First ride: KTM 1290 Super Adventure R review

The adventure bike that makes boys into men, and men into gods

By Simon Hargreaves

LARGE-CAPACITY adventure bikes have drifted from their original concept as genuine dual-purpose machines to become tarmac colossi, loaded with performance, technology, luxury, convenience and luggage, striding magnificently across continents on a tankful. They’re exceptional road bikes. But most owners no longer contemplate going off-piste because, unless you’re a handy enduro rider, the image dissolves on contact with reality. Compromised wheel sizes, weight balance and engine character catches up and... down we go.

But KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure R might be about to change all that. It’s the ‘off-road’ version of the recently launched 1290 Super Adventure S. And it’s making a claim to be a genuinely handy off-road tool as well as ticking all the road boxes.

The 1290 S and R have much in common: the same Euro 4-updated 1301cc 75° V-twin making 160hp at 8,750rpm and a thumping 103lbft at 6,750rpm. Both bikes also boast the latest engine management with a smörgåsbord of engine modes, lean-angle sensitive traction control options, multiple cornering ABS modes, cornering headlights and cruise control. The 1290 S and R also share the same steel tube frame, ally swing-arm, 23-litre tank, styling – and an incredible 6.5-inch dash, made from toughened glass and with an adjustable viewing angle. It looks like an iPad has landed where your crap old plastic grey dots used to be, and makes you wonder why we all put up with such appallingly lazy, cheap product design for so long.

The differences that make the 1290 R more useful off-road are:

• 21-inch front and 18-inch rear wire-spoked tubeless ally rims instead of cast 19in/18in wheels (for more impact strength and better steering and stability in the dirt)

• a flat, one-piece seat instead of a two-piece (for fore and aft rider weight transfer)

• engine bars (crash protection)

• a shorter, adjustable screen (less to smash your head into off-road)

• long-travel, conventional WP suspension (dedicated off-road set-up rather than the S model’s semi-active road-based settings)

The R is also few kilos heavier than the S, at 217kg dry/240kg wet, and £200 more expensive, at £14,499.

So does it work? To demonstrate how well the 1290 R’s off-road set-up can boost the confidence of a fairly novice off-road rider, KTM have flown a fairly novice off-road Visordown tester to Peru, to ride it in the desert.

The South American country hosted the Dakar rally in 2013, and is well-equipped with the boundless, sun-baked, sandy horizons many adventure bike customers dream of. And within a few miles of rocky trails, it’s clear the 1290 R is in a different league of off-road ability than its road-biased, 19-inch front-wheel rivals. It’s already accomplished something they can’t, by flooding a nervous off-roader with trust, confidence and happiness.

I’ve tested the 1290 R’s rivals off-road, and had ‘oh-shit’ moments on most of them – when ambition overtakes ability and road-based compromises become a hindrance. The result can be confidence destroyed, fun over, this is pointless, can we go home now please?

But the KTM’s 21-inch front felt instinctively stable and predictable, even to a goon rider.

Dirt-friendly TKC80 tyres were fitted for the test ride, instead of the un-knobbly Conti Trail Attack 2s that will be on 1290 Rs sold in the UK (I don’t get it - is this an off-road bike or not?)

At the end of long, fully-adjustable WP forks, the TKC80s delivered prodigious grip and stability, benefitting from astonishing ABS that lets the 1290 R brake almost as hard on dirt as on tarmac.

At the back, an enduro-derived WP shock runs a progressive damping system with a pair of damper pistons on the one rod – one delivering damping force at conventional loads, the other augmenting damping at higher loading.

The result is a balanced, controlled, confident ride without the vague wandering at the front end typical of road-based adventure bikes. It means you can blat the 1290 R along happily at 90mph, over a gravel road that’d shred you like a cheese-grater if it all went wrong.

The other weapon in the 1290 R’s off-road arsenal is its traction control system. In Sport mode the full 160hp is plenty of beef on tarmac and trounces BMW’s GS. But on dirt, Off-Road mode makes sense, limiting power to 100hp and knocking back throttle response to suit. With IMU-based lean angle data, the electronics ‘know’exactly what you need in any situation to keep moving forward; pull away on loose stuff and the TC works out what you want to get going. Minutes later, in the same mode, the back is arcing sideways under power.

The result of this controllability, along with the 1290 R’s agility, which belies its weight, is a bike that seems to know where you want it to go and communicates readily that it’s okay, it’s perfectly capable of getting there without making you look an ass.

And, in that regard, the 1290 R is exactly as KTM describe; a road-based adventure bike with the right modifications over the 1290 S to give it real off-road purpose, especially for the wary. Other adventure bikes might look the part, but the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R can really do it, and help you do it too.

All you need now is a desert.

Read our BMW R1200GS Rallye review.

Model tested: KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

Price: £14,499

Engine: 1301cc, 8v, liquid-cooled 75° V-twin

Power: 160hp @ 8,750 rpm

Torque: 103lbft @ 6,750 rpm

Dry weight: 217kg

Wet weight: 240kg

Traction control: four-mode, disengageable

Frame: chrome-moly steel trellis

Front suspension: WP usd 48mm, fully adjustable, 220mm travel

Rear suspension: WP direct link, twin-damper, fully adjustable, 220mm travel

Suspension travel front/rear: 200/200 mm

Front brake: 2 x 320mm discs, Brembo four piston, radially mounted caliper

Rear brake: 267mm disc, Brembo two piston caliper

ABS: Bosch 9ME Combined-ABS (incl. cornering ABS and offroad mode, disengageable)

Wheels: wire-spoked tubeless aluminium rims; 2.50 x 21in front; 4.50 x 18in rear

Tyres: 90/90 21 front; 150/70 18 rear

Seat height: 890mm

Fuel capacity: 23 litres (3.5 litres reserve)

Colours: orange/white