Arctic Challenge Part 1: KTM 990 Adventure vs. BMW R1200GS Adventure & F800GS

On the Road:

There’s approximately 3200 kms of road between Vancouver and the Dempster’s southern junction with the Alaska Highway in the Yukon, and from the start I draw the metaphorical longest (or largest) straw pulling BMW’s R1200GS Adventure. If there’s one bike in the group built for distance, this is it.

The R1200GS is pushed along by a smooth, growly, torquey 1170cc horizontally opposed twin, a legacy of an engine that breezes this beast up to speed in a relaxed and under-stressed manner. The plant never feels overly powerful, likely because it isn’t subjected to a peaky torque curve, but will handily wheelie the bike whose starting weight is 256 kg/564lbs wet before options.

BMW R1200GS Adventure’s gearbox is still tractor-like; huge dry metal plates clunking together especially from first to second, it’s slower shifting than the other bikes and still subject to the occasional false neutral as it wanders between gears.

That’s the least refined point of the bike.

Planted with Jovian gravitational force the GSA handles like a leviathan shouldn’t. It’s sure-footed, and deceptively light steering, thanks to wide moose-antler bars, and willing to dance through the corners like a bike 3/4, oh heck 1/2, its size and mass. Shod in the Continental Twinduro TKC80s the GSA won’t take a sportbike in the twists, but throw some street rubber on and it will hound them to the ends of the earth… literally.

Fuel and Range:

Range test took place in damp dirt-road conditions on the Dempster between the Klondike River Lodge and Eagle Plains, a gasless 370km leg of the trip, and included multiple passes for photos.

The gas is the biggest issue, because the 990 Adventure pounds it back harder than Amy Winehouse on intervention eve. Squeeze every last drop from the 990, riding like a throttle-angel with a Prius-fixation gnashing your teeth the entire time, and you can manage 380kms from the 19.5L tank. Really though, how much time do you want to spend in 6th gear?

Riding like a real person, you’ll be getting 320km. So you’ll have Jerry Can as your co-pilot for most real adventures. “Man, nice bike! What’s with the gas can?”

The red just doesn’t complement the orange, and that spoils the looks.

Meanwhile the F800GS runs like the energizer bunny, efficiently sipping from its smaller 16L tank for a better maximum range of 385km and counting when absolutely coddled. More reasonable riding (meaning periodically caning it) the F800GS will travel 328kms before coughing and sputtering to a halt. Our average fuel consumption over the course of the entire trip came to 5.4L/100km… and we aren’t angels on the throttle.

Still, you come away with the feeling that there’s no comfort zone in either the F800GS’s or 990 Adventure’s tank range, which means that a long range tank is in order. Luckily the aftermarket is stepping up in this regard.

And the R1200GS Adventure, you ask? Unsurprisingly we never managed to run the entire way through the 33L tank, but we did average 6.2L/100km over the entire ride.

Oil:

What the GSA used a lot of was oil, approximately 1.5L over the course of the 10,500km ride. It’s protégé, the F800GS with the Rotax manufactured engine, didn’t use a drop or require topping up. The KTM came out in the middle, using about 500ml of synthetic over the course of the trip.

It’s worth noting that the oil check procedures on the F800GS and KTM both use dipsticks, so have some paper towel handy, while the GSA has a sight glass. The KTM is the most hassle, needing to be checked the instant it stops running for a true reading, or when absolutely cold (where the reservoir should read just a hair over minimum). You’ll also need something to use as a funnel to top the KTM up, as the fairings block easy access to the filler.

The R1200GS Adventure sports a 33L tank, good for just under 600km with care, and is replete with the accommodations to use that range. Wind and weather protection is supplied by the cylinders heads covering your shins, a huge tank protecting your lower body and a substantial manually adjustable windscreen up top. The latter also keeps the airflow clean and buffeting minimal. Manually adjustable that is, until two teens outside the NorthMart in Fort McPhearson steal the knobs in retaliation for our not succumbing to their panhandling – the first and only the theft on any of our trips.

The seating position is open, loose in the leg and wide across the bars. Even though we’ve switched to the standard GS seat to accommodate “shorties” Kevin and Glenn, there’s far less ass-ache than the other two bikes. If any point causes problems it’s the wide stance of the bars, for myself it leads to an ache between the shoulders.

It’s telling on the high mileage days that while we’re enthusing over the KTM’s barnstorming nature and the F800GS’s lighthearted flick-able character, each of us is quietly reaching for the R1200GS Adventure’s key. On any leg over 400kms, you’re looking at the other riders thinking, “Suckers!”

Not that the KTM 990 Adventure is bad, but on long days it’s short on creature comforts. The windscreen is short, and is fine under 80kph, or over 140kph, and buffeting everywhere between. It gives you insight into the KTM’s mentality; quick tight dirt work – great, high-speed highway work – great, in between the bike is chomping at the bit. Wearing a visored adventure helmet, Kevin complained of a deep, low frequency thrumming that only relented with a 90kph-crawl or high-speed blasts. That was a convenient excuse for the latter at least.

The lack of gas gauge is a major pain, because the question of “How far to the next station?” always haunts. You’ll be fine with the periodic gas stops due to the KTM’s limited range, because the seat, while improved over previous generations still leads to the heartbreak of ass-ache.

If there’s a bike showing deficiencies on the open road, it’s the F800GS. It’s not the power, the 85hp and 83 ft-lbs parallel twin is fine on the road including passes. With luggage (plus spare tires, top box, and a soft bag full of tools) summing to the mass of a post dessert-buffet comatose Rosie O’Donnell riding as passenger, our F800GS needed planning and gumption to pass as it developed a high-speed weave nearing 140kph. Below that magic threshold and the bike is fine, happily cavorting through corners and reveling in being ridden hard.

Speaking of hard, the seat is a vinyl covered ass-assault paddle, hard to bear past 3-400kms of riding. Unanimous amongst the three riders the F800GS is the big distance day also-ran. A custom seat isn’t the only accessory you’ll want to pop for while plotting your F800GS escape.

Hand guards make a huge difference to the weather protection, and the Starbucks parking lot in Whitehorse saw us zip-tie, coat hanger, and duct tape on ATV guards in desperation. And, while the stock screen produces minimal buffeting and clean airflow, we only just held back on further embarrassing the F800GS by taping bits of plastic to it for more coverage, so a taller touring windscreen is in order.

The thing is at a base of $12,495.00, and adding $1,285.00 for optional center stand, ABS, onboard computer and (oh, so bling) white signals, the F800GS totals to $13,780.00 before taxes, so comparatively you could custom equip the bike to your needs. Especially considering the KTM’s $16,998 MSRP, after which many riders will still be tacking on an aftermarket screen, custom seat and long range tank.

Of course, the R1200GS Adventure has it all, but at a hefty base of $19,990.00 it should. Then you still get to add Antitheft at $250.00, Safety Package (Tire Pressure Control, Automatic Stability Control and ABS) for 1,900.00 and the Equipment Package 2 (Chromed Exhaust, Electronic Suspension Adjustment, On Board Computer, Fog Lights, and Luggage Brackets) another $1,900, for $28,212.80 out of pocket before the taxman rob’th. In all though the big BMW is the hands down winner when it comes to long distance butt on saddle touring, the KTM following second when it comes to mile-eating and the F800GS a distant third.

In Part 2:

The BMW F800GS, R1200GS Adventure and KTM 990 Adventure hit the dirt in our epic evaluation… Read on Adventurer… Read on…
– Photos Kevin Millossy and Glenn Simmons

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