2009 KTM 990SMT first ride review

It’s taken Austrian dirt bike peddlers KTM a decade, but the orange House of Madness has finally produced a sensible motorbike. Except it isn’t, not really…

Click to read: KTM 990 SMT owners reviews, KTM 990 SMT specs or to see the KTM 990 SMT image gallery.

The launch of a new motorcycle used to be a terribly messy, often Bacchanalian affair. In the mid-1990s when the average testosterone-charged tester was 27 years old and the bike industry was booming, marketing managers had vast pots of cash to spend and invariably launches descended into chaos. There was the Yamaha TRX850 launch of 1993, when photographer Kenny P was found unconscious from alcohol poisoning in a bath still running eight hours later (the hotel room repair bill was £17,000) while Chris Porter from Fast Bikes and I were arrested by Spanish police for stealing a small powerboat and setting off across Barcelona harbour.

In 1997 there was a spectacular launch in Florida (which shall remain anonymous), where we convinced the notoriously tight marketing boss of the time to spend $2,800 on lapdancers and cocaine for the eagerly waiting journalists. And of course, who can forget the legendary GSXR1000 launch of 2000, when a golf buggy was stolen and overturned into a lake at 3am by Jimi Miller (Fast Bikes again) while Martin Child of Bike and I blasted golf balls at each other across the hotel lobby with drivers. It was hilarious right up to the point we caught a complaining guest across the side of the head and all the emergency services got involved.

Ah, happy days. But age has caught up with us all and invariably launches today are much more sensible affairs. Instead of heading directly to the bar, now all the journos go for a 6-mile run or call the missus instead to let her know they landed safely. We all have to grow up at some point, and now KTM – the thrash metalists of the motorcycle industry – have done the same with their 990 SMT. A sensible KTM? Surely not. The SMT (where the T stands for Travel, not Touring) is KTM’s personal admission that in today’s climate even they need to spread their wings a little wider and move away, just a tiny bit, from their “everything we produce will rip your head off” image of the past.

“This is a big step,” admits their PR manager Thomas Kuttruf. “Racing is in the KTM mind forever, but as we see the market change so we have to respond. We’ve almost built a fence around our own products in the past, and for some people KTM is an intimidating brand. Now with the SMT we are hoping to change this with the first long-distance supermoto.”

Click next to continue

On the face of it, the SMT is simply a 990SM with some much smarter bodywork and a bigger screen. The nose fairing is now supported by its own framework and it looks good, much better than the bike it’s based upon. The trellis frame’s the same; the 115bhp, 75° V-twin remains untouched, the wheels, forks and swingarm are all instantly recognisable from the standard 990 Supermoto. This being KTM, all the shocks are fully adjustable and a pair of mighty Brembo calipers haul things down at the front. To be honest, right now I’m struggling to see where the bold new direction is coming from: the SMT is just an SM with a bigger screen and some snazzy bolt-on panniers, right?

“Small changes for a big effect,” says Thomas as he slaps me on the back and we head off on a glorious 128km road-loop into the mountains around the Algarve. The SMT is light and boisterous off the throttle, with loads of instant response and midrange power. A typical KTM, then. The gear ratios are widely spaced and need a positive boot, while the handling is tall and very precise for a ‘travelling’ (not touring) bike. There’s that slightly wayward, bouncy-bouncy sensation that you get with all long-suspension motorcycles, the sort of feel that sportsbike die-hards hate and old farts like me love.

It’s called comfort, you see. And the SMT is certainly that. The relationship betwixt pegs, seat and screen is ideal for viewing foreign countries at your leisure and the SMT throbs along at a serene pace. For it is a fact that while you can ride this bike quickly, you absolutely don’t have to. Unlike previous models, this is one KTM that doesn’t endlessly egg you on, nor make you feel like a wimp when you don’t. Whole tracts of the countryside go by and you’re more than happy to sit there and take it all in without feeling the need to even pull a wheelie.

Click next to continue

But should you wish to go ape, of course the SMT will accommodate. It blasts from apex to apex with loads of feel from the front, big brakes and loads of stomp. The LC8 engine is, as always, vibey and involving, still as unrefined as ever and for this I love it. In a world of whispersmooth refinement, it’s nice to have something ballsy beneath your throttle hand. In loony mode you could

argue that it’s almost a bit too fast and responsive for a long-distance tool, and that perhaps making a ‘travelling’ tool out of any supermoto-based machine is like fitting a square pole into a round hole. But the throttle works both ways and covering distance is remarkably stress-free on the SMT, even if the fuel light did come on around the 110 mile mark.

That the SMT can go fast is a given – it’s a KTM. That it can go slow is more of a surprise. In this respect the chaps in Austria have succeeded. The SMT can be reasonably compared to bikes like the BMW GS and Triumph Tiger, both character-laden bikes with fanatical followings and for good reason. All we need out of them next is a custom musclebike (something that KTM would do brilliantly) and the Austrian’s transformation into a mainstream motorcycle manufacturer will be complete. Something they probably never saw coming.

Suspension Set-Up:
The SMT has fully adjustable suspension (naturally enough). In stock form it can get a little loose at high speed, so why not tighten it up with these settings?

Front suspension:
Compression: +5 clicks
Rebound: +5 clicks

Rear suspension:
Hi-speed compression: +.5 turn
Lo-speed compression: +5 clicks
Rebound: +5 clicks

If you want even more comfort, do the same adjustments above but in the opposite (minus) direction.


Price: £9,595
Engine: 999cc 75° V-twin DOHC
Compression ratio: 11.5:1
Power: 115bhp @ 9,000rpm
Torque: 78ft.lb @ 7,000rpm
Frame: Steel trellis
Front suspension: USD WP 48mm forks, 160mm travel, fully adjustable
Rear suspension:  WP Monoshock, 180mm travel, fully adjustable
Front brake: Brembo calipers, 305mm discs
Rear brake: Single 240mm disc
Wheelbase: 1505mm
Seat height: 855mm
Weight: 196KG

Visordown rating: 3/5