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September 16, 2011

Rider’s Report–KTM at Indy

by drivingfarce

We all know one. That guy. The one born of wealthy and intelligent stock, who is not only good looking and athletic but seems to be talented in all aspects of life. The guy that can do absolutely anything he puts his mind to. Meanwhile, the rest of us in society are left looking onward in disbelief. You are amazed by him. You are humiliated by him. You respect him. You covet him. You would secretly wish him dead, if it weren’t for that one flaw that you know about. It could be his giant nose, but often these flaws are hidden deep down beneath the surface, where only those close to him know the truth. That ugly truth is: he’s got a terrible sense of rhythm. And it delights you.

The golden boy of the two-wheeled world these days seems to be KTM. Their off-road lineup is a brutal force to be reckoned with since nearly every machine in their product range seems to be either a class-leader or at least right up there with the best of the best. They have a strong reputation as four-stroke single-cylinder masters (and their acquisition of dirtbeast builder Husaberg certainly didn’t hurt that), and they still have the backbone to offer a great two-stroke choice in each class as well. (It’s still nice to have the option of premix.)

Several years ago KTM decided that being great at off-road was….well, great…but they were after something more. There are an awful lot of paved roads around the world, and they can be just as demanding to tame as the soft stuff. The Austrians saw a challenge and went about expanding their product line in order to conquer it. Instead of just tacking on lights and 17” road wheels to an existing dirt bike (Duke, anyone?), they have started with fresh frames and a new engine: the stellar LC8 V-twin. They even came out swinging hard with a world-class Superbike that everyone should take seriously.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the KTM Demo Tent while at the U.S. MotoGP in Indianapolis. Next to the big orange transporter were all of KTM’s latest on-road offerings. As I poked and prodded the bikes under the canopy, I noted their approach to design and manufacturing. Unlike so many motorcycles I’ve had the displeasure of working on over the years, KTM’s bikes seem to make more sense and get even more beautiful the deeper you know them. (I’m secretly hoping KTM starts building women.) The designs are purposeful, yet attractive and they seem to be extremely well thought-out. After pouring over the models lined up for us to drool over (an entirely different experience from Ducati Island, I might add), I signed up for my demo ride bright and early each morning. Here is my take on each machine:

Ride #1: 990 Adventure Dakar Edition
I will admit it. I’ve always had a soft spot for big BMW GS bikes. They are fully capable machines that can go around the world, pack a ton of gear in the hard luggage, do an adequate job in the dirt, and corner on asphalt with enough enthusiasm to make a sportbike sweat. I love them and always saw myself eventually owning one. That has now changed.

The beauty of the big KTM dual-purpose bikes is that they feel remarkably like a bike much smaller than they are. They’re narrow, and tall, with little in the way of plastic bodywork to get in the way of the terrain. They carry their weight low and feel nimble and stable because of it. A comparable BMW feels so much larger and more cumbersome.

I swung a leg over the big blue Dakar and was amazed at how I immediately felt at home. The wide bars have just the right amount of sweep, and the switches all found my thumbs quickly. The bike fired to life with just a quick jab on the button. It thumped away happily, but I gave the right grip a few quick twists and was greeted with a sharp bark and an eagerness to rev: pure KTM. As we got rolling, I was pleased with how easy it was to maneuver through traffic. It is especially adept at staying upright while stopped. (Feet are for quitters!) The demo ride took us through a section of snaking fresh pavement, turning onto a section of broken macadam with some loose gravel. The Dakar took the curves with as much confidence as it took the rough. It seemed to make no difference. The suspension seemed to be soft enough to handle anything. Besides, if it didn’t, those big orange crash guards should save the bike from any terminal damage.

Big Blue

The gearbox was sweet, with a slick action and just a hint of hang-up in the action between gears. This is not a fault, in my experience. It just feels like the manufacturing tolerances are super-tight and, given a few thousand miles, will be a very sweet ‘box to ride with for a very long time. The gear ratios are well-chosen and evenly spaced.

The engine is a thing of beauty. It is smooth, yet has good grunt immediately off the bottom. The midrange is big, and the top end has enough pull to make those wide bars a wise choice. It is a truly delightful engine, with one small hitch: the fueling is very abrupt in off-on throttle response. It could really be a detriment when riding off-road.

As I pulled the bike back into its place in the demo grid, I shut it down, climbed off and stood there staring at it. “I will own one of these.”

Ride #2: 990 Adventure

I know what you’re thinking. “Another Adventure?!? Why not the RC8?” And I will admit that I was tempted to grab a place perched upon the Orange Origami Superbike, but I knew the test loop would hold absolutely no promise of seeing what an RC8 chassis or engine are capable of, so I decided to stick with a streetable machine. Besides, I wanted to see if the softer engine of the standard 990 Adventure was any different from the Dakar model. (Also, the plump man using his Alpinestars suit like a natural sausage casing stole my place in line for it.)

The chassis is shared with the Dakar, but the difference is that the standard model is almost 9HP down from the Dakar and R models. The result: no discernible difference. At least there was nothing that the real-world riding loop showed to be a huge advantage either way. Both bikes were incredibly forgiving, and both seemed to suffer from the same fuel injection glitch. It was more than a bit frustrating.

Ride #3: 990 Supermoto T

I was excited at the prospect of riding this bike. I wanted to see how much of a balance could be struck by the designers between wicked and useful. Being the proud owner of a Husaberg FS600 SuperMotard, I know all about how wicked and unforgiving a dedicated SM can be. (And fun!) Ride the HuseMoose more than a tankful and you need a shoehorn to remove it from your backside. Keep the throttle pinned in 6th gear over a seemingly subtle crest and you’ll be doing your best Max Biaggi impression in no time. Add in some utility in the form of panniers and racks, a larger fuel tank (5 gal.), and a comfortable seat (like KTM has done) and it could be the recipe for the ultimate commuter bike: fully capable, fully fun.

So how much badness did the Austrians allow into this commuter bike? Honestly, I don’t know. There were a couple factors that kept me from exploring the vast potential of the SmT. The forks felt absolutely superb for city streets. Firm, yet not harsh on the manhole covers or bridge transitions. Unfortunately, the rear shock was setup with so little preload and damping that the rear was wallowing around like a Shoney’s customer hustling for the bacon bin. It really ruined the experience. Also, the fueling hiccup found on the LC8 engines of the Adventures also was present here, only in a more pronounced lurch. I spoke with my friend Steve, who had a chance to try the 990 Supermoto R (a more dedicatedly sporting machine), and he said that the SmR model was even worse. I’m glad I didn’t have the job of riding that one.

Ride #4: 990 Adventure R

I realize this is starting to repeat itself. However, I had the chance to swap the SmT with Steve for the Adventure R at a fuel stop, midway through the ride. I’m glad I did.

The Adv R differs from the standard Adv in three ways: bigger suspension travel, taller seat, and the higher horsepower engine shared with the Dakar. This much I know: it works. The suspension was setup perfectly for me. Taut, yet yielding on the bigger hits of sidewalk curbing, it inspired so much confidence on the road. I decided to take a small excursion into a dirt/gravel lot to test its low-speed abilities. Dead-on. It was stable and smooth. Perched on the pegs, I could see straight down to the contact patch of the front tire. (Very useful in gnarly off-roading.) The bike did not disappoint. Okay, it nearly didn’t. It still had a slight fuelling problem that, while nowhere near as bad as the others, would drive me to tears as an owner.

So as the other manufacturers look with envy to the handsome Austrian that is KTM, I can’t help but think that they are more than a bit frustrated. Big Orange can do nearly no wrong. They have a beautiful product line and are successful at anything they set out to try. Yet, admittedly, there is a chink in the armor. That fueling issue that I experience on every bike could be enough to keep some from buying KTMs. As for me? I’ll have the blue Dakar edition, with the big orange crash bars, a grey suede seat, and the suspension from the R, thank you. Oh, and don’t forget the Keihin FCR carburetor conversion kit from Sudco. I’d hate to let a little thing like bad rhythm ruin potential perfection.

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