2004 KTM 950 Adventure – Exploration in a Class of One

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KTM 950 Adventure – Exploration in a Class of OneLate 2003, the KTM 950 Adventure arrived here in North America with much fanfare.  Almost a year later, the big KTM is still very much that intriguing new kid in town as ever.

KTM is predominantly a builder of off-road motorcycles, that’s given the company a higher profile among the hardcore dirt types than most, and low street cred among those with softer tastes – a perception that, perhaps has even been encouraged by the KTM faithful.  Shove aside that tough off-roader image for a moment and you realize that the 950 Adventure stands apart from the Austrian company’s other previous street-able offerings.  The key here is the “Adventure” designation; this is a bike meant to be equally comfortable touring along highways as the expected back-country roosting.

My introduction to the 950 Adventure happened in June, 2004 as part of a KTM test ride on the trails of Holister OHV Park in California.   Holister is a very user-friendly park.  It has a layout that is reminiscent of a ski hill; the trails are mostly one-way, well marked, and rated for difficulty.  I must admit being a bit smitten with the big Katoom, which lead to a more important development.  I’ve been living with a 2004 950 Adventure as my daily ride for the past two months.  In this time, the KTM has certainly lived up to its adventure namesake, providing plenty of laughs and a fair share of drama.

That first day in Holister the KTM struck me as visually being one of the most captivating bikes I’ve seen – that assessment holds today.  Upon first approach there is no other way to describe the machine but… BIG.  With a seat height of 880mm (reduced a bit to 860mm for 2005), this is a giraffe of a motorcycle.  The design itself is polarizing, whether you see the KTM’s look as a thing of beauty, or as awkward ugliness, there are very few fence sitters on the subject. However, its sheer size and angular form will turn heads and draw comments from other riders at almost every stop.  The Star Wars Storm Trooper style bodywork may not be for everybody, but I like it.

Unlike many introductions, the 950 Adventure was given a chance to make a first impression befitting its off-road heritage in Holister’s dirt, a venue that I can’t claim over-familiarity with.  Throwing a leg over the seat required a bit of a stretch for my 5’7″ frame.  Surprisingly, once in the saddle, even though I can only put one foot down at a time, the bike is relatively easy to manage. Thanks to a low centre of gravity and a weight of 436.5 lbs dry (claimed), I was comfortable with the 950 Adventure almost the moment I hopped on.  The bike’s balance is sufficient to offset many of the challenges that high seats usually present.

We started out on the “bunny slope” – some of the gentler trails rounding Holister Park’s foothills.  Once rolling, this bike seems to lose half its size.  The long travelling WP suspension worked well as we cruised over the bumps and dips at a fairly quick pace.  After a bit of play in the lower trails we began to take on some of the tougher runs heading into the hills, in no time the track narrowed to the width of a footpath.  As we ascended and descended the tight, rutted trails around the Holister Hills, one fact chimed through repeatedly; the 950 Adventure is very much a dirt bike, and a very forgiving one at that.  Even an infrequent recreational dirt biker like myself was able to take the big beast through some pretty gnarly trails and have lots of fun doing it.  You can still feel the bike move around, compliments to the KTM engineers; quite an impressive task making their former Dakar Rally bike accessible to even the occasional weekend warrior.  A friendly, 950cc V-Twin, 436 lb dirt bike… not quite a 250 mx’er, but its nonetheless very competent.

Now turn the dial on the “way-back machine” to the present, Sherman, and fast forward a bit to life on my regular turf; city streets, long highway runs, and twisty back roads.

As part of regular riding, the big KTM’s been doing it’s duty on an assortment of twisted back roads.  Happily, if one were to outfit the Adventure with a set of sticky street tires this amicable giraffe could almost be classified as a sportbike.  It certainly has the capability to go around corners and power away with lightning quickness.  The turn-in is light, needing little effort to initiate.  The Adventure handles tight corners with ease, and if the twists have a few bumps along the way, so much the better.  That long travelling suspension consumes the rough B.C. roads making the 950 one of the fastest “B road” machines I have been on.

With the suspenders it’s not all glory though, in high-speed sweepers those long travelling, 48mm inverted WP forks out front, and hydraulically adjusted coil in back, can hinder your progress.  Even dialed-in to the factory recommended “sport” settings the fully adjustable front and rear suspension leaves the 950 wavering as the bike tries to hold its line rounding big radius curves.  Some fine-tuning of the suspension might get rid of this wallow, but for now I’ve not found that perfect middle ground.  Its not as if the Adventure is left teetering between the two ends, but the front just does not feel settled and planted.  So while the big Katoom has the ability to fly through back-road corners, its potential is not quite realized in the sweepers.

Without that certain level of confidence the enjoyment of being able to corner quickly is diminished, and that is what is happening here.  Likely a steering damper would aid in settling the front end and give a more confident feel… and might even prevent a dramatic moment or two.  On this machine it perhaps should have been standard fitment.

Another factor that might take away a bit from the Adventure 950’s feel in the twisties is also the main reason that this KTM has become a serious contender as a long distance adventure tourer – the 942cc v-twin engine.  Punching out a healthy claimed 72 kW (96.5 hp) and 62 ft-lbs of torque, the compact motor (with the smallest outside dimensions of any v-twin currently available) produces a steady flow of power from about 3000 rpm straight into the 9500 rpm redline.  The motor has very little flywheel effect and pulls hard from all points in its wide power band.  The response to throttle input is direct, with very little lag time.  Wherever and whenever you need it, the power is right there, delivered in a smooth, linear manner; it’s a fabulous powerplant, spinning up to speed in a manner more akin to an inline than a v-twin.  Also, the transition between on and off throttle is smooth.  Off the gas, however, the level of engine braking from the 950’s motor is less than what is expected of a large displacement twin.

By dirt and enduro standards this is “big power”, and overall big power is a good thing – don’t think for a moment that I’m complaining.  Putting all that highly responsive power through an off-road oriented chassis with 230 mm (9.0 in) of suspension travel, however, places high demand on the equipment.  All that contributes to the flighty feel of the front end through the twisties.  A 200+ kph dualie wins a lot of bragging rights, but in reality the package is not quite there yet, at least not from a pure corner carver’s perspective.  On pavement, when blasting through the twisties, the engine produces more power than the chassis can confidently put to the ground.  Counterpoint is of course, very simple; this is not a GSX-R, it is the most powerful true dual sport around, and needs to be perceived as such.  Street oriented riders coming to the KTM 950 Adventure should recalibrate their strategy to take advantage of what this bike is, not what it isn’t.

Adventure, of course, is not all glamour, even Dakar riders have to liaison; in the real world that means interstates and highways.  Fortunately, the KTM’s flighty front end does not carry over to riding on the “I roads”; the Adventure proves itself very stable at highway speeds.  A small amount of engine buzz is transmitted to the bars, but it is not particularly annoying and not enough to numb the fingers.  The windscreen provides good protection and cuts a clean flow of air to the head, but then I’m 5’7”, the optimal height for motorcycle wind and weather protection; the wind hits me about mid-helmet without buffeting.  Riding through the rain, the shoulders and part of the upper chest receives more water than the rest of the body. In comparison to the R1200GS, the 950 Adventure offers slightly better weather protection.  The downside of its big, flat flanks, however, become startlingly apparent in strong side gusts as the KTM is tossed around somewhat. Riding behind a VFR and a mid-size cruiser one day, I was caught by a gust powerful enough to force me to lean into the wind while the other bikes were seemingly unaffected.

For long distance “I-5”-style travels, the Adventure’s seat is one thing that has received numerous complaints from 950 owners.  Indeed, while it seems to be one of the first pieces to be replaced, KTM has taken heed, offering a more posterior-friendly, supple gel seat.  “Iron Butt”, however, may be a genetic trait as I did not find the standard KTM seat uncomfortable, even after a straight 2-hour drone.

Kudos go to KTM on the gauges.  The digital speedometer is easy to read in bright sunshine and at night. With the orange backlight and black lettering the instrumentation looks both cool and a bit menacing – on the big Katoom every night, it seems, is Halloween.  It all functions well and moderately intuitively, and with two trip meters, fuel reserve meter, temp gauge, and a clock, instrumentation serves your information and entertainment needs well during long highway “liaisons” to the piste.   For those navigating across boarders, the display offers the extra practicality allowing a switch between metric and imperial at the push of a button.

Looking past the Halloween party on the dash to the Adventure’s headlight array, I found the single hi/lo North American spec. headlight is adequate for night time highway riding.  When out on unlit country roads though, some extra lighting would certainly be welcome to increase the margin of safety.  I wish KTM would certify and import the European dual headlight system into North America as an optional kit.

Back in the city the big KTM performs as expected of any big dual sport. Actually, it’s better than other big dualies – it has all the manoeuvrability but with much more power.  This is a near-litre bike in giraffe’s clothing, and like other litre bikes the 950 is faster than all but the most exotic four wheelers out there.  The ride ergonomics lend themselves well to city biking.  The towering seat height offers a perfect vantage point for planning the route of attack through city gridlock.  The leverage of the wide bars and the light handling makes putting that plotted attack to pavement quick and easy.  Oh, and should filtering occur, this bike is properly narrow.  Until you put the coolers, err, I mean panniers on.

Even better in Vancouver is that the Cagers can’t seem to get enough of this bike – they all want a piece of me.  At a stop or riding along in traffic, an exceptionally high number seem driven to challenge me, just nailing the gas it to keep me from getting ahead.  Young, old, man, woman, doesn’t matter, seems like they all want a piece of this drag action.  I ride almost daily and this occurs overwhelmingly more on the KTM than any other bike I’ve ridden.  Jealousy or just a desire to get a closer look at the bike…  Who knows?

Drag racing done and coming up on the stop, the twin Brembo discs out front and single plate outback provide plentiful stopping power to bring the bike back down from speed.  While braking power is good, the feel and feedback at the lever doesn’t seem to match the quality of the hardware.  Modulating the brakes becomes more taxing due to the reduced feel, a situation that seems to get exaggerated as the temperature gets colder.  Coming from a sportbike you’d be likely to look at the twin piston setup out front and dub them under-powered, but remember this design has been inspired by the “Save the Dirtbikers Fund” and slightly softer braking is meant to prevent front wheel lock on the rough stuff.

Shockingly it’s at low speed, where you’d expect a bike of the Adventure’s balance, poise and pedigree to shine, that the Adventure reveals itself to be a bit clumsy.  If you are guessing that the high seat might make it tough to get in and out of skinny spaces, you be wrong; even on one foot the bike is quite easy to paddle around.  And the Adventure is light enough that even if it is too steep to paddle around, it is easy enough to just get off the bike walk it.  The surprise comes in the form of a huge turning circle.

Bumping into the steering stops is a common occurrence for me as I have to make a sharp, 90-degree right turn to get into my garage every night.  There are no scientific measurements to be offered, but the turning circle of the big KTM is probably only marginally better than a Ducati 996 – universally decried for having a steering lock that freighter captains tell jokes about.  Luckily, riding in circles is not my thing.

I’m only 2,500 kms into my long-term relationship with the 2004 KTM 950 Adventure, with it being my only stable mate for the past two months.  So far it’s been a good marriage.  There were some minor mechanical problems that were covered by warranty.  The front rim suffered a little bend from the previous owner, and the engine does regularly consume oil, something of a rarity with modern engines.  Overall though, reliability has not been an issue.

As a daily driver I’ve gained insight into what this bike is all about – the KTM 950 Adventure is literally in a class of its own.  In the dirt the 950 is in its element – there is no other big adventure tourer out there that can touch it.  Out of the forests and onto the twisty back roads, the bike maintains its strong showing, it’s only on the sweeping tarmac that the Adventure shows some of its shortcomings.  But, on the interstate drone back to the urbanite box I call home, the big beast begins to redeem itself again.  Back in the city, crisscrossing the cityscape on a motorcycle is a good thing, and doing it on the 950 is even more of a good thing.

How well the 950 Adventure measures up really depends on a particular rider’s perspective.  The further off the paved path that your riding may take you, the more appealing the big KTM becomes.  From a more street-oriented rider’s point of view, while the 950 Adventure will do the business in most on-road situations, it’s here that you realize there are other adventure-tourers that can do the job better with less effort.  Like the KTM 950 Adventure’s styling, this is not a motorcycle for everyone, but for those that like their touring “au natural”, this is a choice of singular distinction.

– Written by Evan Leung + Photos By Kevin Miklossy

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