2009 KTM 990 Adventure and Adventure R review

KTM’s mighty Adventure gets the R treatment, creating the most hardcore adventure bike on the market. But when the standard version’s so damn good, is the R an essential overlander or a cynical marketing exercise?

Click to read: KTM 990 Adventure owners reviews, KTM 990 Adventure specs and to see the KTM 990 Adventure image gallery.

What makes a good adventure bike? Does it have to be a perfect blend of on and off-road performance? KTM’s philosophy with its new-for- 2009 version of the Adventure is aimed squarely at fun on the tarmac with a minor sprinkling of off-road ability. Could it really be the case that KTM are hoping to create a new generation of two-wheeled Chelsea tractor drivers?

Unlikely. KTM are world leaders on the dirt and the Adventure models have always reflected the firm’s involvement in off-road racing, most visibly in the Dakar rally. Their bikes have long ruled the dunes, and it seems KTM are now comfortable in this market and want to diversify their range to offer a more refined ride for the everyday road rider. The re-engineering of the firm’s product line to offer more road-focussed bikes appears to be working for the Austrians, and certainly shows no sign of slowing down – the RC8R, 990SMT and 990SMR all join the range this year. And all that off-road heritage doesn’t go to waste. KTM’s machines have the potential to offer a winning combination of serious performance and great rider feedback.

The Italian island of Sardinia was the location for the recent launch of two new Adventures; an updated version of the standard machine and the new R, a high performance version that takes the place of the old S.

As for Sardinia, what a place. The island is beautiful, with the kind of roads to bring on some huge smiles. Great surfaces and every kind of bend imaginable, with just a little sprinkling of dirt track chucked into the mix – the perfect test venue for these machines.

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990 Adventure & R

990 Adventure

The revised Adventure is now available in orange and white. There are more subtle colour changes too, with a move to a black swingarm, brake calipers and fork hangers. The Adventure remains a big bike with the potential to intimidate some riders, but the first thing you notice when sitting on the bike is how well-balanced it feels. This balance inspires confidence as soon as you sit down on the stepped seat, which sits at a lofty but not ridiculous 860mm from the ground.

The riding position is comfortable in relation to the footpegs and handlebars, so you instantly feel the business when saddled up on the machine. The bike feels like a blend of comfort and racing style, with a slightly soft seat foam the only downside – an issue that could just have been a product of my large behind applying too much pressure to the Austrian foam. There is a gel seat available in the accessories catalogue, and I’d order one of those straight off the bat.

An obvious result of the update is a new lid to the handy storage area that sits between the Adventure’s trademark twin fuel tanks. It now promises easier access thanks to a new catch design, and improved security through a lock linked to the same mechanism that releases the seat. The new cockpit is borrowed from the Super Duke and has an on/off switch for the ABS system as well as a power socket for a GPS unit or a phone charger. The ABS can be activated and deactivated with a five-second press of the button with the engine running, but re-activates every time you stop the engine. An immobiliser is also fitted as standard deter any thieving bastards.

The 58kg 999cc V-twin motor has also undergone a makeover and now pushes out more power and torque. The claimed peak power figure climbs 8bhp from 98bhp to 106bhp, largely due to a new cylinder head design with better gas flow. There are also new cams and the crankshaft and piston have been lightened to help the engine rev more freely and create a smoother power delivery. The intake system retains its dual throttle butterfly arrangement, again for a silky throttle response.

The twistgrip operates the first butterfly while the ECU controls the second, using it as best it can to make the most of your hamfisted inputs. For example if you open the throttle too hard and too quickly, a signal is sent to the secondary butterfly to open it more slowly, giving a progressive pick-up to the power. The system works really well, and helps reinforce the Adventure as a practical road tool, not some brutal dirt monster. The firm wants the 990 Adventure to be absolutely usable as an everyday bike, so it has to perform at lower revs with minimal lash to make life easy on the mean streets.

KTM were aiming for smooth with this bike and that is exactly what you get – this thing is smoother than Niall Mac after one of his special beauty sessions. The power builds easily with no hesitation from the deepest bowels of the rev-range, and from there the engine takes you on a pleasant journey to speedsville. The fuel injection works without a hint of hesitation and is consistent between bikes too – every Adventure I swapped to during the launch felt the same as the others. The bike’s easy speed, together with the bike’s great balance through corners, is hugely confidence inspiring.

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Overall and specs

Despite still being a little vulnerable in sidewinds thanks to that huge surface area in profile, the Adventure is a pretty solid device. The ride is balanced and at no time do you feel like it is going to misbehave. The riding position manages to stay comfortable all day long and the controls are all positive during riding. Even though I’m not generally a big fan of ABS systems, KTM’s system works really well on the Adventure. If you want to cut loose, just switch the system off and get on with it. The suspension eats up any kind of road with ease and never gets unruly, regardless of how heavy you or your throttle hand are. The bike sits down well during cornering, and only lacks meat during tough off-road sessions.

As far as road riding is concerned, the KTM’s chassis and engine are tough to criticise. Changing direction is a dream and the power delivery is silky throughout the range. Low-speed stuff is handled easily and tickling along is no problem. With every mile the Adventure seems to get smaller, the imposing lump of a bike giving way to an easygoing friend regardless of the riding you need to do.

Adventure R

The most distinctive feature of the R model is its colours cheme. The black and orange is striking and the manufacturer has stuck to its racing roots with this one. Power is up from 98bhp to 115bhp. That’s a significant increase, and most of it has been found through re-mapping. The power increase has been designed to kick in when the bike is pushed to higher revs. Other major differences with this model include the suspension travel, which goes from a standard travel of 210mm to a whopping 265mm of travel on the R, enough to handle bigger hits when you venture off-road.

The R sits a bit taller with the longer travel suspension, which may make life a bit difficult for shorter riders. There is no ABS system on the R model, so there is no messing around with the on/ off switch if you prefer to ride unaided. All the other features on the R model are the same as its little brother’s; same updated cockpit, component finishes and engine performance.

This slice of Austrian engineering has all the smoothness of the 990 with a little extra kick to it, both on and off-road – that can only be a good thing. The bike handles everything brilliantly on the dirt and the confidence gained through the extra suspension travel and slightly stiffer set-up is great, particularly on more technical terrain. For a big bike, this thing eats it up. The extra torque from the engine makes a big difference in all situations, and I can see all the future Adventure models coming with the increased torque as it has a very positive effect on the overall ride on any surface.

Even with the bike sitting taller, on-road cornering remains extremely positive and well-behaved. The seat on the R is firm and very comfortable – the foam is far better than that found on the standard model – but I found the standard bike slightly easier to hustle thanks to the narrower seat, which makes moving around the bike very easy.

The R model may lose out a little in on-road handling but, when the throttle’s opened right up, the standard bike is left behind at a fair rate, such is the R’s power advantage. Just like the standard model the R is a friend of a bike, just one that’s ready to open up a can of whup-ass when required, both on and off-road.


Price: £9,495 (£9,695 R)
Engine: Liquid cooled, four-stroke, V-twin, 999cc
Power: 104bhp @ 7,800rpm (115bhp @ 9,500rpm R)
Torque: 74ft.lb @ 6,500rpm
Front suspension: 48mm USD fork, 210mm (265mm R)
Rear suspension: WP monoshock
Front brake: 300mm discs, two-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 240mm disc, two-piston caliper
Dry weight: 209kg
Seat height: 860mm (915mm R)
Fuel capacity: 23.5 litres
Top speed: 135mph
Colours: White, Orange, (Black/Orange R)

Visordown rating: 4/5