Rough Raiders - BMW R1150GS, KTM 950 Adventure S and Honda Africa Twin

Welcome to the jungle. Actually, Wales, where the tarmac's twisty and lumpy and BMW's meaty GS Adventure meets the old-staging Honda Africa Twin and KTM's brand-bouncing new 950 Adventure S

They made an incongruous addition to the Travelodge car park - amid the sea of base-model rep-mobiles and white delivery vans the three bikes shoaled by reception didn't quite fit the usual profile of transport for the transitory masses booked in for a night of blandly uniform hostelry.

Viewed from the comfort of the Holiday Inn bar (truly this was a magical place, with a Little Thief and Burger King on site, just a stone's throw from Oxford, the A44 and our ticket to ride) BMW's R1150GS Adventure, KTM's 950 Adventure S and Honda's XRV750 Africa Twin stood out as beacons of rugged individualism. And even the most jaded traveller had to sneak a second look, especially at the KTM. Well, it is kind of hard to ignore...

But as hard to ignore as the bright orange KTM is all three are impressive, imposing motorcycles with real presence. The next day as we - me, Jon and Giles - digested our trio of Olympic breakfasts and sorted luggage, riding gear and route the sun shone as the temperature climbed and by 9.30am we were away from the hum-drum of workaday existence. Engines were warm, as were tyres and our mood. Our little adventure had begun.

Except, of course the rush hour hadn't finished. We rode straight into the snarl cutting lanes for a good half hour before we got away from the traffic. I had the Africa Twin - at 742ccs the smallest-lunged bike of the three by a fair margin. Its liquid-cooled 52¡ V-twin motor provided just enough easy going power to keep ahead and with its compact dimensions (205kg dry weight and 860mm seat height) and relatively nimble chassis dodging in and out of cars and diving between the skinniest of gaps was an effortless task.

While the Africa Twin excelled in the jams, the BMW was a far weightier proposition for Jon. For starters it's got a 900mm seat height and fully fuelled (that fat tank holds 30 litres - that's 6.6 gallons) the bike weighs 253kg. And it's wide - those air-cooled opposed cylinder heads see to that. This is one big motorcycle and well balanced as it most certainly is, even with its 1130cc motor providing instant lunge it's still an awkward beast to muscle through tight spaces.

While the Honda could nip and tuck, the BMW was forced to bludgeon and intimidate its way through the tin-tops. Which Jon managed well -must be something to do with the Beemer's deranged look and sheer menacing bulk, as people move fast when they see it coming in their mirrors. Even quicker if you set the high beam to 'blind' as Jon had also managed. Good survival tip too.

Which left Giles on the first motorbike he's truly fallen in love with on first sight, the KTM 950 Adventure S. Why? He's 6ft 7in tall and every bike is reduced to Tamiya 1/12 scale proportions under his massive frame. The Adventure S - with 35mm extra suspension travel over the standard Adventure - has a seat height of 915mm. While the BMW GS Adventure is simply big, the KTM Adventure S is simply tall. And though it weighs in dry just a kilo heavier than the Africa Twin its 942cc 75¡ V-twin engine packs a far mightier punch - 200ccs and a decade of development see to that.

Giles looks instantly at home on the Adventure S (and for once looks in proportion) though when we stop for the first compulsory fag stop makes a point that sub-3000rpm the KTM's motor is flat, the steering lock's restricted and he could still do with another 40mm on the seat. Blimey. All that while lighting a Lambert & Butler on one of the BMW's roasting exhaust downpipes (funny, didn't
see cigarette lighter in the extensive BMW accessory list).

KTM 950 Adventure S specs

PRICE NEW - £7700
POWER - 88.3bhp@8500rpm
TORQUE - 59.8lb.ft@7000rpm   
WEIGHT - 206kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 880mm   
TOP SPEED - 128.9mph
0-60     - n/a

But the open road wasn't far off and soon enough we crossed the M5 and launched toward Leominster, Shrewsbury and Wales. Now we could play. How I almost missed the traffic... Away from the confines of Oxford's congested ring road the Africa Twin now felt asthmatic. The engine worked well enough between 3-6000rpm, but the reality of just over 50bhp tugging around a heavyweight chassis equalled a practical top speed of... not much over the legal limit, officer. Up near the 8500rpm redline the Honda's engine feels strained, and fast cruising likewise is a bit frenzied - but then you've only five gears to work with, compared to the 6 speeders of the KTM and BMW. The more I rode the Africa Twin the more its V-twin engine felt to me like a single cylinder engine, its mellow power pulses giving an impression of one piston sliding up and down its bore, rather than two.

One by-product of the Africa Twin's apparent lack of power is drive - you can punt out of corners much harder than you'd credit for something this big and, er, slow. And the Honda's almost fun to ride because of this. Corner speed - as with the others - isn't monster trail bike territory but sub-50mph hit an apex, punch the Honda's throttle and the bike'll leap out and on in smart fashion. You can be very brave with the gas as the smooth torque delivery never threatens to unsettle
the rear tyre.

Unfortunately we were in wide-open territory where flogging the Honda's guts out was the only way to keep the others even vaguely in sight. But there's something about the underdog that intrigues and riding the Twinkie as fast as it'd go became a personal challenge. By mid-afternoon we'd made it to Betws-y-Coed. I was tired - flogging the Twinkie along had become hard work. The other two had fared better with an easier ride all round at the same speed. And neither seemed keen to swap. On a roadtest one bike always becomes the duffer, the last fat kid to be picked for the football team at school (Bertie?) I didn't want this fate to befall the Africa Twin - it's far too good a bike - but could see the seeds being sown. The Honda was going to end up in goal for the rest of the test, no doubt about it.

Giles wasn't totally smitten with the KTM after three hours in its saddle though. 'I don't know what it is...' he mumbled while sampling yet another L&B in yet another Little Chef '...but I just can't trust those tyres. I keep thinking the front's sliding and I've locked it up a few times on the brakes. The engine's great though, there's no step in the power and it just always makes a good hard wallop whenever you need it. The gearbox is precise, too. The seat's hard and there's bugger all weather protection. And it needs a fuel gauge - there's a light and a countdown trip when it comes on but it's not enough.'

Fair points well made, big man, though the problem you're having with the tyres is actually the suspension, even if the Pirelli hoops are a bit on the skinny side to deal with what is a 90bhp motorcycle. This is a dirtbike don't forget, and yards of spring, no matter how well damped, will not help precision or feel on tarmac. More spring preload and compression damping will help, but you have to pay a price for the KTM's plush ride and off-road ability. The adjustability is there - and as WP provide both the 48mm front forks and rear shock, quality is too.

Jon, likewise, had mixed emotions about the big BMW. 'The engine's strong off the bottom and through the middle, with plenty of lazy power which propels the thing along nicely. There's absolutely zero top-end poke however. I'm not overstruck on the lumpy gearbox and there's some buzzy vibration which I wasn't expecting. It steers slowly but is nailed-to-the-deck and very reassuring. Completely unflappable I'd say. It's very comfortable - the big screen works brilliantly - but it took a while to get the hang of the indicators. And I don't like the servo-assisted brakes. They've no feel and are full-on. Or full-off. The fuel gauge has hardly moved as well.'

Yeah. He's mostly right. As an '02 Adventure GS owner myself I'd clocked some changes. The '03 model's twin spark heads aid fuel consumption (by at least 5%) but overall power and torque are slightly down. You have to pay for cleaner emissions somehow and getting air-cooled engines through is increasingly difficult. And the on/off light switch has disappeared, they're on all the time now. As for the vibes this GS - with only 6000 miles on its old-fashioned odometer - was barely run in. Double the mileage and any tingles will have all but gone. And yeah, the indicators do take some getting used to. And those new servo-assisted brakes are a tech-step too far.

First impressions noted we hooked up with snapper Critch and dived off the main routes and into the back roads of the Snowdonia National Park. Our lethargy was dispelled by the stunning scenery and the challenging roads that seemed built for the bikes we were riding. And the evil Welsh midges - as the sun eased itself down toward the waiting horizon the little blighters came out in force and every stop for a picture resulted in a savaging from the little blighters. By the time we found our hotel - the excellent Groes Inn near Ty'n-y-groes - it was 8.58pm and we had two minutes to check in, order a slap-up feed and large volumes of local foaming fox piss, by the pint. No problem. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of blather, bullshit and bollocks, just as it should.

Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin Specs

PRICE NEW - £6149
POWER - 52.1bhp@7250rpm
TORQUE - 40.3lb.ft@6000rpm   
WEIGHT - 205kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 860mm   
TOP SPEED - 107.7mph
0-60     - n/a

The following morning was as bright and welcoming as the previous. Perfect. We had another day in the playground, and I'd firmly planted my backside on the KTM. I wanted some fun, and knew the KTM would be up for it. And I wasn't wrong - I think it starts with that responsive, fluid engine. It spins up quick and lays out beautifully smooth power, from 3-9000rpm. And it's got character too - where the sluggardly Honda's motor is soft and limp, the fruity KTM engine barks with every blip of throttle and backfires heartily on the over-run.

Add the KTM's genuine dirtbike ergonomics - flat seat and tapered Renthal Flatbars - plus a forgiving chassis and nimble steering and you really can have a bundle of laughs. With a set of 17inch rims and some sticky tyres the 950 would be the perfect supermoto - all of the insanity with none of the handicaps. Hmm...

As with the other two bikes forward vision is excellent on the KTM Adventure because you're so high. It's much easier to read the road coming up and the wide bars give loads of leverage so on the back roads of Snowdonia, with their mixture of fast and slow open/blind corners plus varied surfaces - from super smooth and grippy to bumpy and loose - the KTM was peerless. The strong Brembo brakes always gave it an advantage on the way into a corner and even the softish suspension doesn't hinder any apex-clipping accuracy. And then that engine drives the KTM out hard - very hard.

In truth, I loved riding the KTM. Every crest or lump in the road was an excuse for a wheelie and the more I rode, the more I loved it. But after a couple of hours of general looning about my arse was killing me and I was instinctively doing the 'KTM Shuffle', which involves resting only one cheek at a time on its narrow plank. Don't get me wrong, compared to KTM's EXC enduro range the 950's seat is plush, but next to the BMW it's just too thin and hard.

And just before we stopped for lunch, turning around on a hill for Jason's lens, the KTM's height finally caught me out - a dab on the downhill side of the bike with a too-short leg wasn't enough to hold it up, and the bloody thing simply fell on its side. Mind, it's easy to pick up, even if it doesn't look like it would be. And it wasn't damaged either, thanks to the sticky out plastic guards at the base of the fuel tank and the lever guards. Much tittering from the troops ensued, obviously. It's just too tall for me - and I'm an average 5ft 10in.

Giles had been on the BMW all morning: 'This GS engine reminds me of that R1200CL we rode to France a couple of months ago. It feels marginally stronger but not much. I like the handling after the KTM, I feel like I can trust it and it rolls around nicely. I'm with Jon about the brakes, they've just no feel. All in all it's really good but just a bit dull compared directly to the KTM.'

Jon, on the Africa Twin, was going through the same experiences as I'd had. 'Obviously it feels gutless compared to the others, hardly a surprise really. But at least it physically feels smaller. The suspension's very bouncy and doesn't give great feedback but you end up just sticking it in and hoping it'll grip. Which it does. The brakes are strong too. I'm not over-impressed with the dash, it looks like they forgot to finish it but for what it is - and what it costs - it's a good, solid honest bike. Can I swap it now though, please?

No. Piss off. It's home time, and I wanted the GS keys. Giles isn't daft, and exchanges 'em for the KTM keys. For the ride back I'm not interested in silliness but comfort - and comfort and miles are what the GS Adventure does best. You can load it up with baggage and it'll knock out 250 miles between stops easy, and the rider doesn't suffer along the way either. As a long distance mile muncher it's the best of the bunch by a long way - with a supreme riding position, heated grips and shaft drive. Bliss.

After we go our separate ways I've time to reflect on the three bikes, as I roll gently east on the GS. The Honda Africa Twin is a decent bike in some tough company - it's a great long-distance commuter and has built a strong, if small, following over the years. It's also reliable, robust and cheap which makes for a very good long-term travelling companion. £6000 is full money for a Twinkie, but they often get discounted which makes it even more of a bargain. It's old tech and suffers when compared with much more modern machinery, but not a bad bike in itself.

The BMW R1150GS, I mused, is a queer fish. Personally I love 'em but they do take some getting used to - they're quirky. What I like about the GS is its cast-iron reliability and (this may be hard to believe) its genuine all round dual-purpose capabilities. It's a good road bike, excellent tourer and more than competent off-roader (a week in the African bush on one last year taught me that) but I'm less struck on some of the detail changes to this year's bike - like the others I find the servo-assisted brakes an imposition, not an aid and the engine's crying out for a Remus can and some more fuel squirting through the injectors.

Still, it is a mighty motorcycle and though far from cheap - £8495 plus the £300 overland package which includes the 30l tank - GS residual values are always high, no matter the age or mileage, which helps the conscience when spending such a lot of dough on something - let's face it - that isn't at all sexy.
Which leaves the nearly sexy KTM 950 Adventure S. Do I want one? Yes. Would I swap my GS for one? No. I'd have to have the KTM for fun and the BMW for sensible. Bugger. Owning two bikes that appear so similar, yet are so different isn't an option but there's something about the KTM that draws me. It's no stunner, but it's a real goer and with a pair of noisy cans and SM wheels the 950 would be a tough act to follow for any bike, especially on the back roads of Wales. I'd have to go for the shorter bike - couldn't stand the embarrassment of regular pick-ups. And at £7700 (£7300 for the standard Adventure) the KTM's good VFM, if not bargain basement.*


So. The Honda's a commuter that looks like a dirtbike, the BMW's a tourer that can act like a dirtbike and the KTM's a dirtbike that makes a very good streetbike. You choose what suits you the best.

*Just one thing. As it is so obviously a dirtbike the KTM is a prime target for any light-fingered body that doesn't want to cough up the asking price. Our testbike was swiped by five thieving kids from outside Giles' gaff. The most over-specified field bike in the history of field bikes? We think so. We got it back (the police found them wheeling it away) with a butchered steering lock and ignition. Be warned.

BMW R1150GS Specs

PRICE NEW - £8495
POWER - 74.8bhp@6500rpm
TORQUE - 66.6lb.ft@5500rpm   
WEIGHT - 253kg (WET)
SEAT HEIGHT - 900mm   
TOP SPEED - 121mph
0-60     - n/a