2004 KTM 950 Adventure – Counterpoint

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KTM 950 AdventureEvery junior quantum physicist knows the creature: Schrodinger’s cat – a feline in a sealed box with a vial of poison.  The cat may be alive or it may be dead, killed by a quantum event that may have released the poison from the vial.  The poor thing exists only as a waveform – as long as you shove aside the practicalities.  So what happens when you open the box and the cat is lying there looking either dead or asleep?  You poke it with a stick and find out for sure.

Strangely, that all brings us to the KTM 950 Adventure which exists in an in-between state of existence – somewhere between the state of road bike and trail bike, until the observer intervenes to see if the bike lives up to a certain expectation.

Those expectations are pretty high, the press has been almost exclusively praise for the big Katoom and maybe that’s working against the bike – measurement can be affected by observation and observation by expectation; it’s the bane of empiricism.  Being predominantly a road rider, the appeal of having one bike that does it all is near overwhelming.  With reviews saying that the Katoom can be ridden like a big, tall, gangly sportbike, the expectations set up are lofty, but coming from a sport bike or even a sport tourer you may be left wondering.

Road feel, for example, is vague at best.  You know the tarmac is there, but that’s about all – the long traveling WP suspension just leaves you floating over the Earth’s surface.  The Pirelli Scorpions, fitted stock as they are on the Ducati Multistrada, give good road grip, but a dirt rider is going to come away feeling that they lose traction too quickly when it comes to roosting the trails.

Part of that is up to the engine; in the dirt the 75-degree twin’s output, at around 93 hp and 62 ft-lbs of torque can break loose the rear Pirelli with minimal effort.  It’s freer-revving than you’d ever expect a litre twin to be, more like the SV650’s lively little engine in nature but with gobs more stomp.  I for one can’t wait to see it in KTM’s upcoming road bikes.  On the road that proves more than enough to make the front end get very light at a moment’s notice.

Our tester, however, featured a flat spot at 6000, feeling like the engine is starving – this could be the “carb icing problem” reported in some forums.  This may be due to the big Katoom’s baffle-ectomy from the pipes, and the carbs’ re-jetting to take advantage of this flow through.

Now why are we running a non-stock long-term bike?  Well, before KTM Canada got around to returning our calls regarding a tester, OneWheelDrive.Net Marketing man Evan Leung had a bit of a break with reality.  Next thing you know, he’s acquired a long-term “tester”, a do-it-all replacement to our man’s R1150GS.

All practicality aside, it was more likely that front on this bike, which either looks like an escapee from the Coneheads movie, or has you wondering when Lord Vader is going to show up to feed the meter, than common sense that resulted in the purchase.  It’s simultaneously menacing and farcical – qualities that marketing folks are familiar with.

Closer inspection reveals a few fit and finish issues. For example, the cable routing to the bars blocks the ignition key’s entry and exit.  Another significant niggle is the lack of heat shielding over the up-pipe to the mufflers means that your foot starts to feel the warmth even on cool days.  Brake and clutch levers are tiny, it’s a two-fingered affair at best and they offer little leverage. I’m not sure about the gearbox, the controls are dirt inspired and I kept missing the lever on the downshift.  All the controls consistently just weren’t where I expected them, and keep in mind this is from a guy who adapted to the BMW switch-gear after only one honk of the horn.

The seat, well, while Evan may have the “iron butt” gene, I come from softer stock – when Klingons think of seating they probably had the KTM Adventure in mind.  Remember that in Canada, at about $18,500, this is a premium bike  – so why does it feel like a work in progress. Even the luggage isn’t as spacious or practical as other offerings for touring, being top loading and the aerodynamic equivalent of beer coolers.

Despite the ass-plank, the bike’s ergos are great.  The 950 simply begs to be stood up on, and coming from most street oriented bikes you’ll marvel at how narrow the beastie is as you lord over the SUVs on the road.  That “seat” gives you great push against the Magura bars and adds to the light feeling of this mere 240kg wet offering.

Stating the obvious, the Adventure is just tall and traily.  Hopping on it, the black and orange ruminant is easy to flat foot, indeed I almost make it look small – but then I’m 6’2” and look for jeans with a mythical 35 inch inseam.  Rejoice my tall brothers and sisters, finally there is a bike for us – not an imaginary 5’10” test rider.  That said don’t expect everything to be bliss – the wind protection sees the airflow hitting me square across the chest.

Out on the road, madness reigns; whack the throttle and the front end gets light and airy as the motor’s torque makes itself known.  Initially you’d think that this is a do it all bike that can hang with the sport set.  Frankly, you’d be wrong.  You can do it all, but it just doesn’t feel as well sorted on-road as offerings like BMW’s R1200GS, which has you saying “lets scare the crap out of the sportbikers”.  Still, you can hoon through the twisties with the best provided the pace is sane, but this is closer to a genuine off-roader than any other adventure offering out there.

Slam on the binders and the Adventure dives like Greg Louganis.  That’s despite a somewhat underwhelming offering of on-road braking power, so prepare to reacquaint yourself with the rear brake if you’re coming from the sport-side.

The KTM Adventure 950 exists in an in-between state; it’s more on-road that a dirtbike, more off-road than other adventure offerings.  Given that I am at best a light adventure rider, would I buy one?  Despite all the hype and there is a lot in the magazines – no.  It doesn’t suit my needs, especially given the price point and unsettling feeling of being a work in progress.

This bike is maybe the victim of its own press, which has left it with the “all things to all people” perception.  The KTM 950 Adventure instead feels like what I expect a really well sorted, really big dirt bike should… oh, and then lets slap some Scorpions on it and send it out on the road.  For a light adventure rider like myself the 950 is too finely focused on off-road to be really happy elsewhere.  The light adventure set is likely better off on more defined offerings such as the V-Strom, R1200GS or Tiger.  The KTM 950 Adventure measures out a lot more “hard adventure” in the end.

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