that it’s a real rider’s motorbike. The more corners, the higher the speed and the more challenging the road surface, the more it likes it.

Riding corners with this KTM is very easy. In contrast to other adventure bikes with a 21” front wheel (such as the Tiger 800 XCa, the 850 GS and certainly the Ténéré 700), the KTM barely fell into the corner. It tilted nicely and predictably till it reached the desired angle and had no problem keeping it.

In slow hairpins its stability is unprecedented. Not only because of the perfect throttle response, but also because of the low center of gravity. That strangely bulging tank does have a purpose: it lowers the center of gravity, which increases stability.

After the Dolomites, I continued alone. From now on I wouldn’t camp twice on the same spot anymore, so I’d have to do the Alps and the Pyrenees with all the luggage on the bike at all times. That didn’t take any effort, so I never felt the urge to adjust the suspension. And that’s a good thing because – with the exception of the spring preload – adjusting the suspension isn’t possible on this “normal” 790 Adventure. For a fully adjustable suspension you’ll have to choose the 790 Adventure R.

Despite the extra weight of the luggage, the brakes still did a good job and to adventure bike standards the bike dove very little when braking hard. Two things it does better than the rest of the pack.

Buffeting

Together with the 790, I strolled along the mundane shores of Lake Garda and rode through the majestic Alps on Europe’s highest asphalted road. When I set course for the Pyrenees, my GPS served motorway again. After a few kilometers the buffeting started to annoy me again and I decided it was time to figure out how to raise the windshield. Unfortunately you need tools for this, but by not installing a windshield adjustment system, KTM saves weight.

It was a stupid move to have waited for 4000 km to adjust the windshield, because the buffeting became acceptable all at once. The faster I went, the better the air was guided over my helmet. So I knew what to do.

Off-road

Along with the emptiness of the Pyrenees, the end of this trip came into sight. On the penultimate day I had planned the only bit of off-road of my journey.

The bike was fully packed and equipped with plastic panniers, so I absolutely wanted to avoid a fall. I started on the unpaved part hesitantly. Technically it wasn’t difficult at all, but the Dunlop Trailsmart tires aren’t made for off-road either.

Soon the 790 gave me so much confidence that I steadily rode faster and faster. The throttle response is perfect in the off-road mode: calm and controlled at first, but if you want it can still show some insanity, with the rear wheel spinning in a controlled manner.

The handlebars are positioned a bit too low to ride comfortably in an upright standing position, and although the bar can be adjusted in six different positions, I didn’t bother. My off-road plans weren’t that big. Because of this, I was bent over in an attacking posture. My nose came dangerously close to the windshield, which was still in its highest position.

The 790 made me forget why a hernia was limiting me to riding asphalt only for the last year and a half. I almost declared eternal love to this orange stunner. And I remembered again why riding off-road on a big adventure motorcycle is so much fun.

Conclusion

After a difficult start, my relationship with this unconventional Austrian only got better. Towards the end I even started to see beauty in it. Not because of its aesthetics but because of the smart design choices. A lot of thought went into this bike. Except for the clumsy gas cap which weirdly enough opens to the front.

Moreover, the KTM 790 Adventure does something that other adventure motorcycles so far couldn’t: it offers all the advantages of an adventure bike with large wheels, but it doesn’t ride like one. It rides better, gives more feedback, brakes more powerfully, dives less. Due to its low weight, low center of gravity and low seat height, it’s also easier to handle in a tight space.

Although the 790 won my heart, I still have a love-hate relationship with it. The unreliable gas meter makes me go nuts. The vibrations are unacceptable to me and the seat’s way too hard. As long as it’s a varied ride, this isn’t a problem and the 790 probably is the best middleweight adventure bike on the market right now. But I would avoid long, monotonous expeditions.

Still, KTM offers some solutions. You can’t get rid off the vibrations but you can get the cruise control so that your right hand can occasionally relax. The Powerparts catalog also contains the thicker and more comfortable R model seat that fits the 790 Adventure as well. Buffeting is a very personal phenomenon and partly depends on the helmet that you wear, but you could mount the smaller screen so that the air stream isn’t directed straight onto your helmet.

I regretted that I had to give the 790 back. While riding home, I missed its punch, its stubbornness, its whimsiness. Maybe it’s time for me to make a change and go for a ginger sweetheart. One with cruise control, a soft seat and man-boobs.

Pros

+ Great engine
+ Extremely stable under all conditions
+ Electronics and quickshifter work perfectly

Cons

– Annoying vibrations around 5000 rpm
– Hard seat
– Buffeting

Tech specs

Engine

Displacement: 799 cm³
Power: 70 kW / 95 pk
Torque: 88 Nm
Design: 2-cylinder, 4-stroke, parallel twin
Bore: 88 mm
Stroke: 65.7 mm
Starter: Electric starter
Lubrication: Forced oil lubrication with 2 oil pumps
Transmission: 6-speed
Cooling: Liquid cooled
Clutch PASC™ antihopping clutch, mechanically operated
EMS: Bosch EMS with RBW

Chassis

Frame: Chromium-Molybdenum-Steel frame using the engine as stressed element, powder coated
Front suspension: WP upside-down Ø 43 mm
Rear suspension: WP monoshock
Suspension travel (front / rear): 200 mm / 200 mm
Front brake: 2x radially mounted 4 piston caliper
Rear brake: 2 piston floating caliper
Brake disc diameter (front/rear): 320 mm / 260 mm
ABS: Bosch 9.1 MP (incl. Cornering-ABS and offroad mode, disengageable)
Chain: X-Ring 5/8 x 1/4″
Steering head angle: 64.1 °
Ground clearance: 233 mm
Seat height: 850 mm
Tank capacity (approx.): 20 l
Dry weight: 189 kg

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